When sailing a family cruise, odds are high that you will leave the ship during at least one of the ship’s port calls. Whether you are participating in a structured shore excursion or taking the DIY route, you want to make sure that you have what you need when leaving the ship to have a fun, stress-free day. This list of basic essential items will help you get maximum enjoyment during your family’s port calls. And, you will also have tools to address unexpected contingencies.
The first 15 items on this list apply for any of your shore trips. The remaining sections of the list break out the last 9 items into beach port calls and city port calls. (If you’re planning to sail an Alaska cruise, be sure to check out our tips and checklist on packing for an Alaskan cruise!)
ITEMS TO PACK FOR ALL PORT CALLS
1. A Family Day Bag
Although different family members may have personal items that they cart around themselves, you should try to have one primary bag that houses all of your family essentials. It doesn’t necessarily mean one person carries it around all day. It can be a shared responsibility. But you benefit from having one primary consolidated bag because you can easily make sure that you have all the key items that you need for the day in one place. And this cuts down on inadvertently leaving key items behind. Also, this bag can conveniently be packed, or largely packed, the night before. So that you can get out the door faster and get the most use of your day in port.
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The type of bag doesn’t really matter. It just needs to be big enough to hold everything that you need. If you are going to the beach, a big beach style tote works nicely. (I personally prefer one that has a top closure.) If you have a city day plan, a backpack style bag may be easier and more efficient. And there are also hybrids between the two styles.
2. Cruise Cards/Cruise Identification
You always need your cruise card to get on and off the ship. On some newer ships, you now have options for wristbands or the like. But even though you can use those items to charge stuff, you will likely still need your actual cruise card to walk on and off the ship in port.
Also, depending on which port you are visiting, you may need to show your cruise card on the way back to the ship before you are even allowed access to the pier area. I have encountered this numerous times in the Caribbean.
Whether you will be at the beach or in the city, it is always a good idea to have a bottle of water on hand. This recommendation applies regardless of the climate or weather conditions. Hot and sunny, or rainy and chilly? Take the water anyway. This makes sure that you have something you know is safe to drink. The amount you need can vary based on your expectations for the day. But you should take at least one bottle – even if it is a small one.
Be sure to pack snacks for excursions. Even if you expect to have a meal while you are out and about. Some excursions can be long, or you may encounter unexpected delays. Or, the included meal may not be something you and/or your kids want to actually eat. This issue pops up regardless of whether you usually have picky eaters. Sometimes stuff just doesn’t look quite right.
Before you disembark, you can stop by the buffet to grab dry cereal, cartons of milk, crackers, rolls, etc. (When my kids were toddlers, they loved sausage; so we always took a little baggie and packed some up.) Most recently, grabbing boxes of dry cereal has been our go-to snack to cart off the ship during port calls.
Even if you are having breakfast in the dining room, you can ask your server to bring you some boxes of cereal as you get ready to leave. Don’t be shy! Remember that you’ve already paid for this type of stuff in your original fare! (On one recent cruise, they did not keep those little boxes of cereal out in the buffet like we were used to, but we had no problem getting as many as we wanted on request.)
Sadly, you will probably have to avoid fresh fruit and veggies because such items are usually restricted for agricultural reasons. Generally, you won’t be allowed to bring any fresh fruit off or on the ship. (While no one typically searches bags as you are leaving the ship, your bags will always be searched when you return. Sometimes twice – once by port officials on the pier, and again as you actually board the ship.)
5. Small Denomination Cash
Cash in small denominations always comes in handy during port calls. Whether you plan to use U.S. dollars or local currency, have some small bills or coins on hand. This will make it easier to make small purchases, hand out tips as needed, navigate taxis, etc. Often small merchants or vendors will not have sufficient change to accommodate transactions with larger bills. Having access to small denomination bills also increases your flexibility to haggle and negotiate local purchases, in situations where that’s appropriate. (We usually try to get change the night before port calls while we are still sailing. Either from guest services or the casino.)
Also, if you are dealing with local currency, don’t assume that the bills you get out of the ATM are small bills. In the U.S. (outside of a casino), any bills that you get out of an ATM are going to be common denominations that are usually easy to change – $5, $10, and $20. That’s not necessarily the case when traveling abroad.
