Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information and offers.
Most cruisers know the basics of packing — roll your clothes, bring sturdy shoes, keep carry-on liquids to 3.4 ounces or less — but it’s still a highly personal endeavor that varies from one person to the next.
Some bring less than they need, opting to do laundry on the ship or wear clothes more than once. Others undertake the task as if they’re permanently relocating. I usually fall somewhere in between.
So, what should you pack for a cruise? Whatever your packing style, there are certain items I strongly urge you to bring on each and every voyage. These are my 20 must-have cruise items.
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With so many horror stories about lost luggage lately, Apple AirTags are a must-have for any traveler — especially cruisers who are flying to their ports of embarkation. Simply pop one into each of your pieces of luggage, and you can track their whereabouts using your iPhone and a Bluetooth connection. With a pack of these handy gadgets, you’ll be better equipped to find your missing bags than the airlines themselves.
I know, I know. The fact that I still use wired headphones practically puts me in the Stone Age. But I swear by Sony’s MDR-E9LP earbuds for several reasons. For one, I have small ears, and these actually fit without causing discomfort. Additionally, although some newer aircraft allow for Bluetooth headphone use, most don’t; I hate using throwaway pairs from the airlines. Plus, I never have to worry about remembering to charge them before I travel.
At less than $10 per pair, Sony’s earbuds are a steal, they have fantastic sound quality, and I’ve had my current pair for nearly a decade (read: they’re durable). I also don’t have to worry about accidentally dropping or misplacing a single bud. The only drawbacks are, of course, wires, the fact that they aren’t noise-canceling and the need for an adapter if you’re using a newer smartphone.
Most travelers bring a pen or two, but it’s not always top-of-mind to pack highlighters. I find they come in handy as you’re poring over each day’s paper copy of the schedule (if your cruise line still offers paper schedules, that is). You can call out the activities of interest to you to make sure you don’t miss a single event. This Bic highlighter set comes in several colors and even offers comfort grips. Just be sure to pack them in plastic in case they leak; you don’t want neon pigment all over your cruise wardrobe.
The walls in cruise ship cabins are made of metal, so most of them are magnet-friendly. If you’re someone who routinely sticks important documents to your refrigerator at home, bring a set of small magnets with you to organize everything from daily schedules to shore excursion tickets and dinner invitations. For additional functionality, snag a set of magnets with hooks that will allow you extra space to hang robes, sweaty gym clothes or wet bathing suits.
Cruise packing cubes
I received my first set of packing cubes as a Christmas gift from my aunt just a few years ago, long after I became a cruise expert. I grudgingly tried them, convinced they wouldn’t help. Long story short: I’m now a seasoned carry-on-only traveler, and it is 100% thanks to those cubes. Just when you think you can’t fit one more thing, there’s just a tiny bit more space. Any brand will do, but I’ve chosen this set for its variety of sizes and colors, water-resistant fabric, reasonable price and bonus bags for laundry and shoes.
Cruise document holder
These days, cruising requires a bit more documentation than it did before. Not only will you need your passport (or birth certificate and ID), you’ll also have to carry things like your vaccination card (use these protectors to keep it pristine) and perhaps even test results or other COVID-19-related paperwork.
Nothing keeps me organized like this cruise document holder, which easily fits everything you’ll need so you can keep it all in one place. There’s even room for credit cards and cash if you’re looking to streamline further. The wrist strap means you can keep it handy at the terminal without having to rummage through your bags or worry about papers flying everywhere.
I never cruise without a pack of thank-you notes or blank greeting cards. Unless something goes horribly awry (which, thankfully, it never has), I leave a cash tip for my room steward at the end of each voyage, in addition to the automatic gratuities that are charged to my account. It gives me somewhere to put the money instead of just leaving it on the vanity when I depart. Even if you’re not a fan of additional tipping, you can still leave a nice note of thanks.
This tip might not be for everyone, as cruisers often like to disconnect on their vacations, but I rarely travel without my laptop. As such, I also bring an HDMI cable. In the event that I want to have a lazy day lounging in my cabin, I’m able to plug my laptop into my cabin’s television and watch shows or movies via my computer. This also works with smartphones, iPads and other tablets if you have an HDMI adapter. (If you’re not planning to purchase an internet package, you can download something to watch before you leave home.)
As a bibliophile, I love reading when I have some downtime on board, but traveling with more than a single book takes up way too much valuable real estate in my luggage. With a Kindle or other e-reader, you can compress all of those pages into a single thin device that’s super portable.
This Kindle Paperwhite offers a 6.8-inch screen and 8GB of storage so you can download enough tomes to keep you busy for a while. It also features an adjustable backlight for easy reading in various lighting conditions. At less than $140, it’s a solid middle-of-the-road option that won’t break the bank.
Cruise shoe organizer
If you’re someone who has trouble staying organized when you travel or you plan to share a cabin with more than one other person, consider packing a set of over-the-door shoe pouches. They’re terrific for storing everything from actual shoes to jewelry, toiletries and hairstyling tools all in one spot; it also allows you to clearly see what you have. It ensures nothing ends up misplaced, and it helps to keep the room tidier.
