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For most people, a cruise is a long-awaited vacation on the high seas. But for me, it’s a lifestyle — in fact, it’s my profession. My love of cruising began years ago when I studied abroad on a world cruise through the Semester at Sea abroad program in college, and it’s safe to say I’ve been infatuated with the idea of sailing ever since. There’s just something about being out on the ocean and waking up to a different destination every day that creates such a perfect dichotomy of traveling by land and sea.
I’ve now been reporting on the cruise industry professionally for more than a decade and have embarked on my fair share of cruises (at least 50 so far!), each one with its own unique packing list. I’ve sailed on the planet’s largest cruise ships, as well as some of the smallest on rivers, lakes, and oceans, even crossing the equator. I’ve packed for an Alaska sailing on a cruise line that required formal dress every night and, last summer, I survived with just a carry-on bag for a three-week, back-to-back trip that began in Milwaukee and ended in Stockholm.
While every cruise is different, and every itinerary has its own packing requirements, there are a few items that I find myself always tossing in my bag regardless of where I’m headed. From versatile travel bags and waterproof apparel to game-changing gadgets and toiletries, these are the 15 must-have things you’ll always find on this avid traveler’s cruise packing list.
Sorel Out N About III Waterproof Sneakers
Sure, warm-weather cruising is a haven for flip-flops and sandals, but I’ve found that sneakers are a must-pack item for almost any cruise. Whether you’re considering taking a hiking or biking excursion, or you’re thinking about trying out the onboard rock-climbing wall, go-kart track, or ropes course, closed-toed shoes are required for all the above. I really like my Vessi Everyday Classic sneakers for cruising because they are wildly comfy and supportive. They’re also lightweight if I need to pack them and totally waterproof.
Another solid — and slightly cheaper — option are Sorel’s Out N About III Waterproof Sneakers. They’re super stylish and come in four neutral colors, offering ankle support, removable insoles, and sleek leather trims to make them more stylish and comfortable than your average athletic kicks. In addition to being waterproof, which is useful if you’re caught out in one of Florida’s famous sun showers, these shoes are also certified for sustainability.
To buy: zappos.com, $110
Supergoop Play Sunscreen
In the wise words of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mary Schmich, “Wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.” I must heartily agree. It doesn’t matter if your cruise is in Alaska or Antigua, Hawaii or Holland — the sun shines everywhere. For this reason, a reliable sunscreen is a vital item for any trip, and especially a cruise. Between long days spent exploring in port and sea days out on deck soaking up the rays, the last thing you want to worry about on your vacation is a nasty sunburn.
Sunscreen has had somewhat of a glow-up in recent years, offering high SPF protection in reef safe and more skin-friendly formulas. These are just a few of the qualities that keep me reaching for Supergoop’s Play Sunscreen, which offers broad-spectrum SPF 50 for the body and face in a non-greasy lotion. Not only is it water- and sweat-resistant, but I can snorkel and swim confidently with a recipe free of oxybenzone and other chemicals known to harm reefs (some ports of call, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, have gone as far as to ban any sunscreen that’s not deemed reef safe).
Supergoop carries a naturally pleasant scent from sunflower and rosemary extracts that doesn’t scream “I’m wearing sunscreen!” from across the beach. I also like that there are a variety of sizes, so I can grab my little 2.4-ounce. bottle if I decide to go carry-on only for my next cruise.
To buy: amazon.com, $22
LifeStraw Go Filtered Water Bottle
If you do one thing for the planet this year, please buy a reusable water bottle and leave the plastic ones behind for good. Cruise lines have been doing a pretty solid job of reducing single-use plastics across their fleets in recent years. Many river cruise lines have long provided filtered water in each cabin, along with a keepsake reusable water bottle to refill around the ship and to bring with you in port. However, this varies from ship to ship. When traveling from home to your next cruise, it’s best to have your own reusable water bottle on hand. After all, staying hydrated is key to surviving long travel days and jet lag.
