21 Travel & Cruise Essentials

You can probably find dozens of cruise essentials lists online, and each one would be slightly different.

But after numerous cruises, these are the essential items which I've found work best. And many of these items are essential for any trip, and not just on cruises, as they are the result of my experience traveling to 43 different countries.

These cruise essentials can save you money (up to $300-- see #15 below) and space, plus make your trip-- whether it's a cruise or not-- more enjoyable. 

Cruise Essentials #1: Ziploc Bags

I'm a snacker, and not someone who can eat huge amounts at a time (like at breakfast) to last me through the day. 

So among my cruise essentials I always bring a quart-sized Ziploc or resealable baggie to grab a muffin or snack (I love Holland America's bran muffins-- sweet, but still relatively healthy) from the Lido buffet to take with me on excursions.  Other great things to grab from the Lido to snack on include Saltine crackers and mini cereal boxes.

Ziploc baggies are perhaps your most important cruise essentials.

(I haven't yet found a way to successfully pack on-the-go versions of chocolate molten lava cake.)

I also bring resealable baggies in other sizes along, including 1-2 gallon sizes (to hold wet swim suits, for example), and snack sizes to hold medications. I like to pack daily medications in one bag, and then "in case" meds (like decongestants and motion sickness pills) in another.

#2: Travel Coffee Mug

A lightweight, plastic refillable travel mug, like this one from Williamsburg's Pierce's Pitt BBQ, is a must.

This is a new cruise essentials "must" for me. On a recent cruise in Alaska, I saw a number of people walking around with these, and thought, "Why didn't I think of that?" You might think "Why bother?" on a ship with hot coffee and tea free for the taking 24 hours a day.

But I like my coffee/tea in a big mug, and the mugs on board cruise ships run pretty small

I also like drinking a big mug of tea in the morning, so on my recent cruise I found myself having to make TWO cups of tea each morning just to equal what I usually drink with my breakfast. 

Plus, I like being able to bring hot drinks with me to my favorite reading or hangout spots on board ship (I find bar areas to be fabulously quiet places to read in the mornings-- few heavy drinkers are out and about in the bars until mid-afternoon). So making my way from the Lido to my reading spot on Deck 4 or 5 with an open, small mug isn't ideal.

So next cruise, I'll be packing a refillable plastic mug among my cruise essentials (and filling it with clean socks-- got to maximize space!). 

#3: Flat, Refillable Water Bottle

A flat refillable water bottle with a carabiner is best.

I hate throwing out disposable water bottles after 1-2 uses, as well as having to pay $2-$4 for a bottle of water, so I like to travel with a single bottle of water and refill it as needed. (I always remember to empty it before going through security at the airport, then refill it for free from a water fountain once I'm in the gate area.) 

Even better is to purchase a flat, refillable water bottle. I bought mine on sale for $7 at Eddie Bauer years ago and it's still saving me money. These are superior to disposable water bottles-- which tend to crush after a few uses-- and are sturdier, lie flat when they are empty, and usually have a pull-open, push-closed top which doesn't leak if closed securely (they usually have a round, plastic cap, but I tend to lose those). 

A bottle which has an attached carabiner is best, because it allows you to clip it to your purse or belt loop when you're not using it.

Since I'm always germ-conscious when I travel, I open the pull-open top with my teeth, then close it firmly by holding the bottle in one hand, closing the fist of my other hand, and giving it a quick tap with the side of my fist to close it well. I wash my bottle out every few days using soap and water. 

Update: On a recent cruise to Bermuda, my hubby came up with the great idea of clipping the bottles to the retractable laundry line in the shower in between cleanings.

#4: Lanyard

Bring a lanyard with a plastic sleeve for your cruise card, or ask Guest Services to punch a hole in the card to attach it to your lanyard.

I always travel with my favorite Baggalini messenger bag which has lots of pockets, including a small one perfect for holding my hand sanitizer and my onboard cruise card (you know, the one that doubles as your room key, boarding ID card, and cruise debit card?).