I know you’re thinking this sounds a little suspicious, but bear with me. Two years ago, I was traveling home for Thanksgiving and decided to gate-check my hard-sided carry-on suitcase. When I picked it up at the end of the flight, it was cracked in two places and had a giant hole at the top. Thankfully, I had a roll of duct tape inside, so I patched it up for the duration of my trip. I also routinely use duct tape to attach paper luggage tags to my suitcases after I fly and before I board my cruise. Other handy uses include removing lint and mending torn clothing hems. I love this roll of Duck Tape, which comes in fun prints like mermaid scales.
In my experience, there are few things more frustrating than wet luggage, and I’ve ripped more than my fair share of quart-sized bags in an attempt to squeeze just one more lip gloss inside. That’s why I always bring a couple of extra plastic bags as replacements. Whether they’re zip-top style, grocery-bag style (a great way to reuse) or a reusable, waterproof option like this one, they’re perfect for storing laundry or packing wet shoes, bottles of wine and other potentially wet items you don’t want near your clothes on the trip home.
In that same vein, cruise toiletries are the bane of my travel existence. I can pack two weeks’ worth of clothing and shoes into a carry-on, but ask me to survive for 14 days on a 3.4-ounce bottle of sunscreen or contact solution, and it’s so not happening. Don’t even get me started on the leaks. This adorable 16-piece toiletry kit can at least help with the latter, offering a combination of pots, spray bottles and squeezable silicone tubes for your essentials, all wrapped up in a reusable plastic zip bag that will help to keep any spills contained.
Reusable water bottle
With many cruise lines cutting back on single-use plastics, including water bottles, it’s a good idea to bring your own reusable water bottle when you sail, especially if your destination is someplace warm. This durable silicone Nomader bottle holds nearly 22 ounces of liquid and rolls up when not in use for easy packing in your suitcase or backpack. Bonus: It comes in a bunch of fun colors, and it’s also great for hiking and camping.
European plug adapters
The situation improves with each new ship, but cruise cabins are notoriously short on outlets. If you’re like me and travel with your phone, laptop, tablet, e-reader, wearables and a host of other electronics, charging everything can be a challenge. Some cruisers recommend packing a power strip, but that can be dicey, as surge-protected strips are often confiscated. Instead, I suggest bringing a couple of plug adapters for European-style outlets. You’ll usually find at least one or two in your room, depending on the line and ship, and having those adapters will allow you to actually use them.
In addition to patches or pills like Bonine or Dramamine, ginger candies are good to have on hand as remedies if you become seasick because they help to calm your stomach. They also double as lozenges if you find your mouth getting dry on your pre-cruise flight. I’ll be honest: I don’t like the flavor of ginger, but it really does work. My favorites are these Gin Gins, which come in both hard and chewable varieties.
If you’re a solo traveler, you can skip this one, but if you’re traveling with a friend or family member, take heed. When you’re already sharing close quarters and a bathroom, the last thing you also want to share is the smell from the latter. I swear by Poo-Pourri, which comes in travel-size bottles. If you’re trying to limit your liquids, simply use a spray or two of the perfume or cologne you’re bringing anyway, or pack a solid air freshener. If you go the Poo-Pourri route, my favorite is Oh, Spritzmas Tree, a holiday scent that doesn’t reek of the brand’s usual, weird eucalyptus-and-citrus combo.
When I wake up at night and have to use the bathroom, I often find myself disoriented. More than once I’ve accidentally stubbed a toe on the coffee table or slammed into a wall before my eyes adjusted to the dark, so I started bringing a night light. For anyone who’s unbothered by a soft glow, it’s a must-pack. Plus, some even come with built-in air fresheners, giving you a twofer. This one by Casper detects both movement and light, so it gradually brightens when someone gets out of bed in the middle of the night and shuts off during the day or when someone turns the lights back on.
Reliable cruise luggage
It took me years to realize that luggage is — or should be — an investment. After several broken bags, I now choose function over the cheapest deal or a fun pattern. I highly recommend Away’s hard-sided luggage. It’s sleek and reliable but with prices that won’t force you to choose between buying a suitcase or paying your rent. (However, there is also a line of aluminum cases for those looking to splurge.) The wheels roll like butter, and the cases come with extra touches — a dust bag (yes, really), a scuff-removal sponge and a built-in laundry bag — that make all the difference. Plus there’s a lifetime limited warranty that covers broken wheels, handles and zippers or cracks in the outer shell.
You might be asking yourself why you’d need cash on board when cruising is decidedly cashless. Sure, you can pay for everything from drinks and shore excursions to onboard shopping with your cruise charge account, but you might wish to tip helpful folks along the way. Sometimes you may want to pass some extra cash along to the porters who care for your bags at embarkation, the crew members who deliver your room service order, or the tour guide or bus driver who makes your time in port special. Dollars are fine for onboard tipping, but local currency is best in port. (I find that ATMs have better exchange rates than airport kiosks.)
Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:
- The 5 most desirable cabin locations on any cruise ship
- A beginners guide to picking a cruise line
- The 8 worst cabin locations on any cruise ship
- A quick guide to the most popular cruise lines
- 21 tips and tricks that will make your cruise go smoothly
- 15 ways cruisers waste money
- 12 best cruises for people who never want to grow up
- The ultimate guide to what to pack for a cruise