26 cruise packing hacks you need to know before you sail
Packing for a cruise is an art form, and everyone has their favorite cruise packing hacks. I’ve scoured the Internet, talked to fellow cruisers and even been known to sneak peeks inside cabins with open doors, always looking for newer or better ways to pack and manage all the stuff we need to take with us on a cruise.
The result is a list of cruise packing hacks that includes some tried-and-true advice (like taking magnets because cruise ship cabin walls are metal), as well as a few things you may not have heard before, like the best way to transport your allotted carry-on wine.
For cruise news, reviews and tips, sign up for TPG’s cruise newsletter.
Here’s hoping you find some useful and creative tips in this list of the top 26 cruise packing hacks.
Hacks for getting started on your cruise packing
Make a list before you put anything in a suitcase
I created a cruise packing list in the reminder app on my phone. I use the same list for every cruise but add to or subtract from it based on the destination. I start tweaking my list weeks before the cruise so I know exactly what I need when it’s time to pack.
Note which items you need to buy before your trip, whether it’s additional travel-sized toiletries, a new swimsuit or an outfit for pirate night, white night or an ‘80s-themed party.
Prep your luggage before you pack for your cruise
No matter what kind of luggage you take, checked and carry-on bags should have personal tags with your name, email address and phone number. It should also be easily distinguished from other bags from a distance. You can use brightly colored handle wraps, zip ties, ribbons, straps or stretchy covers over the whole bag.
Why should you personalize your suitcase? Just last week, I got off a small commuter jet in Phoenix that had required all passengers to gate-check our roll-aboard bags. As I ran to my connecting gate 10 minutes later, I heard an announcement alerting passengers from my earlier flight to check they had the correct carry-on bag. Someone had mistakenly grabbed the wrong bag on the jet bridge. Had it been me, I would have missed my connection.
Also, remove all old cruise and airline tags and stickers from your luggage to avoid confusion.
Related: How to cruise with just a carry-on
Consider a digital tracking device
A digital tracking device can save the day when the airline loses your bag, or you’re fretting that your suitcase didn’t make it onto the cruise ship. TPG staffers swear by Apple AirTags and similar tracking devices that allow you to see in real time where your bags are.
It happens. I’ve met people with missing luggage on every ship I’ve sailed this year.
A friend recently had a lost bag in Athens and might not have retrieved it in time for his cruise had he not had a tracker inside that clearly showed the airline personnel that his bag was in the airport. A woman on a recent Celebrity cruise told me Delta refused to help her because their tracking showed her bag was delivered to the carousel. Had she used a digital tracking device, she could have proven them wrong and possibly gotten her bag back.
Related: What it’s really like to use Apple’s new AirTags to track your luggage
Buy a cruise tag sleeve
Mainstream cruise lines supply bag tags with your name and cabin number that you print at home. This leads to a conundrum: Do you affix the flimsy paper tags at home before you fly (and risk them getting ripped off), or do you wait until you arrive and hope you can locate a stapler?
My cruise packing hack is to buy clear plastic sleeves made specifically for this purpose. Put the printed tags in the sleeves, keep them in your carry-on bag, then attach them to all your luggage before you head to the pier. Yes, you’ll want to affix the cruise line tags to your carry-ons in case you accidentally walk away from them during the boarding process or once on board.
Download a sleep app
You could pack a portable fan or bulky white noise machine to block out ship sounds at night … or you could save space in your luggage and download a white noise or other sleep sounds app instead. Test out a few to find your perfect soothing sounds.
While you’re at it, download your cruise line, airline and pre-cruise hotel’s app, as well as the Mobile Passport Control app to speed up the customs process.
Print your cruise boarding documents
As much as I recommend using the cruise line’s app, more than once, I have found myself standing in a cruise terminal with terrible phone and Wi-Fi service, making it impossible to show my boarding documents in the app. Always have a printed copy as your backup plan. You’ll get on board much quicker.
Choose the best credit cards for the trip (and take more than one)
Check your card offers before you leave home. Before my last cruise, I noticed I could register for 5 points per dollar on restaurant charges on my airline-branded credit card. It came in handy for airport food and pre-cruise dining. Extra points or miles for ride-hailing services, taxis and car rentals are also common. However, you won’t know if you don’t check before.
Don’t just take one card. Traveling makes you a target for thieves and scammers. You don’t want to be stranded in a foreign country with your only credit card deactivated because a scammer forced you to shut it down.
Related: Use these credit cards to maximize your next cruise vacation
Cruise clothing packing hacks
Pack separately for hotel nights
Packing everything you need for a hotel night in your carry-on does two things. You won’t need to dig through your large suitcase for clothes or toiletries for one or two nights. Also, you will have at least some necessities should the airline lose your main suitcase.
