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OpinionCruising with Just a Carry-On: Why and How I Pack So Light

Cruising with Just a Carry-On: Why and How I Pack So Light

Most first-time cruisers pack too much for their cruise, not really knowing what to expect.

I used to be a serial over-packer myself.   And every cruise was an opportunity to jam pack a suitcase full of all the things I just might need.

carry-on suitcase for cruise vacation

In my mind it was easier to just bring anything I could think of “just in case”.

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But that ended up leading to huge suitcases full of things that never even came out of my luggage during the cruise.

Fast forward 40+ cruises later and I only pack a carry-on for 90% of the cruises I take.  This includes everything from 3-day cruises to week-long cruises.  Even on a 14-day cruise I will contemplate if I can get everything I need in a carry-on and personal item.

However, the reason I’m able and willing to pack extra light depends on a few factors that I’ve listed below.

Length of the cruise

Cruise line private islands
Photo Credit: Cruise Fever

Starting with the most obvious, if the cruise is only half a week, you really shouldn’t need to pack anything bigger than a carry-on or duffel bag.

For some travelers it’s hard to even go on a 3-day cruise without full size luggage.  What’s helped me is consolidating what I really need.  Sure, I could bring 5 pairs of shoes, but if I can get by with just a couple, it’s ideal.

(If you really must bring multiple pairs of shoes, this post on cruise shoes from one of our writers will help.)

When you start by limiting your luggage size right from the start, it really helps to weed out the unnecessary items.  We talk about that in our article on 10 tips for packing light on your cruise.

Consider what you need for each day, but then also remember that some items can be reused or have a multi-purpose.

Flight considerations

Early flights from a cruise ship to the airport
Photo credit: Cruise Fever

One of the biggest reasons I like to cruise with only minimal baggage is due to flights.  If you’re close enough to drive to the cruise port then this will be a moot point.

When I fly, I like to skip the line for checking bags and head straight to the security checkpoint.  Call me crazy, but after losing a few bags at airports, I’d just rather have everything I need right next to me at all times.

This expedites the process at the airport and makes sure I don’t end up in my cabin with a bag still missing in transit.

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In most cases I use a large backpack as my carry-on, but a roller suitcase will work just as well.  The size of my carry-on will depend on which airline I’m using too.

Oh, and of course, having just a carry-on saves on those pesky baggage fees.

Read more: Drive or fly: 8 questions to ask before you head to the cruise port

Laundry on board

Which cruise ships have laundry rooms?

I recently wrote an article on which cruise ships still have self-service laundry rooms.  When a cruise ship has a launderette it makes it much easier to pack lighter.    After all, if you can wash and reuse a few outfits on your trip that frees up a lot of extra space in your limited-sized bag.

You can also choose to use the full-service laundry service on board a cruise ship, but it might only make sense if you built up loyalty points and can get a discount on a laundry bag.

Some cruise lines like Holland America Line have some very reasonable prices on laundry bags.  With HAL you can get wash and fold service for around $20 for as much as you can fit into that bag.

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Research your cruise line and ship and check out prices for laundry.  That’s one of the biggest tips for packing light, as long as you don’t fear judgement of wearing the same outfit twice.  But hey, it’s your cruise.  Do what makes the most sense for you.

Read more: 15 things people always forget to pack on a cruise

Climate of Destination

A cruise to Alaska in May and a cruise to the Caribbean in July are obviously going to experience very different temperatures.  The type of clothing you need to pack will make a big impact on the kind of luggage you need to think about.

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During a cruise around Iceland it was a lot more difficult to follow my “carry-on only” rule for the 7-day voyage.  But dressing in layers and having access to a laundry room on board did help a lot.

Also, having a good jacket, hoodie, or other type of outer layer that you can use throughout the cruise will help from every article of clothing having to be cold-proof.

Knowing the ship

outlets for electronics on Celebrity Ascent
Outlets in Sky Suite on Celebrity Ascent

I’m a bit of a cruise nerd, but I love to study the deck plans, layout, and cabin design of a ship before I set sail.  This helps me know how many outlets are in the cabin and what amenities are on the ship.

If I can leave a power strip at home because my cabin has extra outlets everywhere, that’s one less thing I need to pack.  Some people will pack things in their suitcases that the ship already provides.

You don’t need to pack a hairdryer, towels, or snacks.   And some will even provide umbrellas and binoculars in your cabin, so do your research before the cruise.

Also, you should know that there are some things you absolutely should pack because of a feature on the ship you want to try out.  For instance, if you’re going to play basketball on the sports court or try out a rope’s course on the ship you will need closed -toe shoes.

Read more: 10 things you CAN pack on a cruise but shouldn’t

Self-assist for disembarkation

luggage on a cruise with porters with cruise ship in background in PortMiami

I love having just a carry-on during the disembarkation process as well.  Cruise ships allow those who are carrying all of their luggage off themselves to get off the ship first.  This makes a big difference when you have an early flight.

I’ve seen some use the self-assist program who are carrying several large suitcases.  Not only is this a nightmare when trying to use the already cramped elevators, but it also slows down the whole process when trying to navigate those huge bags through the ship and terminal.

With just a carry-on I can quickly get first in line when getting off the ship and head to the airport or destination as quickly and efficiently as possible.

I will note that before the common use of facial recognition in cruise terminals, I was often asked about my limited bags by immigration officers.  I would just tell them, “I like to keep it simple and pack light.”

Read more: 9 things you should do right after your cruise is over

Final Thoughts

You might ask, “But what if you can’t fit everything you need into a carry-on?”.    I will admit there were times that I either forget to bring something I needed or simply didn’t have room for it.

But these were usually items I could easily buy on the ship, in a port of call, or even at the airport if I really had to get it.

I love to cruise with the freedom of knowing I have everything I need and what I don’t have can easily be obtained.

The great thing about modern cruise ships is that they have everything you could possibly need on a vacation including a few things you didn’t even know you needed in your life.

While just carry-on luggage might not fit the lifestyle of every cruise traveler, it certainly has made my cruising journey simpler and more enjoyable.

Read more: 25 cruise cabin hacks to make your stateroom more livable

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J. Souza
J. Souza
Jon is the co-founder of Cruise Fever and has been on dozens of cruises since his first in 2009. As an editor and avid cruise enthusiast he has sailed with at least 9 cruise lines and is always looking for a great cruise deal. Jon lives in North Carolina and can be reached at [email protected].
OpinionCruising with Just a Carry-On: Why and How I Pack So Light
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