Hands up if you’re headed to the Caribbean or another tropical destination! Keep those hands up if you have no idea what to pack. Long ago when I was preparing for my first Caribbean cruise, I was in the exact same place and it took a few cruises for me to put this list of must-pack items together.
1. Activewear Shorts
Ladies, this is for you. Those cover-up dresses are really cute, but they’re not practical for active shore excursions. You’ll want to have a pair of activewear shorts handy to throw on while you’re paddle boarding in St. Thomas, climbing Dunn’s River Falls in Jamaica, ziplining in Puerto Rico or doing any other activity where you’ll be harnessed in tightly. I suggest Under Armour’s Fly Fast Shorts because they are lightweight and loose, plus they wick moisture away from your skin and dry fast. There are also the UA HeatGear Alpha Middy Shorts. These are fitted and more like volleyball shorts, but they’re great to throw on to go paddle boarding. And if you’re looking for board shorts specifically made for the water, we like this pair. In general, any running or biking (without the padding) type of shorts will work great.
2. Two Bathing Suits
If you’re like the 99 percent of other cruisers, you are planning to get into the ocean or pool at some point (if not every day) during your Caribbean cruise. You’ll hang your bathing suit up on the trusty hanger in the bathroom (not on your balcony) at the end of each day, but it won’t be fully dry come morning.
And I don’t care how amazing a port is, there’s nothing exciting about putting on a cold, damp bathing suit. So you must pack two. Also, there’s a type of bathing suit you want to wear at the pool and beach, and then there’s a completely different one you’ll want to wear that won’t blow away when you’re on a Jet Ski.
Make sure one of the suits you pack is practical — not practically there.
3. Backpack (fanny pack for the 20-somethings)
Because numerous shore excursions will take you off the ship for the entire day, a backpack is the best way to bring everything you might possibly need. Careful packing will keep you from scrambling around in port searching for additional items. And you didn’t hear it from us, but a backpack is also where you’ll want to keep the granola bar you snuck out at breakfast.
4. Clear Nail Polish
Hubbies, hear us out before you say there’s not enough room in the suitcase. We just spent 30-something dollars on a fresh pedicure, and as soon as we get to the beach we are doing exactly what Zac Brown Band suggests: “Put your a@@ in the water and toes in the sand.” And that white Caribbean sand will wreak havoc on our pedis and have our toes looking a little homely. Ladies, bust out the clear polish and get those bad boys shining again. It’s open-toe shoe season year-round in the Caribbean.
We are talking plural. You’ll need a baseball cap when you’re exploring the port (or when you don’t want to do your hair) and a big floppy hat when you’re sitting by the pool or at the beach. But do take note of the wind, especially on sea days.
6. Formal Wear
Kenny Chesney, Jimmy Buffet, and Bob Marley would all agree with “No shoes. No Shirt. No Problem!” And while they are all on to something when it comes to the Caribbean and island life, there’s still a dress code on most ships. Check to see what the cruise line dress code is before you set sail. Unless you’re cruising on a luxury line like Silversea or Regent, you can certainly leave the tuxedo at home. But a nice dress and quite possibly a nice button-up sure does the soul good every once in a while.
7. Coin Purse and Small Denominations of Local Currency
Contrary to in the U.S., a dollar or the equivalent of one can go far in the Caribbean, and having small amounts of currency is essential during your cruise travels. Find out which ports you’re cruising to and exchange a few dollars at your local bank to save money. Also, keep small bills handy for tipping. Don’t have a coin purse to carry your cash? Pick up a handmade wallet that will double as a souvenir.
8. Water bottle
There’s no need to buy plastic water bottles at every port. Fill up your own BPA-free water bottle before leaving the ship and you’ll have potable water available wherever you go. Plus, you’ll be watching your carbon footprint by thinking ahead. Go you!
9. Fabric Bags
Truthfully, this is a must-pack for any cruise destination. You’ll need a place to store all your dirty clothes, and a fabric bag is easy to shove into any open spot in your suitcase. Once you get home, just unload the bag into the washer and you’re good to go.
10. Clear Deodorant
Yes, you will bring deodorant, but you will be wearing your bathing suit, tank tops and dresses the whole week. Avoid that awkward moment when you lie down on your lounge chair, lift your arms up to fully feel the sun and then you notice you have chunks of white deodorant under your arms.
11. Shoes You Can Really Walk In
Forgo packing stilettos and grab your wedge heels. The floors on cruise ships change with each venue, so in a given night you can go from the slick tile of the main dining room, to the wood floor at the pub, carpet in the hallway and teak on the deck. It’s a stiletto nightmare. Consider putting a sole sticker on the bottom of your shoes to avoid any slipping and a pad in the inside to give you a little more cushion. It’s hard to believe, but you actually walk quite a bit on a cruise ship (during my last cruise I clocked 10,000+ steps per day).
Once you get off the ship you’ll notice most of the ports have cobblestone streets or sidewalks (or “sidewalks” — roadside strips of grass), and they’re usually not in the best shape. Pack a pair of walking shoes, boat shoes, sneakers — whatever shoe is most comfortable to you for extended exploring. And, of course, pack the flip-flops.
12. Shampoo and Conditioner
Wait, what? That was my exact reaction the first time I cruised on Norwegian Getaway. I walked into my bathroom to check out what their toiletry game was all about and found two dispensers, one with body wash and one with shampoo. They were exaclty the same color shade of blueish-green so I have to wonder if they were the same product.
