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What to Pack for a Cruise in the COVID Era

11 tips to prepare for a safe, comfortable and enjoyable voyage

Travel suitcase filled with hand sanitizer, masks and clothes

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En español | CDC Guidance

Note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has lowered its warning level for cruising from level 4 (COVID-19 risk is very high) to level 3 (COVID-19 risk is high), and now it is not explicitly warning those who are fully vaccinated against cruise travel. It does still recommend that those who are not fully vaccinated for COVID-19 avoid travel on cruise ships.

The CDC suggests that even those who are fully vaccinated get a COVID-19 viral test one to three days before departure, and it advises that everyone wear masks in public spaces on cruise ships and other public forms of transportation (like on airplanes and trains). See more on the CDC’s guidance online.

Many cruise lines are back in business after a long hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic, and eager passengers are packing their bags. What to stow in those bags depends on where you’re sailing, length of the trip, anticipated weather and the sort of ship you’ve booked. But there are also new considerations, thanks to the pandemic. On board, you might find that buffets are no longer serve-yourself, that masks are required in some areas, or that unvaccinated passengers can’t access certain parts of the ship, says Gene Sloan, senior cruise and travel reporter for the website The Points Guy. “Nothing is uniform line-to-line or even ship-to-ship when it comes to COVID-related protocols,” he says.

Some ships are trying to minimize the impact of those protocols. Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of Cruise Critic, cruised a few weeks ago from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on the Celebrity Edge, where more than 95 percent of passengers were vaccinated and masks weren’t required for guests. Crew members wore masks, she says, but otherwise, “It really seemed like things were getting back to normal.”

The key: Get vaccinated. Many cruise lines are requiring passengers to be fully vaccinated at least 14 days before departure (except for children under 12, in some cases). The unvaccinated are subject to multiple COVID tests. Even vaccinated passengers may have to undergo testing to make sure they are not carrying the virus or to be allowed to disembark in certain ports.

Here are more planning and packing tips to consider before your voyage.

1. Pack masks. On some other ships, both crew and passengers must mask up in public areas, but protocols are changing fast, Faust says. Prior to departure, get an update from your cruise provider, including requirements for shore excursions. The CDC advises even vaccinated individuals to wear masks in public areas on cruise ships. So pack a mask, or a few, in case you need or want to wear one on the ship or in port.

luggage outside of a cruise ship at pier

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2. Choose bags carefully. The typical stateroom is too small to leave suitcases out in the open. Closets aren’t likely to fit all your bags, so bring luggage that can be stored under the bed. “Think longer rather than wider,” Gray Faust says. The under-bed bag can be used to store extra clothes or dirty laundry. Expandable luggage is a good option in case you need extra inches to bring back souvenirs. If you pack a thin cloth or mesh tote, it can double as a beach or shopping bag without taking up precious space. And an over-the-door shoe organizer can hold toiletries and cosmetics in the bathroom, making up for cramped counter space in standard cabins.

Some savvy cruisers bring spare hangers for closets (or ask cabin stewards for extras). Gray Faust suggests packing magnetic hangers that stick to the walls on many ships. Another tip: Bring sealable gallon plastic bags, great for taking home damp bathing suits and preventing packed toiletries from leaking in your luggage.

3. Coordinate your wardrobe so you can pack light. Stick to one or two main colors, and mix and match them. “People tend to overpack,” Gray Faust says. “We’re always saying, ‘Scale back.’” She suggests planning shore excursions before you leave home, so you’ll bring appropriate gear for those activities. Check whether your ship has a laundromat. If so, you can pack fewer items. Rely on wrinkle-free fabrics, since staterooms aren’t equipped with irons for safety reasons and you aren’t supposed to bring one aboard. Laundromats may have irons and you can pay to have items pressed.

4. Be shoe smart. Comfortable footwear for excursions or walking around the ship is essential. (Traversing megaships can make getting in your daily steps a snap.) Women do not need six pairs of heels. Flip-flops serve as great slippers or poolside wear. Rubber water shoes are helpful to avoid cutting feet in rocky swimming areas or on coral reefs.

woman applying sunscreen

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5. Don’t forget sunscreen and medication. You’ll probably need more sun protection than you think, so pack a hat with a brim, sunglasses, sunscreen and a sunburn remedy for warm-weather cruising. Bring seasickness patches if you need them and over-the-counter medication for possible digestive upsets. It doesn’t hurt to pack a prescription drug in case of serious gastric issues. Ask your doctor. And while ships tend to have plenty of dispensers with hand sanitizer these days, it’s a good idea to carry your own bottle or wipes. They’ll be cheaper if you buy them at a drugstore before your trip than on the ship or in port.

6. Bring binoculars and other handy items. You’ll probably float past spectacular scenery. Why not enjoy a close-up view? Other useful items to consider are lanyards to hold cards used as door keys and onboard IDs, a waterproof pouch for your smartphone on beach days, and magnets to add a fun, personalized touch if your door is metal.

7. Be prepared to power up. Ask if you’ll need adapters. Most cruise staterooms have plugs to accommodate American electronics, but check with non-U.S. cruise lines to see if adapters are needed. People with multiple electronic gadgets pack a power strip. Don’t forget phone chargers and perhaps a portable one to use ashore. Know that your phone probably won’t get a signal while at sea and that computer time can be pricey on the ship, so consider buying a package from the cruise line.

8. Download the cruise line’s app. Free apps such as Carnival HUB and Celebrity Cruises allow you to chat with fellow passengers in addition to perusing deck plans, schedules and menus and researching and booking shore outings. In the era of “touchless” everything, apps — if the ship offers access to one — are assuming greater importance.

9. If you want to bring booze, check the cruise line’s policy. It probably will forbid bringing on beer, hard liquor, even bottles of water, in order to sell you drinks. But you often can board with a bottle or two of wine or Champagne. You’ll pay a corkage fee if you drink it in the dining room.

10. Reserve a wheelchair or scooter beforehand. While most ships allow you to bring your own, some travelers opt for assistance getting around the vessel or port. Companies such as Special Needs Group (800-513-4515) can outfit you.

11. Keep important documents in your carry-ons. You’ll surrender large bags before boarding, so keep your passport, photo ID and COVID vaccination card close at hand. It’s a good idea to have photos of those documents on your phone just in case. Also keep handy anything you might want to use soon after you board (a bathing suit or change of clothes), along with prescription medication and sunscreen. Sometimes it takes hours for gear to reach your stateroom.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on February 14, 2019. It's been updated to reflect new information.

Veteran cruiser and travel writer Kitty Bean Yancey rarely boards without her pashmina, used as deck chair leg warmer, nighttime stole and beach cover-up.

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