12 things you should always pack in your cruise carry-on bag

When you board a cruise ship, the items you bring with you in your carry-on might be the only possessions you can access for the entire first afternoon you’re on board. This is because when you arrive at the pier, you give your larger suitcases to the porters, who bring guest luggage on board en masse for the crew to deliver to your cabin door. Your bags might not arrive until later in the day — or even that evening — especially if you’re on a larger cruise ship carrying six or seven thousand passengers.

If you’re a smart cruiser, you carry on everything you need for check-in and the first day on board — plus emergencies. It’s better to come prepared, so you can make the most of those first hours on the ship, either relaxing by the pool or enjoying the ship’s public spaces. Plus, should the unthinkable happen and your luggage never arrives, you’ll be as prepared as possible.

For smooth sailing on embarkation day and the rest of your trip, always pack these 12 items in your cruise carry-on bag.

1. Travel documents, passport, and ID

It’s crucial to have all your boarding documents organized in a wallet-style case or in a clear or manila folder that’s easily accessible when you arrive at the cruise terminal. The check-in process should be mostly seamless, so you don’t want to be fidgeting around looking for everything when it’s your turn to step up to the counter.

You should also keep your passport or another form of ID, such as a birth certificate and driver’s license, as required by your cruise line, with your cruise documents, as you’ll need to show those at check-in.

Other documents you’ll want to carry on to avoid misplacing include your travel insurance information (especially the phone number for emergencies) and confirmations of any restaurant reservations and tour bookings you made through the ship or independently.

2. Medications, vitamins, or supplements

If you or your family members take any regular prescription medications, vitamins, or supplements, pack them in your carry-on bag. Even if you don’t need them for the first 24 hours of your cruise, you don’t want to risk losing them and going without them for the entire trip.

You should also consider putting together an emergency kit that includes pain relievers, antacids, bandages, and other over-the-counter drugstore items for unexpected embarkation-day ailments. If you’re prone to seasickness, you’ll also want access to Dramamine, motion sickness patches, or Sea-Bands in case your luggage is delayed until after you set sail.

The shops on the ship won’t open until after sailaway, and they might not have everything you need. In that case, it’s a good idea to pack a few extra meds for that unexpected headache or mild case of heartburn.

3. Cruise lanyard

If you prefer carrying your room key around the ship in a lanyard, toss one in your carry-on bag to put on and wear as soon as you receive your cruise card. You’ll be ready to purchase cocktails, gelato, specialty coffees, and other items around the ship without fumbling in your pockets for the card. You’ll also be less likely to lose your card while you’re juggling your carry-on luggage, cruise documents, phone, and other items in the terminal.

Lanyards are a great idea for cruising kids, who aren’t used to carrying around a wallet or ID. They’ll need their cruise card handy to check in and out of the kids club and to get into your cabin when they run ahead.

4. A bottle of wine and a 12-pack of soda

Most cruise line alcohol policies permit you to bring Champagne or wine on board the ship. If allowed, pack a special bottle or two in your carry-on bag. Once you’re in your cabin, you can request an ice bucket and ice from your cabin steward, so you can chill a bottle of bubbly just in time for sailaway. (Beware of corkage fees on some lines if you’d rather bring your special bottle to dinner.)

For example, Holland America allows you to bring an unspecified but limited number of wine or Champagne bottles on board for your cruise. There is a corkage fee applied to each bottle. Royal Caribbean has a two-bottle maximum for wine and Champagne — with no corkage fee if you imbibe in your cabin.

A few lines also let you bring on a reasonable amount of bottled water, soda, or other nonalcoholic beverages in sealed packages. Typically, they ask that you carry these items on board with you.

Holland America permits a limited amount of drinking water in cans or cartons, but no soda or energy drinks. Plastic bottles are not permitted on the ship. If you’re sailing with Royal Caribbean, you can bring a 12-pack of nonalcoholic beverages (in cans, cartons, or bottles) on board in your carry-on luggage. Carnival Cruise Line’s policy is nearly identical to Royal Caribbean’s — except only cans and cartons, not bottles, are allowed.

5. Poolside essentials

If your vacation goals are to relax, catch some rays, and sip tropical drinks poolside for the next week or more, then have those pool items ready to go once you’re on board. You might even bring a lightweight beach bag or tote filled with pool essentials such as your swimsuit, sunglasses, a cover-up, a collapsible straw hat, a travel-size bottle of sunscreen, flip-flops, and that good book you’ve wanted to read. Towels are provided on board, so no need to bring your own.

6. Workout gear and a set of headphones

If you’re ready to stretch your legs after a long flight and get in some exercise time at the gym, pack a pair of athletic shoes, socks, and workout gear in the bag you bring on the ship. Don’t forget to pack a set of headphones to listen to your favorite tunes on your smartphone while running on the treadmill or lifting weights.

7. Kid stuff

If you’re cruising with children, you’ll want to toss entertainment and snack options in your carry-on to keep them happy in the check-in line and on the ship until the rest of the luggage arrives.

These items could include portable video games, books, favorite snacks, coloring books, or a cuddly naptime toy. You don’t want a meltdown to kick off your cruise, so make sure you’re prepared to make the little ones happy once you’re on the ship.

Also, if you’re traveling with babies and toddlers, pack extra diapers, wipes, sippy cups, and other necessary gear in your carry-on, so you have everything you need for the afternoon and evening in case your luggage arrives late.

8. A change of clothing

If you’re still waiting for your bag to arrive just before sailaway or at the dinner hour, it won’t be a problem if you’ve planned ahead and packed a change of clothing in your carry-on. It can be something as simple as a pair of shorts and a fresh shirt or a sundress and sandals, but it’s still nice to change out of your travel clothes before heading up to the pool deck for a celebratory glass of Champagne or going out for dinner on the first evening of your cruise.

An extra set of clothes is also useful to have on hand in the rare event that your luggage gets lost or goes missing for longer than the first night. If you truly get stuck without your bags, you’ll have a spare outfit so you can wear one while washing the other.

9. Electronic devices and chargers

Whether you’re traveling with a laptop, tablet, e-reader, gaming device, or just your family’s collection of smartphones, it’s advisable to keep your electronic devices with you so they don’t get lost, stolen, or damaged.

Once you arrive, you might need to charge one or all of your devices, so keep the chargers and their cords in an organizer or pouch in your carry-on bag. A portable phone charger is also a great idea to bring on vacation, especially if you’ll be using your smartphone as your camera during your cruise.

10. A camera

If you do have camera equipment, keep it secure in either a camera bag or in your carry-on luggage. You don’t want to risk damage to your camera by packing it in your checked luggage. Plus, you’ll want to have it accessible for capturing those first moments on board and throughout your cruise.

11. Toiletries and personal care items

While cruise ships provide basic toiletries in the cabins, it’s always nice to have your own preferred brands and products with you. Pack travel-size versions of your favorite shampoo, conditioner, body wash, face wash, toothpaste, and any other personal care items you need. Don’t forget to also include a toothbrush, razor, and any other items you use daily.

12. Snacks and water

In case you get hungry or thirsty before your luggage arrives, pack some snacks and a bottle of water in your carry-on bag. This will keep you fueled and hydrated until you can grab a meal or drink on the ship. Granola bars, nuts, and dried fruit are all good options for snacks that won’t take up much space in your bag.

By packing these 12 items in your cruise carry-on bag, you’ll be prepared for whatever comes your way on embarkation day. Whether it’s a delay in receiving your luggage or simply wanting to make the most of your first hours on the ship, having these essentials with you will ensure a smooth and enjoyable start to your cruise vacation.

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