Packing for a normal 1 or 2 week trip can be a stressful experience as you anticipate what you’ll need, what will look good in photos and what weather to prepare for. Now imagine the stress that comes with packing for a 4 month trip to 3 different continents with 3 completely different climates. That is what it feels like to pack for Semester at Sea.
It’s a lot to think about! I know because I have done it twice. I completed my first Semester at Sea voyage as a student in 2010 and returned to Semester at Sea as the social media coordinator for the Spring 2019 voyage. I am here to share my wisdom as a two time Semester at Sea alumna to help ensure you pack just right for your voyage of a lifetime!
This is a really long list, I know. But trust me, these packing tips and packing lists are actually useful and worth the read.
On both of my voyages, I made the mistake of packing WAY too much. I had too many clothes and toiletries both times, which I wound up donating at the end of the voyage during the shipboard donation drive. Read through this whole post for my packing guide and packing tips!
CLOTHING PACKING TIPS
Wearables for Port vs Wearables for the Ship
In the clothing packing list below, I separated what to wear on the ship from what to wear in port after having several conversations with students about how they packed. Many people noted that they felt like they had packed well for their in-port experiences but not well for their on-ship experiences.
The ship is extremely casual. Lots of students wear exclusively athleisure clothing on-board, including yoga pants, t-shirts, cut off shirts and sweatshirts. In contrast, this clothing is often not appropriate or too casual for in-port experiences. So in a way, you have to pack in a way that accommodates both sides of your Semester at Sea experience.
When thinking about what you’re going to wear in port, I think planning for the climates is a big factor in deciding what to pack. For our itinerary, we basically saw three different climates — cold winter weather in Japan and China, blistering summer humidity and heat in Southeast Asia and Ghana, and temperate spring weather in South Africa and Europe. Prior to packing, review your voyage itinerary and what the weather looks like for that time of year.
Tips for Choosing the Right Clothing
When considering which clothes to bring, I think it’s a good idea to pack some of your favorite items that you know are comfortable as well as layerable pieces that have versatile uses. I would not recommend packing clothes that you have never worn or washed, because they might turn out to be challenging or uncomfortable to wear and wash. I would recommend leaving high-value, designer clothing at home for the most part, because the constant traveling and ship laundry will probably damage or stain your clothes.
A Note About Laundry
There are two options for laundry on the ship—do it yourself in your cabin sink or pay $7 per load to have the crew do it. If you plan to predominantly do it yourself, make sure that you bring your own detergent to wash in your sink. Also, choose lighter-weight clothing that dries faster. Heavy pants and socks take FOREVER to try in a small cabin with no air flow. There is a small clothing line available in your shower, but I would also recommend bringing one to hang in your cabin with clothes pins. You might also want to bring some extra plastic hangers.
If you opt for the ship’s laundry service, be aware that it is pretty tough on clothes. They are industrial washers and they don’t use fabric softeners, so your clothes get a little beat up. They also label your clothes by writing your cabin number in permanent marker on the tags or inside the pockets, so if you have high-end clothing, maybe leave that at home if you don’t want to degrade the resale value. By the end of the voyage, I had several items with small holes in it and plenty of items that were full of deep wrinkles.
IN-PORT PACKING LIST
|Item||Quantity||Notes About Item|
|Tops||5-7||Avoid crop tops in port, it often draws a lot of unwanted attention. Different lengths and fabric weights to accommodate different weather throughout the voyage.|
|Bottoms||4-6||Maxi pants and skirts work really well for women because they are lightweight and modest but also comfortable and easy to wear on long bus rides. Unless jeans is all you wear, 1 pair should be enough. They take long to dry and are too heavy for a lot of the climates. Leggings are considered “underwear” in most ports and are not considered appropriate as bottoms|
|Dresses||2-4||Maxi dresses were my favorite thing because they are easy to wear. Shorter options are good for nights out or special events.|
|Underwear||14+||It saves SO much time on laundry to have a lot of underwear.|
|Socks||5-7 Pairs||Pack more if you work out a lot or wear sneakers all the time. These are a pain in the butt to dry in your cabin, so having more is nice.|
|Raincoat||1||Make sure it has a hood.|
|Warm coat||1||Only if your itinerary is going somewhere cold|
|Hat, Gloves, Scarf||1||Only if your itinerary is going somewhere cold|
ON-SHIP PACKING LIST
|Item||Quantity||Notes About Item|
|Tops||3-5||Comfy and layerable|
|Bottoms||2-4||Yoga pants, sweatpants and leggings are the most common bottoms that you see on the ship.|
|Sweatshirt||2||I think one hoodie style and one cardigan style of varying thicknesses works well for different temperatures inside the ship and outside at night.|
|Slippers||1||You’re supposed to always wear closed-toed shoes on the ship and slippers are a nice option for staying warm.|
|Workout Wear||2-4||If you pack workout clothes for regular clothes, you probably don’t need to pack this in addition.|
|Dressy Outfit||1||Not a necessity to pack if you plan to buy something, but having one dress outfit option is a good idea for ship events like fancy dining and the alumni ball.|
|Swimwear||2-4||Having a one-piece suit can come in handy sometimes.|
|Pool Cover Up||1|
|Hats||1-2||Can use for sun and glare on deck of the ship. Also nice for instagrams :) Available for purchase in port too.|
SHOE PACKING TIPS
Should I buy new shoes for SAS or use ones I already have?