6. Credit Card
Even if you are not planning to do any significant shopping, it can be a good idea to have a credit card on hand for emergencies, or unexpected situations. (If you have the option, remember to choose the card that does not have additional transaction fees for foreign transactions.)
7. Photo ID
Adults should plan to carry some form of photo I.D. – so you can prove you are who you say you are. If outside the U.S., the easiest form of I.D. is your passport. Often your passport will not actually be required to get back onto the ship. But if it is, the cruise line will typically state it in the daily newsletter the night before.
If passports are required, they will be required for everyone – adults and kids.
8. Confirmation Or Tickets For Any Excursion
If you have booked excursions through the ship, you will receive tickets in advance. Either as soon as you board or at the time of purchase. You will actually need these. If you booked anything online, print out the relevant emails and confirmations. It’s also a good idea to print out a description of the excursion that you paid for so that you know what is included and you can correct any discrepancies.
9. Ship Daily Planner
Every evening you should receive a copy of the ship’s newsletter in your cabin. You should plan to take it with you if you leave the ship. If needed, you can get extra copies from your stateroom attendant, or guest services.
The daily newsletter contains lots of useful information specific to individual port calls. For instance, they usually include a map of the port, or at least the area around where the ship docks. They have information about the ship’s agent in port in case of emergencies. They may also include practical information about the port, such as how much you should expect to pay for a taxi or travel times to common destinations. And, they have that very important information about when to back on the ship, so you aren’t relying on memories.
10. A Watch or Timepiece (on Ship Time)
When you leave the ship during port calls, make sure that you have an analog watch or some other way of keeping time that stays on ship time. You should be extremely wary of relying on any electronic devices that automatically reset to local time. There are many ports where the ship will not adjust its clock to match local time. And, when a ship departure time is posted, it will always be posted based on ship time. You should confirm that whatever clock you are using is on ship time before you leave the ship. And, the departure time may have changed from when you booked your cruise, so you should reconfirm the actual departure time. (See this story for an example of what can happen if you fail to confirm the time.)
For obvious reasons, you absolutely want to have the correct departure time, so that you make it back before your ship sails without you. So, you want to know when to get back to the ship. And, you preferably don’t want to rely on others. Other cruisers you encounter on excursions will not necessarily be on the same “ship time” as the ship you are sailing. (It may vary based on the cruise line and the time zone from which they embarked.) And, you definitely want to remain on the ship time for your actual ship.
11. First Aid Kit (Or At Least Band Aids)
Pack a small first aid kit or at least a package of band-aids. (They will be significantly cheaper if you buy them before getting on the ship.) We end up needing at least one band-aid almost every trip. For someone cutting a hand during a cooking class excursion, getting scratched on coral or rocky beach, or just your run of the mill skin knee.
Take hand sanitizer. You can never have too much hand sanitizer on a cruise. I always bring several of the small travel bottles from home. And, place one in various bags. Such as a purse, plane carry-on, and the family day bag. If you don’t like liquid sanitizer, you can find small packs of sanitizing wipes as well.
In addition to the obvious use for your hands, and your kids’ hands, you can use it to wipe off tables, chairs, or other public items that you need to use but may have more germs than you would like.
Perhaps you always carry around a handy pocket pack of tissues. Excellent! Throw in an extra pack or two. If not, add some into the suitcase before you leave home. But, in a pinch, you can always grab the box out of the bathroom in your cabin. We do this all the time.
Tissues have so many excellent uses during port days. Of course, there is the traditional nose-blowing, wiping, etc. But you can also use it as toilet paper in situations where none is available or provided (a very frequent occurrence). You can also use tissues with hand sanitizer to make your own speedy wipe. For tables, toilet seats, or where ever else appropriate.
On trips where we have gone through quite a few boxes of tissue, we’ve never had problems getting more from the stateroom attendant. And, you will likely find extra boxes stored under the sink or behind the plate if tissue comes out of the wall.
You don’t need a camera to actually enjoy your port calls, but having pictures later down the road will help you remember how much fun you had! Something simple and small should suffice. For instance, the camera on your smartphone could work just fine, especially if you have one of the newer ones with awesome built-in cameras.
