On my first cruise, I made the mistake of not packing a cruise carry-on bag. It wasn’t until 6 hours after embarking on the cruise ship that I received my luggage.
That meant six hours without a change of clothes, bathing suit, phone charger, camera, or jewelry.
Thankfully, I’ve learned how to pack my cruise carry-on bag to make the most of embarkation day. Make sure you pack the items below in your carry-on so you don’t make the same mistake I did.
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What to Pack in a Cruise Carry-on Bag
When you board a cruise ship, your carry-on bag is the only possession you can access until later in the afternoon. Your luggage may not be delivered until after the first dinner sitting in the main dining room.
When you arrive at the cruise terminal, you’ll hand your larger luggage to porters who ensure it makes it onto the ship.
Later in the day, crew members deliver the luggage to your cabin door. But delivering luggage for up to 6,000 passengers is a monumental task. You may not receive your luggage until late afternoon or early evening.
Smart cruisers know to pack first-day essentials in a carry-on bag. Your carry-on should contain everything you may need on the first day until you have access to your luggage.
For smooth sailing, here’s what to pack in a cruise carry-on bag:
Travel Documents, Passport, and ID
It’s essential to keep all your important cruise boarding documents, passports, and government IDs with you during boarding.
The boarding process is relatively smooth, and it doesn’t take long to get onto the ship. But you don’t want to spend time searching for your travel documents while standing at the check-in desk.
Essential documents to pack in your carry-on include your:
- Boarding pass
- Cruise documents
- Government-issued ID
- Restaurant reservations
- Shore excursion and tour tickets
- Drink package confirmation
- WiFi package confirmation
- Travel Insurance
- Proof of vaccination (if required)
- Any other documents required by the cruise line
It’s a good idea to bring hard copies and photocopies of your essential documents.
Paper backups are helpful if your phone runs out of batteries. And when you’re in port, you can use the photocopies as proof of identification while leaving your valuable documents in the cruise cabin safe.
And always check with the cruise line to know which documents are required for boarding. You won’t be allowed on the ship if you don’t bring the right documentation.
Credit Cards and Money
Your credit cards and money are most likely in your purse or wallet during embarkation. But it’s always a good idea to check that you didn’t accidentally leave them in your checked luggage.
As a rule of thumb, anything with a value that can be easily lost or stolen should be kept in your carry-on bag.
Once you have access to your room, you can store your credit cards and money in the cabin safe.
You don’t need to bring money on the cruise ship, as onboard purchases are made through your cruise card. But you’ll want to bring cash for making purchases in port, casino games, and tipping crew members.
Medications, Vitamins, and Supplements
If you or a family member takes prescription medications, vitamins, or supplements, pack them in your carry-on bag.
You may not get your luggage for several hours after you board the ship, and keeping essential medications handy is a good idea.
Even if you won’t need your medication within the first 24 hours, keeping them in your carry-on is a good idea. Though rare, the cruise line may lose your luggage. Keeping your medication, vitamins, and supplements packed in your carry-on luggage ensures they don’t go missing.
You may want to pack pain relievers, antacids, bandaids, and motion sickness medicine. If you’re prone to motion sickness, you can alleviate the symptoms of seasickness through motion sickness patches, medicine, or Sea-Bands.
You can visit the shops if you forget to pack over-the-counter medicine. The shops on the cruise ship aren’t open 24 hours. You can visit the cruise ship’s medical center if it’s an emergency.
Remember, the ships onboard medical facilities are not fully stocked pharmacies. It’s essential to bring any medications you’ll need in your carry-on bag.
It wouldn’t be a cruise vacation without poolside drinks and relaxation under the Caribbean sun. Pack swimwear in your carry-on bag if you’re excited to hit the pool deck on the first day.
It’s essential to pack pool essentials in your carry-on if you have kids. During the first day onboard the cruise ship, the two busiest places are the buffet and the pool deck.
You’ll want to pack a bathing suit, sunscreen, pool shoes, a coverup, and sunglasses.