LifeStraw has been providing advanced filtration technology for about 25 years, originally developing its filtered “straw” as a humanitarian effort to remove contaminants from water in Guinea. This system has evolved from gear for hikers into a range of everyday products, from pitchers to personal bottles. I have an ungodly amount of water bottles in my possession, but I keep coming back to my LifeStraw because of its built-in filter. Though the chances I will be stranded by the Amazon River are slim to none, this water bottle ensures that I can safely fill up anywhere with peace of mind. And, rather than shell out money for an overpriced plastic bottle while at sea, my LifeStraw Water Bottle makes me feel more comfortable drinking from the tap.
To buy: rei.com, $40
Sea to Summit Lightweight Dry Bag Set
This item is for cruisers that love taking advantage of the water activities. If you’re planning to book a snorkeling, diving, or kayaking excursion during your next voyage, you might want to consider packing some dry bags. These Sea to Summit waterproof bags essentially seal any items that you want to keep safe and dry, whether it’s on a catamaran in the Caribbean or a kayak trip for up-close whale watching in Mexico. Having dry bags handy puts my mind particularly at ease on expedition cruises that require “wet landings” from the ship to the shore via inflatable water crafts. I’m always going to be tempted to bring a “real” camera (not just my iPhone) on wildlife-rich sailings such as the Galapagos or the Arctic, and keeping that equipment dry and intact makes me feel much better about lugging it to the ends of the Earth.
Having a set of different dry bags is helpful so you only grab the size you need for the afternoon; the Sea to Summit bags come in 3-, 5- and 8-liter options, and in a trio of bright, easy-to-spot colors. These lightweight, nylon bags also come with a lifetime guarantee, but you also want to make sure to add a waterproof phone case to your order just to be safe. Similar to the idea of protecting my pricey DSLR camera, I also don’t want to accidentally drop my smartphone into the Sea of Cortez. Waterproof cases like these are also a game-changer because they keep out moisture but still allow you to use the touchscreen and camera through the plastic. Having it hanging around my neck won’t make me look like the coolest cat, but if I’m being splashed and bounced around and still getting the shot, I’ll feel like a smart cookie.
To buy: rei.com, $60
Lohas LED Dimmable Night Light
This one might have you scratching your head, but trust me on this. Cruise cabins can get very dark at night with all the curtains drawn — not to mention that there are some with no windows at all. While plenty of cruise ships employ something like a night light, typically in the bathroom, I’ve found this is the exception and not the rule. Be prepared by adding this dimmable night light to your carry-on. Take my word for it, your un-stubbed toes and un-bumped legs will thank you since you won’t have to stumble around an unfamiliar room at night.
Not to mention that the standard lights in cabin bathrooms are bright and unforgiving, which can lead to disrupting your sleep or waking up your entire party. For less than $10, these small, plug-in LED night lights will guide the way to the toilet without the feeling of staring into the sun. A sensor in the light automatically turns it on or off, depending on the brightness of the room, so you don’t have to remember to flip a switch. You can even adjust the level of brightness emanating from the nightlight with two settings.
A word of advice: Check the status of the outlets on your ship; most have U.S.-style outlets, but you might need to bring an adapter.
To buy: amazon.com, from $9 for pack of two (originally $12)
Yalikop Beach Towel Chair Clips
By now, I’ve been on dozens of cruises, and I admit that I once cringed at the idea of using a towel clip. Whose idea was it to bring oversized plastic clips on their vacation that look like they should be keeping a bag of potato chips fresh? As it turns out, tons of frequent cruisers swear by them, and they are definitely on to something. These towel clips, ubiquitous with the pool decks of mega-ships, serve in form and function. Clipping your towel to your lounger prevents it from blowing away while you’re taking a dip in the pool or the dreaded slippage as you’re reading or napping the day away.
Another thing that I will admit is that chair clips have gotten increasingly cuter in recent years — like this adorable tropical-themed set from Yalikop. They’re also small enough to toss in a tote and bring with you for a beach day in port. And, if you’re sailing on a large ship, especially on a day when everyone is onboard, there might be more rows of deck chairs than your frozen cocktail will allow you to keep track of. So, a cheeky cactus, or watermelon, or flamingo sticking up from your seat in a sea of identical towel-clad loungers might help you better locate your place in the sun.
