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Carry-On Cruise Bags: How To Pack A Useful One You’ll Absolutely Love

Start enjoying your cruise the minute you step on the ship! Find out what carry-on essentials you need for your cruise bag. Have a smooth check-in!

One thing that you absolutely need for a cruise is a carry-on bag for embarkation day. And, it should be packed with carry-on essentials that are tailored for cruise travel. It will make the process of boarding the ship smoother. And, it will have carry-on essentials that will help make your embarkation day more comfortable and fun. Read on to find out exactly what you need to pack in your carry-on cruise bag.

Carry On Cruise Bag | photo of passengers taking large luggage onto cruise ship

Planning for a simple embarkation bag has always topped our list of essential embarkation tips. This advice applies whether you are traveling to your embarkation port several days in advance of your cruise, or flying in the same day. Either way, you should expect various wait times after you arrive at the pier, and you will need to plan accordingly. Your carry-on cruise bag will have everything you need to actually board the cruise ship, check-in, and get comfortable while you’re waiting for your luggage to arrive at your cabin.

Related Content: Here Are The 37 Clever Travel Hacks That Make Family Trips Easier

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The Cruise Luggage Process

When you arrive at the pier, workers will be standing by to take your luggage and arrange for it to get onto the ship. Each piece of luggage will have a color-coded tag that identifies to which stateroom the luggage should be directed. The luggage will be screened and then delivered to the appropriate staterooms.

Since there are typically thousands of passengers arriving in a short window, most of whom likely have more than one piece of luggage, this process requires some time. And, the precise window is not predictable.

You may be lucky, and your luggage arrives shortly after you do. We were once so lucky that our luggage was actually waiting for us outside our cabin door by the time we finished checking in and made our way upstairs! And, there have been many times when the luggage arrived within an hour of walking into our cabin. But the more frequent scenario, and the one you should plan for, is that it will take several hours before you are reunited with your bags.

Possible Delays in Returning Your Luggage

Not only may it take several hours for your bags to arrive, but your bags also may not all arrive at the same time.

Also, keep in mind that delivery can be less than precise in terms of geography. Although the goal is that your luggage will be placed directly outside your cabin, we have often found one or two pieces in different locations up and down the hallway. So be sure to eyeball the luggage outside the cabins that are near yours as well.


Cruise Carry On Essentials | photo of row of luggage trolleys filled with onboarding cruise luggage

If you have a wayward bag, let your room attendant know as soon as possible, and he can help figure out what happened.

On our last cruise, this happened to one of my bags. The room attendant went to the area where they were holding unidentified bags, called my room and I described the missing bag (and its distinctive luggage tag).

He was able to locate it quickly. During the handling process, the tag that directs specific bags to specific rooms had gotten ripped off. (Which is probably why some veteran cruisers like to travel with the special luggage tag holders made for cruise passengers.)

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What Should You Use As A Cruise Bag?

Since you may be carrying this bag around with you for several hours, you will want something that’s manageable and convenient. Depending on how many items you ultimately decide you want to pack, you could use whatever carry-on bag you used on the plane (if you flew in). Or, you could pre-pack a separate bag with cruise-related carry-on essentials that you pull out of larger luggage once you arrive at the pier. (For our favorite travel packing tips, be sure to check out our post on packing hacks!)

I usually grab a bag that serves double duty for the plane and the ship. I love a sturdy oversized extra large tote. A big tote has lots of room to load up on carry-on essentials for you and your family members. We usually take turns carrying it.

oversized tote bag for carry-on

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Which leads to the next point:

Should you have one family bag?  Or, should everyone pack and carry their own individual cruise bag? This may turn on the age of your kids and the amount of stuff you want to tote on. If you decide on one large bag for multiple people, consider using some small packing cubes or Ziploc-style bags to help keep things organized.

I most often have one large tote-style bag or backpack. Occasionally, I have used a small wheeled case (when I have had to bring a real laptop and work).

One advantage of using your regular plane carry-on is that you will already have basic carry-on essentials packed, including whatever “busy” activities you need to keep kids occupied in the event of any long waits.

Cruise Carry On Essentials | photo of small toddler trying to lift large carry on bag

What Should Be In Your Cruise Bag When You’re Boarding A Cruise Ship?

If you have spent a few days in the embarkation port city, then use this as a checklist for assembling or refreshing your travel bag. Or, when you are flying in the same day, you can simply make sure that your plane carry-on items include these cruise essentials. (We have compiled these tips into a checklist of cruise carry-on essentials which you can download at the end of this post.)

Carry On Essentials: Valuable Items and/or Irreplaceable Necessities

1. Valuables

You should make sure that anything you consider valuable you pack in your carry-on cruise bag. If you are coming straight from the airport, then this is probably already taken care of.

