Packing for a cruise holiday is not all that different from packing for a city sightseeing trip and active holiday with some nice dinners planned:
- You want some comfortable, practical clothes to go exploring the town during the day,
- you want some workout clothes (if you’re going to hit the gym or go jogging),
- you want some swimwear to enjoy the facilities and
- you want something a little bit nicer to put on in the evenings.
Don’t overthink it and over pack!
Let’s break down our packing list of what we took for a week-long Middle East cruise with 3 extra days in Dubai, as a family of 5 (with 3 kids aged 7, 11 and 12 years old).
We booked very last minute and didn’t have much time to think through what we needed and what we didn’t need.
In fact, having less than 36 hours from booking to getting on our flight was probably a blessing in disguise! And it also proved that packing last minute, even with a family is totally doable!
For our trip we did not get any paperwork, which must have detailed any dress suggestions, any customs about dress code beforehand. So I just went with a very basic practical wardrobe which will detail down below.
Packing principles for a family vacation
There are some principles that transcend any family trip. The less you can pack the easier your trip will be, especially, when you are responsible for all the kids’ belongings as well as your own.
We’ve talked about hacking the packing, aiming for hand-luggage only family travel and how different styles compare in this article.
Basic principles of packing
The basic principles of packing for any trip is to consider the activities, the facilities and the cultural and dress code requirements. Don’t bring your whole wardrobe!
Packing considerations for the Middle East Cruise
Our objective for this cruise vacation was to really enjoy the destinations, and make the most of the ports that we were stopping at. Then come back to the comfort of the cruise ship in the evenings. We knew we wanted to enjoy the theatre shows and some fine dining but didn’t want to go overboard with getting all glammed-up.
We were leaving from a Swedish winter and needed warm, decent, but comfortable clothes for the journey.
For our city excursions, which we knew we wanted to explore the cities of our ports of call, we wanted practical, comfortable clothes.
Our ports were hot, sunny countries and with strong Muslim culture. This required a level of modesty and sun protection, so I packed some very lightweight long garments for everyone.
For the days that we were going to spend at sea and enjoy the ship we practice packed very practical shorts and t-shirts.
I would expect that, if we’d had time before the cruise, to get more details through from the cruise company, we would have known about the different themes for the evenings.
Packing considerations for an MSC cruise
On the MSC Bellissima in the Middle East the theme nights were (as we found out during the week):
- Arabian costume for the Arabian Night;
- 60s, 70s, 80s dress suggestion for the Flower Glory Party;
- Elegant for the evening of the Captain’s Cocktails and the Carnival Party night
- White party asked for white dress
- MSC Cruise Got Talent evening and the Kizomba night had a casual dress suggestion.
Don’t worry about sticking out if you don’t have some, or any, of these! We certainly didn’t!
To be honest, even on the elegant evenings we saw people walking around in shorts and t-shirts on the Main Promenade and no one batted an eyelid! (Though I don’t think they were heading to the formal dining rooms. I know I wouldn’t! )
Ultimately, don’t overthink it. Keep it easy, keep it sensible.
And remember, if you and the kids don’t really want to get dressed beyond shorts and t-shirt you can always go to the buffet for meals. (Which is wonderful with so much choice you will be overwhelmed.)
The dress code on our MSC cruise was casual. A business casual will do for the evenings in the formal dining rooms. The boys, even hubby on one night, wore their nicer shorts (just above knee length, with zips, instead of an elasticated waist) and polo shirts for most dinners; Angelina was denims girl most evening (as she refused a dress, for all, but the formal night); I varied it, but most evenings had my gold flip flops on, instead of my extra nice shoes. You can not go into any of the restaurants or dining rooms without a t-shirt and shoes.
Even on the formal night we were dressed business casual and felt totally comfortable. There is a certain Italian flare on MSC cruises given to dressing up, which means it feels a lot less restrictive. (If you can any concerns about formal evenings with a family on a cruise ship, pop over to Cruising with Kids who have a comprehensive article on dressing the part.)
Documents and money
The only things you can’t really leave home without are your travel documents and travel money, everything else is just icing on the cake.
- Passports and Visas
Check their validity and any visa requirements. Here are some details for passport and visa requirements in our post about booking a cheap cruise.
- Credit card(s)
I LOVE my Revolut card, because I get currency at interbank rates, so I don’t lose out when exchanging back and forth. It also allows me to monitor my spending so well through its excellent app.
- Flight booking details & boarding passes– accessible from at least 2 devices if you don’t have a paper copy.
I tend to download the airline app and check in on that.
