How to Pack Carry-on Only for a Cruise: 13 Tips, Hacks & How-tos

how to pack carry on only for cruise

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If you’re going on a cruise want to pack carry-on only, you’re not alone. After all, cruising with just a carry-on size luggage has it’s benefits.

If you’re flying to the cruise embarkation port, you may want to avoid airline luggage fees or the worry that the airline will lose your luggage! Plus, simplifying your packing process does reduce the stress of unpacking on boarding day and packing up at the end of your cruise.

I’m not usually a minimalist packer. In fact, I usually overpack! However, I decided to challenge myself to packing carry-on only on a recent 5 day cruise.

I admit, there were some advantages to packing light on a cruise. I may even try packing carry-on only for a 7 day cruise next time.

In this post I share 10 cruise packing tips, tricks & hacks will help you to pack for a cruise with only a carry on bag!

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Tips for Packing Carry-On Only for a Cruise

carry on only for cruise

1. Choose the right carry-on luggage

Pack carry on luggage that is easy to manoeuvre on flights, through the airport and cruise terminal and even public transportation. Be sure it’s durable, the wheels function well and the interior space of the carry on luggage is optimized.

Hard Side Luggage Recommended

I’m a big proponent of hard side luggage for one big reason. A few years ago we cruised with soft sided luggage, and unfortunately it was a rainy embarkation day.

Our luggage must have been left in the rain outside the cruise terminal building. Therefore, when our luggage was delivered to out cabin, it was visibly wet. Not just the outside – some of our clothing was wet and I ruined a pair of my favorite leather sandals.

Since then, we travel with hard side luggage and I’ve never looked back.

Ilana with hard side luggage
Cruising with a carry-on luggage

Recommended: Level 8 Carry-on Luggage (check price & 1800+ Amazon reviews here)

2. Pack Only Must-Have Items

Packing light for a cruise requires packing only must-have items, and not “just in case” items.

If you’re going on a cruise with checked luggage, you might have the luxury of some just in case items. However. when cruising carry-on only, be intentional about every outfit and travel essential you bring.

3. Plan Your Outfits

Most people pack too much clothes and shoes for a cruise. So, planning your cruise outfits is key to packing carry-on only.

Cruise Line Dress Codes

Consider the duration of the cruise, how many sea days and port days, and evening wear expectations. Most 7 day cruises will have 5 casual or smart casual nights and 2 formal or “dress-up” nights.

Check the Weather

Adapt your clothing packing list to your itinerary and the weather in your destination visits. Don’t forget to check the weather forecast before you go, in case the temperature is unseasonably warmer or cooler than you might expect.

Bring Versatile Pieces

It’s a good idea to bring versatile clothing pieces that can serve multiple purposes, such as sundresses that transition seamlessly from day to night.

Multi-Purpose Items

Opt for items that serve multiple functions. A sarong can double as a beach cover-up or a scarf, while a lightweight jacket can be worn casually during the day and dressed up for the evening.

This way, you get more utility out of each item and still look fabulous on your cruise.

4. Limit Your Shoes

Minimizing the number of shoes you bring is a space-saving strategy. While it can be tempting to pack shoes to match every outfit, it’s best to pare down to three to four pairs that can work with your. Some people may even get away with less.

Your shoe must-haves include comfortable walking or running shoes, a nice casual or dress shoe for evenings, and flip-flops or sandals for the pool, beach or spa.

When it comes to planning which shoes to pack for your vacation, opt for neutral colors that can match multiple outfits.

5. Use Packing Cubes

Using packing cubes when you’re packing carry-on only for a cruise will hep you pack efficiently! Packing or compression cubes allow you to categorize clothing and essentials for easy access during your trip.

In the limited space of carry-on luggage, packing cubes maximize efficiency by compressing items, ensuring you can fit everything you need for the cruise. Additionally, the packing cubes’ compression feature minimizes wrinkles in your tops and dresses.

Plus, when unpacking in your cruise cabin, your packing cubes can be transferred from your suitcase to the drawers. This makes unpacking quick and easy!

Tip: If you’re traveling with your partner or children, consider getting a different color set of packing cubes for all.

Recommended: Packing cubes set (check price & different colors on Amazon here)

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6. Packing Liquids and Toiletries

Toiletries can take up a lot of room in your luggage, but there are a few tips that can help.

Firstly, if you’re flying, you’ll need to follow the 3-1-1 rule.

The 3-1-1 Rule for Air Travel

The 3-1-1 rule refers to the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) guidelines for carrying liquids, gels, and aerosols in your carry-on luggage when flying. According to this rule, each passenger is allowed to bring:

  • 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less: Each liquid, gel, or aerosol must be in a container of 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or smaller.
  • 1 quart-sized, clear, resealable plastic bag: All your liquids must fit into a single quart-sized plastic bag, and the bag should be transparent and resealable.
  • 1 bag per passenger: Each traveler is limited to one quart-sized bag of liquids.

However, if you’re driving to the port, taking the train or any other means of transportation, you’ll have more flexibility as this rule only applies to flying.

Related: 17 Cruise Embarkation Day Carry-on and Luggage Guidelines

Travel Sized Toiletries

Avoid packing full sized toiletries, if you’re cruising with just a carry on bag. Instead, bring your favorite shampoo, conditioner, soap, lotions and other items decanted into leak-proof travel sized containers (sold on amazon).

Alternatively, a good travel hack is buying travel-sized items at the dollar store. You can even pick up travel sized sunscreen and lip balm.

Solid Toiletries

Solid shampoo bars, toothpaste tablets, and multi-use skincare products are convenient alternatives to traditional toiletries that take up more space.

