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Should I Only Pack Carry On Luggage for My European Cruise?

Colleen McDaniel

Jul 29, 2022

Read time
7 min read

As airports worldwide continue to scramble to keep up with a worker shortage and high passenger volume, the cruise guest is perhaps most vulnerable. When you absolutely have to be onboard a ship at a certain time on a certain day, missing your flight or losing your luggage just isn't an option.

Even our die-hard cruisers, who share their tales of bliss and woe on our message boards, have been talking about this new era of travel and wondering if the best travel hack for this "new normal" of air travel is simply skipping checking a bag. But is it possible? Can you pack for a cruise -- even a European voyage -- with only carry on luggage?

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We put it to the test recently, packing for back-to-back cruises, one in Europe on Star Clippers (flying from the U.S.), and a second on a U.S. river cruise with American Queen Voyages. Here's what we found.

Your Carryon Suitcase Really Matters

If you want to master the art of the carryon, your suitcase makes a difference. Full disclosure: Even before the pandemic, I had the worst luck when it came to travel, with constant delays, cancellations and lost luggage, so I've spent years honing my carryon packing skills.

My top recommendation: Pick a hard-sided suitcase with no room to expand that meets (or comes very close to) stringent Europe carryon requirements, which tend to be smaller than U.S. requirements. I recommend you skip the expansion option, because you WILL overpack given the opportunity.

I use a Monos Carry-on Plus, which is lightweight, has wheels that spin like a dream and is easy to keep clean, and has more interior volume (e.g. more space for packing) than other brands. I also like that it has a lock, important even if you're keeping your case directly overhead.

Don't Skip the Accessories

In addition to a great suitcase, consider packing cubes. I love the compression packing cubes that have become popular lately. I use Monos Compressible Packing Cubes, which you pack full, then zip down to make even smaller.

For liquids, I'm a fan of Cadence's magnetic, modular containers, which hold about a half-ounce each. I bit the bullet and sprung for a six-pack of them after another leaky plastic bottle disaster. At $84, these babies are definitely an investment. But I adore the product, which is just the right size, fits in my quart-sized Ziploc bag and absolutely does not leak. This has become the foundation of my liquid packing, holding my hair and skin products, all measured out in just the right quantity.

In addition to my rolling carryon, I keep a backpack with laptop holder, which I use for work and personal trips, filling it with my paperwork, passports, vaccine card, glasses, prescription pills and more. I've had various versions of backpacks over the years and find them mostly the same. The only requirements I have are that they are lightweight, for when I actually put them on my back, and they must have a trolley sleeve, that little pocket on the back that allows it to slide over your rolling case luggage handle. This will save your back and keep everything together.

Finally, consider investing in some shoe bags. These are especially useful for expedition cruises, where footwear gets dirty -- you'll want to keep your clothes as far away from that mess as possible.

What You Pack Matters …

To successfully pack just a carryon bag for a week -- or longer -- cruise, you need to make a few concessions in your choices. The biggest one I have given up is the concept of a very formal gown for those dressy nights onboard. Instead, I pack a lightweight black gown that can be dressed up or down depending on the night. I'll pack a few accessories to make it pop -- bold necklaces and earrings, or a trendy belt. This means I can wear it twice on any cruise without most people even blinking.

I am a dress fan, so I pack dresses that can easily go from day to evening with only a minor change in shoes and jewelry. Additionally, I spend much of my shipboard daytime hours in athleisure clothing, which fits an active schedule (I love being active on a cruise, biking, running and hiking) but that is also appropriate for most venues onboard. Staples include leggings (with pockets!), wicking t-shirts and sneakers.

With back-to-back cruises on lines that are slightly different in terms of dress code, I packed several blouses and trousers that were appropriate for a more formal dinner setting. These stayed packed in my cubes for my first cruise.

Note your cruise line's dress codes ahead of your cruise and make any changes necessary to keep you compliant, but if you really want to be casual, you can stick with the buffet each night and not have to worry about formal wear requirements.

Another space-saving tip: for solid options for things that are typically liquid. For example, we've become big proponents of sunscreen sticks (they look like solid deodorant), bar shampoo and laundry strips. This saves you issues with having too many liquids as you go through airport security checkpoints.

... Almost as Much as How You Pack

To stick with a carryon, you must be ruthless in your packing decisions. Do you really need that many shoes? Will anyone really notice if you wear those same black trousers three times on this cruise? Lay out all your options in one central spot and edit with an eye toward practicality.

After you've laid out everything in one spot, start grouping like items together and moving them into your packing cubes. To maximize the effectiveness of your cubes, roll your clothes before putting them in. This also cuts down on wrinkles.

If you're staying at a hotel a night or two before your cruise, group items you'll need for those nights together in the same cube. For example, put your PJs, fresh underwear, deodorant, toothbrush and change of close in the same small cube, and keep it easily accessible. This keeps you from digging through your meticulously packed cubes trying to find what you need and having to start the process over again.

Hard-sided suitcases have ribs inside as part of the structure, valuable space as you pack. I lay out small items flat in these ribs to make sure I have no wasted pockets that could be used. Think underwear, socks and lightweight t-shirts. Once I've filled these spaces, I drop in my cubes. Between cubes, you'll find additional space, perfect for things like flip-flops, make-up brushes and deodorant.

Packing this way can be somewhat of a tedious process, but it's worth it when you see your fellow passengers waiting desperately for their luggage to appear on a luggage carousel, playing a dangerous game of airport roulette.

Another bonus: If you can keep it tight, you don't have to pass along your suitcases to valets at the cruise port, as your carryon will fit through the security screening at virtually any destination, ensuring you have your bag the second you reach your cabin.

Just remember, you're going to have fun on your cruise no matter what you pack, so don't stress over what you're bringing -- or what you might forget.

Editor's note: Products mentioned in this article are personal choices. Neither Cruise Critic nor I receive remuneration for any purchases of items mentioned in this article.

Updated July 29, 2022
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