What to Pack for a Cruise—and 6 Things Not to Bring
Packing for a cruise is a lot like packing for any other vacation. You'll want to bring comfy walking shoes for sightseeing and to leave your best jewelry at home. But there are other items—beyond seasickness medications—that expert cruisers never set sail without. Here, a few of our favorite professional cruisers tell us what you'll find in their suitcases.
Do: Stash all your pool items in your carry-on bag
“You may not see your checked bag until late on your first day on board,” says Gene Sloan, cruise editor of USA Today. “It can take hours from the time you drop your bag off with the ship-side porters for it to arrive up in your room.” As a result, when we asked him what to pack for a cruise, he recommended stashing your swimsuit, sunglasses, and suntan lotion in your day bag so you have them available immediately upon arrival. Don’t miss the 28 secrets cruise lines won’t tell you.
Do: Pack clothing that can be layered
“Weather from port to port can vary significantly,” explains Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor of CruiseCritic.com. “Packing layers can help combat temperature changes, without the need to pack multiple outfits that can take up precious room in your suitcase.” McDaniel adds that this is especially important in places where the weather often changes, such as in Alaska, where you might find sunny skies one day and cold rain the next.
Don’t: Leave home without sunscreen and aloe vera
“If you’re hitting the Caribbean or Bermuda, chances are you’ll get more sun than you’re used to,” says McDaniel. “And while a good sunscreen can keep you from getting burned, aloe vera will give you some relief if you do.” So when you’re thinking about what to pack for a cruise, remember to buy the sunscreen and after-sun lotion at home—you could end up paying a markup on many ships.
Do: Bring a portable charger or two
If you’re someone who doesn’t like to unplug during a vacation, this one is a biggie—especially if you have more than one device or spend hours on social media or email. “You won’t have easy access to outlets around the ship,” explains Fran Golden, chief contributor of Porthole magazine. “And there may be a limited number of outlets in your cabin.”
Do: Toss your portable mug in your bag
Cruise ships often have complimentary coffee, and it’s usually part of the Lido deck buffet. But your cabin isn’t, so many people go up on deck, grab a couple mugs of coffee first thing in the morning, and burn themselves as they walk back to their cabin. Mike Jirout, founder of the Ship Mate App, has this clever suggestion in his blog: If you’re a big coffee drinker, pack one of those portable mugs with a lid in your suitcase. Traveling with kids? You’ll want sippy cups for their morning milk or juice.
Do: Throw in some kitchen magnets
“Little-known fact for those who haven’t cruised before: Cruise cabin walls are made of steel,” says McDaniel. “Packing magnets—or magnetic hooks—can help keep track of daily programs and other loose papers, or make it easy to hang items that need to dry. We’ve also used heavy-duty magnetic hooks for stashing away cameras, lanyards, and even binoculars.”
Do: Bring along a marker board
If you’re traveling with a group of friends or family, magnetic marker boards are handy to bring along, says McDaniel. “Hang one outside your cabin door so that you can leave notes for your travel companions.” Now, you’ll never miss out on meeting spots or reservation details.
Do: Pick up a pashmina
Sure, you’re headed to the Caribbean or the Mediterranean, but that doesn’t mean you won’t want to bring a cover-up to use on board. “I always pack a shawl (a tan cashmere is my go-to-these days), even in tropical climates,” explains Golden, “because sometimes the air-conditioning on ships is intense.” Also, as ships reach full speed, the wind on outdoor decks picks up, and you’ll be happy you brought along a wrap.
Do: Pack plenty of reading material
“Make sure you have a couple of books on your Kindle or iPad, because for once in your busy life, on a cruise ship you will actually have time to read,” says Golden. “Sometimes I’ll even pick novels based on the destination where I am cruising, or a sea theme. If I have a balcony cabin, the balcony becomes my favorite reading spot.” Looking for a cruise that goes beyond the typical Bahamas or Bermuda sailing? Check out these great cruise itineraries.