To buy: amazon.com, from $17 for pack of six
Stur Electrolyte Powder Packets
Included beverage options on cruise ships can be limited, unless you book a drink package or sail on an all-inclusive or luxury cruise line. And, if you’re sailing with the kids on a major cruise line, you might only have watered-down lemonade or juice available in terms of cold, complimentary drinks. Luckily, powder drink mix packets are not only a breeze to pack, but also pump up your water with sustaining vitamins and dehydration-fighting electrolytes.
My sister-in-law brought these Stur drink packets on a trip to LegoLand for my nephew’s birthday — in July — and we avoided paying theme-park prices for drinks by tossing these in our water bottles. Despite having zero sugar, I didn’t notice an aftertaste from the artificial sweetener, and I really liked the fruit punch flavor. I also love the Stur mixes because they keep me hydrated walking around Barcelona or the Bahamas and cost about half the price of the leading electrolyte packets. Even if you do opt for a drink package, you’ll still be reaching for these babies the morning after a bit of alcoholic overindulgence.
To buy: amazon.com, $16 for pack of 32
Bonine Motion Sickness Tablets
I don’t want to scare anyone off cruising by including a seasickness remedy on the list, but the truth is motion is an undeniable byproduct of the ocean. Most of the time, you will barely notice that you’re at sea at all, especially on large cruise ships. But even as an avid cruiser, I’m not immune to a little motion sickness, especially if I’m sailing a transatlantic voyage during the winter or in an area known for rough seas like the Cape of Good Hope around South Africa.
There are all sorts of remedies for seasickness, from weighted wristbands to acupuncture patches, and even noshing on green apples and ginger candies. But, I prefer Bonine Chewable Motion Sickness Tablets because they make me way less drowsy than other popular medicines like Dramamine, and are also less intense than prescription patches that can cause vivid nightmares when combined with alcohol consumption. And, when you’re off your cruise ship, boat rides to go snorkeling or fishing trips in Alaska can easily get a bit choppy. So, it’s better to chew a raspberry Bonine tablet before embarking on one of these excursions (or even before setting sail on your cruise ship), rather than suffer through a wave of seasickness.
Cheap and effective, this small bottle of 16 tablets should be enough for almost any cruise. Just remember that the best time to take a pill is before you even feel sick.
To buy: amazon.com, $6 for pack of 16 (originally $10)
G4Free Foldable Lightweight Daypack
A daypack should be separate from your hand luggage or your travel backpack. This bag’s sole purpose is to carry all of your essentials for each destination, and maybe haul a few souvenirs back from port. It should be able to fit a water bottle, extra jacket, towel, and other useful items, but also light enough that it doesn’t weigh you down during a day of sightseeing.
Create your easy-to-pack bag for all your cruising port visits with the G4Free daypack that costs less than $20 and comes in plenty of eye-catching colors and patterns. These bags are especially useful because they fold down into a 5-inch by 6-inch pouch that takes up about the same space as a wallet, so you can pack it to your luggage without adding extra bulk. It’s also made with water- and tear-resistant polyester fabric, which means that this backpack is durable enough to withstand a Dunn’s Falls climb in Jamaica.
To buy: amazon.com, $19
Epielle Korean Face Sheet Masks
I could recommend obvious items like a hat or sunglasses, but the truth is I’d rather convince you to try these adorable animal-face Korean masks on your next cruise. Hear me out: Shipboard spa treatments like facials can be expensive, so why not have your own pamper party in your stateroom? (Is it really vacation if you don’t pack at least one impractical thing?) Soothe your skin after a busy day of roaming around Rome with Epielle’s nourishing and rejuvenating formulas, which feature ingredients like papaya and citrus or cranberry and witch hazel. In addition to a glowing complexion, you’ll also get plenty of laughs from the animal faces on the sheet masks.
I’ve surprised friends — male and female — with these masks during voyages, and the reactions have always been positive. Your skin really does glow immediately after using them — though you may have also gained a few laugh lines in the process. What’s more, these individually wrapped masks are super easy to pack and are not considered liquids, so they can also go in your carry-on.
