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What to Pack in Your Cruise Carry On Bag (2024)

What to Pack in Your Cruise Carry On Bag (2024)

Are you packing for a cruise? Don’t just focus on what’s going in your suitcase. What about your cruise carry on bag? I’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 usually 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.

While I’m 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 at the port early, it’s best to assume that your room won’t be ready until much closer to sail away time.

Having a cruise day bag or carry on with everything you need for those first few hours on the ship is so important. What you choose to pack in your bag can really make or break your embarkation day!

Going on your first cruise? You might like: Nine Things You Need to Check Before Your Cruise

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How do I pack a cruise carry on bag?

I’ll cover seven categories of things that you need to keep in your cruise carry on bag. Read my day bag tips, and I’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 as a cruise carry on—you’ll have to tote 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 a 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 Guest Services, and they may be able to give you some.)

You might also like: How to Avoid Getting Sick on a 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 “breakaway” style that unclips in front, so I don’t have to keep taking it off over my head. On many cruise lines, Guest Services can punch a hole in your card so you can clip it to your 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 First-Time 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 cruise carry on bag. The ship’s shops won’t be open until late in the day!

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.

You might also like: How to Pack Light for a Cruise: 9 Essential Tips

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.

You might also like: What Should You Wear on Embarkation Day on a Cruise?

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 cruise carry on and regretted it? Let me know in the comments below!

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Carrie Ann Karstunen


Wednesday 15th of January 2020

I can never fit in a carry-on, even if all my things fitted it always looks like my suitcase exploted when I am on my destination :D

Carrie Ann

Thursday 16th of January 2020

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 :D


Monday 6th of January 2020

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.

Carrie Ann

Tuesday 7th of January 2020

That's a great tip, Robbin! A pair or two won't take up much room in your bag. I hope she at least asked her steward for a robe ;) Thanks for reading!

Ron Kness

Sunday 1st of December 2019

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!

Carrie Ann

Monday 2nd of December 2019

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.

Sherry Wagner

Thursday 24th of October 2019

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!

Carrie Ann

Thursday 24th of October 2019

Hi Sherry, I'm so glad you're enjoying the site :) I hope that you and your daughter have a fantastic cruise!


Sunday 26th of May 2019

I always forget sunblock! Then I end up paying for it (literally) at high prices on board. Great list!

Carrie Ann

Sunday 26th of May 2019

Thanks, Daniel! I need to use my packing list, otherwise I forget so many things! You're right, those on board shops are not cheap.