But many people prefer to keep their card around their necks in a lanyard and consider them cruise essentials. You can certainly buy one onboard, but why spend $6.95 or more for something you probably already have at home?

I have half a dozen of those lying around at my house, whether it's the one I use at work, one I got at Busch Gardens, or one I got at an educator conference. I travel often enough that I have a drawer in my dresser set aside for travel items, so when I get home, I make sure I put my lanyard in there so it's ready for the next cruise.

You can use the small plastic case usually attached to lanyards to hold your card, or go to the Front Desk and ask them to punch a small hole in the card to attach it.

#5: Small Cosmetics Bags

Cosmetic bags are a great way to stay organized!

I've never purchased packing cubes (too restrictive for packers like me who want to make use of every square inch of my suitcase). 

However, I do like to be organized, so I bring along several cosmetic bags among my cruise essentials (the makeup-sized ones which you tend to get when you buy things from places like Ulta or cosmetic counters).

I use one for medications (daily ones and my "just in case" meds - see #15 for recommendations for these) and my Sea Bands in case of rough seas and another for various charging cords (phone recharger, Kindle charger, and camera charger).

I'll dedicate another to cleaning items (travel-sized packets of Tide for doing laundry, clothes pins for drying things overnight, a travel-sized wrinkle-releaser), and another for what I call "room aids" (more on that next).

Tip: If you have a mini spray bottle (1.5 ounces or less), make your own wrinkle-releaser with the recipe: 1/2 cup water (preferably bottled or distilled), 1/2 t. liquid fabric softener. Optional: 1 t. rubbing alcohol helps the spray evaporate quicker, but I leave this out just in case it takes color out of delicate fabrics.

#6-10: Room Aids

Avoid late night falls with a flat nightlight.

I usually bring a flat night light when I travel. These cruise essentials are especially vital for an inside cabin (still my cabin of choice, since they are the cheapest and I always sleep like a baby), but also super helpful in hotel rooms for late night trips to the bathroom.

Another option I recently read about is to bring a battery operated tea light and place it (turned on, of course) in a glass in the glass holder in the bathroom. The light will be reflected in the mirror. (Best to bring two in case one burns out.)

Something we brought on our most recent cruise was a night light/phone charger (we purchased one for $5 at Five Below) so we could charge our phones overnight while having a night light in the room. 

I also like to bring along a small pack of Post-It notes and a pen for leaving notes on my stateroom door ("I'm on the bow side of the Verandah Deck") for those rare occasions when I "lose" my hubby on board.

Other stateroom aids which I've personally never used but which others have found helpful include the following: balloons and tape (for decorating your stateroom door so you and relatives will recognize it), or a magnetic mini white board (purchased from the Dollar Store) where you can leave notes for relatives (although if you lose the wipe-off pen, you're up a creek, which is why I prefer the Post-It notes). 

#11: Sample-Sized Toiletries & Makeup

My trick for going as small as possible in my toiletries? Samples!

Ship cabins always provide the following: shampoo, conditioner, body wash, lotion, and shower caps.

But if you prefer to bring your own hair products, or if you use make up, you'll need to bring your own cruise essentials. I would be totally lost if I packed my cosmetics bag in my checked luggage and it were lost or delayed, so I always pack it in my carry-on.

Aside from space issues, I'm always trying to keep my bottles and containers small to take up less space and so they meet the TSA's rule of 3 ounces or less for carry-ons. (Dollar Stores and Bed, Bath and Beyond are great places to look for travel sizes.)

On our recent trip, I went even smaller. Using my Amazon Prime membership, I purchased a sample beauty box, which featured samples of L'Oreal creams, facial oil, a travel-sized deodorant, shampoo and lotions. (Great deal! It cost $11 for the samples and included $11 in Amazon credit toward a regular purchase of one of the items.)  

