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How to Pack for a Cruise with Only a Carry On

in Cruise Planning
Pack for a cruise with only a carry on

There are many reasons to pack light on a cruise vacation but can you really pack for a cruise with only a carry on?

The answer is you can! It can save you on checked baggage fees at the airport and reduce clutter in your cabin.  Minimalist packing takes careful planning and an easy-going attitude, but can reduce vacation stress if done right.  Here’s how to pack for a cruise with only a carry on.

  1. Choose Your Luggage Wisely.
  • Watch the Width. Wheeled duffel bags are lighter and roomier, but often exceed the dimensions airlines will allow (22” x 14” x 9”). Aim for a luggage option that offer the most cubic inches of packing space.
  • Avoid Hard-Sided Bags. They are typically heavier than their soft-sided counterparts. Their clam-shell design also makes them more challenging to fill when packing for a cruise.
  1. Limit the Liquids.
  • Pack Fewer Travel-Size Toiletries. TSA only allows one quart-sized bag of liquids, aerosols, gels, creams and pastes through airport security. Each item must be 3.4 oz (100 ml) or less.[1]
  • Use an All-In-One. All those separate bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body wash take up space. Consider using the free soap/shampoo provided in your cruise ship cabin shower. If not, try an all-in-one hair and body wash.
  • Pack it in Pocket Form. You can buy a variety of different health and beauty products as pocket-sized wipes.  From shaving cream to insect repellent, these convenient sheets are carry on luggage-friendly and easy to use.
  • Cut Back on Cosmetics. Tropical humidity can cause make-up to seep into your pores.  Embrace your natural beauty and spend your cruise days focused on fun.  If you want to get fancy for formal nights, select a few smaller and neutral-toned essentials for your trip.
  1. Dial Back on the Devices.
  • Many travelers feel more relaxed on vacation when they leave behind their laptops and other electronic devices.  Instead of keeping updated on e-mails and social media, take the time to unwind.
  • eliminate the e-reader. Like reading by the pool or on the beach?  Most ships have an onboard library where you can borrow books during your trip.  Go ahead and leave your own books or e-reader at home.
  1. Embrace the Zip-Top Storage Bags.
  • Compress Your Clothes. Use gallon-size food storage bags to pack your clothes.  Squeezing the air out of these bags will reduce the size of each item, which means you can pack more outfits and extras.
  • Extra Storage. These convenient, waterproof bags are reusable.  Heading to the beach? You can throw your phone and wallet into a zip-top bag to help keep out the sand and sea.
  • Replace Bulkier Bags. Zip-top bags are more flexible and lighter than most electronics, toiletry and cosmetic bags, but can still keep your stuff together.
  1. Plan for the Plane.
  • Dress in Bulk. Whether it’s your hiking shoes or jacket, you’re bound to have some larger items you want to bring.  If possible, wear these to the airport instead of packing them in your carry on luggage.
  • Bring Your Backpack. A backpack is usually larger and more versatile than a purse or laptop case.  It can also be used as both your shore excursion and boarding bag. 
  1. Clothing Considerations.
  • Focus on Fabrics. When considering clothing options, go for lightweight fabrics.  Cotton, Linen and Jersey are easier to pack and less likely to need extra care than thicker fabrics.
  • Consider Different Combinations. When packing for a cruise with fewer articles of clothing, it’s important to select pieces that you can mix up.  Neutrals go a long way when switching up your selections.
  • evaluate Your Activities. When you pack light it should be tailored to fit your activities.  If your shore excursions include a mountain trek, consider lightweight hiking shoes.  Visiting a tropical rain forest? Pack lightweight ponchos. Want to go formal? Consider renting a tuxedo from the cruise line.
  • Do Laundry On board. Many cruise lines, such as Carnival, Disney and Princess, offer self-serve laundry facilities on board for their guests.  You can also wash your swimsuit in your stateroom sink.
  1. What to Pack For a Cruise

(Get our free printable cruise packing list here)

