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The Essential Cruise Packing List

By Maggie Fuller

Feb 28, 2020

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Packing for a cruise vacation is unlike packing for any other type of trip. Sure, you only have to unpack once, but you need to be prepared for formal evenings, shore excursions, and changing weather. Here’s what you need to bring along.

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One of the best things about a cruise is the variety it affords—you’ll visit different ports of call and participate in some truly incredible shore excursions. (Submarine exploring in Antarctica or an after-hours visit to the Louvre, anyone?) And then there’s everything to do onboard, such as the standard fancy dinner nights and time poolside or, on splashier ships, full-service spas and tricked-out recreation areas. But all that can pose a problem when you’re packing to leave. Sure, you only have to unpack once, so you can bring a little more than you normally would on a week- or two-week-long trip, but how much is too much? What do you absolutely need to be prepared without being overprepared? To answer all that and more, here’s AFAR’s essential cruise packing list, complete with packing tips.

A full-sized suitcase (or two)

Most cruise companies will allow you to bring two full-size suitcases onboard, but you’ll want to check with your cruise line about any weight restrictions. Opt for a full-size bag—without going oversize, those cabins can be small—rather than trying to cram everything into carry-ons. But also remember that if you’re flying to your port of embarkation, you’ll need to check those full-size bags on the plane, and most airlines have a 50-pound weight restriction. We love Rimowa’s 34-liter Original Cabin bag for its durability and because its classic design reminds us of the golden age of cruising. Check out more of our favorite luggage picks here.

Buy Now: Rimowa Original Cabin Suitcase, $1,050, rimowa.com

A day pack or tote

For shore excursions, or even just for an afternoon by the pool, you’ll want some sort of day pack or tote bag to carry your sunscreen, books, wallet, and other sundries. You can use this as your carry-on bag. If you’re flying to your port of departure, stuff it with your inflight necessities—neck pillow, earplugs, compression socks—and all your essential travel documents (more on this below). Even if you’re not flying, you’ll want to pack a carry-on with essentials for the day. Sometimes it can take a while for your luggage to arrive in your cabin and you won’t want to have to wait to get in the cruise mood. 

Your passport, boarding passes, and other essentials

On a “closed-loop” cruise route—meaning you depart from and return to the same U.S. port, after visiting at least one foreign port of call—you are not required to bring your passport, but you will need a driver’s license or other form of photo identification. (If you’re flying to a domestic cruise terminal, don’t forget that you’ll need to have a Real ID to fly, starting this October.)

In addition to ID, you’ll also need:

  • Any visas required
  • Boarding passes (for your cruise and any flights you take)
  • Emergency documents, such as your health insurance card, travel insurance information, emergency contact
  • Cell phone
  • Wallet with cash and credit cards

Even if you’re on an all-inclusive, you’ll want to bring cash for tipping cruise staff. Also, depending on your destination(s), you may be visiting places where credit cards aren’t accepted, so bring cash for shore excursions.

Toiletries

Like hotels, most cruise ships will provide basic toiletries, including shampoo, conditioner, and soap. But if you choose to bring your own, you won’t have to worry about using travel-size containers if you don’t have them—remember, your bag will be checked if you fly, and cruise ships have no size restrictions for liquids. Want to save space? We love these toiletry bottles from Matador.

Buy Now: Matador FlatPak Toiletry Bottle, $13 for one or $35 for three, matadorup.com

You should also bring your own:

  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Deodorant
  • Skincare and other lotions
  • Eye drops and contact solution (if needed)
  • Shaving items
  • Feminine care products (if needed)
  • Tweezers

A basic first-aid kit

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While you can usually purchase any emergency first-aid supplies on board, chances are they’ll be more expensive than whatever you’d get at home. Pack a little bag with:

  • Pain killers
  • Any medications or sleep aids you take
  • Allergy medications
  • Remedies for an upset stomach
  • Antidiarrheals
  • Bandages
  • Antibiotic ointment
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Antibacterial wipes (AFAR destination news editor Lyndsey Matthews found on a Galápagos cruise that while she didn’t need to bring her own snorkel gear, she wanted antibacterial wipes to clean the shared equipment the ship provided.)