If you can’t fit clothes in your carry-on, at least pack your pre-cruise necessities in a separate packing cube placed at the top of your suitcase, so you can pull it out and not tear apart your carefully packed bag.
Pack like you have a pre-cruise stay — even if you don’t
Even if you’re flying straight from home to the cruise port, pack like you’re spending a night in a hotel. Pack a complete change of clothes and necessary toiletries in your carry-on bag.
Why? Delays and lost luggage. If something goes wrong with your flight, you’re prepared with everything you need to get by during an unexpected overnight layover or a day without your checked bags.
Related: Items you should always pack in your cruise carry-on bag
Do the same traveling home from your cruise. You’ll be prepared for travel delays and can take advantage of airline offers for gift cards or travel vouchers if you volunteer for a different flight due to overbooking. I once made $1,200 taking an overnight bump in Frankfurt while returning from a cruise. If I didn’t have an extra outfit in my carry-on bag, I might not have been tempted to take the deal.
Do the math: Cruise ship laundry costs vs airline baggage fees
Everyone has their preferences when it comes to doing laundry on vacation. Some people pack a different outfit for each day, while others pack light and plan to wash clothing on board. Personally, I pack a little less and either do a load of laundry in the self-serve laundry facilities (if available) or pay for a few pieces to be washed and folded.
Before you decide, do the math. It might be cheaper or more convenient to pay for someone else to do your washing mid-cruise if it means you can avoid checking a bag.
Related: Everything you need to know about cruise ship laundry services
Use packing cubes for faster unpacking
The best part about organizing your cruise luggage with packing cubes is that unpacking is super quick.
When your bags arrive, pull out each cube, unzip, fold the top underneath the filled bottom portion of the cube and place the entire thing in a drawer without unpacking it. Use as many as you need to organize each person’s things the way you would want them organized in the cruise cabin’s drawers. The unpacking process will take mere minutes, and then it’s back to the pool deck.
Shoes belong in shoe bags
Packing cubes often include a shoe bag or two. You’ll need several. Shoe bags prevent sand or dirt from getting on your clothes and other belongings. I don’t know about you, but my flip-flops and water shoes do not belong next to my snorkel or my water bottle.
Reduce the number of shoes you need by packing fancy sneakers
My mom has the right idea about footwear on cruise ships. She wears sparkly sneakers — even on dress-up nights. I recently ditched my heels for comfortable black sneakers I pair with skirts, slacks and dresses. If your cute sneaks can stand up to touring by day but look good with your evening wear, you’ve just saved a ton of space in your suitcase.
Men often have it even easier, getting by with a single pair of dress sneakers for an entire cruise.
Related: Cruisewear for men: What guys should pack for a cruise
Stuff your bras inside your straw hat
If you’re packing a straw hat, you’ll need to protect it inside your luggage. Bras are ideal for this. Or, purchase a cylindrical zippered bra laundry bag. Put it in the crown of your hat. If there’s extra space, wrap the bra bag with a pair of tights or yoga pants. You can also coil belts inside a hat.
Similarly, stuff sneakers or dress shoes with socks or rolled-up ties to protect the shoe’s shape and use all available space for packing.
Choose a color palette
If everything you pack coordinates with everything else, you can mix and match endlessly. I go with black pants, shorts and skirts because you can add almost any color top. I add a few black tops, including one with sequins, that I can jazz up with scarves, which weigh less and take up less room than most evening wear. Plan to re-wear bottoms at least twice during your trip.
Related: What to wear on a cruise: Cruise attire and cruise line dress codes
You can never entirely predict the weather where you are cruising. Even on a Caribbean cruise, you may encounter an afternoon rain storm or chilly dining rooms and theaters on board. Prioritize clothing you can layer, such as sweaters, lightweight vests and zip-up hoodies.
Consider travel pants with zip-off legs that convert them to shorts. Also, you can wear a lightweight UPF shirt over a tank top if the sun’s rays are harsher than expected. Packing with layers in mind can provide more space than packing individual outfits for every possible weather scenario.
Packing hacks for your cruise cabin
Use magnets to organize your vacation
Cruise ship walls are typically magnetic, so you can use magnets to make your cabin more usable. Keep your daily newsletters, invitations and excursion tickets in order with magnetic clips affixed above the desk.
Magnetic hooks corral caps, visors, belts, backpacks, jackets and charging cords. Magnetic whiteboards allow you to leave messages for cabinmates. You can also use magnets to decorate your cabin door.
Upgrade your shower
Cruise ship showers are notoriously cramped and often lack functional amenities. Pack items that will upgrade the experience.
