What to pack for your first cruise — and what to leave home

Aug 25, 2020

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Your first cruise is always exhilarating. Whether you’re visiting some far-off destination where you’ve never seen or tried-and-true ports of call, packing for a cruise can be complicated — especially for first-timers who aren’t 100% sure what to expect.

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Of course, the destination will dictate the clothing and accessories you bring, but here are a few essentials you should always stash in your bag for any cruise holiday.

Fun door magnets

Let’s start with a fun cruise essential! On many lines — especially family-friendly Disney, Royal Caribbean and Carnival, excited travellers adorn their cabin doors with decorations or magnets. It gives their stateroom a bit of flair and helps them — and their kids — easily spot the cabin upon approach.

You can go to sites like Etsy or Amazon to purchase personalized magnets with themes like Mickey Mouse, nautical or mermaids. Or, just buy a pack of pretty fridge magnets to use for this purpose. If you forget, you can often find some of the items for sale in gift shops on the ship, but it may be cheaper to BYO.

If you want to get creative yourself, buy a magnetic dry erase board with markers and create your own design.

Just remember that not all cabin doors are made of metal (so a magnet might not work) and some lines don’t allow magnets (or tape adhesives) — and definitely not any decorative element that promotes a business so do your homework. But, if you are sailing on Disney, rest assured that almost all the cabin doors are metal, so bring those Mickey magnets!

Accessories for any themed nights

No matter what cruise ship you book, there will be a theme night or two. Disney’s got its famed Pirate Night, Norwegian puts on a White Hot Night while Carnival hosts an ’80s Rock ‘n’ Glow Deck Party. Be prepared by checking with your cruise line in advance to see what type of parties will be thrown during your voyage. Then, pack a few items accordingly. Maybe an eye patch and swashbuckling hat for Pirate Night, a white sundress for White Hot Night and some neon leggings for ’80s night. Use your imagination and have fun!

Pack a few items for Pirate Night on Disney Cruise Line (Photo courtesy of Disney Cruise Line)
Pack a few items for Pirate Night on Disney Cruise Line (Photo courtesy of Disney Cruise Line)

Download your cruise line’s app

This is an easy item to “pack” — just download your cruise line, or ship’s, app to your smartphone before you set sail. 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 ship’s Wi-Fi.

Key card lanyard

You’ll need to keep your cabin key card — that also acts as your ship ID and conduit to your onboard cruise account — at the ready. You need to swipe it as you leave the ship for the day, upon your return, as well as when making a purchase in the ship’s boutique or buying a drink at the bar (unless you’re cruising on a true all-inclusive line like Regent Seven Seas or Silversea). It may even be what unlocks your room, so you’ll want it handy.

A key card lanyard can be a fun way to keep track of your key card — especially for kids. While some cruise lines provide them for some guests, they are not universally provided.

(Photo courtesy of Amazon)

Power strip

Newer cruise ships are designed so every cabin has enough electrical outlets and USB ports conveniently located throughout the room. However, older ships may be a bit skimpy when it comes to the number of outlets in the stateroom — especially if you’re a family or a group of friends sharing one room.

It’s wise to bring a power strip so you can turn one outlet into several. Just be sure that your power strip doesn’t include a surge protector — they are banned from most cruise ships, as are extension cords.

Savvy cruisers look for power strips that not only have several plug receptacles but also USB charging ports. We like lightweight, low-profile options. There’s no cord to take up valuable space in your suitcase.

(Photo courtesy of Amazon)

Power adapter/current converter

You may wonder if you need any type of power adapter or current converter. Many cruise ships have both 110V and 220V outlets so you won’t usually need to buy anything new (other than maybe the power strip we suggested above).

Consult your cruise line’s online FAQ or call your travel agent to confirm what type of outlets are in the cabin you’ve booked to be certain.

Wet bag

Having the right bag to use at the right time is super-important on a cruise. A waterproof wet bag comes in handy if you’re visiting beach destinations or going on shore excursions that include time for a dip. (For example, a kayak trip with some beach time.)

A good waterproof, leakproof wet bag is ideal after you change out of your wet layers and are carrying your bathing suit back onto the ship.

(Photo courtesy of Amazon)

Dry bag

You may also need a dry bag. It’s also waterproof but the goal is to keep water out and not in as is the case with a wet bag.

A dry bag seals tight so you can stow your camera gear, smartphone and other electronics. Even if the bag falls into the water, the contents will stay dry for a good amount of time — long enough for you to rescue them. (As a not-very-coordinated kayaker, I wouldn’t take that kind of shore tour — and bring along electronics — without a dry bag to keep them safe.)

(Photo courtesy of Amazon)

Lightweight backpack

There are some itineraries, like transatlantic voyages, with very few ports of call. But your cruise is probably a nice mix of sea days and port visits. You’ll want a strong but lightweight backpack to stow everything you want to take off the ship with you as you explore destinations or join shore excursions or independent tours. It holds snacks, sunscreen, a hat and more.