If you’re cruising with kids, you’ll want to pack entertainment and snacks to keep them happy during boarding. While the check-in process is relatively quick and easy, it can be long and painful in the eyes of an excited child.
Most children’s activities won’t begin until later in the day, so it’s a good idea to pack games and entertainment to keep them occupied until the luggage arrives.
Some items to consider are portable video games, coloring books, reading books, action figures, dolls, and pre-packaged snacks.
And if you’re traveling with babies or toddlers, pack diapers, clothes changes, sippy cups, wipes, and toys.
A Bottle of Wine… or Two
Most cruise lines allow guests to bring alcohol on the cruise ship during embarkation. You’ll have to check with the cruise line to find out what drinks they permit guests to carry.
But usually, you can bring one or two bottles of champagne or wine in your carry-on.
Some cruise lines also allow guests to bring soda and water bottles.
If your cruise line allows you to bring alcohol, purchase the bottles ahead of time and pack them in your carry-on luggage. You can drink the alcohol in your stateroom for free, but most cruise lines charge a corkage fee to drink your bottles in public spaces.
A Change of Clothing
By now, you know that your luggage may not arrive until after dinner. If you’re planning to eat in the ship’s main dining room, the casual clothing you walked onto the ship with might not fit the cruise line’s dress code.
It’s best to pack clothes to wear to dinner and an extra set of casual clothing or workout gear.
Once you have access to your room, you may want to change into fresh clothing. A change of shorts and a t-shirt go a long way to getting comfortable on the first day.
Electronics and Chargers
A cruise vacation is a chance for most people to disconnect from work, social media, and the internet. A break away from your phone can do wonders to help you feel relaxed and recharged.
But if you need to work, take photographs, or keep in contact with friends and family back home, it’s essential to keep your valuable electronics in your carry-on, so they don’t get lost, stolen, or damaged.
Make sure you pack the electronics and their chargers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve forgotten to pack my phone charger and bought a new one at the onboard shop.
Today’s smartphone cameras allow the average person to take high-quality photos and videos. But if you’re serious about capturing the moment with high-quality photography, you’ll want to pack your camera in your cruise carry-on bag.
A good camera is an investment. And keeping it close to you is the best way to ensure it doesn’t get lost, stolen, or damaged.
Jewelry and Valuables
It’s always a good idea to leave your valuable jewelry at home and bring costume jewelry on your cruise vacation. But even costume jewelry might be costly, and you don’t want to risk losing it.
Keep any valuables in your carry-on cruise bag if you’re worried about theft or losing your jewelry. Once in the stateroom, you can lock your documents, jewelry, cash, and other valuables in the cabin safe. The cabin safe isn’t large, but there’s enough room to store documents, money and a handful of other essential items.
If you think you may want to freshen up before dinner, it’s a good idea to pack some toiletries in your cruise carry-on luggage. This may include toothpaste, a toothbrush, deodorant, shampoo, body wash, face wash, and a hair brush.
Most cruise lines provide body wash, shampoo, and hand soap, but we like to bring our own.
After my first cruise, I learned the importance of keeping my room card on a lanyard. Pack a lanyard and get your card hole-punched at guest services to ensure you never lose your key card.
With your keycard safe around your neck, you’re ready to begin ordering drinks, souvenirs, and specialty coffee.
Best Carry-on Bags for a Cruise
There are several types of carry-on bags to bring on your cruise. The type of carry-on bag you use is a personal preference.
Some choices for carry-on bags include backpacks, beach bags, carry-on suitcases, or a large duffel bag.
We like to buy our luggage in sets that include a carry-on because it usually saves us money. Our preferred luggage is good hardshell luggage with 360-degree wheels. Hardshell luggage does a better job of protecting our belongings than softshell luggage or duffel bags, and the spinning wheels make it easier to navigate airports and cruise terminals.
Occasionally, we’ll take a backpack instead because it’s easier to carry.
Get Our Cruise Carry-On Luggage Packing List
Now you’re ready to back your cruise carry-on bag and make the most of the first day on the ship.
Download our cruise carry-on bag packing list below so that you don’t miss anything on our list.