Valuables would include items such as cash (in any currency), credit cards, jewelry, and anything else that would be expensive or impossible to replace such as a nice camera or high-end binoculars.

2. Medications

You should definitely include any medications that you will likely need to take in the next 24 hours, whether prescription or OTC. And, if you have prescription medications that are taken on a less frequent basis, but cannot easily be replaced, you should include those in your cruise carry-on as well.

3. Key Travel Insurance Info

Hopefully, you have purchased cruise travel insurance for your trip. Print out something that shows the key elements of your policy and the numbers you should call in case of emergency. Depending on what type of policy you have, you may have access to someone who can help you with problems as you are traveling.

4. Travel Agent Info

If you (wisely) booked your trip through a cruise specialist or other travel agent, be sure to bring his or her contact information. So, if you hit snags, you can reach out for assistance.

5. Keys

Make sure that you have your house keys and car keys if you brought them on your trip. You don’t want these to disappear or get lost. Nor do you want to have to try and remember where you stashed them at the end of your relaxing vacation.

I admit that I hyperfocus on this issue because it’s one of my “lessons learned” from many years ago (as in solo travel/pre-kids). I had the sad misfortune of arriving back in my home city very late at night and realizing at the airport that my apartment keys were nowhere to be found. 

Carry On Essentials: Items Required for Cruise Check-in

6. Boarding Documents

When you registered online, you would have been directed to some type of boarding pass or boarding document and instructed to print it out and bring it with you. You should actually do that. Some portion of the document establishes that you are entitled to board the vessel, and there will usually be someone checking as you enter the terminal, before security screening.  

7. Passports

Unless you are doing one of the closed-loop cruises that don’t require passports, everyone in your travel party will need a passport. You may be required to show them before you are allowed entry into the actual terminal for your cruise. You will definitely have to present your family passports when you are checking in at the counter.


Cruise “Must Haves” For Your First Day

8. Swim Gear

Include items in your cruise carry-on for swimming and/or laying out by the pool. That way you can start having fun even if your cabin isn’t quite ready. Or, having them in your carry-on cruise bag will make it easier to send people off to the pool without having to wait to unpack. 

Related Content: 6 Items To Absolutely Include On Your Family’s Caribbean Cruise Packing List

Carry On Cruise Bag | photo of family playing around on open air deck chairs

9. Sun Gear 

Also, include any necessary sun protection items such as sunscreen and sunglasses. This goes along with the pool scenario mentioned above. Or, if you just want to spend time strolling around outside on the decks checking things out.

10. Hand Sanitizer

Although it does not substitute for true, thorough hand-washing, sanitizer can bridge many gaps. And, it’s good to have some available in your travel bag to deal with situations where soap and water are not readily available. I like to grab a multi-pack of travel-size bottles so that we can spread them across several bags and people as needed.

11. Wipes

A travel pack of sanitizing wipes can also serve many purposes. You can use them to quickly wipe down any suspect surfaces you encounter as you travel.

12. Snacks

Cruise ships are well known for having an abundance of food, so you may wonder why you would want to haul your own.

As noted earlier, you may encounter some waiting time before you ever step foot on the ship. And many cruise terminals do not have convenient snack options. Also, once you board the ship, you will often find that the buffet has been mobbed. So, having some portable snacks in your carry-on cruise bag will help tide you over. 

Also, the timing of your embarkation can make food options tricky. It could be that the dining areas are not open or are about to close (either due to regular hours or in anticipation of the mandatory muster). 

13. Reading Material

Books and magazines are always a great way to make any wait time pass quickly. And, they are their own independent fun activity on any cruise day when you’re by the pool or otherwise lounging around. And, with e-readers, you can bring along volumes of potential vacation reading, including magazines, while taking up minimal space in your luggage.

Have you jumped on the audiobook bandwagon yet? If not, your cruise vacation could be the perfect time to give it a try. You can sign up for one of those free 30-day Audible trials, download a couple of books and see if you like it. If you don’t, you can easily cancel once you get home. (You don’t need an Amazon device to participate. You can download the Audible app on your phone and listen whenever and wherever you like.)

Or, if you’re pretty much wedded to your e-reader but you have had it for a few years, it may be time to consider an upgrade. Amazon is running a trade-in promotion where you can get a gift card for trading in your old e-reader and a 25% discount on the purchase of a new model Kindle.