7. Carry-on Luggage Packing Tips

Packing in a carry-on bag, whether using packing cubes or not, requires a strategic approach to maximize space and keep your belongings organized.

Here’s a step-by-step guide for packing your carry on luggage both with and without packing cubes.

Without Packing Cubes:

  • Roll or Fold Clothes: Choose a method that works best for you—rolling clothes saves space and can minimizes wrinkles in clothing, while folding is good for items that need to maintain a flatter look (ie. pants and nice shorts).
  • Layering Technique: Place heavier and bulkier items at the bottom of the suitcase. This provides a stable base and prevents wrinkles in more delicate clothing.
  • Use Empty Spaces: Fill any gaps or hollow areas in your luggage with smaller items like socks, underwear, or accessories. I like to put socks and other small items in shoes and inside evening bags. Utilize the corners and edges efficiently.
  • Toiletries Bag: Pack your toiletries in a clear, resealable bag. Make sure to comply with airport regulations (3-1-1 rule). Ensure that any liquids are stored in leak-proof containers.
  • Shoes at the Bottom: Place bulkier shoes at the bottom of the bag, near the wheels. Stuff them with socks or small items to optimize space and keep their shape.
  • Foldable Items on Top: If you have foldable items like jackets or sweaters, place them on top to prevent creases in more delicate clothing.
  • Essentials in a Separate Bag: Keep essential items like medications, travel documents, and electronics in a small, easily accessible bag. These items are best kept in your personal bag.

With Packing Cubes

  • Categorize Items: Sort your clothes by category. This could be tops, bottoms, swimsuits underwear and socks, etc. Alternatively, you could pack daywear in one packing cube, and evening wear in another.
  • Roll or Fold in Cubes: Use packing cubes for each category. Roll or fold your clothes within the cubes to keep them organized.
  • Compression Cubes for Bulky Items: If you have bulkier items, consider using compression packing cubes or vacuum bags to save space.
  • Toiletries in a Cube: Place your toiletries in a separate cube or a clear toiletries bag to contain any spills.
  • Utilize Different Cube Sizes: Choose cubes of different sizes for various items. Smaller cubes work well for socks and swimsuits, while medium and larger ones are best for clothing.
  • Easy Access: Keep frequently used items in cubes that are easily accessible. If you are staying in a hotel overnight before your cruise, consider packing a cube with your clothing and essentials for your pre-cruise stay.
  • Utilize Empty Spaces: Fill any gaps in the suitcase with smaller cubes or loose items. This includes placing small items in shoes and handbags.

Tip: Make sure to pack a carry-on bag for embarkation day.

8. Packing Cruise Essentials

Just because you’re packing light, doesn’t mean that you should leave your cruise cabin essentials and travel accessories at home. However, it is important to evaluate what you really need.

Here are a few recommendations (all from Amazon):

How to Pack carry on only for cruise
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9. Wear Your Bulkiest Items on the Plane

Wear your bulkiest items, such as jackets or heavy shoes, on the flight. This tip really helps if you’re packing for an Alaskan cruise, where you’ll probably be packing bulky outerwear.

This frees up space in your carry-on. Plus, you can roll up your jacket or sweater and use it as a pillow on your flight.

Related: 37 Long Flight Essentials to Pack in Your Carry-on

10. Personal Bag Essentials

In addition to your carry on luggage, pack a personal bag with important items including your passport, wallet, sunglasses, medication, and earbuds, electronics, gum and snacks.

It’s a good idea to bring a crossbody or belt bag, that you can also use while on your cruise.

11. Plan for Laundry

If you’re trying to pack light for a longer cruise, plan to use the cruise ship laundry services or facilities. This way, you can do a small load midway through your trip. Many cruise lines also have laundry bag specials that you can take advantage of.

This allows you to pack fewer cruise outfits and ensures you have clean clothes throughout your cruise vacation.

12. Space Saving Packing Hacks

These items are space-saving travel essentials!

Magnetic Hat Clip

This magnetic hat clip is genius! Rather than packing your sunhat in your suitcase and risk squishing it, use a hat clip to hang it on your personal bag or carry on!

Hanging Toiletry Bag

Make the most of limited bathroom space on a cruise by using a hanging toiletry bag. It not only keeps your essentials organized but also saves counter space. The convenience of having your toiletries easily accessible makes your daily routine smoother.

Ziploc Bags

Resealable bags serve multiple purposes and can be a valuable addition to your travel essentials. Plus, they are so cheap and versatile, and you can bring them from home.

During a cruise, you may end up with wet swimwear or dirty clothes. Having Ziploc bags allows you to separate these items from the rest of your luggage, which prevents any unpleasant odors from affecting your clean clothes.

Ziploc bags are also handy for storing snacks you might pick up at the lido buffet. In a pinch, Ziploc bags can be even be used for compressing clothes.

Related & Popular Posts

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Final Thoughts on Packing Carry-on Only for a Cruise

It can be hard to pack light for a cruise. As cruise passengers, we’re planning our cruise outfits and more! However, with a few packing organization hacks and tips and strategies, packing carry on only can be done!

Have you cruised with only carry-on luggage or do you want to? Please share your tips and questions in the comments below.

Happy Cruising!


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  1. Karin Kerby
    June 17, 2024 / 1:33 am

    We always pack for 1 week and do laundry during our cruises. We have successfully done 21-30 day trips with one roller bag and one backpack each. Coordination, layers and non-wrinkle fabrics are key! My formal dress is black and I change it up with jewelry, scarves or belts! I also have 2 cocktail dresses that are a lovely fine jersey/polyester fabric that literally does not wrinkle and takes up the space of a scarf. It’s certainly do-able.

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