Packing for a cruise with kids is different from packing for a couple's trip. For babies and little kids, there's all the gear to consider -- diapers, car seats, a beloved blankie or stuffy. For all ages, there's a need to have favorite snacks and entertainment options because no matter how much food or top-deck activities a ship has, it won't have that one necessary thing your kid needs right now to stave off a toddler tantrum or teenage sulk.
When you're creating your cruise packing list for a trip with kids, consider bringing along the following items.
Photo: Inara Prusakova/Shutterstock
We learned the hard way that not all babies and toddlers enjoy being rinsed off with a showerhead when they've been used to baths. An inflatable bathtub is not only easy to pack, but can double as a kiddie pool for tykes in diapers who can't use the main cruise pools. The yellow ducky tub is the most commonly mentioned tub on the Cruise Critic boards, but if you have a baby or an older toddler, you might want a smaller or larger tub.
Portable Video Game System
Cruisers will argue whether kids should be allowed to zone out playing video games on a cruise when they could be learning how to sit through long dinners or running around the pool deck in the fresh, sea air. Either way, portable video game systems like the ones from Nintendo are invaluable for plane rides, shore excursion bus rides and rainy sea days. Just make sure you pack headphones to go with them.
Magnetic White Board
One of the best ways to keep track of your family around the ship is by leaving notes on your stateroom door. It's magnetic, so a magnetic white board will stick right to it. Let the kids know you're at the pool, or have them drop you a note that they're out with friends and will be back to change for dinner.
Night lights are not only for little ones who are scared of the dark. They also help older kids and parents find their way to the bathroom in the middle of the night or prepare for bed when baby is already asleep. With a general lack of outlets in cruise ship cabins, we like battery-operated lights -- like this dimmable, touch-tap light -- because they can be placed anywhere.
Water Bottles and Sippy Cups
We recommend that everyone bring an earth-friendly reusable water bottle on a cruise to stay hydrated. Toddlers and preschoolers especially should BYO cups, as they might be too little to handle the adult-size glassware used onboard. Because little ones are prone to losing their favorite sippy cups, we like Take n Toss cups for travel. They come in sippy and straw variety, can be washed out and reused multiple times, but if you lose one or don't want to take them home, it's no big deal. (Just remember to bring a sponge and travel dish soap to clean them each night.)
Travel Power Strip
Your family of four will likely fight over the limited outlets in your cabin more often than they battle for bathroom access. To accommodate all the phones, cameras, tablets, music players and game systems you've packed, bring along a power strip. Just make sure it doesn't have a surge protector, which are banned by some cruise lines.
Most kids love the beach, and your day in the Caribbean, Bahamas, Mexico or Bermuda will go better with entertainment options. Bring a set of sand toys that comes in a carry-bag for easy transport, or bring inflatable balls or pool noodles that pack flat.
Sun hats, rash guards and cover-ups are all must-pack items for a warm-weather cruise; no one will be happy if your kid gets a bad sunburn on day one and is grumpy all day two. The most important thing to pack is sunscreen, preferably something with a high SPF that's easy to apply to fidgety kids. We like this spray-on version from Babyganics that is SPF 50, gentle on little kid skin, fragrance- and paraben-free and is relatively easy to apply.
Do not even think of schlepping your ginormous jogging stroller on a cruise -- or thinking your toddler is going to walk everywhere in port. Bring a stroller that is collapsible and won't take over your cabin, but that is sturdy enough to handle outings in port. You'll want one that reclines, too. Stroller prices are all over the map; Summer Infant's version gets excellent reviews, while staying under $100. A baby carrier also works well for tiny sailors.
How many times can your kid lose his cruise card over the course of a week? To solve that problem, pack some colorful lanyards, get reception or casino staff to punch a hole in your cards and turn them into necklaces. Tell the kids that they are not to take off the lanyards except to sleep.
Some kids spend sea days tearing around water slides and rock climbing walls, while others happily participate in kids' club programs. But all of them can benefit from some downtime on action-packed cruises so be sure you have quieter activities. In addition to a Kindle or e-reader, consider bringing some art supplies. We love no-mess markers for little ones and art sets for older kids.
Cruise ship pharmacies are over-priced and under-supplied, so you're not guaranteed to find your favorite OTC liquid medicines should your kid get sick on vacation. Bring your own first-aid kit/pharmacy with kid's ibuprofen or Tylenol, powdered Pedialyte, adhesive bandages, ginger candy for upset tummies and antiseptic wipes.
Many kids go through a frustrating-for-travel stage when they outgrow the pack-n-play, but can't sleep well in a regular bed -- especially if your cruise cabin sleeps third and fourth travelers in bunk beds. It might seem crazy to BYOB (bring your own bed) on a cruise, but an inflatable toddler bed can be a lifesaver -- and keep your kid from waking you up every night when he inevitably falls off the sofa bed. (Yup, we've been there.)
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We wish there were a magic elixir you could whip up to get a free or low-cost cabin upgrade on a cruise ship. We'd be chugging it all the time. But sorry -- no can do. Before you sit by the phone, waiting for the upgrade fairy to call, there are a few basic things to know about cruise ship cabin