Look for a backpack with mesh pockets on each side. Those pockets are the perfect place to tuck away a water bottle. Don’t worry if your pack isn’t big enough to stow more than one sweater or hat; the next accessories on our “must-pack” list will come to the rescue.

(Photo courtesy of Amazon)

Jacket gripper

Frequent travellers usually have several of these straps to take on trips. They are marketed as jacket grippers and luggage straps. There are a ton of uses, from attaching your aeroplane neck pillow onto your carry-on to making sure your jacket, sweater or hat stays close to your backpack.

(Photo courtesy of Amazon)

Waterproof cases

You might want to wear a waterproof smartphone case if you’re spending time at the beach, on the pool deck, in the ship’s hot tub or heading out on a shore excursion on the water (think catamaran tour, kayak excursion or glass-bottom boat ride).

Most of these cases are roomy enough to also store your key card and some cash, if need be.

(Photo courtesy of Amazon)

Or, a waterproof sports case that floats may be a good idea if you are taking a small variety of items into a wet environment.

(Photo courtesy of Amazon)

Related: Which cruise brand is best for you?

Water shoes

Many cruises visit warm-weather destinations with a beach visit or two on the agenda. Packing water shoes — also known as aqua socks — is essential, especially if you don’t know what the beaches will be like. Water shoes protect your feet from rocks, shells and coral. If the ship’s pool deck is a little slick, it’s also wise to wear them there for extra traction.

(Photo courtesy of Amazon)

Hand-sanitising wipes

Staying healthy on holiday should be everyone’s priority. When you fly, board a cruise ship or check into a hotel, you should have some sanitising wipes in your carry-on. Use them to wipe down the TV remote, phone and door handles in your cabin. Also, take them with you on shore excursions so you can always “wash up” when you need to.

If you don’t like the wipes, you can instead carry a gel-style hand sanitiser. If you’re new to cruising, you should know that there will be hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the ship — mainly at the gangway when disembarking/embarking the ship and at restaurant and lounge entrances.

(Photo courtesy of Amazon)

Seasickness remedies

Hopefully, you won’t feel queasy on your cruise. Some people never feel seasick on a cruise while others may feel a bit wobbly the first hour or so on the ship or during moderate to rough seas. It never hurts to have a few items packed to help prevent or alleviate seasickness if it pops up. To begin with, you can use an over-the-counter product like Bonine (meclizine hydrochloride) that’s effective in preventing or treating motion sickness, airsickness and seasickness. Try the raspberry-flavoured chewable tablets or the ginger softgels.

You can also try snacking on ginger candy (you’ll often find a bowl of it in front of each cruise ship restaurant entrance) or bring your own. We like Chimes ginger chews. Or wear anti-nausea acupressure wristband like the Sea-Band.

If you do start feeling a bit green, go up on deck in the fresh air and look out over the horizon. It really helps. And visit the ship’s medical station or front desk to ask for seasickness remedies if you forgot to bring your own. They’ll hook you up.

You never know if it'll be smooth sailing or rough seas (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
You never know if it’ll be smooth sailing or rough seas (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Pack with caution — wine

If you want to enjoy a glass of your favourite wine on the ship, it can be tempting to pack your own. The good news is on some lines you can. For example, Royal Caribbean allows two 750 ml bottles of wine or Champagne to be brought onboard per stateroom. Disney allows either two 750 ml bottles of wine or six beers per stateroom. Carnival permits one bottle of wine per adult.

Don’t pack these items

There are a few items that you should always leave off your cruise packing list. They include the following.

Liquor or (often) beer

If you’ve never been on a cruise before, you’ve probably never heard of the “naughty room.” This is the room in which the crew quarantines luggage that contains an item that the cruise line has banned. That could be an electric kettle, a weapon of some kind or liquor/beer. You’ll be called to this room to have a discussion with the crew about these no-no items.

Most cruise lines have strict rules about the type of beverages you can bring aboard at embarkation and throughout the voyage. Some mainstream cruise lines let you bring some bottled water and soda, or a bottle or two of wine, but you generally aren’t allowed hard liquor or beer. Before stopping off at the packy on the way to the port, check the rules with your cruise line.

Candles and electrical appliances that create heat

When you’re aboard a cruise ship, safety comes first. That’s why things like candles with a real flame and electrical appliances that produce heat should stay at home. Forget about bringing your clothes iron and steamer, or electric tea kettle. These are often banned for onboard use. (Ladies: Some cruise lines allow curling or straight irons and some don’t, so consult your cruise line’s online FAQ, call to ask or inquire with your travel agent.) Instead of an iron, you can bring a product like Downy’s Wrinkle Release that comes in a travel size with a pump spray.

Drones and kites

You might want that perfect aerial shot from above the ship but you can’t bring a drone on board. Same goes for kites and other similar items that are meant to be deployed in the air around the ship.

Guns and knives

Guns aren’t allowed on cruise ships and although some cruise lines allow knives up to a certain blade length, others ban them altogether. Check your cruise line’s online FAQs or check with your travel agent for the rules that apply to your ship.

Bottom line

First-time 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 those all-important accessories. Happy cruising.

Featured photo by martin-dem/Getty Images.

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