To buy: amazon.com, $20 for pack of 12
Bounce Wrinkle Release Spray
Fire is the most serious hazard at sea, so anything with a heating element, including irons, is banned from passenger cabins. Most cruise ships offer laundry pressing and dry cleaning services, or even self-serve launderettes with an ironing board. But, I am lazy and prefer to spritz out my wrinkles with this handy Bounce spray, using the steam from my shower as a de-wrinkling catalyst.
The game-changing spray has a three-in-one formula that simultaneously removes wrinkles, lifts stains, and infuses your clothes with a fresh, clean-smelling scent. I like that this anti-wrinkle spray comes in a TSA-approved sized bottle, making it perfect for on the go usage. You’ll look put together for the captain’s Champagne reception in no time.
To buy: amazon.com, $10 for pack of three (originally $16)
Barefoot Dreams CozyChic Lite Circle Cardigan
I don’t step foot on a plane, train, or cruise ship without a cozy sweater like this super-soft cardigan from Barefoot Dreams. Even if you’re sailing around the tropics, ships can be heavily air-conditioned, and you never know when you’ll want to snuggle up in something comfy. This long, loungy open-front cardigan not only looks incredibly luxe, but it’s also machine washable — unlike cashmere or other high-end fabric blends — and comes in five neutral shades.
Men can opt for a zip-front version of the same cardigan to get their cozy on while at sea. It’s still buttery soft, but fits more like a jacket without the draping of the women’s design.
To buy: nordstrom.com, from $93 (originally $116)
Anker Portable Power Bank
Your smartphone is working overtime on a cruise, staying in touch with messaging apps and social media over the ship’s Wi-Fi (if you paid for it), and taking hundreds of the same sunset photo or helping find your way around in each new place using Google Maps. You’ll find that even if you left the ship in the morning on a full charge, your phone might need some extra juice while you’re out in port.
This Anker Portable Power Bank is an incredible value for money, with reliable batteries at a wallet-friendly price tag. My husband is in IT, and he swears by these portable chargers, claiming that Anker also offers superb customer service if something goes wrong with your device. The battery pack listed here is compliant with Apple and Android devices, and it provides about five full charges for the average smartphone and half that amount for iPads and tablets.
To buy: amazon.com, $50
Sockwell Compression Socks
It might sound weird, but compression socks are currently having a bit of a moment. They’re no longer considered a stocking for the elderly, instead gaining momentum as wellness wardrobe essentials for all ages. I’m in my thirties, and let’s just say I can’t stand on my feet all day like I used to. Thankfully, there are these snug, supportive Sockwell compression socks that relieve pressure on hard-working feet, whether you’re on a long-haul flight or know you’ll be doing lots of laps around the ship.
Sockwell’s compression technology maximizes circulation and reduces swelling in your tootsies, but incorporates merino wool and rayon from bamboo for a soft and moisture-wicking blend. The brand offers men’s and women’s compression socks in a selection of grades (light, medium and firm), as well as tons of colors and patterns. If your mood is saying, “lotus flowers with a touch of burnt sienna,” there is a pair for that. Socks that climb to your knees aren’t exactly suited for beachy shorts and coverups, but I usually wear them on travel days for flights or during hikes or long walking tours.
To buy: rei.com, $30
Open Edit Knit Midi Dress
The LBD, also known as the “little black dress,” has long been fundamental to any closet, and it should also come with you on your cruise. A hallmark of traditional cruise vacations is the formal night, which is one or two nights of your voyage where the entire ship is asked to dress their best and parade through the promenade in their finery. These nights are *chef’s kiss* for people-watching and bringing out a sense of occasion across the ship, usually complemented by a special menu in the main dining room and plenty of opportunities for portraits.
While dress codes have relaxed across the cruise industry in recent years, it’s still a good idea to pack something a bit nicer to wear to a specialty restaurant or for a night out. I always prefer to be overdressed than underdressed, so this assignment is never lost on me. But if you’re the type of person who wants your suitcase full of clothes to work hard for you, I highly recommend this midi dress from Open Edit that can be worn two ways. Depending on the vibe, you can don this long, knit number with the v-neckline in the front or back, for double the look in a single dress. A long slit adds a bit of flair to an otherwise simple but stylish staple.
To buy: nordstrom.com, from $19 (originally $49)
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