Plus, five things you should definitely leave at home.
A cruise is an incredibly convenient and often surprisingly affordable way to wake up in a new city or country every morning—and you’ll only need to unpack one time, because you can see the whole world without having to switch hotels. It's no wonder that the Cruise Line Industry Association reported nearly 30 million passengers in 2019 (the last full year of data before the pandemic caused an industry-wide shutdown, from which it's still recovering).
Whether you choose a massive floating city in the middle of an ocean or a yacht-sized luxury ship set to meander down a famous river, it’s the perfect escape from reality. But that escape from reality can also make packing a bit tougher than land-based travels, where you know you’ll always be able to pop into a shop to buy anything important you’ve forgotten.
To be fair, most ships do offer a sundries shop and a few boutiques, but there isn’t a wide selection, and the hours are quite limited. That’s why it’s crucial for first-time cruisers and enthusiasts alike to consult a cruise packing list while preparing for their trip.
We’ll assume you have undergarments, a basic wardrobe (including daywear, swimwear, and evening wear), toiletries, and your luggage squared away, and we will zero-in on some of the items that’ll help make your travels more relaxing, comfortable, and organized. Plus, we’ll provide some guidance on a handful of items that are better left at home, either for safety and policy reasons, or because they simply waste precious space in your suitcase.
Bring: Backpack or Beach Bag for Excursions
When you disembark the ship for daily excursions, whether you’re headed to a chill beach day or a strenuous hike, you’ll need a place to stash all your bulky goodies—towels, water bottles, sun hats, camera equipment, bug spray, suntan lotion, etc. The backpack you brought on the plane as your carry-on item can serve double duty as the bag you take off the ship each day, or you can bring a separate, foldable beach bag or tote for this purpose.
If you plan to do separate activities from others in your party, make sure everyone has their own bag so they aren’t left juggling too many things in their pockets.
Bring: Universal Travel Adapter With USB Ports
Between your phones, tablets, camera equipment, smart watches, headphones, and any other gadgets you and your travel companions might bring, outlets are at a serious premium in cruise cabins. And some cruise lines—such as Holland America Line and Windstar Cruises, for instance—split the available outlets in each cabin between U.S. 110-volt outlets and European 220-volt outlets (which means you will only be able to use half of them if you didn’t plan ahead). To make matters worse, very few cruise lines have upgraded to include in-room USB ports (though you will find them on a handful of Royal Caribbean ships, for example).
Instead, come prepared with a universal travel adapter that’ll work in any of the outlets. (Bonus: You’ll also need this if you plan to spend any pre- or post-cruise travel nights in a hotel in another country.) And be sure to choose a model with a few USB ports as well, so you can charge multiple devices simultaneously.
Bring: Your Passport
You’ll be hard-pressed to get very far without your passport, even if your cruise is mostly in the United States, like the California Coast cruises Princess Cruises offers. That’s because most of these cruises stop in Canada or Mexico.
And even if you do have a passport, it’s crucial to double-check the expiration date ahead of time; many countries require you to have more than 6 months left before expiration (there are some exceptions).
Of course, there are some cruises that depart from and return to a U.S. port of entry (known as a closed-loop sailing), in which case you wouldn’t need a passport. But be sure you read the itinerary carefully so you don’t wind up turned away at the cruise terminal on embarkation day.
Bring: Magnetic Hooks
It’s hard keeping a small cruise ship cabin organized. While many cruise lines thoughtfully make the most of storage with various nooks, closets, and drawers, it’s amazing how quickly you can run out of room for everything. Fun fact: Most cabin walls are magnetic, which means you can bring a few magnetic hooks along to maximize unused wall space.
What can you use these hooks for? Hanging jackets, umbrellas, hats, robes, bags, swimwear, and more. It’s a genius move you’ll come to rely on, cruise after cruise.
Bring: Seasickness Solutions
Most cruise ships are so stable these days that seasickness may seem unlikely, but you never know when rough seas might take you by surprise. There are many over-the-counter solutions available, including medications (such as Dramamine or Bonine), acupressure wristbands, and even high-tech wearable gadgets. If you know that you’re prone to motion sickness, talk to your doctor about prescription options, including a Scopolamine patch worn behind the ear, prior to your cruise.
Bring: Waterproof Phone Pouch
Turn any phone into a waterproof camera with an inexpensive waterproof pouch. With one of these, you can confidently take your phone on a snorkeling expedition or to the beach or pool without worrying about splashes or an accidental drop into the deep end.
As a bonus, this pouch doubles as a safe and dry place to stash your cash, ID, and credit card so you don’t have to risk leaving them on the beach when you’re ready to take a refreshing dip. One more handy use: This will also allow you to take photos up on deck or from your balcony during inclement weather.
Bring: Embarkation Day Bag
Embarkation day, the day you first board the cruise ship and your vacation officially begins, is super exciting, but it can also be a bit hectic. Your suitcase will be delivered to your room just as soon as the crew can get to it, but that could take several hours (and in rare cases, even longer) given the sheer volume of luggage being managed.
