Are you packing for a cruise? Don’t just focus on what’s going in your suitcase. What about your cruise carry on bag? We’ll show you how to pack the perfect cruise embarkation day bag.

When you arrive at the port to board your ship, a porter will come right up and whisk your larger bags away. How long will it be until they’re delivered to your stateroom? Who knows? It might be a couple of hours, but it might be after you’ve already gone to dinner.

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While we’re on the topic of “who knows?”, you also won’t know exactly when your stateroom will be ready for you to use. Especially if you arrive to the port early, it’s best to assume that your room won’t be ready until much closer to sail-away.

Going on your first cruise? You might like: Nine Pre-Embarkation Day Questions for New Cruisers

How do I pack a cruise carry on bag?

We’ll list seven categories of things that you need to keep in your cruise carry on bag. Read our tips, and we’ll show you how to get a free printable packing list to keep it all organized!

You’ll need to pack a bag that’s small and light enough to carry for a few hours, but roomy enough for some essential items.

Don’t take a too-large bag – you’ll have to carry it around with you for a while

It’s always a good idea to pack your carry on bag before you pack your suitcases. You don’t want to stuff an item somewhere in your larger bag, only to realize that you need it in your carry on!

Tip: If you’re flying to the port city, just use your airplane carry on tote as an embarkation day bag. Take a moment before you leave for the port to remove any heavy items (like the book you were reading on the plane), and stow them in your suitcase.

What are the essentials for your cruise carry on bag?

1. Your medications

Everyone knows how important it is to keep prescription medications in your carry on bag. But if you think you might need any OTC meds, such as motion sickness tablets, keep those with you as well. They usually do sell them in one of the onboard shops, but those won’t be open until the ship is at sea. (If you forget, in a pinch you can ask at the purser’s desk, and they may be able to give you some.)

You might also like: How to Avoid Getting Sick on Your Next Cruise

2. Your travel documents

Your photo ID and passport should be in your carry on, within easy reach until you receive your cruise card.

It’s a good idea to take a folder or pouch containing a copy of all of your cruise documents, and some extra copies of the printed luggage tags. You can print these from your cruise planner after online check in. Other essentials for this folder are copies of confirmation you’ve received for tours, dinners, and packages you’ve already paid for, just in case.

If you need a visa for any of the countries you’re traveling to, keep that documentation in your folder as well.

Tip: Take a lanyard with you to keep your cruise card within easy reach. I prefer the style that unclips in front, so I don’t have to keep taking it off over my head. Passenger services can punch a hole in your card so it can be attached to the lanyard.

3. Valuable items

Make sure that any fine jewelry that you’re taking on the cruise is in your carry on bag. It’s safest to leave most of it at home, but I usually do take a few nicer pieces, especially if I’m on a cruise line that has a formal night or two.

All of your cash, credit and debit cards should also stay with you in your carry on. Have a few smaller bills in an easily-accessible spot for tips (like for the porter), and put the rest in the bottom of your bag.

Electronics are another category to keep with you. Your phone, tablet, and camera also should never be packed in your suitcase. You’ll probably have no need for a laptop at all unless you know you’ll have to keep up with work on your vacation.

So now I have all of these valuables with me. What if we all want to go swimming?

A handy invention that helps keep your valuables secure is a travel safe. If you haven’t yet seen one, it’s a container with a metal loop that you can fasten around your deck chair. It won’t hold something large, like a DSLR camera, but it can definitely hold most phones, a reasonable amount of jewelry, and your cash and cards.

Tip: If you have larger items you want to keep safe, I’d recommend putting them in a locking travel bag. Use the loop on the travel safe to attach both items to your deck chair.

These items aren’t just great for embarkation day, but they’re also really useful if you’re going to have any beach days during your cruise. Remember that you’ll need something to attach the safe to at the beach, so check if lounger rentals are available.

You might also like: Eight Things That Will Surprise New Cruisers

4. Sun protection

Unless it’s raining, odds are you’ll get some (or a lot of) sun on your first day on board.

  • You’ll probably wear your sunglasses to board. Make sure to pack your glasses case in your carry on so they don’t get scratched or bent.
  • Sunscreen is also a necessity. If you forget and leave it in your suitcase, you most likely won’t be able to buy any on board until after sail away. The shops on board won’t be open until you’re out at sea.
You’ll be glad you packed a hat and other sun protection in your carry on bag. The ship’s shops won’t be open!

5. Pool attire

You might want to wear your swimsuit under your clothes, especially if your first order of business is to hit the pool! In that case, pack a change of underwear in a ziploc bag. When you change out of your wet suit, you can pop it into that bag. Or pack your suit, and then you can put your undies in the ziploc while you swim.

For the ladies, don’t forget to throw a cover-up in your bag. You can walk around many areas of the ship in your swimsuit if you’re wearing a cover-up. Main and specialty dining rooms won’t allow you in, but you can certainly eat at the buffet wearing a light cover over your suit.

Guys can always put a tee on with swim trunks and enter the buffet. This kind of outfit won’t work in the dining rooms.

6. Something to wear to dinner

I like to eat in one of the main dining rooms for both lunch and dinner on embarkation day. Because I hate the thought of packing a complete change of clothes for dinner, I always wear a casual dress and sandals (not flip-flops) when we board the ship. This allows me to feel as comfortable and breezy as I would in a more casual outfit, but I’m still dressed up enough for dinner.