I absolutely think you should bring shoes that you already have for two reasons:
- You know they are comfortable and don’t make your feet blister.
- You might get rid of them at the end, so it would be better to do it with old shoes rather than new.
After all the walking you’ll do (in clean and not so clean places) throughout the voyage, your shoes are likely to be pretty worn out and dirty. I wound up donating 3 of my 5 pairs of shoes during the shipboard drive at the end of the voyage because I had worn through them so quickly.
What shoes work best for SAS?
I think having at least 3 shoe options is a good plan for Semester at Sea—one pair of comfortable walking shoes, one pair of close-toed shoes (necessary for life on the ship), and one pair of sandals. Obviously some people prefer to have more shoes, but I think these three are the three most essential. You will do A LOT of walking throughout your time in port, so having a comfortable pair of walking shoes is necessary. I know a lot of people who wore Chacos or sneakers or Toms.
SHOE PACKING LIST
|Item||Quantity||Notes About Item|
|Walking Shoe||1||Must be comfortable for walking|
|Close-Toed Shoe||1||Although it is loosely enforced, close-toed shoes are required by the captain while on board.|
|Sandal||1||I would recommend something a little nicer than plastic flip flops because they wear down too quickly.|
|Extra (if space allows)||1-2||Might be a hiking shoe or sneaker depending on your activity level or scheduled field programs. Might also want to consider one pair of nicer shoes, like a dress shoe, for occasions like field classes or the Alumni Ball.|
TOILETRIES PACKING TIPS
When your campus is on a ship, there are parts of life that are going to be new—like seasickness. I talk more about this in my 40 Things to Know Before SAS post, because seasickness is no joke! It can be intense for some people. The impact of seasickness varies per person, but it is normal for everyone to feel it (at least a little bit) at the beginning of the voyage as you get used to life at sea. The most common sea sickness treatments are:
- Behind-the-ear patch
- Seasickness medication (dramamine)
- Ginger Pills or Chews
- Electric Pulse Bracelet
I personally used ReliefBand, a high tech version of Seabands, which gave my wrist a small electric pulses every couple of seconds to stop seasickness. I absolutely loved this treatment and rave about it because it works great with 0 side effects. I am admittedly not susceptible to significant motion sickness, but these worked amazing for me. I totally recommend them.
Pack Over the Door Organizer (This is ESSENTIAL)
If there is one thing that you shouldn’t miss on this list, its this—an over-the-door organizer. I bought a fabric shoe organizer that had 24 little pockets. You can use this on your bathroom or closet door to create extra storage space for smaller items like headbands, scarves, toiletries and personal care items. I was so happy we had this because I was able to store all of our toiletries free from worry about them falling off the counter in bad weather. It also kept our cabin much tidier and easy to organize.
You are likely to learn about issues facing the ocean during your voyage, and one of the major concerns is reef bleaching and acidification. Scientists have concluded that 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen rinses off of swimmers every year, and 4 of the main chemicals in standard sunscreen are shown to be toxic to reefs. Consider looking for a brand that uses physical sunblocks such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide instead of chemical ones. They are widely available at major vendors like Target and even come in the nice spray bottles for easy application.
Am I going to do my hair and makeup regularly?
