Visit our travel agent friends at MEI Travel

I packed for a 7-night cruise with just a carry-on and personal item

27 Jan 2023
Elizabeth Wright

Is it possible to take a 7-night cruise with only a carry-on and backpack? 


I recently sailed on a 7-night Eastern Caribbean cruise and wanted to avoid paying for checked baggage, so I challenged myself to pack as light as possible!

I knew this wasn't impossible, as I had a friend once pack for an 8-night cruise in just a Spirit Airlines approved personal item, not even a true carry-on sized bag. 

For me, though, this was not going to be an easy task; I’m known for chronically overpacking and having to pay overweight fees. 

What can I say? A girl loves her shoes! When I came back from Europe in December, I had to tie a pair of shoes to my backpack that was already nearly busting at the seams. My suitcase was only .50 ounces underweight after that. 

I figured since it was a Caribbean cruise, it would be easier than packing for one that required bulkier clothing, like an Alaskan sailing. 

In actuality, it was much more difficult than I thought. I tried to pack strategically thinking about the plans I had for the cruise when I left; however, they ended up changing once I got onboard. 

Here's how I packed for my 7-night Caribbean cruise with only a carry-on suitcase and a backpack and what I would do differently if I plan on packing that light again. 


Stock photo of TSA approved 3.4oz liquid bottles

Since I usually only check my luggage, I didn't have any TSA-approved travel-sized bottles for my liquids. Thankfully, a Target opened up within walking distance of my apartment in August, so it was easy for me to acquire everything that I needed in one trip. 

I ended up purchasing three empty bottles for my shampoo, conditioner, and hair smoothie, as well as a travel-sized face wash, contact solution, toothpaste, makeup removing wipes, and mouthwash. I know that Royal Caribbean provides body wash in the shower, so I wasn't worried about packing that. 

My plan for sunscreen was to wait until I landed in Florida and swing by Publix. I thought there would be more of a price difference, but I found out it was only a few dollars, if even that much. However, stopping still allowed me to carry on my luggage for free. 

When it came to packing my clothes, I had planned on making myself comfortable in the Solarium most days, especially since this was a work trip, so I wanted to keep it simple with a few swimsuits, a cover up, t-shirts, and athletic shorts.

I also planned on rotating between a few dresses for dinner each nice. This was difficult for me, as I'm used to packing a different outfit for each night and only rotating between shoes. I knew that this was key, though. Seven dresses, even when rolled tightly, can take up a lot of room. 

Even when I do pack different outfits for every night, I often end up repeating at least one. I think I just like having options like I do at home. At the end of the day, I had to accept that I wouldn't be able to have that luxury on this trip, or so I thought. 

What I packed


I definitely was able to fit a lot more into my suitcase than I expected, but I do have an expandable carry-on. Without that, this challenge would've been much harder than it already was. 

I was able to fit three t-shirts, two pairs of athletic shorts, two pairs of jeans, four different evening shirts, four dresses, one pair of pajamas, six pairs of shoes, a small purse, hair straightener, hair towel, and three swimsuits, along with my other undergarments.

A few of those items had to be crammed into my backpack, which was also carrying my laptop, electronic chargers, video camera, and medications. 

How I packed


Before I even began placing all my items in my suitcase, I knew that I was going to have to roll everything pretty tightly. I placed my bulkiest pieces, like my jeans and maxi dress, in the corners of the bag. My smaller items easily filled in the gaps and could be layered on top. 

I realized that my clothes were never really the issue; had more trouble packing my cosmetics and shoes, but I was adamant that I was going to fit everything. 

I had to play a little Tetris in order to fully maximize my available space. Even though I could have fit more clothing on one side, the side that contained my shoes and cosmetics bag protruded when zipped. 

To the airport, I wore another (third) pair of jeans, a sweatshirt, and the sixth pair of shoes, which were athletic sneakers. I'm so glad that I ended up throwing this sweatshirt on instead of another t-shirt, as it was so cold the morning of disembarkation. Plus, I was stuck in the airport for about five hours waiting on my flight home. I appreciated that I was able get situated and comfortable!  

Items I regretted having


Even though I set out with the intention to pack fewer evening outfits, I was able to pack a different one for each night, even if it meant wearing the same pair of jeans more than once. 

I ended up repeating outfits a lot, though. I, for instance, wore the same dress for both formal night and dress your best night, even though I intended to wear different outfits for each. 

