One of the best things about cruising is the variety it affords—you’ll visit different ports of call and participate in diverse shore excursions, too. Scuba diving in the Galápagos or an after-hours visit of Spain’s Alhambra palace, anyone? And then there’s everything to do onboard, such as the fancy dinners, live entertainment, and time poolside or, on splashier ships, full-service spas and tricked-out recreation areas.
But all of that can pose a problem when you’re packing. Sure, you only have to unpack once, so you can bring a little more than you normally would on a one- or two-week trip, but how much is too much? What do you absolutely need to be prepared without being overprepared? To answer, here’s AFAR’s essential cruise packing list, complete with packing tips.
A full-sized suitcase
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Most cruise companies don’t restrict the amount of luggage you bring, except for some expedition lines that might limit passengers based on the weight restrictions for chartered flights to get to more remote locales. Your best bet is to opt for a medium or large-size checked bag—without going oversize or overdoing it since cruise cabins can be on the small size—rather than trying to cram everything into carry-ons. Ideally the bag will fit under the bed in your cabin so it is out of the way once you’ve unpacked and settled in. Also remember that if you’re flying to your port of embarkation, you’ll need to check those full-size bags, and most airlines have a 50-pound weight restriction. We love Rimowa’s 60-liter Original Check-In Medium 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.
A day pack or tote
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For shore excursions, or even just for an afternoon by the pool, you’ll want a day pack or tote bag to carry your sunscreen, books, and other sundries, as well as your wallet if you’re heading ashore. You can use this as your carry-on bag or pack a smaller collapsible bag. If you’re flying to your port of departure, make sure your carry-on has all 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 be stuck waiting before you can go out exploring.
Your passport, travel confirmation info, vaccination card, 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 May 2023.)
In addition to ID, you’ll also need:
- Any visas required
- Confirmation information for your cruise and any flights you take—these are often electronic documents, so make sure they are accessible on your mobile device or any relevant apps
- COVID-19 vaccination card and/or test results if they are required by the cruise (also find out whether face masks are required or recommended in public areas)
- Emergency documents, such as your health insurance card, travel insurance information, emergency contact
- Wallet with cash and credit cards (even if you’re on an all-inclusive, you may want to have cash for onshore purchases and tipping—however, the main gratuity for the majority of the cruise can often be left at the end and many cruise lines offer the option to bill it to your credit card)
Like hotels, most cruise ships will provide basic toiletries, including shampoo, conditioner, soap, and/or body wash. But if you choose to bring your own, you won’t have to worry about using travel-size containers if you checked your bag—cruise ships have no size restrictions for liquids. Want to save space? We love these toiletry bottles from Matador.
You should also bring your own:
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Skincare and other lotions
- Eye drops and contact solution (if needed)
- Shaving items
- Feminine care products (if needed)
A basic first-aid kit
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, including seasickness meds
- Antibiotic ointment
- Hand sanitizer
- Antibacterial wipes (AFAR senior commerce 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.
Sunscreen (and lots of it)
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 the ice can make the risk of skin damage even greater on such excursions. Opt for reef-safe sunscreen like Thinksport or Australian Gold Botanical sunscreen—Hawai‘i and an increasing number of other destinations are banning sunscreen with toxic chemicals, including oxybenzone and avobenzone.
Biting bugs for the most part 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 like Natrapel.
Seasickness can cast a pall over even the most amusing cruise. Be prepared with over-the-counter like Dramamine or Bonine, 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.
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 year-round, and the Mediterranean can also get very sticky in summer. Depending on the time of year, an Alaska cruise might require more warm clothing. New England and European rivers are 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 an Antarctic cruise, AFAR deputy 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, plus any theme nights. You can also opt not to dress up at all, but in that case you may be limited to dining at the more casual buffet or eateries.
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 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 bring a sweater or two.
- 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, or biking.
- A light rain jacket—weather can be changeable; 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
- Sandals or flip-flops (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)
- A sun-protecting cap or hat
- Watch—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 Pack-It system, for the rest of your things—this will help you stay organized when you’re unpacking too.
Sure, you might want to disconnect completely, but you might also appreciate having a laptop or e-reader with you. But know that you will likely have to pay big bucks for reliable Wi-Fi, so consider downloading books and movies ahead of time. (For instance, you have to pay for expensive upgrade packages if you want to download movies onboard.) On a similar note, if you’re bringing a cellphone and are 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 the charges on ships can be huge.
Don’t forget a 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.
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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.
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A reusable water bottle and drink cup
With more and more destinations banning single-use plastics, it’s an increasingly good idea to BYO water bottle on any trip. 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.
A beach blanket
The ship will likely provide pool towels, but you might want a packable beach blanket to spread out on if you have beach days planned.
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Whale-watching, bird-watching, shore spotting—there are 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.
Some ships will have flashlights or nightlights in their cabins, but it never hurts to pack a small one of your own—just in case.
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.
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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.
Many cruisers swear by these. They’re particularly useful for leaving notes for new friends on their stateroom doors.
This story was originally published in 2020, and was updated on June 25, 2022, to include current information.
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