- Cruise booking details– I only had our booking number and a confirmation email. (Many others had a stack of paperwork they received in advance.)
- Travel insurance details- we have annual travel insurance through our bank that covers us for a wide variety of activities. This time, because of the very last minute booking and booking flights separately from the cruise I did opt to take out additional insurance offered by Expedia, which related to missing the ship.
I have a document saved on my phone and on the web in google docs with all the important contact details.
- Notebook and pen– always useful
Our clothes categories for this Middle East cruise were: sightseeing clothes, swimwear, sportswear, evening wear, night wear.
I’m a great believer in packing light and packing multi-functional clothes. We all have a couple of tops that are quick-dry and looks as good out in the town as much as for a casual dining experience.
Can you believe this was my packing list?!
Over the years of travel, I’ve learnt, if you can maintain a level of good personal hygiene (with access to showers and deodorant that works for your body) and have easy to wash, quick-drying clothes, then you don’t worry about packing a t-shirt or top for each evening!
What we ended up settling on:
For the boys (per person)
- 1 x suit jacket (Not for the kids though)
- 5 x t-shirts (1-2 of which were polo shirts)
- 2 x shirts
- 2 x formal shorts
- 1 x long trousers with zip-off legs
- 1 x long trousers (2 x for the man of the family)
- 1 x swim shorts
- 1 x swim trunks
- 8 x underwear (we were away for 11 nights and I counted with us spending 3-4 days in swimmers all day)
- 1 x jumper /fleece
- 1 x PJs
For the girls (per person)
- 4 x t-shirts
- 3 x nice tops
- 2 x dresses
- 1 x black cardigan
- 1 x long, light-weight trousers
- 1 x long trousers
- 1 x full-length skirt (just for me, not Angelina)
- 2 x 3/4 length leggings/ trousers for me; shorts for Angelina (to account for her still being a child)
- 1 x bikini
- 1 x swimming costume
- 8 x underwear
- 6 x bra / sports bra
- 1 x PJs
- Sports sandals
- Closed shoes for travel
- Nice shoes
- Flip flops
Special items packed for the Middle East
- Thin, long scarves to cover our heads
I have some very light silk scarves and shawls that were perfect for using out and about. (Though we didn’t necessarily need them, I felt more comfortable and respectful with a scarf, especially in Bahrain)
- Long black skirt
This can also be pulled up and works as a sundress, when on the ship and not out and about sightseeing.
- Loose, full -length trousers
- Toothbrushes and toothpaste
- Perfume (I tend to choose 1 for a trip… this always works well as you will associate that perfume with the holiday for a long time)
- Sunscreen x 3
- Body lotion
- Bar of soap
I put our soap in a little detergent bag, which makes lathering and washing with it easier
- Lipbalm x 5
- Hand cream and face cream
- Nail clippers and nail file
- Ear plugs
- Makeup and makeup remover
- Sanitary pads and tampons
Something that has made it onto my list more consciously on this trip was:
Alcoholic hand sanitiser (one for each of us)
What’s in the family mini medical kit?
For any of our travels and days out, I carry a small medical kit with me nearly all the time. This has a very basic supply of things we may need (and it assumes easy access to medical staff and facilities)
- Flexi bandage for sprains
- Micropore tape
- Antiseptic wipes x 5
- Painkillers- Paracetamol & Ibuprofen
since all the kids can take these painkillers in tablet form now I don’t bother with any suspensions.
- Cold and flu remedy tablets
- Rehydration sachets
- Olbas oil
- Strong peppermint chewing gum
- Vinyl gloves
Thing for activities
- Backpacks to take out as day packs
- A refillable water bottle each
We have 2 big insulated bottles and 3 smaller bottles for the kids.
- A Tupperware box for our snacks- I used this for our packed lunch when we were heading off to the airport and then we had it for our days out during the holiday
- Swim goggles for everyone
- Sun hats/ baseball caps
- A small handbag/ clutch bag for evenings to
- Foldable, reusable shopping bag
- Foldable beach bag– big enough to carry all our towels, water bottles and goggles
- a booster seat for our 7-year-old
We have a Trunki Boostapack which doubles up as a backpack. It is heavy, but I find this very useful for storing things like camera and other electronics.
