Cruise packing list: The ultimate guide to what to pack for a cruise
Packing for a cruise can be complicated, especially for first-timers who aren’t 100% sure what to expect. The task is made even more stressful because you can’t run to the nearest shopping mall to pick up something you forgot when you’re sailing in the middle of the ocean.
What you need is a cruise packing list that accounts for cruise line dress codes for daywear and evening wear, the various activities you’ll be doing on board and in port, the gear you need for travel and to enhance your cruise cabin, and the necessities you need for daily life and unexpected emergencies.
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We’ve listed out the essentials you should always pack for any cruise vacation. Follow this guide to avoid cruise packing mistakes and be prepared for anything on your next sailing.
When packing for a cruise, start with the basics: what you plan to wear each day.
On every cruise line, daytime clothing is casual: shorts, T-shirts, jeans, sundresses, casual tops and slacks. On a big-ship cruise, nearly anything goes. On a more upscale or luxury cruise ship, casual daywear tends to be more fashion-forward and stylish, so you might feel out of place in your cheap tee from Target.
Of course, the destination and weather will dictate what clothing you bring. For a Caribbean cruise, you’ll want plenty of beachwear such as bathing suits and cover-ups; for an Alaska cruise, you’ll want rugged clothes for hiking and warm layers for the changeable weather. In the Middle East and Asia, you might need a shawl or clothing that covers the shoulders and knees when visiting religious sites.
Remember that any destination can be unseasonably warm, cold or wet, so pack a jacket for that Bahamas cruise or a short-sleeved top for an Arctic sailing – just in case.
If you want to stay fit on your cruise and plan to hit the onboard gym or go biking in port, pack activewear. I once forgot to pack socks on a short warm-weather cruise and was disappointed when I wasn’t allowed on the ship’s bungee trampoline.
Cruisers traveling in a group should consider planning coordinated outfits, especially if you plan to take group photos on board. Group T-shirts are common, as are color-coordinated outfits for everyone from the kids to the grandparents.
Most important of all: Double check that you’ve packed underwear. You’re welcome.
You can pack one outfit for every day, or you can plan to do laundry on your cruise ship. I like to look for ways to reuse pieces to save space. For example, I’ll dress up a top with a skirt or dress pants for dinner, then wear the same shirt with jeans in port the following day. Or, I’ll bring one solid color dress and wear it twice, but with different accessories.
Some cruise lines, such as Norwegian Cruise Line, have a relaxed attitude toward dinner dress, and you can come as you are. Other lines, especially the more upscale ones, have strict dress codes for dinner.
Evening wear on cruise ships tends to fall into two categories: resort casual and elegant. For casual nights, think date night style. Women can wear casual dresses, skirts and blouses, nice slacks and tops; men wear polo or button-down shirts with slacks. Some cruise lines do allow jeans in the evening; pair them with cute tops and nice shoes.
Elegant or formal nights bring out the cocktail dresses, suits, ties and jackets. If formalwear is not your thing, you can choose room service or go to the buffet or a casual restaurant for dinner to skip dressing up. Note that some luxury cruise lines will not allow underdressed passengers into certain restaurants on formal night.
Pro tip: Many cruise ships turn up the air conditioning at night. Pack a light sweater or dressy shawl to keep you comfortable in cool onboard restaurants and theaters.
Don’t forget to pack outfits for cruise ship theme nights. Popular themes include white night, pirate night and Halloween — and, yes, cruisers do go all-out with costumes. Check with your cruise line in advance to see what parties or theme nights will take place, then pack accordingly. Consider an eye patch or swashbuckling hat for Disney Cruise Line’s Pirate Night, a white sundress for Norwegian Cruise Line’s White Hot Night and some neon leggings for Carnival Cruise Line’s ’80s night.
Definitely don’t forget the ultimate evening wear – your pajamas – especially if you’re sharing a cabin with family or friends.
It’s easy to fill a carry-on with footwear alone when you’re packing for a cruise. The must-have basic is a comfortable pair of travel shoes for the flight, ship and walking in port.
You’ll want to pack sneakers for athletic activities, flip flops for the pool and beach, and dress shoes for dinner. (Ladies, try to match your outfits, so you only need to bring one pair of heels.) You might also want casual or athletic sandals, hiking boots or water shoes for rocky beaches.