Cruise ships are not like hotels. Other than the luxury lines, most cruise lines don’t supply you with shampoo and conditioner and if they do it's not a good brand. There’s usually a hair dryer somewhere, but it’s a scavenger hunt finding it. Pack your own toiletries, and bring some leave-in conditioner. The sun and salt water will take its toll on your strands.
Tip: If you’re going on a snorkeling excursion, put your hair into a braid. That will keep it from getting tangled in your mask. Once you get back to the ship, spray leave-in conditioner in it and let it sit for a while. That will help keep it from drying out.
13. Face-cleansing Wipes
Hello, humidity! Welcome to the Caribbean. Don’t look like you just got done working out for your entire cruise. Pack face-cleansing wipes or spritzer to keep your face looking fresh and clean when you’re walking around the ports and after your shore excursions.
14. Anti-chafing Balm
This is that awkward stuff we like to ignore, but some of us (present company included) experience leg chaffing in humid conditions. I use Bodyglide before I run in any humid weather and even pack it with me when I’m exploring a port. I’m more than happy to apply a little balm rather than having too much pride and walking funny. And you can even use it between your toes to avoid irritation from flip-flops and on the back of your heels to minimize their rubbing on shoes. It’s a must-pack for everyone.
15. Waterproof Phone Case
You’re going to be careful when you’re taking that selfie in the ocean, right? Until a fish swims by your leg, freaks you out and now your phone is at the bottom of the sea. Spend a little extra and buy a waterproof phone case that allows you to still take pictures when your phone is in it. I swear by the company Seashell and have had great success with their iPhone 5 case and their camera case.
Tip: Rinse the lens off with fresh water when you get out of the ocean to avoid water spots from drying on the lens.
16. Snorkel Gear
Snorkeling is amazing. Using the same mouthpiece as the thousands of other cruisers, not so much. Hygiene aside, you’ll want to be familiar with your gear before you go. There’s nothing worse than going on a snorkeling trip and finding you’ve got the broken mouthpiece or realizing there aren’t enough fins or goggles your size. You’ll be snorkeling in some of the best waters in the world, so enjoy every minute. Most sporting goods stores sell snorkel gear for less than $30.
17. SPF 30 Sport Sunblock
SPF 15 sunblock might protect you against the sun when you’re walking to and from your car, but you’ll need something stronger in the Caribbean. Opt for a 30+ SPF that’s sweat-proof (this is why we suggest an SPF intended for sports), and remember to apply it often. Ladies, consider packing a tinted moisturizer with SPF; that way, you get your makeup and sunscreen all in one.
18. Polarized Sunglasses
On any cruise, sunglasses are an absolute essential. But since this is the Caribbean and time in the sun is a must-do, you’ll spend nearly all of your time squinting outside if you don’t have sunglasses. With the variety of blues and greens that await you, polarized is definitely the way to go. There’s no better way to get an eye-popping dose of color.
If you wear prescription glasses, be sure to bring your prescription sunglasses if you have them. The sun is a little too strong for just a hat. As a last resort, grab some clip-on shades from a local drug store. It’s not the trendiest thing, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
19. Motion-sickness Medicine
If you tend to suffer from motion sickness, keep medicines such as Dramamine (or something stronger from your doctor) on hand to help treat nausea, dizziness, vomiting and other symptoms. Keep in mind that motion sickness doesn’t only hit when you’re on the water. The roads on many Caribbean islands wind like a wooden roller coaster and most of the drivers do about 20 miles over the speed limit. Not sure if you’ll need it? Pack it anyway; it’s better to be safe than sorry.
20. Swim Shirts/Rash Guards for Kids
We covered the 30+ Sport SPF for adults, but for the kids, pack the swim shirts. They will literally live in the water the entire cruise. On the ship they have an entire kids pool area with water slides, giant buckets that fill up with water and dump on them, water guns, small pools and just about everything else you can think of. If you’re cruising to the Caribbean in the winter months you might need to order these online, so plan ahead.
21. Workout Gear
I understand you are on vacation, but do you have any idea how amazing it is to do a yoga class (free of charge) on the lido deck just as the sun is rising over the ocean? It will put you into a serious state of zen. There are also Zumba classes on the lido, and most ships have running and walking tracks that are always packed with people (great for motivation). So while you might not have considered working out on your Caribbean cruise, you might be pleasantly surprised with how much working out you actually do.
22. Zippered Plastic Bags
You’ll only need a few, and you’ll save these for your last day when you’re packing up all your wet swimsuits. Try to get everything packed up the last night of the cruise so you don’t forget anything in the bathroom. Just put the suits into the zippered plastic bags and stuff them into a pocket on the outside of your suitcase. It’ll keep your other clothes from smelling wet, especially if you’re staying an extra night at the homeport.
23. Beach Towel
Don’t pack this; instead, buy one on the ship or at your first port of call. Some cruise lines will allow you to use their towels, but if you lose yours you’ll have to pay the hefty $25 fee. Might as well buy your own and have a souvenir.
24. Aloe Vera
Hopefully you won’t need this, but if you happen to fall asleep on the lido deck or forget to put extra sunblock on your back while you’re snorkeling, you will need some aloe vera. You can buy it on the ship, but it will be a couple of bucks more and even pricier at the ports.
Think we missed something in our Caribbean packing list? Share with us in the comments below.