The cruisin' is easy in the Caribbean, and so, one might think, is the packing. In such a paradisiacal setting, the checklist must be short, right? Toss in a teeny-weeny bikini or your loudest pair of board shorts, flip-flops or sandals, a cover-up or T-shirt, and a short stack of mushy-brain novels for those interludes between swims. Done.
But don't zip the luggage yet. The sunny, laid-back setting can be deceiving. If they're not careful, ill-prepared cruisers could end up stuck in their cabins or under shady palm trees watching the good times roll right by them. Some of the hazards include the blistering tropical sun, leaky rental snorkel masks, runaway bikini tops and unexpected rain showers that dampen both the experience and the spirit.
To be sure, cruise ships and Caribbean islands stock the basic necessities -- remember, you're not going to Gilligan's Isle but to one of the world's biggest tourist destinations. However, for a smooth vacation, you must anticipate your needs before boarding the vessel, preferably during the crucial packing phase. To assist with this step, we have selected the 10 most important items to throw into your luggage. Follow these suggestions, and the Caribbean cruisin' really will be easy -- and fully enjoyable.
Photo: Di Studio/Shutterstock
Stock up on bottles, tubes, sprays or sticks of sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and protection against UVA and UVB rays. You'll save money by bringing your own supply, as ships charge a premium on this essential toiletry. You'll also find high prices and smaller selection at island convenience stores. When choosing your lotions, take a variety of sizes so you don't have to lug a giant bottle to the beach or pool. Travel-size is ideal, or carry a large bottle (remember to pack it in your checked luggage) and some empty minis that you can fill as needed. And don't forget your pucker: Toss in a lip balm or stick of SPF 30 or more.
Photo: Mila Supinskaya/Shutterstock
Bathing Suits for All Occasions
Bikinis are fine for lying around like a seal on rock, but if you plan to participate in a sporty activity, such as kayaking or scuba-diving, you'll need a bathing suit that won't fly off. For women, pick an athletic one-piece or tankini; men, choose trunks with a secure waist tie and legs that don't balloon like a blowfish. Since you will probably spend 85 percent of your time in swimwear, pack at least two suits, if not three, so that you can rotate the wet and the dry.
Snorkel and Mask
If you're serious about snorkeling or scuba-diving, bring your own equipment. Rental masks often fit poorly, letting in water or fogging up. Your own mask from home, however, fits your face perfectly, allowing you to concentrate on the sea life and not the pool of water forming under your nose. Snorkels are one-size-fits-all, yet if you are discomfited by the idea of using a plastic tube previously kissed by strangers, pack your own. Fins, however, you can leave home without -- unless you have whale-size feet.
Island waters teem with sculptural coral, noodly seaweed and colorful fish. You'll likely want to document your experience with an underwater or waterproof camera. To consolidate equipment, pick a digital camera that shoots well above and below the waterline. Most major brands sell hybrid land-and-sea models. Depth ranges vary from snorkel-surface to scuba-deep. If you prefer to use your own camera, secure it in a durable waterproof case, and take the plunge. For a quick grab-and-go, consider a cheap disposable camera that you can knock around. Whichever type you choose, purchase the camera and extra memory cards before the ship departs, or you'll pay painfully inflated prices.
Photo: Khoroshunova Olga/Shutterstock
Wildlife and Night Sky ID Charts
The Caribbean is home to land and marine life that's unfamiliar to novice naturalists. With laminated identification cards, available at adventure stores and scuba shops, you can instantaneously match the faces of fish, birds, shells and plants with their names and traits. The destination-specific sheets are waterproof, so you can expertly point out the queen angelfish or barracuda as it floats by. (Here's an example, In addition, track the night sky with a star and planet locator (chart, wheel or map) that connects the universe's dots.
Sun Hat and Fastener
Cloudless skies are gorgeous to look at but rough on your head. Without any cumulus interference, your noggin is vulnerable to sunburn. Protect yourself with a sun hat, a broad category that includes baseball caps, panamas, straw Stetsons and floppy sombreros. No matter the style, be sure the hat fully covers your head and has a brim long enough to shade your face. Note: Visors are as pointless as umbrellas with donut-hole tops; save them for a rainy day. To keep your hat on your head (versus overboard), spring for an elastic fastener that works like a two-sided clothespin. Attach one end to your hat and the other to your shirt -- the perfect foil to those mischievous Caribbean breezes.
Think of your luggage as a nesting doll: Inside your largest bag, stash a smaller pack that you can toss on your shoulder or back specifically during port visits. Make sure the bag has a zipper or snap closure, and is large enough to fit shore essentials (sunscreen, water bottle, camera) plus any souvenirs snapped up along the way. (If you're a serious shopper, double up with a second cloth or canvas satchel that you can toss into your main carrier.) For water sports, opt for a nylon or neoprene bag that will keep your belongings dry. And a good option for the beach is a string or mesh bag that will sift out the sand and allow your damp items to breathe.
Resealable Plastic Bags
Ziplocs are the duct tape of the container world, the ultimate receptacle for all of your carrying needs. Bring a range of sizes that work in multiple scenarios. Small is ideal for holding pills, jewelry, hair accessories, foreign currencies and other petite items. The medium size can protect cameras, phones, iPods and the like in wet environments. You can also fill them with loose snacks, such as trail mix or crackers, or to store leftovers from the buffet. The larger size can double as a trash bag on hikes in more remote areas of the islands. They also come in handy at the end of the trip: Store wet or excessively dirty garments in them, segregating the unclean from the clean in your luggage.
Photo: Saami and Naajnin/Shutterstock
Kids' Beach Toys
During the cruise, the beach and pool will become your child's playpen, and what do kids need in their leisure zones? Toys, toys, toys. For compactness, choose inflatable beach toys, such as balls and tubes, which can pack flat. Toss in a few collapsible shovels and buckets, or if you're worried about losing the doodads in the sand, improvise with plastic spoons and Tupperware containers that can be reused for other tasks. Don't forget the floaties for the little minnows, and for the tots too small for adult bodies of water, bring an inflatable tub or baby pool. Bonus application: Use it as a bathtub in your stateroom or a spa-like soaker for Mommy's and Daddy's tired feet.
Photo: Mila Supinskaya/Shutterstock
Rain Gear and Warm Layers
If you rely on postcards and brochures for your weather reports, you'll expect day after day of sunshine. That forecast is usually accurate, but cruisers need to be prepared for the conditions that don't appear in glossy magazines: dark stormy clouds that unleash steady drops of rain, strong winds and chilly temperatures that slice through thin sundresses and shirts. To prepare, arm yourself with a poncho, rain jacket and/or umbrella; a sweatshirt or light sweater; and a windbreaker or anorak. If you plan on hiking during hurricane season, you might want to add rain pants and waterproof boots. For cruisers susceptible to chills, shawls, scarves and pashminas work equally well on the ship and around town.
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Cruise ship life can be a little mysterious. Your choices aren't always spelled out in black and white. The more you cruise, the more you pick up on the unofficial secrets the cruise lines don't tell you -- which give you more options, let you save money and generally allow you to have a better time onboard. Maybe it's knowing what your cabin steward is able to bring you or what the off-the-menu items are at the bar or dining room. Or perhaps it's a tip to getting a good deal on an onboard purchase. But why wait to figure these things out the hard way -- possibly after you've missed your chance? We trawled through all the great advice on Cruise Critic's Message Boards to bring you some of the worst-kept cruise secrets ... at least among our readers who love to share. But whether you're a first-time cruiser or an old sea dog, you might find there's something here you didn't already know.