Do: Invest in a small blow-up pool
“One complaint that we hear a lot from those traveling with young kids,” says McDaniel, “is that many cruise cabin bathrooms don’t have bathtubs. A simple solution is to bring a small blow-up pool to place in the shower stall and use as a makeshift tub for the little ones.” If you’re considering cruising with kids, be sure to check out the top cruises for families.
Do: Bring your own hot sauce
“Cruise lines do a lot of things right on ships, but for the most part, stocking condiments is not one of them,” says Sloan. (The exception is ketchup on kid-friendly ships, where it’s ubiquitous.) “You’ll find the occasional bottle of Tabasco on the buffet line of many ships, but little else with a punch. Of course, the biggest exception is the ships of Carnival Cruise Line, which boast deck-top burrito bars stocked with more than a dozen hot sauces.”
Do: Pack some quarters
Irons are a no-no at sea (too much of a fire hazard), but that doesn’t mean you’re stuck wearing just-pulled-out-of-a-suitcase clothing. Instead of showing up for dinner looking like an unmade bed, consider one of these tips. “Many cruise ships have self-service launderettes that offer irons (and ironing boards) as well pressing services (for a fee),” says McDaniel. And no, not all of them require quarters—some are complimentary or take credit cards. If there’s a chance you might do laundry, Tide Pods travel nicely in a Ziploc bag. These are the tips travel experts wish you knew about booking a cruise.
Or some wrinkle-release spray
Worried about wrinkles, but not into the idea of ironing on vacation? Follow the advice of this Royal Caribbean blog and bring along some wrinkle-release spray for a fast fix. It’s not a perfect solution, but it will certainly do in a pinch—and leave you more time for the pool or the spa.
Do: Grab a bathroom-door organizer
Bathroom counters are small on many ships, so Jirout suggests packing one of these compartmentalized organizers so you have a place to put your loose items. Best of all, it keeps them clean and prevents them from rolling around when the seas get rough.
Just because you don’t have to pack and unpack at every destination doesn’t mean you should allow yourself to overpack when it comes to clothing and shoes. “It’s liberating to travel light,” says Sloan, adding that (as we previously mentioned) many cruise ships have self-serve laundry machines. For more on what to pack for a cruise, here are some more great packing tips to memorize before your next trip.
Don’t: Waste space on bottled water
“Yes, bottled water can be expensive on ships, and yes, some lines let you carry on water in your bags so you can avoid buying it on board,” explains Sloan. “But why bother? There is all the water you could ever want for free out of the tap in your ship cabin. Contrary to what many people think, the water on cruise ships is perfectly potable. Bring an empty, reusable water bottle to fill up from the tap for off-the-ship excursions.”
Don’t: Bring your own alcohol
“Many cruise lines will confiscate any alcohol they find in your luggage,” says Sloan. “They want you to pay for their own, overpriced on-board alcohol.” That said, some cruise lines do let you bring on limited amounts of your own wine and alcohol; check the rules before embarking. Find out the top 10 best all-inclusive cruises.
Do: Think twice before you default to packing a tuxedo
Gone are the days when every cruise had formal nights. Some have them—and they’re mostly optional—but many cruises are less dressy than ever before. So check the line’s dress code while considering what to pack for a cruise, and remember, it really depends on what type of cruise you’re taking whether you’ll need that gown. Expedition ships tend not to have formal nights, and they’re not the only ones. “River ships never have formal nights,” explains Walter Littlejohn, Crystal River Cruises Vice President and Managing Director. Chances are you won’t find them on kid-centric cruises, either.
Do: Leave your drone at home
Sure, they take great photos, but they’re not something you should try to stuff into your suitcase for your next cruise. “Only a handful of cruise lines allow drones on board, and restrictions run rampant,” says McDaniel. “Keep your drone at home.”
Do: Reconsider that gym equipment
“My favorite thing listed by some cruise lines (including Royal Caribbean and Disney Cruise Line) under what not to bring is a hockey stick,” laughs Golden. “I have never seen anyone try, but I assume there are people who don’t go anywhere without a hockey stick.” As for hand weights and yoga mats for your regular workout, almost all cruise lines have fully stocked gyms. Next, learn some more secrets Disney cruise employees won’t tell you.