If you want to go super-casual, say with shorts and a tee, be sure to put a dressier change of clothes in your carry-on bag for dinner. Or you can just have dinner at the buffet.

Check with your cruise line for their rules on what you can’t wear in the dining rooms, as it varies among lines.

7. Basics to freshen up

If you’re going to be swimming or just soaking up the sun on the Lido deck, you might want to pack a few basics to tidy up before you head to lunch or dinner.

  • A comb or detangling brush is essential if you have longer hair, especially if you plan to take a dip in the pool or hot tub.
  • A few makeup items in a small bag are also a good idea if you want to refresh your look after swimming (or sweating!). It’s rare for luggage to not arrive by dinner time, but it does occasionally happen.
  • I also like to throw a toothbrush in a travel container, along with a travel-sized toothpaste in my bag, to freshen up after lunch.

Are you ready for the free carry on packing list, including all of the essentials I mentioned? Just fill out the quick form below, and I’ll send you the printable PDF.

Want more packing tips? Read What to Pack for a Caribbean Cruise.

What’s your must-pack item for your embarkation day bag? Have you ever left something out of your carry on and regretted it? Let me know in the comments below!


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About the Author

Carrie Ann is the founder of Should Be Cruising and a lifelong travel fanatic. A former flight attendant, she now prefers cruise ships over airplanes and spends several months each year cruising and exploring cruise ports. Facebook | Instagram

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30 Comments

  1. My husband is in merchant Navy and we absolutely love cruises. I have spent quite some time on board and I must say that’s a good list. You sure have thought about everything here. Cruising nos fun if you stick to the protocol.

  2. It’s a good point that you often won’t be reunited with your luggage for several hours. So you need to really think and plan your carry on so that you have everything you need for that time. I like the reminder about pool attire, that’s the kind of thing I’d forget!

  3. Great tips here. I had never thought about the arrival time of your bag on board a cruise to your room. This is certainly a great article highlighting what you should think about when you are packing your bag.

  4. I’ve never been on a cruise, so I didn’t realize that someone would take your bags right away. So I’m so glad I read this and am now prepared to have my carry on bag. I also love the lanyard tip! I’m so excited to get my locking travel bag!

  5. I’ve only ever been on one cruise, but love the lifestyle. Planning on how and what to pack can be confusing, especially with a cruise. Thank you for the great tips. I especially like the idea of keeping a swimming costume and something slightly formal in it so that every occasion is covered.

  6. Wow, you sure compiled some useful tips for cruise travel here. As someone that spent a lot of time on board, I have to say you did a great job with this list. Planning what to pack for a cruise sure can be confusing and I think everyone should read this article before deciding to go for one 🙂

  7. I have never taken long cruises apart from some day cruises. But your post is helpful to know about what to carry. Sunscreen and waterproof clothes, as well as footwear, is must on the cruise. Also carrying sea sickness medications is necessary. Also to secure valuable items in travel safe is a great tip.

  8. I’ve never been on a cruise yet and it would be awesome to plan one.
    Good to know that a slight buffet can be eaten even when not properly dressed.
    I just got some nice coverups for my upcoming summer trips.

  9. I always panic when they take my bags away when I go on a cruise. I keep forgetting this is the routine. Your post give some great advice about what to pack into your carry on, so that you won’t miss anything while waiting for your big suitcases to arrive to your cabin.

  10. So glad I found your site. It’s been a long time since my last cruise and my daughter is finally going with me on her first cruise. I’ll share this wealth of information with her. Thanks so much!

  11. Hi Carrie Ann. Ron here. I recently restarted my travel blog. A few years ago, I lost all my blogs (hosted on Hostgator) to a virus. Slowly, I’m starting to bring them back.

    Anyway, I found your blog on Pinterest and I thought I would give you a shout.

    My wife and I are veterans of 20-plus cruises and have four planned for 2020 (Baja Mexico, Caribbean, Alaska, Hawaii/ Bora-Bora/Tahiti) and two already for 2021 (Panama Canal and Europe).

    We have tried Norwegian, Holland America and Carnival, but we keep coming back to Princess and made that our cruiseline of choice to get the benefits from their loyalty program. We are Platinum now and are not far from Elite. I plan to do a blog post on the different loyalty plans and levels of the popular cruise lines soon in the future.

    Anyways, great job on your blog. It is refreshing to see someone write that running a travel blog is not about running all over the world for free and making tons of money. As you well know, most of it is a passion for travel. We are still at the self-funding point, but like to travel and write about it. Hopefully, I will get some sponsorship in the future. If not, we’ll just keep plugging away.

    Thanks for your time and keep writing and traveling!

    1. Hi Ron, I’m so glad that you were able to restart your blog after losing your posts. That must have been devastating. I’m happy to hear that your passion for travel (and writing about it) drove you to start over again. Sounds like you have plenty of traveling coming up to fuel lots of future blog posts! Thanks for your kind words, and I wish you all the best with your blog and your adventures.

  12. Always pack extra underwear when you travel. I met a woman on a cruise whose suitcase and those of her companions was left behind in the trunk of their shuttle. They all had to go several days before their luggage caught up with them. She said it was very uncomfortable sitting in her room naked as her only set of clothes dried. The underwear in the shops didn’t fit her.

    1. I could never fit it all in a carry on, either! This is just what to pack in your carry on, along with your regular luggage. I have met people on a cruise who pack for a week in just a backpack, but I don’t think I could do it 😀

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