You can also purchase fully stocked first-aid kits, like this Adventure Medical Kit from REI. But if you buy a prepacked kit, make sure to add in your medications and sleep aids. 

Buy Now: Adventure Medical Kit, $29, rei.com

Sunscreen

Don’t forget sunscreen! After her Galápagos cruise, Matthews will tell you to bring more sunscreen than you think you’ll need: It’s important in tropical destinations where you’ll be snorkeling or relaxing on the beach, and on Antarctic or Alaskan cruises too—the glare from snow can make the risk of skin damage even greater on such excursions. Opt for reef-safe sunscreen like Thinksport or Australian Gold Botanical sunscreen—Hawaii and an increasing number of other destinations are banning sunscreen with toxic chemicals, including oxybenzone and avobenzone. 

Buy Now: Thinksport Sunscreen, $13, rei.com; Australian Gold Botanical SPF 70 Sunscreen, $17, ulta.com

Mosquito repellent 

Biting bugs won’t be a problem when you’re on board, but if you’re going to warm-weather destinations, you’ll want to keep them away during shore excursions. We like DEET-free picaridin-based repellents.

Buy Now: Natrapel 8-hour Insect Repellent, $7, rei.com

Anti-seasickness medications

Seasickness can cast a pall over even the most amusing cruise. Be prepared with over-the-counter Dramamine or prescription medications, like the Transderm Scop. Even if you don’t think you’ll have a problem, consider tossing a pack of ginger chews into your bag just in case—they do wonders for nausea. And read more about how to beat motion sickness here

Cruise-friendly clothing

Clothing is often the biggest question mark when you’re packing for a cruise. First, check the weather in the cruise ports you’re bound for: the Caribbean and Southeast Asia tend to be hot at any time of year, and the Mediterranean can also get pretty sticky in summer. Depending on the time of year, Alaska might require more warm clothing. New England and European rivers are a bit more variable, but expect a range of temperatures and weather patterns on any cruise you go on. 

If layering is the name of the game, then a capsule wardrobe is your best bet for success. On a five-day cruise or a two-week itinerary, you’ll likely need to change clothes a few times a day. Many—but not all—cruise ships have laundry facilities, but even if you rely on laundry service, you’ll want to employ a mix-and-match strategy. For example, on a recent Antarctic cruise, AFAR senior editor Aislyn Greene found that cashmere sweaters from Everlane were nice enough for formal dinners and cozy enough for lounging around her cabin.    

Every cruise is different, so take note of what sort of shore excursions you’ll be going on and how many formal or semi-formal dinner nights you’ll be expected to spruce up for, as well as any theme nights. 

For cruise clothing, be sure to pack:

  • Swimsuits—several, so that they can dry out between uses 
  • A rashguard or sun protection swimwear
  • Swimwear cover-ups—if you don’t want to dash back to your room after an afternoon at the pool, you’ll need something to throw over your suit if you want to visit any ship restaurants.
  • Shirts and T-shirts for everyday wear and for shore excursions. You’ll be wearing these most days, so bring enough to last the cruise, or plan on laundering them.
  • A few tops or shirts for casual evenings 
  • Pants or shorts for everyday wear
  • One to two pairs of nicer pants or skirts for casual evenings
  • Versatile dresses that can be dressed up or down depending on the occasion
  • One or two sweaters—even in tropical destinations, it can get chilly out on the water, so be sure to have a sweater or two to bundle up in.
  • Pajamas and loungewear
  • Underwear and socks
  • Activewear for shore excursions—this will vary depending on your shore excursions, but plan on two or three outfits of shirts and shorts or pants appropriate for walking, hiking, biking, etc.
  • A light rain jacket—weather can be changeable and it’s best to be prepared
  • A warm jacket if you’ll be cruising in colder climates

For formal evenings

It may sound like you’d need to pack the tux for formal or semi-formal evenings and captain’s dinners, but don’t let it stress you out. Yes, some people do bring tuxedos and full-length dresses, but on the whole, the dress code tends to be resort evening wear. Consider:

  • One or two formal dresses or skirts
  • A pair of slacks
  • One or two blouses or button-down shirts
  • A blazer or suit coat
  • Ties 