My advice: Lay out all the pairs of shoes you think you need for the cruise, and then decide which shoes can do double duty and which you can leave at home. For example, on a Caribbean cruise, a sturdy pair of waterproof athletic sandals (like Keens) can multi-task as travel shoes, beach shoes and rugged activity footwear. A comfy pair of flats can pair with your casual daywear and your fancy evening attire.
Once you’ve packed all the clothing, it’s time to accessorize.
For daytime, men and women will want to bring hats (a sun hat or warm hat, depending on the destination) and sunglasses. On cold-weather cruises, you’ll want scarves, gloves and waterproof gear. (Antarctica cruises have unique packing lists, so check with your cruise line.)
Don’t forget belts, jewelry and ties for evening dress. Have a little fun with it – you’re on a cruise.
In today’s world, you will also need to pack plenty of face masks. Bring a mask lanyard so you can remove the mask when eating and not need to put it down on the table.
Some folks also like to bring a lanyard to keep their cruise room key card close at hand.
I’m a fan of bringing a day bag for carrying things around the ship (like toting my book, water bottle and cover-up to the Lido Deck pool) and a small purse for carrying my key card, lipstick and tissues at night.
If you like to walk about with your morning coffee or tea, you can’t get a to-go cup at the buffet unless you’re paying extra for a latte or espresso. Pack a travel coffee mug so you can fill up on the free stuff. I also recommend bringing a reusable water bottle and filling it up at the buffet or even a bar. It helps cut down on plastic waste and you don’t bust your budget buying bottled water.
Toiletries and medicine
Like hotels, cruise ships typically provide soap and shampoo in your cabin. Some also offer conditioner and body lotion. But it’s hard to know whether your hair will respond well to the onboard products or if you’ll hate the smell.
It’s always safer to pack your own toiletries. Bring more than you think you’ll need because it’s hard to find your favorite brands in foreign ports and cruise ships sell necessities at inflated prices. (Here are a few more things you should never buy on a cruise ship or in port.)
Beyond hair products, you’ll want to bring toothpaste, a toothbrush, and floss; glasses, contacts and contact lens solutions; a razor and shaving cream; makeup and moisturizer.
Although you’ll find hand sanitizer stations throughout your cruise ship, you’ll still want to pack your own hand-sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer gel.
Sunscreen is essential; look for reef-safe versions if you plan on swimming in the ocean. Bug spray is also useful, especially in Alaska where people joke that the mosquito is the state bird.
It’s always smart to pack a first aid kit for your cruise. Over-the-counter medications are pricey on board, so bring the brands you most commonly use. If you take prescription medicine, bring enough for the trip and a few extra just in case.
Obviously, if you are sensitive to the motion of the ocean, bring all the seasickness remedies from the patch to pills, ginger candies and acupressure wristbands.
Not all of us are lucky enough to live an hour or two from a cruise port. Many cruisers have to fly or road trip to their departure port and need to pack for this travel as well.
For long and overnight flights to your cruise, pack accessories for the plane such as a neck pillow, eye mask or noise-canceling headphones. If you’ve scheduled a pre-cruise hotel stay, consider packing the necessities for that overnight in a separate bag so you don’t need to unpack and repack your main suitcase.
You’ll want to pack your tablet, portable video game system and e-book reader for both your pre-cruise travel and the sailing itself. Don’t forget all the related charging cables. Or, skip the tech and bring a few books as many cruise ships no longer offer onboard libraries.
It should go without saying, but you are responsible for packing necessary travel documents, including your cruise/flight/tour tickets, passport book or passport card (or birth certificate), COVID-19 vaccine card and visa paperwork. Do not put these items in your checked bags. Pack them in your carry-on, so they’re always on hand and less likely to go missing.
First-time cruisers don’t realize all the cruise ship cabin hacks they can employ to enhance their onboard accommodations. Usually, all you need is to pack are few key items from home.
Many cruise cabin walls and doors are magnetic (did I just blow your mind?), so I like to pack magnets both as fun decor and for organizational purposes. Magnetic clips and hooks can help keep paperwork and hats off the in-room desk and couch, while a magnetic whiteboard can be useful for leaving notes for your travel companions.