Electronics and gadgets
- Camera(s) & action camera
We have an old Panasonic Lumix that has a great zoom (I wrote a time-tested review on our family blog) and a GoPro Hero 7
- Kindle e-reader
- Mobile phones
- Charging cables- We have extra long (1.5m) cables for ease of use
- Spare memory cards
- Spare batteries
- Power banks
- Headphones (special noise-cancelling ones for the kids)
- Plug adapters
I pack all my cables, powerbank, adapters, spare memory cards and spare headphones into a little zipped up cube. This is very practical as it prevents the cables from getting tangled and gives me a good overview of everything I have. (I have started taking it out with my laptop at airport security, though, as my laptop bag regularly got flagged for extra control because of it. Now it goes through without a problem.)
TIP: The IKEA triple USB adapter is super useful, when you need to charge multiple gadgets
Things I packed that we didn’t need
- Laptop: I had all the best intentions to work, but most of what I did do, I could do on my phone. (On the other hand, Antoine, did take his laptop out a couple of times, as we were away longer than he’d originally intended to take vacation.)
- Socks: We packed 6 pairs of socks each. This many were superfluous in the Middle East. We used 3 pairs each- 2 for the flights and 1-2 for the boys- big and small- when they put on “nice shoes” for a couple of hours in the evenings.
- Games and toys: we took a selection of travel games and toys, but we were so busy the whole time, from the moment we left home, to getting home, we had no opportunity to use these.
The kids used the in-flight entertainment on the flight and the kids’ clubs on board made sure the children were never bored.
We killed time waiting between courses of our meal to arrive by talking to each other. (Unlike tables around us, which deployed the digital babysitter even at these times. It was a very sad sight!)
Things we forgot to pack
- Costume jewellery: this would’ve been nice to spruce up our evening wear
- Sparkly shawl: a very practical item for a cruise that I learnt from one of the fellow passenger, Gladis, a platinum cruise member. She reckons that with nice sparkly shawl you can make any plain black outfit look like evening wear. And judging by her appearance it definitely worked!
- LifeStraw: I felt really bad for all the plastic bottles we used. On the ship we refilled our bottles at the buffet restaurant, but once in Dubai we were using plastic bottles.
The water in Dubai is drinkable. But it, mostly, comes from desalination plants and hence doesn’t taste very good. Therefore most visitors and residents choose to drink bottled water. With a lifestraw, we could’ve removed some of that bad taste and saved a fair few plastic bottles.
- Nuts and easy snacks: I forgot to pack some easy, high-energy snacks. Therefore, we ended up buying some rather expensive dates at the cruise terminal, while waiting for check in.
- Dry shampoo: this stuff is magic and I love it. When you are in a hurry to get ready for an evening out, after a busy day, the last thing you want to be doing is styling your hair.
- Teabags: … a very personal thing, but I’m quite partial to a good cuppa of my favourite brand. This holiday, my nightcap was a peppermint tea, instead of my regular decaff.
Things you shouldn’t pack
There are a couple of things that the cruise line highlighted to us when we had our briefing:
- Hairdryer and hair straighteners: you can’t use your own, as that may draw too much current from the ship.
- Iron: again you can’t iron in your cabin for safety reasons.
Instead of ironing, hang your clothes into the shower, while you are showering. The steam will help get rid of most of the crinkles.
- Your own stash of alcoholic drinks
- Anything that wouldn’t be allowed in your carry-on on a plane- explosives, knives, guns, etc.
The bottom line is, just use common sense and previous generic travel lists of what’s worked for you. Even though we had very little previous cruise experience, I didn’t stress about formal and informal wear too much.
What bags and how to pack for a cruise
Having sailed a fair bit, but with nearly no cruising experience, I wasn’t sure about what sort of bags to take: soft duffel bags that fold away easily (as we’d do on a sailboat) or just normal suitcases. We ended up with:
- a hand luggage- sized wheelie bag each – in that, we each had 2-3 pack cubes:
- with tops,
- with trousers
- with underwear, socks and swimwear
- a microfibre towel
- a backpack each (that slots under the seat of the aircraft)- this held all the miscellaneous bits of tech, toiletries and water bottles
- and 1 large family suitcase (which was our only checked-in luggage on the flight there and onto the ship.) It was mostly empty on the way there, with our winter jackets and my nice shoes with heals.
This worked perfectly for us! We knew whatever happened (flight delays, lost luggage, etc.) we had all we needed with us in our hand luggage.
The suitcases all slotted under the bed perfectly after we had unpacked them.
As we were able to board the ship before our cabin was ready, with our hand luggage, we had our swimwear at hand, if we had wanted to use the pool immediately.
It turned out that our cabin was available pretty quickly, so the boys could change in the cabin and go for a swim, while us girls caught up on beauty sleep.
Here’s a downloadable list of the packing list for a family of 5. (It is along the lines of most lists which we have travelled with since the children were out of nappies)