  • Clothing
    • Underwear/Bra
    • Socks
    • T-Shirts
    • Shorts
    • Nice Pants/Capris (no jeans)
    • Hat/Sunglasses
    • Pajamas/Sleep wear
    • Light Jacket or Sweater
    • Poncho/Rain jacket
    • Flip-flops/Sandals
    • Walking Shoes
    • Sunglasses
    • Glasses/Contacts/Solution
    • Swimsuit & Cover-up
    • Casual Dresses or Button-Down Shirts
    • Dressy Shoes
    • Dressy Outfit (for formal night)
  • Toiletries
    • Toothbrush/Toothpaste
    • Floss
    • Shampoo/Conditioner
    • Soap or Body Wash
    • Razor/Shaving Cream
    • Nail Trimmers
    • Feminine Hygiene Products
    • Sunblock
    • Face/Body Lotion
    • Deodorant
    • Insect Repellant
    • SPF Lip Balm
    • Hairbrush/Comb
    • Hand Sanitizer
  • Other
    • Cell Phone/Charger
    • Small Bills (for tips)
    • Travel Documents
    • Backpack/Daypack
    • Personal Medications
    • Pain Reliever
    • Cold Medication
    • Anti-Nausea Medication
    • Water Bottle
    • Small First Aid Kit
  1. Organize Your Carry On
  • Make Separate Stacks. Organize your potential items by priority (high, moderate and low).  This will help you determine how many low-priority items (if any) you will be able to take with you.  You can always rearrange your carry on bag for a better fit later.
  • Take Your Time. Never wait until the night before to pack your carry on for a cruise.  You’re more likely to get stressed out and forget something if you rush.  It’s also a good idea leave your carry on upright overnight.  Sometimes, you will find extra space at the top of your luggage just by letting gravity work its magic.
  • Stuff Your Shoes. Save space by putting smaller items inside your shoes.  Rolled up socks fit perfectly inside many shoes and also help them keep their shape during travel.
  • Save Exterior Pockets. Your exterior pockets are best saved for items you will need to access while at the airport.  Keep your liquids bag, and poncho/umbrella in an outside compartment.  Do not store anything fragile in these pockets.
[1] “TSA Liquids Rule.” Department of Homeland Security. http://www.tsa.gov/311/

Cruise packing list: What to pack for a cruise

in Cruise Tips
Cruise packing list

Cruise Packing Tips

We’ve packed for every kind of cruise imaginable, from 3 days to 7 days and from the Bahamas to Alaska. We’ve got some handy tips to make sure all your necessary cruise attire and items are accounted for, all in a printable cruise packing list to make the job even easier. With our help, the only choice stressing you out around your cruise is which lido deck bar you want to try first!

With all the activities and experiences offered on cruises from on deck to port, deciding what to pack for a cruise can be an overwhelming task! If that wasn’t enough, the limited space in state rooms and hefty excess baggage fees encourage many cruisers to pack light. Finding the perfect balance of both can really make cruise packing a puzzle!

It’s In the Details, Darling

The perfect place to begin is…well, the beginning. The following details will influence the things your bring on a cruise. Consider:

  • How many days is your cruise?
  • Where are you traveling to, and what is the weather forecast?
  • What activities have you selected to do when in port?
  • Who are your traveling companions?

All of these details combined shape what to pack for a cruise. such as, the sun, surf and sand of Hawaii calls for different cruise attire than a voyage to Iceland!

Your Cruise Carry-On is Crucial

Don’t forget to include your carry-on and what you pack in it as part of your cruise packing list.  It can make or break the beginning of your trip, and should never be an afterthought in the cruise packing mission! Even more important than an airline carry-on, your friendly little tote or backpack will hold the keys to your activities for a whopping six hours or more until your checked bags are delivered to your stateroom.

Make sure you’ve got all your important documents like your passport, boarding pass, cruise documents, medical cards, auto insurance (if you plan to rent a car at port) and any forms of identification required. Keep these all together in a waterproof bag!

It’s a good idea to store basic toiletries just in case your bags show up to your stateroom after you plan to freshen up for dinner. Travel-size shampoo, conditioner and body wash including any makeup you need for a light touch up are some good things to pack for a cruise carry-on.

Lastly, you’ll want to pack some wardrobe items in your bag for when the boat gets underway. There will be some downtime when you don’t have access to your stateroom quite yet, and an even longer stretch without your checked bags. Packing a swimsuit and a full change of casual clothes in your carry-on insures you can get more comfortable as the cruise gets underway.

All Aboard With Awesome Attire

Back in the day, a lot of cruises had a very formal night, but many of the main lines have relaxed their standards quite a bit. Some dining rooms still require a semi-formal or formal attire on multiple or all evenings, but the truth is you could go your entire cruise without having to dress up in slacks or a cocktail gown even once!  Instead, most of your time on the boat will be spent in casual-wear. For major time savers, we recommend pulling basics together for your outfit, such as t-shirts, shorts and jeans and then dressing them up with statement necklaces or accessories. Everyone may think you’re being effortlessly chic, but really this is a major space saver in that suitcase!