That’s why it’s always a good idea to carry on a special embarkation day bag (this can be your aforementioned tote, beach bag, or backpack) filled with anything you might need access to on day one: medications, a change of clothes (perhaps a swimsuit so you can go enjoy the pool or evening attire if you plan to have an early dinner in the dining room), electronics and their corresponding chargers, sunglasses, and more. It’s also a handy spot to store your passport, cruise documents, boarding pass, and cash before placing them in your in-room safe.
Bring: Sun and Insect Protection
It doesn’t matter if you’re cruising around the Caribbean, down the Rhine, or through Alaska’s Inside Passage, there will be insects and sunshine to contend with, and you’ll want to be prepared. This means ensuring your cruise packing list has things like hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, insect repellent, and after-sun calming lotion on it. Yes, you can find many of these items in the ship’s retail shop if needed, but you'll often pay a premium and won't have your choice of brands.
Bring: Cash for Tipping and Shopping
While most cruise lines are essentially cash-free these days and will even place crew gratuities on your credit card, there are some instances when you’ll need cash.
First, it’s recommended to tip $5 (half-day) to $10 (full-day) per person to your tour guides and drivers during excursions.
Second, some shopping areas (such as markets and street vendors) don’t accept credit cards—and you may even be able to negotiate a better price with cash, as shopkeepers are keen on avoiding credit card transaction fees that eat into their profits.
Finally, if you feel your cabin steward, server, or maître d’ did a truly exceptional job going above and beyond, you may want to tip them a little extra cash at the end of the cruise to show your gratitude.
Bring: Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medication
Even though there’s a doctor onboard, they aren't a pharmacy. You’ll need to pack your prescription medications, because they certainly don’t carry every type or dosage, nor do they have enough supply. In fact, go ahead and pack a little extra if you have it, because you never know when travel delays could keep you on the road a bit longer than expected.
It’s also a good idea to pack some OTC meds you may need as well, such as allergy pills for the foreign flora you’ll come into contact with, antacid tablets if you think you might hit those buffets a bit too hard, and ibuprofen for the aches and pains associated with getting more exercise than you’re used to or attempting too many flights of stairs.
Bring: Portable Charger
Even if you remember to bring the appropriate charger for each of your electronic devices, that won’t help you top off your battery while on an 8-hour excursion. Since there’s nothing worse than running out of juice at the precise moment you want to snap the photo memory of a lifetime, go ahead and add a portable charger to your cruise packing list. It’ll be a huge relief to have a backup battery available (especially if you decided to skip a formal excursion and you’re using your phone’s map to navigate your way around a city), and many of the models available fit easily into a purse or pocket.
Bring: Refillable Bottle
Buying bottles of water on board can cost upwards of $6 each, which can turn into a small fortune for a couple or family over the course of a week, You’ll always want a bottle or two handy when you leave the ship. Instead, bring a refillable bottle with you and refill it in the buffet or at filling stations. You’ll save a ton of money and help reduce the toll single-use plastic takes on our planet (especially in our oceans).
Skip: High-end Jewelry
Cruise ship attire just isn’t as fancy as it used to be, and while some cruise lines still host formal nights, there’s just no need to be draped in your grandmother’s special occasion pearls or don the family heirloom cufflinks. Yes, there’s a safe in your cabin closet (which should definitely be used for jewelry, cash, passports, and other valuables), but why take an unnecessary risk on irreplaceable jewels? Use this opportunity to play around with fun accessories and costume jewelry that won’t leave you brokenhearted if they get lost or damaged.
Skip: Too Many Shoes
Footwear can be the hardest part of paring down your cruise packing list, but do your best to think practically. You can probably make do with four pairs on most cruises: one pair of sneakers/hiking boots (depending on the itinerary and your excursions), one pair of beach shoes (flip flops or closed-toe water shoes), one pair of dressy shoes that match all your evening outfits (for women, perhaps it’s a nude heel or wedge; for men a pair of neutral loafers), and one pair of daytime sandals. You’ll eliminate so much weight and bulk from your luggage in the process.
Cruise ships are known for feeding their passengers well (and often). There’s little chance that you’ll go hungry when you have access to multiple dining venues and room service 24/7. Sure, you may want to bring a couple of protein bars to pop in your bag in case you need a little nosh during a long day at the beach, but that’s about it. You can always grab fruit (bananas, apples, etc.) from the buffet to take on your excursions as well.
Skip: Clothes Iron and Steamer
Many cruise lines have policies forbidding the use of clothes irons and steamers and won’t allow these fire hazards onboard. Try spraying wrinkly garments with wrinkle spray, then hang them in the bathroom during a hot shower. The bathrooms are so small that it may create a little steam bath that releases those wrinkles.
Another option is to make use of the self-service laundry rooms on some ships. If you find one, it’ll likely have an ironing station you can use free of charge. If all else fails, most cruise lines offer wash and press services for a nominal fee.
Most every cruise line has specific rules in place when it comes to their alcohol policy. For instance, some allow you to bring one bottle of wine or Champagne per adult, but you’ll then be charged a $20 corkage fee to drink it in one of the dining venues (so you may want to use that for pre-dinner purposes or a nightcap in your cabin). Similarly, some cruise lines will store any alcohol purchased in port until the end of your cruise. However some higher-end cruise lines have no limitations or corkage fees, so it’s always best to check the restrictions for your specific cruise line ahead of time.
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