Obviously, this is a personal decision and will vary widely by your personal habitats. At home, I normally wear makeup almost every day and blow dry my hair daily. But on SAS, I probably did it half the time, hair especially. The wind from the ship and the humidity from the ports meant that I had my hair up in a ponytail or bun almost all of the time, so there was no need for me to bring hair products or a blow dryer. Also, there is a blow-dryer (although not a super nice one) in your cabin. I heard of one girl who cut her hair shorter than normal in preparation for the voyage so that there would less hair to dry and damage from the ship.
I wore makeup most days on the ship, but found that my skin was wrecked in humid weather when I wore makeup, so I didn’t wear it nearly as much in most of the ports. I brought enough for about 5 months and used about half of it.
How many toiletries should I actually bring?
Toiletries can take up a lot of room in your suitcase and they have to be checked at the airport, so I was tempted to only bring a few. I think it is a good idea to pack the ones that are special and essential, such as sensitive skin washes or tone-matched make up. And for more common items like soap, shampoo/conditioner, etc, you can pack what you have and restock as needed while you travel. No need to pack back-up supplies for common products because they are much easier to find than special products. There are even some available in the bookstore on the ship! I think women should also pack more tampons or pads than you think you’ll need because they can be difficult to find while traveling.
TOILETRIES PACKING LIST
|Item||Notes About Item|
|Toothbrush, toothpaste, floss|
|Face + Body Washes|
|Deodorant||This can be hard to find abroad. Pack enough or extra.|
|Face + Body Lotions|
|Razor + Blade Refills|
|Hair Products||Leave blow dryer and straightener at home, bring dry shampoo and salt spray instead.|
|Contacts + Glasses||As needed|
|Sunscreen||Reef safe only!!|
|Bug Spray||Didn’t think it was necessary, until I got to ports where I was worried about Malaria and then it was essential.|
|Prescription Meds||Bring enough for entire voyage|
|Blister Band Aids||Blister happen, these are convenient|
|Allergy Meds||As needed|
|Immune Boosters||Emergen-C and Air-Borne|
|Pepto, Anti-Acids + Imodium||Traveler’s diarrhea is real ya’ll. Get ready for it.|
|Pads + Tampons||As needed|
|Yeast Infection medication||Cuz when you have it, its the worst. Better to be safe than sorry|
|Malaria Meds||Not required by SAS but highly recommended|
BAGS & EXTRA PACKING TIPS
What kind of luggage is best?
When debating what kind of luggage to bring for Semester at Sea, you are typically deciding between a suitcase, backpack, and duffel. Similar to airline restrictions, you are only allowed 2 checked bags, 1 carry-on bag and 1 personal item at the start of your Semester at Sea voyage.
I think a mix of types of luggage is really helpful because you will find yourself using different pieces as you travel in port.
Having a small day pack or overnight pack option is pretty essential. For example, all of the domestic flights in China have super strict airline restrictions so people had to have small backpacks for their overnight field programs. I would also recommend packing a small duffel into your other bags in case you buy a lot of souvenirs and gifts. It is a great option for having extra room at the end of the voyage.
I personally used one large suitcase, one 70 gallon backpacker’s style backpack, and 2 small duffels which could be carried on. I had TOO much stuff from the beginning, and I wound up donating a lot of items during the shipboard drive so that I could disembark with an appropriate amount of stuff.
SAS EXTRAS PACKING LIST
|Item and Quantity||Notes About Item|
|1 Day Bag||Ideally a backpack|
|1 Beach Towel||The ship provides bath towels but you can’t bring them on the deck. Might be something to donate at the end of the voyage to save room in your bags.|
|1 Blanket||They sell these in the bookstore, but you could also bring your own. Most of the common areas on the ship get cold.|
|1 Map||It is a SAS tradition to sign maps instead of year books. Maps are available at the bookstore (but sell out…) or you can bring a unique one of your own.|
|1 Travel Alarm Clock|
|Ear Plugs/Eye Mask|
|Trinkets to Give Away||There are lots of young kids who run up to you to chat and play. It’s nice to be able to give them little gifts.|
|1 Small Laundry Detergent, Clothing Line & Clothes Pins||If deciding to do your own laundry|
|Watch||More useful than you might think with all the time zone changes|
|School Supplies||Pens, pencils and a notebook should be enough.|
TECH + ELECTRONICS PACKING TIPS
I talk a lot more about these in my 40 things to know before going on SAS post, so this is just a short summary of packing tips and tech packing list
This is not a sexy topic, but it is super important that you have the ability to backup your photos and videos throughout the voyage. There were 60+ people on my voyage that had their phones lost or stolen, which means they lost all the photos they had taken from the voyage. Don’t let this happen to you.
