How to pack for a cruise: What's the dress code?

You booked your cruise weeks ago, been busy with life, work and everything then suddenly it's time to pack and go. What do you need to take? Much depends on where you're going, at what time of year and for how long – but wherever you're heading, you can save yourself time and hassle by being well prepared.

Some people swear by packing apps (, some make lists to tick off but most of us stuff a suitcase or two at the last minute and find we've managed to over-pack and at the same time forget basic essentials. Here's a guide culled from several years of cruising and advice from experienced travellers.

Is there a dress code?

What is the dress code for your cruise? Formal nights are not so common these days but if they are specified, check the cruise line's FAQs to see what's required. For example, the most traditional line, Cunard, has three formal, two semi-formal and two elegant casual evenings on a typical seven-night cruise. Formal means black tie or dark suit for men and evening dress for women; semi-formal means jacket and tie for men, cocktail dress or trouser suit for women; elegant casual means jacket (no tie required) for men, and dress, skirt or pants and tops for women.

Fortunately for men, if the full black-tie rig is required, it can usually be hired on board. Otherwise, one dark business suit and a couple of ties will suffice. Women can get away with one or two (non-iron) dresses that can be accessorised with different silk scarves or pashminas but there's no need to pack six pairs of heels for a week's cruise.

Check, too what the cruise line means by "smart casual" and "cocktail"; you don't want to be excluded from a restaurant or nightclub because you've only packed shorts, sun-dresses and thongs.

Layering is the new black

Even if you're cruising in tropical climes, it can be cool early in the morning or late at night and air-conditioning in restaurants and lounges is often distinctly chilly. So the key is to pack clothes that can be layered. Two or three good-quality pashminas are worth their (light) weight in gold; they can be used as a wrap for evenings, a scarf and as an in-flight blanket (

Check the long-term weather forecast in the regions you will be visiting, but a lightweight waterproof jacket is useful almost everywhere. Likewise, pack a sweatshirt and socks, even for warm-weather destinations; I forgot both on a cruise to New Zealand in summer and had to buy expensive branded versions on the ship when the weather became unseasonably cold. Other essentials include a collapsible umbrella (useful as a sunshade when sightseeing in hot countries as well as during rainy spells); an old-fashioned folding fan; a hat for sun protection or beanie for cold-weather destinations; and sunglasses and sunscreen wherever you're going.

Another thing to bear in mind is appropriate clothing for visiting religious sites, in Europe and the Middle East; usually that means shoulders and legs should be covered. I visited a mosque in Oman with a noted travel journalist and as he wasn't allowed inside wearing shorts he pulled the sleeves of a sweatshirt over his legs; while it was an unusual style statement it did the trick.

Comfortable walking shoes are vital and if you only need lightweight styles (i.e. you're not hiking through icy or rocky terrain) they can double as onboard gym shoes; sandals such as those made by Birkenstock ( and Teva ( work for walking, beach and poolside.


You'll need to pack more than just clothes

Most of us travel with devices and cameras that need charging, so bring a powerboard because ships' cabins often only have one or two electric sockets. Don't forget an international adaptor (, spare camera batteries and memory cards, ziplock bags in several sizes, a watch (handy for keeping an eye on the time while taking shore excursions), a foldaway hanging organiser (bathrooms are generally short on storage space;; a lightweight, foldaway backpack for day trips and a foldaway bag for any shopping you might do ( I always travel with a mini first-aid kit containing band-aids, scissors, tweezers, painkillers, diarrhoea and constipation remedies, antiseptic cream and insect repellent; it's advisable to stash prescription and seasickness medications in your carry-on bag.

Things you don't need to pack include a hairdryer, towels, hangers (if there aren't enough in the cabin you can always ask for more), travel iron (they're not allowed on board) and shampoo and conditioner (unless you have a preferred product). Some people take laundry liquid for ships that have self-service launderettes; I use the provided shampoo or shower gel to wash clothes in the shower if there isn't an onboard launderette.

Don't forget to bring a carry-on

There are often a few hours between boarding the ship and having access to your cabin, so a well-stocked carry-on bag is essential. You will need your passport or photo ID and all travel documentation (and your children's, if you're cruising with the family); camera, electronic games and devices and any valuables that could be lost or stolen; swimmers, hat and sunglasses so you can relax by the pool as soon as you embark; and a refillable water bottle.