Newer cruise ships are designed so every cabin has enough electrical outlets and USB ports conveniently located throughout the room; however, older cruise ships have a sad lack of outlets. Unless you want to constantly battle your travel companions for charging priority, pack a power strip, multi-prong outlet or power adapter/current converter so you can charge multiple devices at once (and use any 220V European outlets in the cabin). Just be sure that your power strip doesn’t include a surge protector — those are banned from most cruise ships, as are extension cords.
For evenings on board, pack a night light or battery-operated candles so you can find your way to the bathroom in the dark. A small, portable sound machine is helpful for blocking out hallway noise if your cabin is in a noisy area of the ship, such as close to the elevator banks.
You can sweeten your cabin bathroom by bringing a bathroom spray to mask unpleasant odors. Traveling with babies and toddlers who hate showers? A small inflatable kiddie pool or tub packs down small and can be used to give your little one a bath.
You don’t need to pack a clothesline to dry wet items because one is usually hidden in your cabin’s shower. However, I do recommend bringing a laundry bag or pop-up hamper to keep dirty clothes separate and off the cabin floor.
Port day gear
Depending on your destination and planned tours, you’ll want to pack items specific to the activities you aim to do in port.
No matter where you cruise, you’ll want a strong but lightweight backpack to stow everything you want to take off the ship with you. I love the kind with mesh pockets on the side to tuck away a water bottle.
In especially scenic destinations, such as Alaska or Scandinavia, you might want to bring binoculars and/or a DSLR camera (rather than relying on your phone for photos). Don’t forget accessories such as extra batteries, chargers and memory cards.
On beachy cruises, you’ll want a beach bag, sand toys for the kids and perhaps your own snorkeling gear. Wet bags (or even plastic zip-top bags) will keep your wet stuff from leaking onto everything on your way back to the ship.
For water sports like kayaking, consider a dry bag to stow your camera gear, smartphone and wallet and prevent them from getting wet. Waterproof cases for your cellphone and camera are also useful, as well as “beach wallets” that let you go into the water with your credit cards and cash on your person.
Miscellaneous items to pack for your cruise
Some must-pack items for cruises defy categorization but are important nonetheless.
Cruise lines have strict rules about what types of beverages and alcohol you can bring on a cruise ship. If you’re picky about the wine you drink, many lines will let you bring on a 750 ml bottle or two. Pack your favorite, but be prepared to pay a corkage fee if you drink it at an onboard bar or restaurant.
If you plan to purchase wine in port to bring home, you’ll also want to pack bubble wrap or wine protector bags to get your bottles home safely.
Some lines, such as Holland America and Carnival, also will let you bring on a limited number of cans of nonalcoholic drinks such as soda, juice or seltzer water. This can cut down on your bar bill or fuel your Diet Coke obsession should your ship carry Pepsi.
I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone to bring their cellphone on vacation (but remember to pack the charging cables). However, you might not know to download your cruise line’s app before you leave home. The app will show you things like the daily schedule, deck plans, dining reservations, shore excursion options and more. Many apps, like the one from Celebrity Cruises, will even allow you to chat with other passengers while you’re connected to the cruise ship’s internet.
You’ll want cash, especially small bills, for tipping porters and purchasing small souvenirs in port. Depending on your itinerary, you might want to acquire some foreign currency in advance (otherwise, you can use in ATM once you arrive in port). Bring a credit card that does not charge foreign transaction fees, so you don’t spend more than you need to abroad. (If you don’t have one, consider applying for one of the best credit cards for travel.)
Many cruisers tend to overpack when it comes to clothes and shoes but sometimes forget about other necessities. When you take your suitcase out of the closet and begin packing for your next itinerary, refer to this list and be sure you’re covered when it comes to both clothing and those all-important accessories.
Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:
- The 5 most desirable cabin locations on any cruise ship
- 16 things you shouldn’t leave a cruise ship without doing at least once
- The 8 worst cabin locations on any cruise ship
- A quick guide to the most popular cruise lines
- 16 mistakes cruisers make on cruise ship sea days
- The best credit cards for booking a cruise
- 15 ways cruisers waste money
- 12 best cruises for people who never want to grow up
Featured photo by martin-dem/Getty Images.