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What to Pack for a Cruise to Europe?

what to pack for a cruise

by Tina Boomerina (Christina Gregoire)

change simple dresses and tops into formal wear with accessoriesI have done one transatlantic crossing from Venice to Florida, so I assume you’ll want to pack the same items for a reverse trip in May. Another consideration will be whether you’re flying home immediately after your crossing, extending your stay through your cruise line, or traveling on your own in Europe once you arrive. You don’t want to overpack, but you do want to have the things you’ll need… because you can’t run to the store when you’re in the middle of the Atlantic.

Sure, there are usually a few stores on the larger cruise ships, but those shops don’t carry much.

what to wear for a cruise to europe in may

On the other hand, I have seen one woman wear the same black-knit pantsuit every day of a rainy, 12-day Baltic cruise (during the month of August) after the airline or the ship lost her luggage, and she was only given an allowance that covered one outfit from the ship’s store. (Note: Bring a second outfit and some glitzy costume jewelry in your carry-on bag… just in case. Big faux jewels can always be used to create glam eveningwear out of any Plain-Jane daywear. p.s. That woman never did get her suitcase.)

What to Pack for a Transatlantic Crossing

what to pack for a cruise to europe in mayWhat you’ll need for two weeks at sea depends on which cruise line you’ve booked your trip. Most women want to know what to wear on formal nights, but some cruise lines, like Windstar, Norwegian, and Oceania don’t even have formal nights… although the passengers on Oceania were chic as h*ll, so pack your best "smart casual" outfits if you're sailing on a chi-chi ship. Here are some of the cruise lines that do have formal nights: Celebrity, Costa, Crystal, Cunard, Disney (the author lifts an eyebrow), Holland America, Princess, and Royal Caribbean.  Most transatlantic crossings have about three formal nights.

However, to make things even more confusing, different itineraries (and different ships) have different levels of formality and enforcement. I’ve seen women wearing truly stunning clothing for “smart casual” nights on high-end ships and I’ve seen some really ugly “formalwear” on low-priced, off-season cruises… and I’m a very boho, “do your own thing,” type of gal most of the time... so I rarely care if someone's outfit is truly ugly.

You can get a good sense of what to pack for your particular ship and your specific itinerary if you browse the forums of cruisecritic.com.

what does smart casual mean when cruising ships

As a general rule, men and women on the "more expensive" cruises are going to be wearing better clothing... big surprise. For example, jetsetters on lah-dee-dah ships will be wearing polo shirts from Nautica, not el cheapo stuff from Target. However, I get all my T-shirts from Old Navy and I don't care... because I can pull off a bit of understated attitude when required… however, I’ve never traveled on QM2... so the bar is a bit lower in my world. Anyway, the differences in outfits from the high-priced brands versus the low-priced brands are often quite subtle... especially in low lighting. (Tip: Spend your money on daywear and go a bit cheaper on the glam... unless you go to a lot of charity events... or some guy has offered to buy you an outfit or two.)

What Women Wear on Formal Nights

You can wear a different long gown every night... and do whatever you want, but if you really don’t know what to wear for your ship's formal night, you can always fall back on either of these trusty old standbys:

  • An LBD (short black cocktail dress)
  • A black top worn with long, wide, dressy pants (or palazzo pants)

Either one of these black outfits can be made of posh, beaded fabric... or it can be a simple dress (or a boring top) that you can glam up with a lovingly gaudy crystal necklace and earrings – or a wildly colorful tribal necklace – or a trendy pair of mega-giant earrings – or a cute little fascinator with feathers – or any combination of accessories that will make your fellow diners follow your bling and forget that you've been wearing the same little dress for three nights in a row. In other words, that simple black or blue or red (or whatever) dress is just the canvas... the background... for your glam accessories.

Note: I want to add that I believe you can go as glamorous as you want on most cruises. I wish I could wear a different embellished gown for every formal night. I'm just writing the ideas in this article to give you examples of how to dress without spending a ton of money. There is nothing more beautiful than a woman in a beaded gown, so if you can do it, you should. Also, I believe in the Oscar Wilde quote, "You can never be overdressed or overeducated." Unfortunately, my husband is not a big fan of Oscar Wilde.