Something else to consider if you are going snorkeling is to bring along a disposable underwater camera. Obviously, you won’t be taking magazine-quality photos with such a device, but they are fine for basic casual photography.
15. Power Bank
It’s a good idea to have a back up source of power for your cell phones and/or tablets during port calls. This is particularly true when you have a long bus or van ride. You can also use a power bank to charge cameras or any other electronic devices you may be toting around. One good bank should suffice – as long as you remember to recharge it.
I would strongly urge buying one and bringing it from home. (I personally prefer one with built-in cables because there is less to keep track of.) We were once on a ship that sold power banks rather cheaply, but they had a firm no return policy on that specific item. Presumably to avoid people potentially scamming them by using it for a day and then returning it. The problem was that some of them actually were defective. Which we discovered once we were away from the ship and actually needed them. Thankfully, we had brought a couple from home. We had just decided to pick up some extras because we had a large travel party, lots of uneventful driving, and many tablets to keep fed.
ITEMS TO PACK FOR BEACH PORT CALLS
16. Beach Towels
For port calls that include a trip to the beach, you should always plan to stop by the pool and grab beach towels. You can generally carry as many as you want off the ship to use in port. You just need to remember to bring them back so you won’t be assessed a fee.
Unless your excursion tickets specifically say that towels are included, you should assume that they are not. Or, that they may be available, but only for a fee. If you are not provided any information, take towels anyway. You don’t want to purchase overpriced towels that you feel obligated to drag home because they cost so much money.
18. Plastic Bag
Think Ziploc style, but any plastic bag will do. Use it for messy clothes, shoes, and wet swimsuits that you would like to quarantine from the rest of your belongings.
19. Sand Toys
Your beach day port calls will be much more fun if you have sand toys to play with. If you buy them before you leave home, you can do so cheaply. And this makes it easier to give them away or discard them once you are done, and free up room in your suitcase. I like to buy one or two large cheaper sets with many pieces. This makes it easier to share.
Swim goggles are also a key item to have, particularly if you plan to visit the salty ocean water. They help protect the eyes from the irritations of chlorine in the pool and salt in the ocean.
21. Safety Vest For Kids Or Floaties
Although you should never solely rely on kids’ flotation devices for water safety, they do make it easier for everyone to play safely in the water without unduly worrying about an unexpected big wave, strong currents, or a power tide surge. (This is our all-time favorite style kids’ swim vest.)
Related Content: Our Top Pool Safety Tips For Your Family Cruise
22. Tip Money
Bring some money that you can use for tips. For instance, the guy who sets up the beach umbrella(s) for your family. Or, perhaps for the bartender or server for drinks.
ITEMS TO PACK FOR CITY/TOURING DAYS
For your port calls that involve a big city tour or traveling to an adjacent locale, be mindful that you are more likely to be some distance from the ship, and not able to easily get back quickly. So pack accordingly.
23. EXTRA snacks
This may seem duplicative of number 4, but it’s intentional. If you are going to be running around all day, you should definitely toss in a few extra snacks, and hopefully with more variety. Schedules frequently vary from your original expectations. Whether you are doing an organized group or DIY. And, it is miserable to be trapped on a bus or in a taxi with tired, hungry, cranky family members with no obvious relief in sight.
And, again, pack snacks even if you are taking an excursion that includes a meal. It gives you a wee bit of a buffer in case the meal doesn’t meet your expectations based on quality, quantity, or both.
24. An Electronic Distraction
Hopefully, you have more relaxed screen time rules when on vacation. If so, make sure to pack some type of entertaining electronic device. I am specifically thinking of a small tablet with headphones. Something for long rides that may be otherwise very boring for kids. Your smartphone will also work if you have something kid-friendly and entertaining loaded on it as a backup. Just bring earbuds.
Some of the best highlights from a fun family cruise occur off the ship. Since each of your individual port calls will have limited time, you want to make sure that you are able to make the most of your visit. Without making unnecessary trips back to your ship or cabin. And with a minimum of stress or crankiness. These items will help ease your path from ship to shore and back again.
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