A cruise is a great vacation option for families because of the no-fuss, unpack-once-and-enjoy appeal of a floating hotel.
The only drawback of this arrangement, however, is that if you forget something back on land, you might just have to go without it for your entire vacation (unless you luck out and find it in a port). My family learned this the hard way when we were unexpectedly stuck at sea with a dwindling number of diapers on hand. Turns out—not all cruise lines have diapers available for sale in the onboard gift shops.
After several family cruises under our belts, we’ve come up with a list of the items we never forget to pack—along with a few extra items we’re adding to our list for next time. Save this list for your next cruise so you can maximize your family’s enjoyment without the stress of worrying about what you forgot.
1. Walkie Talkies
Given the variety of activities going on at any given moment on a large cruise ship, one of the biggest challenges of cruising with a group is that you’ll all want to be doing different things at different locations on the ship. “No big deal,” you might think. “We’ll just text each other.”
The problem is if you’re not near land, your only option will be to use an internet-based messaging program. If you do this, you’ll need to commit to purchasing a (sometimes pricey) Wi-Fi package for everyone, and you’ll need to know that the ship’s satellite-based internet access is sometimes spotty.
Want an alternative? Go old school with walkie talkies. Invest in ones that are highly rated for long range—the Ansoko walkie talkies get good reviews from cruisers, as do these walkie talkies for cruise ships.
Note: Some cruise lines, such as Princess and Holland America, do offer free text messaging or communication apps.
2. Message Board
This recommendation is even more old-school than walkie talkies, but is one of the best things we’ve ever brought on a family cruise. A magnetic white message board (and dry erase marker) that sticks to your cabin door can be a wonderful tool for leaving quick messages for your family members in an easily visible way. You’ll note experienced cruisers have them on their stateroom doors—they know this is a great item to pack!
When you’re on a cruise, you’ll be given a key card that functions not only as your room key, but also as your basic form of currency; the card is tied to your shipboard account, and all purchases are charged to the credit card on file at the end of the cruise. As such, it’s important not to lose your card—and there are a variety of functional, yet cute lanyard options for you to try.
4. Room Organizers
Cruise staterooms are notoriously small, and space becomes even more of challenge when you’re traveling with a family. The walls of most cruise ships are metal, which means that magnets will stick to them, so you might want to try industrial hooks for hanging towels, bathing suit cover-ups, hats, and more. We also like this large organizer for stuffing extra clothing, flip-flops, and other odds and ends, when you run out of drawer or closet space.
5. Swim Diapers (and Regular Diapers)
It’s true that you can usually buy swim diapers on a cruise ship, but they’ll likely be highly marked up and might not be available in your preferred size and brand. It’s also very possible that your ship will not carry regular diapers. Avoid stress by packing enough (and then a few extra) for your trip. Don’t want to deal with the extra bulk of diapers in your luggage? Check to see if your cruise line has a program that allows you to order baby supplies (including diapers and baby food) to be delivered to your stateroom.
Thinking about bringing a life jacket for your little one? If your cruise ship offers a kids’ swim area, they almost certainly will offer life jackets in a variety of sizes for use onboard, so don’t worry about packing those.
6. Water Bottle
We’ve talked ourselves out of bringing our water bottles on vacation. But every time we remember them, we’re grateful we did. High-quality water bottles (this one by Hydro Flask is our cruise favorite) that are insulated enough to keep your water cool for a day of hiking or swimming at the beach can be invaluable. Note that many cruise lines will not allow you to fill your own water bottle from the buffet beverage dispensers due to sanitation reasons; in this case, simply fill up a few glasses with ice water and dump them into your bottle.
A backpack is another simple item that you might consider foregoing in favor of bringing heavier luggage. Don’t do it. Trust us: you’ll want a smaller, more portable day bag that you can pack for your trips into port with your family. Choose one that’s lightweight and water-resistant to hold up to a day at the beach, such as this one by ZOMAKE.
Cynthia J. Drake is a travel writer based in Austin, Texas, where she lives with her husband and two sons. Since becoming a mom, she’s been stranded at sea with her family, gotten lost in the Rocky Mountains, dealt with more than her fair share of public vomiting, and still can’t wait for the next trip. She writes regularly for AAA magazines, Austin American-Statesman, Texas Highways and Cruise Critic. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.