Places like Ulta and Clinique often offer gift with purchase sample bags. Or, you can subscribe to sample boxes, like some of those listed here. 

Perfume samples 

Bringing along a purse-sized bottle of perfume doesn't take up much space, but you save even more space by packing those flat, perfume sample sheets which come in women's fashion magazines. I'm an Ulta member and I get 3-4 of them twice a month in their mailers.

#12: Ear Plugs

I've slept with ear plugs every night since college, but even if you aren't a light sleeper like me, ear plugs are cruise essentials. You never know if you'll have noisy neighbors or if that "perfect" cabin will end up being under a high traffic area. 

We once had a cabin under the kitchen, and every night from 11 pm to 1 am it sounded like a bowling alley above us. Of course, I heard none of it thanks to my ear plugs, but my hubby did. (He complained-- very nicely-- a few times and we got moved and upgraded to a balcony cabin two days later!)

#13: Alarm Clock

No, staterooms don't typically have them, and if you have an inside cabin you can't rely on the sun to wake you up. So a small, packable alarm clock is useful if you don't want to use your phone's alarm clock.

Keep in mind that you can use your phone's alarm clock while in airplane mode, so you don't have to worry about roaming charges. 

#14: Sea Bands

I always bring my Sea Bands...just in case of rough seas.

I feel sick on boats, but rarely on cruise ships. Still, you never know when the seas will be rough, so I bring along a pack of Sea Bands among my cruise essentials.

They really help with motion sickness, and you don't have that drowsy feeling from sea sickness pills (although I always bring along a couple of Dramamine or Meclizine pills just in case of really rough seas).

The Sea Bands are comfortable (you can even sleep in them) and barely noticeable (you may even look like you've been working out). Make sure you position them so the plastic disc is on the pulse point the inside of your wrist if you want them to work.

It's always cheaper to buy sea sickness pills in your local pharmacy rather than on board ship, which may charge as much as $4 for four pills.

#15: Mini Hand Sanitizer 

I never travel anywhere without this!

Yes, pretty much all cruise ships have hand sanitizer stands throughout the ship these days, and it can't hurt to use them. But you won't always be near one--certainly not on excursions-- so your cruise essentials should include a 1 oz, flat bottle of hand sanitizer (it's slightly less bulky than a round bottle).

Use it to clean your hands on the go, but recognize that washing your hands with soap and water is always preferable, as hand santizers may not kill all germs.

#16: A Photo of Your Luggage...and Parking Place

Once, coming back from a European cruise, my checked suitcase got lost. When they asked "What does it look like?" I drew a blank. "Um, it's blue?" I said, realizing that that could describe thousands of other bags.

Ever since then, one of my cruise essentials is to take a quick photo of each checked bag on your smart phone before you set off on your trip.

Also, be sure to take a photo of where you parked your car at the terminal. You'd be surprised how a week or more of good food, fun, and travel will erase your memory of where you parked it.

TIP: Speaking of cruise essentials we've learned, on our last cruise to Bermuda, we had to wait through customs at Cape Liberty in Bayonne, NJ. It wasn't until we'd gotten out luggage and gone in to a second room that we saw how long the customs line was. The SMART people had paid a porter to pick up their luggage in the first room.

Guess what? Those people skipped the ENTIRE customs line wait and went to the head of the customs line. So a tip of maybe $8-$10 bucks could have saved us a 30-minute wait. We'll know for next time (and there will be a next time, since Bayonne is a great port to sail out of).

#17: Pashminas or Multi-colored Scarves

A thick, warm reversible Pashmina can be a stole or a blanket, and gives you a variety of looks.

My travel color of choice is black (always elegant and doesn't show dirt) combined with tops and sweaters in two basic bright colors (like royal blue and pink). I like to be able to mix tops, bottoms, and jackets for a variety of looks, brightly-colored scarves and pashminas are true cruise essentials which can help you alter my look and dress it up in a flash. 