I recommend getting in the habit of backing up photos overnight on the first day back from port. I would also sync up my camera’s SD card with my external hard drive as soon as I got back, and then it would be done later than night or the next morning. When you wake up the next morning, everything is backed up, safe and sound so you don’t need to worry about it. It sounds annoying but it is easy and you will be SO grateful that you have everything backed up.
Use a few small pouches to keep organized
Between the converters, adapters, cords and charging plugs, it can be hard to keep all of your electronics organized. I used little pouches to keep everything organized, like one bag for my cords and one bag for my European adapter. The fit nicely into my bedside table and I could easily locate them when I was packing in a hurry for a field program.
TECH + ELECTRONICS PACKING LIST
|Item and Quantity||Notes About Item|
|Laptop + Charger|
|Camera + Charger||I personally would not recommend a GoPro as your daily camera. I think they are limiting and phones take better quality photos these days anyway. In my opinion, a DSLR is your best choice.|
|Phone + Charger|
|2-4 German/EU Power Adapter||All power on ship is EU power, so US-passport holders will need adapters in their cabin.|
|Bluetooth Speaker||For those dance parties on the pool deck!|
|External Hard Drive||This is essential. You will have thousands of photos and lots of movies/TV shows that people take and share during the voyage. Your laptop will fill up,|
|USB Thumbdrives||This is essential. There is so much file sharing that goes on, having an easy way for people to give you things is necessary.|
|2-3 Extra Memory Cards||Always best to have more than you need because it’s better than having to delete photos!|
|HDMI Cord & Adapter||You can watch movies from your laptop to your cabin’s TV. It’s not a much bigger screen, but easier for movie nights than a laptop.|
|2 Pairs of Headphones|
|eReader + Charger||Not necessary, only if you’re a big reader. Plenty of people have books to share on the ship plus and school reading you need to do.|
|External battery + charger||Super helpful for long bus or train rides in port.|
FOOD + SNACK PACKING TIPS
What do I do about coffee?
I mentioned this in my 40 Tips for Preparing for Semester at Sea post, but I have no patience for bad coffee (which the ship coffee is) and I need coffee every day. I knew finding a coffee solution was priority numerous uno prior to the voyage. After trying a few different brewing methods, including pour over and French press, I have determined that an Aeropress coffee maker is the best method for ship life. It is compact, lightweight, easy to clean and you can make only a cup at a time.
Minimize your plastic consumption
In addition to reef bleaching, another major concern facing the ocean is plastic pollution. I learned on my voyage that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Plastic doesn’t degrade and 80% of plastic waste winds up in the ocean, which deeply threatens fish, seabirds and economic activity on the ocean. It is important to do your part by bringing your cups, mugs and straws to use during the voyage.
FOOD + SNACK PACKING LIST
|Item and Quantity||Notes About Item|
|Waterbottle||Make sure it’s easy to clean. Also consider if you want to put stickers on it.|
|Smoothie/Cold Beverage Mug||Smoothies on the pool deck are delish, but come in plastic and hurt the ocean. Do your part and BYO!|
|Coffee/Hot Beverage Mug||Make sure it has a lid.|
|Stainless Steel Straw||Your home is the ocean. Be nice to it and don’t pollute.|
|Snacks||So many snacks. Your friends will love you.|
WHAT TO BUY ALONG THE WAY
Shopping for New Clothes During the Voyage
There are LOTS of opportunities to shop during the voyage and there is a good likelihood that you will at some point. Watching the outfits change after all the ports is actually one of my favorite things about the voyage. People will buy elephant pants, port t-shirts, scarves, and linen shirts throughout the voyage, and you want to have extra space in your luggage to bring them home at the end. If you know you are likely to shop a lot, probably lessen the numbers in the packing list above by 1-3 as needed.
SAS Gear & Swag
The ship has a sizeable bookstore that offers lots of Semester at Sea branded items, including clothing, accessories and essentials. There is no need to buy SAS gear ahead of the voyage because there is more selection on the ship than you think. Get a preview of what you can find in the bookstore with this helpful video from Semester at Sea.
All featured photos were produced during my contract as Semester at Sea’s social media coordinator and are owned by Semester at Sea.