Shower shelves and small baskets that attach to the shower walls or glass door via a suction cup will provide additional toiletry space, while suction-on hooks are handy for drip-drying swimsuits. Binder clips or magnetic shower weights can help clingy curtains stay in place. Also, bring a pack of aromatic shower steamers for a cheaper version of the aromatherapy showers found in the ship’s spa.
Pack nightlights — even if you’re not traveling with kids
Cruise ship cabins can be extra dark at night, especially if you’ve pulled the blackout curtains closed or have booked a windowless inside cabin. Nightlights can help you find your way to the bathroom in the middle of the night without waking your cabinmates.
As electrical outlets are in short supply in most cruise cabins, you’ll need a battery-powered light, preferably motion-activated, if you don’t want it on all night.
Laugh all you want, but I carry one that’s designed for lighting up the toilet at night because it has a flexible arm that I can hook somewhere or position where I want it. A magnetic, battery-powered, motion-activated nightlight might be the perfect cruise ship device.
Related: 26 cruise secrets from a cruising expert that will blow your mind
Take along a hanging shoe-storage bag, but not for shoes
If you’re packing enough shoes to warrant a 24-pocket shoe organizer, you’re probably over-packing, even for a world cruise. Instead, use the shoe organizer to pack and store your toiletries and other small items easily lost in your cabin clutter.
Cruise lines don’t want you scraping their doors with those metal over-the-door hangers, so affix the organizer with magnetic hooks instead.
Six 22-pound magnets across the top of the organizer keep it firmly in place with almost anything I want inside the pockets. If the shoe organizer is too big, cut it in half or into thirds and use flat magnets to attach the pieces without grommets. Again, make sure you buy extra-strong magnets so the full organizer does not slide down the wall or door.
Hang the toiletry bag outside the bathroom — it makes sharing the already-cramped bathroom easier.
Extend your power
Rare is the cruise cabin with enough electrical outlets in the spaces where you want them most. Solve that problem by packing a couple of outlet extenders. If they aren’t surge-protected, most cruise ships allow these splitters.
Another option is an adapter that plugs into a European outlet, adapting it to a 110-volt U.S. standard outlet. That allows you to use both the European and U.S. outlets in your cabin.
Take a laundry bag
Don’t let dirty laundry accumulate on the floor of your cabin’s closet or around your room. Pack a lightweight bag you can fill as you go, then pack it with its contents intact at the end of the trip. If you’re extra organized, sort laundry by travel companion or separate colors from whites. Top the bags off with dryer sheets when they are full to reduce odors. The goal is to make both end-of-cruise packing and laundry day back home easier.
Alternatively, open up one suitcase under the bed and throw all your dirty clothes in there as you go.
Miscellaneous cruise packing hacks
Take lots of zippered plastic bags in various sizes
Need a place to stash that extra cookie you brought back from the buffet? Swimsuit didn’t dry quickly enough to pack it on your last night? Worried about your camera getting wet in the rain? Want to organize your stuff rather than tossing it loose into your backpack? Plastic bags solve all of these. I always pack several sizes to have on hand when I cruise.
Pack duct tape
I learned this cruise packing hack from TPG’s Ashley Kosciolek, but I learned it the hard way. I initially ignored her advice and found myself roaming the streets of Bonaire in search of duct tape to repair a scuba fin broken by baggage handlers. In the end, I had to buy a new set of fins. I’ve also faced cracked luggage and even sunglasses that could have been salvaged if only I’d had some duct tape. Now I pack it for every sailing.
Related: 20 must-have cruise items — including a roll of duct tape
Think inside little boxes
Tiny containers like pill organizers and contact lens cases are handy for packing small things like earrings, necklaces, small dabs of cosmetics or medications. Before you buy special travel organizers for jewelry or cosmetics, consider repurposing items you have at home.
Don’t forget to take a first aid kit
Yes, the cruise ship’s medical facility will have basics. However, it’s easier and cheaper to take your own first-aid kit.
Here’s a starter list:
- Over-the-counter pain relief.
- Allergy medicine.
- Motion sickness tablets.
- Skin relief lotion like aloe.
- Medicated ointment for minor cuts.
- Anti-itch cream for bites.
- Bandages, along with eye and swimmer’s ear drops, might also save you from a visit to the onboard clinic or overpriced cruise ship sundries shop.
Packing for a cruise doesn’t have to be hard, but it does take some foresight — and a little ingenuity.
Your cruise cabin will not be as spacious as the average hotel room, but a little creativity can help overcome cruise cabin shortfalls.
When it comes to fitting everything into your suitcase, the best advice is to pack less than you think you need and find cruise packing hacks that let clothing items do double duty.
Ultimately, the best cruise packing hacks take some of the stress out of preparing for your cruise vacation, so getting ready for your trip can be enjoyable, too.
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
- The ultimate guide to what to pack for a cruise
- 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
- The ultimate guide to choosing a cruise ship cabin