The warmest I've found are these Sakkras double layer pashminas. They come in a wide variety of colors and are SO soft and a really great quality.

If I'm going to a warmer climate, I'll choose lighter scarves, including light cotton ones so I can use them as a light coverup if I feel I'm getting too much sun.

Choose a reversible one to give you even more looks with no extra bulk!

Also, I'm always cold, so bringing 2-3 pashminas is a must for me. I can use them as a scarf while on the ship or excursions, or as a stole to ward off the cold in chilly dining rooms. I always put the thickest scarf in my carry on so I have it on the plane to use as a blanket or to roll it up and use it as a lumbar pillow.

#18: Mini Umbrella or Rain Poncho

I'll never forget the second time we sailed into Bermuda. It poured. And poured. And poured. (Come to think of it, it poured the first time we went there too.)

We only had 7 hours in port, so we decided to brave the rain. We had one umbrella among the four of us, and each had a skimpy rain coat, but the umbrella proved useless with the high winds, and with a downpour that lasted two straight hours and swamped our shoes, it was kind of miserable.

The two of us who purchased plastic rain ponchos on the dock for $6 each stayed the most dry, so I've kept those ponchos (they roll up nicely and take up little room) and I always pack them just in case we ever face another deluge. 

#19: Mini Sewing and Folding Scissors

A mini sewing kit should be one of your cruise essentials.

Our last cruise, my husband went to put on his blazer for a formal night and realized that one of his rather expensive gold buttons was hanging by a thread. Luckily, I had packed my mini sewing kit. 

The best kind are the flat, mini sewing kits which you sometimes get at high-end hotels or are occasionally given out as freebies at fairs and conventions. Just a single needle and a few strands of different colored thread will do the job.

TIP! I never travel without my little folding scissors, my ultimate travel and cruise essentials. I bought mine in 1982 in Beijing and keep them on my key chain along with my car keys. They are SO useful, whether it's for sewing or cutting off luggage tags.

I LOVE my foldable scissors which I bought in Beijing in 1982 for a buck!

I've left them in my purse a time or two when going through airport security and had no problem, but I prefer to pack them in my checked luggage because I'd be devastated if an over-zealous TSA worker flagged and confiscated them.

Truly one of my best travel purchases ever! You can buy them on Amazon. 

#20: Mini First Aid Kit

I almost never use my mini first aid kit when traveling, but these kits are cruise essentials just in case of a minor cut or illness. The best ones are small, flat, and include Band-Aids, adhesive, and antibiotic ointment. You should also add "just in case" meds you might need.

As I mentioned above (see #4), I use snack-sized plastic baggies to pack "just in case" meds like these: Pepto Bismol chews, decongestants, sea sickness pills, Lomotil (in case of diarrhea), pain killers, and Benedryl. 

How much could a trip to the ship doctor set you back? On a cruise in 2009, my then seven-year-old got a stomach bug the second day and with the Norovirus running around, we considered a trip to the ship doctor. We were told it would cost over $300 just to be seen. Needless to say, we skipped the doc and treated him with the Tylenol we'd brought and added 7-up and Saltines. He was fine and we weren't out hundreds of dollars.

#21: Hot Hands (for cold itineraries)

Used in your pockets, these air-activated heaters are vital cruise essentials for cold itineraries. On our day in Alaska's Glacier Bay, I was wearing five layers, and I put them in the pockets of layer #3 (a Spyder zip-up core sweater).

Having them insulated in the layers produced a nice heat which lasted a good 10 hours. (They're already pretty cheap, but I suggest you buy Hot Hands off-season-- March to April-- to get them on sale.)

Check out these travel tips...

My whole site is focused on providing travel tips, including how to save you money, time, and headaches. But if you're planning a cruise or trip, these pages may be particularly helpful:

Discount Travel Deals

Air Travel Tips

Latest Airline Travel Rules

Virginia Cruise Deals

Cruising out of Baltimore

› 17 Cruise Essentials

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