It’s embarkation day! You’re off on that most relaxing of vacations, a cruise! But when you arrive at the cruise terminal your luggage (with well-marked luggage tags) is whisked away from you with the promise that it’ll be in your cruise cabin later that day. If you know what to pack in your carry on for a cruise, this is great. But if you haven’t packed right, you may find yourself waiting a long time onboard a beautiful cruise ship with nothing to do for the rest of the day.
Prepare your carry-on for embarkation day
Your cruise vacation can start immediately if you’ve packed well. Once you’ve checked your large luggage with the porters, you can board the ship unencumbered. No need to drag a heavy bag up the gang plank and through the narrow ship corridors. You can head right to lunch or, if your room key is ready, change into your pool wear and relax in the hot tub.
Your checked luggage will have a more arduous day. The porters load all passenger’s luggage onto the ship, where the ship’s crew sort the luggage, and then deliver it to each cabin. On a large ship, this may take a very long time.
The solution? A well-packed cruise carry-on bag. Choose a lightweight backpack, tote bag, or beach bag that you can easily carry to board the ship and carry for a few hours if you have to wait until your cabin is ready. Bonus points if this bag will be right for your shore excursions too.
Before leaving home, make a packing list for your cruise vacation. Indicate on the list what you will put in your cruise carry-on. I use a packing list app which makes this easy.
If you are flying to the cruise port, you may have already packed items for your airline personal item. Some of these (e.g. pillow, eye mask) will not be needed on the ship. Note on your packing list the items to move from one bag to the other before getting to the cruise terminal.
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Choosing the best bags for your cruise vacation
One of the advantages of cruise vacations is enjoying a trip without having to pack and unpack. Therefore, travelers have a wider choice on what luggage they carry on the trip. Wheeled luggage that might be ungainly on cobblestone streets will arrive at your cruise cabin without you lifting a finger. So feel free to choose any bag for your larger suitcase.
However, the carry-on we suggest you bring onto the ship should be lightweight and easily managed. A small roller bag is fine if that’s what you have, but we go lighter with what passes for a personal item on a flight. A backpack, small duffel bag, or tote is ideal and will come in use again on any beach or excursions you take.
What to pack in your carry-on for a cruise
Wallet with photo ID, credit cards, etc.
Essential travel documents – passport, cruise documents, itinerary, vaccinations cards, and proof of travel insurance. (If you think you’ll be heading to the pool area with this bag, consider having these documents in a waterproof envelope)
Cell phone and charger.
All electronic devices you are traveling with: laptop, tablet, headphones, etc. (You won’t be using all of these on embarkation day, but it’s best to keep them secure.)
Prescription medications, OTC medications, and motion sickness meds.
Hand sanitizer, wipes, and face mask (just in case…)
Sunglasses and sun hat
Bathing suit and cover-up
Sunscreen (see these good options for reef safe sunscreen)
Camera and lenses (if you’re a photographer). You’ll want to get some pictures of the sail away!
Change of clothes for the first night’s dinner. The first night’s supper is usually quite casual, but you’ll probably want to change out of your traveling clothes. (After my brother’s luggage was lost for days on a European cruise, I’ve added a simple merino dress which can double as sleepwear.)
Sandals (flip flops are fine, but I choose sandals that works for pool side as well as dinner)
Children’s essentials – comfort objects, swim floaties, small toys and entertainments, etc. If your child is old enough, encourage them to carry their own bag. Let them choose what items they might want while waiting for their main bags to arrive.
Refillable water bottle – Most cruise ships offer water bottle stations where you can easily refill your own bottle. Saves money and waste. Every little thing we can do to be a responsible traveler helps!
Any items of value. If you plan on heading right to the pool, you might want to have a portable safe that’ll secure to your pool chair.
Note: don’t bring anything on a trip you’d be heartbroken to lose! Cruises are the perfect time to pack sparkly costume jewelry!
Basic toiletries – lip balm, lipstick, hair brush and elastics, hand sanitizer, lotion, etc.
Optional things to pack in your carry on
- Some cruise lines allow you to bring a bottle of wine on board the ship on the first day. Before purchasing, check if there’s an extra corkage fee. This additional cost may cancel out the savings you expect from buying bottles of wine at the cruise port.
Check with your cruise line to see if you can bring an unopened package of your favorite soda or sparkling water on board.
- Formal night clothing in garment bags. Some passengers like to carry-on the clothing they’ve brought for formal nights.
- Workout wear. If you’re arriving after a long flight, it might feel great to get some exercise.
- Waterproof camera or waterproof phone case (these are cruise essentials if you’re planning on water activities)
- Towel clips (though you can likely do without them the first day and can pack these in your main luggage)
- Cruise lanyard if you want to stash your cruise ID right away.
- Lightweight packable bag. If you’re able to get into your cruise cabin right away to stow your bags you can use this as a pool bag.
- Portable charger. (Always useful to have on any trip!)
Can’t I choose to board the ship with my roller bag? Yes, in most cases you can tell the porters that you’ll carry-on your larger suitcase. But be aware that your cruise cabin may not be available for several hours and you’ll need to bring your luggage to lunch, to the common areas, and to the pool deck. I tried this and, after wrestling with my spinner through the buffet line, I resolved never to do it again. It’s much easier to have a smaller tote bag with your essentials.