I could have gotten away with two dresses and two evening shirts instead of four each. Plus, there was one pair of sandals that I only wore once. While I appreciate having the option to choose between pairs of shoes, I really only needed one nicer pair of sandals for the week. 

I also did not need to pack the second pair of sneakers. One athletic pair would've been sufficient, as I only wore my Golden Goose once. I'm so used to only wearing sneakers at home, so I found that when given the opportunity to wear sandals, I gravitated towards them, even if it was just one specific pair. 

Items I wish I had packed

There were quite a few items I found myself wishing that I brought. 

Even though I had every intention to sunbathe while getting my work done, I found that sitting in the Solarium was actually too distracting for me. I'm the kind of person who needs to grind out their assignments in peace and quiet. 

I've always been this way, so I don't know why I assumed it would be different on a cruise ship surrounded by tempting activities. 

I ended up working a lot inside of my cabin in my pajamas or loungewear. It would've been nice to have two more t-shirts and and pairs of athletic shorts, as I only wore my cover up twice. It wasn't the everyday staple I thought it would be.

Portable charger

Another item I wish I brought (and still need to purchase) is a portable charger. This was my first solo cruise, and I didn't realize how much time I would been spending off the ship by myself. 

When I decided to explore Water Island near St. Thomas, my phone barely survived the six hours I was off of the ship. I was constantly using it for photos and taking notes. I never want to be that close to having my phone die while off by myself again!

Even when on the ship, I returned to my cabin each night with less than 10% of battery remaining. I know this is something I definitely need to purchase before my next weeklong cruise in February. 

Cash on cruise ship

Finally, I made a rookie cruise mistake and did not bring any small bills.

My ATM fee ended up being over $16, including both Royal Caribbean's fee and my bank's fee. While not necessarily relevant to packing in a carry-on sized bag, this is just something I wish I had done in route to the airport. 

Why I'm glad I didn't have a larger checked bag


It's not a surprise that Ubers to any New York City airport cost an arm and a leg (I've seen rates over $70 before tip for a one-way ride), so I try to take public transportation for only $2.75 as much as I can. 

For my last cruise in May, I had to lug a 48lb bag from my apartment to my local station and through a connecting one to catch the bus to LaGuardia. There were elevators available, but I opted to carry the bag up and down multiple sets of stairs, as it was quicker than waiting on the slow, old elevator. 

This time, it was much easier to navigate transferring between different trains and buses with a smaller suitcase and single backpack. 


Additionally, when I got to the airport, I found out that my flight was indefinitely delayed due to a maintenance issue. I was supposed to board the plane around 5:40pm, but the departure time kept getting pushed back. First to 6:40pm, then 7:10, 7:50pm, and finally 8:24pm.

The only reason we left when we did is because we were able to use another aircraft. There's not telling how long we would've been delayed if we waited on the maintenance issue to be resolved. At one point, an agent even suggested that I go on standby for another flight in case the flight was cancelled. 

Hence I was glad that I had a carry-on bag. It allowed me to be flexible with flight options! 

Final thoughts


Packing for a weeklong trip with only a single carry-on and personal item wasn't as tough as I made it out to be; however, knowing what I know now, there are some ways that I'd change how I pack with limited space in the future, such as focusing more on comfortable clothing rather than evening wear.

I'm surprised that I packed stuff that I ended up not wearing, so I learned that I can get away with less clothing than I initially thought.  

Allure of the Seas at the gangway

Plus, I was able to easily wheel my luggage off during self-assist disembarkation and keep my belongings with me all the time, rather than placing them in the hallway the night before departure.

Even when I do travel with a checked bag, I can apply some lessons that I learned from this experience to become a more efficient packer!

Traveling with a finite amount of space isn't an easy task, especially if you're used to overpacking. In a way, though, it does simplify your trip and make you focus on what's most important: making memories with friends, both new and old, and family. 

Elizabeth graduated from New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute with her M.A. in Journalism in May 2023. Growing up, she had the privilege of traveling frequently with her family and fell in love with cruising after sailing on the Oasis of the Seas her freshman year of high school. She wanted to pursue a career that highlighted her passion for travel and strengths as a writer. 

Get our newsletter

Stay up-to-date with cruise news & advice

    We never share your information with third parties and will protect it in accordance with our Privacy Policy