Shoes

  • Sandals or flip-flops (though note that these are usually not allowed in dining rooms)
  • Dress shoes/heels
  • Tennis shoes or walking/running shoes
  • Any specialty footwear you might need for shore excursions (hiking boots, water shoes, cycling shoes)

Accessories

  • A sun-protecting cap or hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Watch—make sure you don’t miss the boat after a shore excursion
  • Belts, scarves, and for polar trips, gloves 
  • A warm hat for cold-weather cruises

And don’t forget to bring clothing for your port of departure, especially if you’re staying an extra day or two. When Greene went to Antarctica, she made sure to bring shorts and T-shirts for her extra days in Buenos Aires

Hanging garment bag and packing cubes

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Since you’ll be settling into one room for anywhere from 5 to 14 days (or longer!), it’s nice to be organized. Pack your formalwear in a hanging garment bag, and use packing cubes, like Eagle Creek’s Pak-It Specter Compression series, for the rest of your things—this will help you stay organized when you’re unpacking too. 

Buy Now: Eagle Creek Pack-it Specter Compression Cubes, $40 for two, eaglecreek.com

Electronics

Sure, you might want to disconnect completely, but you might also appreciate having a laptop or e-reader with you. But know that you may have to pay for Wi-Fi, so consider downloading books and movies ahead of time. On a similar note, if you’re bringing a cell phone and planning to use it, check with your carrier about international options so you don’t get stuck with roaming charges; you will be out of the country on the water, after all.

And don’t forget the camera! Greene found that her iPhone camera was just what she needed on her Antarctic adventure, but Matthews felt that an underwater camera GoPro was a necessity for her snorkel-heavy Galápagos cruise. 

Buy Now: GoPro Hero8 Black, $400, gopro.com

Whatever you do bring, make sure you have the chargers you need. And you might also want to check what sort of outlets your cruise ship will have—many have multi-functional outlets, but you might want something like the Epicka Universal Travel Adapter, which has four USB ports, just in case.

Buy Now: Epicka Universal Travel Adapter, $22, amazon.com

A reusable water bottle and drink cup

With more and more destinations banning single-use plastics and Styrofoam, it’s an increasingly good idea to BYO water bottle on any trip. But we recommend bringing a water bottle—it’s especially important to stay hydrated in tropical places where you’ll sweat a lot—for regular use and shore excursions, as well as a wide-mouth drink cup for strolling on deck with a frosty beverage.

We have many favorite water bottles, including the collapsible Vapur or the high-tech, purifying Larq bottle, and we’re downright obsessed with the Yeti Rambler insulated travel mug for easy sipping.  

Buy Now: Vapur, $12, rei.com; Larq Bottle, $95, livelarq.com; Yeti Rambler, $30, yeti.com

A beach blanket

The ship will likely provide pool towels, but you might want something to spread out on if you have beach days planned.

Binoculars

Whale-watching, bird-watching, shore spotting—there are so many reasons you’ll want your own set of specs on your next cruise. We like the Bushnell Legend L-Series 10x42mm Binoculars as a good entry-level set.

Buy Now: Bushnell Legend L-Series 10x42mm Binoculars, $164, amazon.com

Small flashlight

Some ships will have flashlights in their cabins, but it never hurts to pack a small one of your own—just in case. 

Wrinkle-release spray

Fire-safety regulations usually prevent irons in rooms, so bring a good wrinkle-release spray to refresh your clothing or resign yourself to the old “hang it in the bathroom while taking a hot shower” trick. 

Umbrella

Not only is an umbrella nice to have during the occasional rain shower (and you never know when a squall will hit an island destination), but it also doubles as an excellent sunshade. Don’t leave this one at home.

Buy Now: Repel Windproof Travel Umbrella with Teflon Coating, $23, amazon.com 

Sticky notes

Many cruisers swear by these! They’re particularly useful for leaving notes for new friends on their stateroom doors.

Products we write about are independently vetted and recommended by our editors. We may earn a commission if you buy through our links.

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>>Next: Plan Your Trip With the AFAR Guide to Cruising

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