Extras for Dressy Evenings

As for shoes, black shoes or booties with somewhat high, but thick and sturdy, heels are good for formal nights. However, you should pack a pair of black flats just in case you hit rough seas. I never bring a dressy clutch to dinner because my husband carries our room card, which is used in lieu of cash. And, if it’s important for you to have your hair done for the first formal night, make an appointment with the salon as soon as you embark. I never do, but half of my suitcase is filled with hatboxes.

For the Pampered Princess Traveler

If you’re a pampered gal and you won’t be lugging your own suitcase once you hit the EU, you can bring a different outfit for each night of your cruise. If your travels include bellhops and taxi drivers, I would suggest that you take, at the very least, one dress in stretchy black fabric (just in case you overeat), a printed dress in stretchy fabric, one pair of dressy black pants, several tops in different colors (tops that can be dressed up or dressed down depending upon circumstances). And, if you don’t love pants, pack a long black skirt instead. Also, if you don’t love your upper arms, bring a lightweight or sheer shrug or kimono wrap. There will be photographers sneaking around on the ship and they don't care about your upper arms.

If your suitcase(s) can be any weight and you decide to take several formal-ish dresses, I would try to have each dress in a different color… otherwise most people will think you’re wearing the same outfit anyway… so what’s the point? Note: I have seen a few jaw-dropping, full-on, totally beaded ballgowns on Holland America cruises, so do your homework. Every cruise is different.

If You Travel on the Cheap in the EU

If you will be on your own, slumming around Europe (as I do… ala Rick Steves), then you will be dragging your own suitcases up and down a lot of stairs at subway stations (Metro/Tube), ancient hotels, and train stations, so you’ll want to pack as light as possible. Somehow, it seems like the longer your trip, the less you should pack... weird, I know. Anyway, if you will be carrying your own bags, you'll need multitasking clothing.

And, I want you to know that there is no shame in doing three formal nights with one plain black dress (or black pants outfit) and changing the look of the dress with different accessories. You don’t have to go to that extreme... wearing the same dress over and over, but it can be done. However, when I talk about accessories, I mean big, jaw-dropping things that can be seen from across the room. You ARE on vacation, dear. You SHOULD have a little fun with your fashion.

What to Wear on Sea Days

I don’t know where you’re embarking and disembarking. Obviously, you should pack warmer clothing for sea days if you’re itinerary is New York to London instead of Fort Lauderdale to Venice. But, what’s not so obvious is that it can be very cold at sea, no matter where you are... and May is almost the off-season. So, bring a cardigan or sweater/jumper and a raincoat/mac with a hood. And, a knit hat might be a good idea.

As for your standard, daytime cruise clothing, I love the nautical look. I love Breton-striped sweaters. I love the whole "boaty" thing... even the Sperry Topsiders... because they'll keep you from sliding around on the deck. I love cool color-blocked clothes in nautical-flag colors. I don't know why I like that look... I don't really like preppy clothing when I get back on land.

bring cute sneakers tennis shoes joggers trainers for cruise ship

Athletic Wear

I am extremely old school. I like ships that don't feel like mobile shopping malls. I prefer promenades that are outside... the kind of promenades that look like the decks in old-time movies. If you’re like me, you'll want a jogging suit (long pants and/or matching shorts) and a pair of trainers/tennis shoes for walking around the promenade every morning… it’s a good excuse to get outside for a whiff of those sweet sea breezes. Tip: Parisiennes (and many Europeans) do not wear white jogging shoes. Look for athletic shoes that are chic… like walking shoes that match your jogging suit. White Nikes will tell everyone that you're an American with no sense of style.

Holy cow! This article is so long and I'm just getting started. Fortunately, I have other articles about cruise wear. So, see the links below for additional information. (Note: As always, I want you to know that don't get paid to endorse any brands that I mention.)

More Cruise Articles for Baby Boomer Women:

Women's Travel Cruise Wear Online - Chicks Over 40 or 50

What to Wear for Cruise Dinners & Formal Nights

Cruise Clothing: Nautical Stripes & Sailor Style

Sexy Plus Size Cruise Wear: Cocktail & Formal Dresses

Best Swimsuits for Women Over 40, 50, 60

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Tina Boomerina (AKA Christina Gregoire) is a Baby Boomer born at the end of 1952. Her mission is to make the internet a kinder and gentler place for Baby Boomer women around the world. Tina's specialty is fashion for women over 50.

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