Even if you’re on a cruise to the most tropical and sunny location the world has to offer, it’s smart to account for the lower temperatures and wind out on the water. Pack at least one pair of long pants  and a windbreaker or shell jacket to keep warm up on cooler nights!

Lastly, check out the cruise itinerary beforehand to find out if there are any events you’ll want to bring specialty clothing for. Many cruise lines offer a themed party, such as 80’s nights or country line dancing that you may want to pack a costume for .Or, if you’re opting into one of the formal dinners, make sure to bring your formal or semi-formal wear and proper accessories.

Perfecting Your Port Outfit

Depending on the port calls in your cruise, the weather and the activities you’ll be doing, you’ll have to consider what to pack for a cruise port to. One important thing to note is that you want to seem respectful to the locals, and so this is not the time to break out your offensive graphic tees or suggestive clothing.

Make sure you pack weather-appropriate and comfortable cruise attire for your visit to port. It should be clothing you don’t mind walking in and exploring, and camera-ready as you’ll be snapping lots of pics to remember your vacation by!

Finding Facts on Footwear

If anything will eat up space in your bag, it’s multiple pairs of shoes. This is often the packing zone that requires the most strategy, as we strongly advise you only bring a couple pairs of shoes that can be adapted to different pieces of your cruise attire easily.

Instead of an array of heels and fancy footwear, the more casual and relaxed atmosphere of cruise dinners mean that a nice pair of sandals can take you from day activities to night with ease. While we wouldn’t recommend Birkenstocks, a more presentable pair of sandals or wedges can travel from the deck to the dining room without anyone batting an eye. A couple of pairs of sandals to last you throughout your cruise is the way to go!

Port, the fitness center and a few activities on board will require closed-toed sneakers for comfort and ease. We recommend including at least one pair of your favorite sneakers on your cruise packing list. If you want to save even more room in your suitcase, make them part of the outfit you wear onboard!

Toting Around Your Toiletries

Stateroom bathrooms are notoriously small. With zero sink space, shelf-space or really just any space in general, cruisers have to get crafty to make their getting-ready experience as graceful as possible. Particularly if you’re on a longer cruise, we recommend grabbing a cheap cloth shoe organizer to hang on the inside of the bathroom door. You can tuck all your toiletries, makeup and even some accessories in one of these to keep it handy without having to juggle.

We also recommend you bring ziploc baggies on your cruise, and tuck liquids and creams into one of these when deciding what to pack. This prevents unfortunate spills over your precious cruise attire before you’ve even gotten underway! Plus, the transfer back into your bag will be a breeze when it’s time to disembark.

Other Things to Bring on a Cruise Guaranteed to Make Your Life Easier

With all our cruising experience, we’ve uncovered some handy hacks to make your cruise experience relaxing from start to finish. Consider bringing the following items to save you space, money and time!

If you’re major caffeine addicts like us, bring your favorite hot/cold insulated tumbler. For reasons unknown, most cruise lines have the tiniest coffee cups we’ve ever seen which means you’re making multiple trips to the coffee station instead of having fun! Bring your favorite cup with you on-board and that station will be a one-stop shop on your daily adventures.

If you’ve brought a lot of wardrobe pieces that wrinkle easily, including dresses, silk tops and more, invest in some fold-able hangers. Usually staterooms only have 8 hangers or so, which may not be enough. Collapsible hangers will take up minimal space in your baggage and save your outfits from embarrassing rumples and creases.

Lastly, tuck a power strip and/or extension cord into your luggage. This is particularly helpful in the bathroom, where you can plug in hair dryers, curling appliances, phone chargers and whatever else you need without having to majorly strategize about the plug placement in your stateroom.

Use Our Stress-Free Printable Cruise Packing List!

Cruising is one of the most relaxing, enjoyable vacation options around. With some minor strategy and an eye for space-saving techniques, your packing and travel experience will be a breeze. With our tips to start you in the right direction, download our free printable cruise packing list, to make sure you packed all your essentials. Download the packing list here.

Happy sailing!

*Disclosure: Some of the links contained on this site are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, Cruising Know It All will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
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