14. Power Bank

At some point during the day, you will likely want to charge your phone or some other electronic device. If you are waiting prior to check-in, you probably won’t have access to an outlet. And, if you can’t get into your room right away, you will also be outlet-challenged. So, pack a portable travel charger with your carry-on essentials.

pocket-size portable charger

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You can save space by taking a family-size portable charger that has multiple ports and sufficient juice for charging multiple devices at the same time or in turn. Or, you could get small pocket-size ones and have everyone carry their own. (Also, check out 9 Best Travel Power Strips For Your Next Fantastic Cruise.)

15. Charging Cord(s)

If you are going to charge something, you will need charging cords. They can be used with a portable charger, or you can use them with any outlet you are able to access.

16. Headphones or Earbuds

At some point during your travels, you’re probably going to want access to some headphones. Either for your own personal use or for other family members. Bring along some travel headphones, or if preferred, travel earbuds.

What distinguishes travel headphones from regular headphones? Basically price and durability. If you usually use expensive wireless Bluetooth headphones, you will probably want to leave those at home. (In my house, we actually use “travel” headphones year-round. Sadly, we go through them far too quickly to spend more than $20 for a set.)

pocket-size portable charger

View on Amazon

These are good options for headphones or earbuds for travel. While the headphones are billed as kids’ headphones, the headband is sufficiently adjustable that adults can wear them as well. So, if nothing else, you can at least bring along a backup pair in case someone breaks or loses their regular headphones.

17. Your Favorite Tablet or Other Electronic Device

Depending on when you arrive at the pier, you may have to wait before you are able to check in. Either because the lines are long, or because something has delayed check-in entirely. For instance, if there were concerns about norovirus on the cruise prior to yours, the cruise ship may institute some type of special cleaning and sanitizing procedures that take longer than the typical turn-around.

Having your favorite electronic device on hand will help pass the time. Also, once you have checked in, you may have to wait to access your room.

18. Lanyard

Some people don’t like the whole lanyard concept where you use a neck lanyard to carry around your cruise card. But it’s very popular and extremely convenient.

You will receive a cruise card as soon as you check-in that will allow you to access your cabin and make charges around the ship. If you already have your lanyard in your cruise bag, you can go ahead and tuck in your cruise card right away. And have it easily accessible as you explore the ship or head off to muster.

I prefer the vertical kind with a transparent front window and one or two rear pockets. You can easily find a family pack on Amazon.  And it’s good to bring along the extras in case one breaks. (I have one child who is a big fidgeter and always manages to break his halfway through the trip.)

You will also have the option to purchase lanyards at the gift shop, but they will much more expensive than what you can find while you are still on land.

Cruise Carry On Essentials | photo of cruise personnel assisting passengers with drinks

Things You Need for a Cruise Under Certain Conditions

19. Motion Sickness Prevention

If you have any concerns about motion sickness, be sure to toss some preventive (or remedial) measures in your carry-on cruise bag. Although the ship won’t be moving when you first board if your bag delivery takes extra time, you may not receive it before time for sail away.

20. Baby Proofing Items

If you will be traveling with a baby or toddler, you will want to childproof your cabin as soon as you are able to get into your room and not have to wait for all of your luggage to arrive.

We have an entire post that provides tips and strategies for improving cabin safety on a family cruise with a baby. But, for purposes of your carry-on cruise bag, pack a small roll of duct tape. You can use it to cover unused outlets and to secure doors on low cabinets and stray cords.

21. BYOB Beverages

Depending on which cruise line you are sailing, you may have the option to bring onboard your own limited quantity of non-alcoholic and/or alcoholic beverages. This could include limited amounts of sodas, beers, and bottles of wine.

We collected a short summary of the policies for several major cruise lines in our post on drink packages. You should check with your cruise line for the most updated information.

22. Change of Clothes

Including a change of clothes will potentially serve two purposes. First, if your embarkation day is also your travel day, you may want to freshen up. Or, if you’re coming from a location with a different climate, you will want to switch to proper vacation clothing. That way you’re not strolling around the hot sunny decks in your turtleneck sweater, for instance.

Also, this can serve as a backup for dinner in case your luggage has not arrived by the time you are ready to eat. (Although it most like will have arrived before dinner.) Fortunately, whatever dress code may exist is typically much more relaxed on the first day.

23. Freshen Up Kit

Regardless of whether you decide to pack a full change of clothes, you may want some key toiletries or other items to freshen up. For instance, deodorant, a toothbrush, and a fresh pair of underwear. Pull these together as a DYI freshen-up kit and pop it in your cruise bag!

Closing Thoughts:

So, bottom line, you should definitely plan to pack a carry-on cruise bag for your embarkation day. You can include these items to help your family cruise vacation get off to a great start. Be sure to download our handy checklist to use as a reference as you’re getting ready for your cruise.


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Last update on 2024-07-21 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API