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Carrying-On Bags vs Checking Luggage on Your Cruise

Packing is an important step when preparing for your cruise, but of course all your stuff needs to actually make it onto the ship.  There are several options for this, as similar to when you fly, bags can be carrier on or checked.  There are advantages and disadvantages to each – both at the start and end of your cruise.

Carrying on Bags

The advantage of carrying on bags is that you take your luggage with you, walk right on the ship, and that’s it.  The downside of course is that you may find yourself carrying your things around on embarkation day until your stateroom is ready - though on some lines, such as Holland America and Celebrity, this isn't an issue as you can drop your bags off as soon as you arrive.

Most people carry on at least some bags on embarkation day – and you really should.  Items such as documents, cash, medications, and other valuables should stay with until you get to your room.  If you enjoy laying out in the sun or hanging out in the pool, you should also put your bathing suit in your carry-on, since the pool is often not very busy the first few hours of a cruise and you don’t want to watch others enjoying the pool while you wait for your checked bags to be delivered.  If you’re carrying on wine, water, soda, etc, this should also go into your carry-on.

eBags Professional Flight Laptop Backpack
eBags Professional Flight Laptop Backpack

We've started carrying on the eBags Professional Flight Laptop Backpack (shown above), as we can fit our entire "mobile office" as well as some extra clothes and toiletries.  Generally, you shouldn’t carry on more than you can easily keep on your person, fit into an elevator, etc.  Embarkation day can be crowded on many ships, so you’ll be hauling whatever you bring between other guests’ legs, onto busy elevators, etc.  Outside of that, there aren’t many hard regulations as to the size or weight of your carry-ons.

Checking Bags at the Start of Your Cruise

If you have too many bags to carry on (or you simply don’t feel like walking onto the ship with your luggage), you can check your bags at the curb when you arrive to the port.  Unlike airlines, cruise lines do not charge money for checking bags.  The cruise line will provide you with luggage tags (either by mail, or in most cases now, with the documents you can print from the cruise line’s website).  You affix these tags to your bags and sometime the first day of your cruise (generally before dinner), they’ll arrive in front of your stateroom door. 

Suitcase with Bag Tag in Luggage Tag Holder - Ready to be Checked
Suitcase with Bag Tag in Luggage Tag Holder - Ready to be Checked 

**Tip: We recommend using reusable luggage tag holders like these to help ensure tags aren’t accidentally ripped off in transport – which could delay you getting your bags.**

If embarking in North America, know that it is customary to tip the porters taking your checked bags at the port.  Many suggest $1-2 per bag, though we often check two bags and give $5 (more on tipping here). 

Different cruise lines have different rules about how many bags you can bring and how large or heavy they are – though they’re not nearly as strict as airlines.  You can find the baggage rules for popular lines here, but in general, “be reasonable” seems to be the rule.

Does it cost money to check a bag on my cruise?

As mentioned above, cruise lines do not charge extra to check bags.  This is true of they're handing of your bags getting on the ship, as well as if you choose to check bags at the end of your cruise.  If you're flying from the port of disembarkation, ask about the availability of Luggage Valet services.  Only some cruise lines, airlines, and ports participate, but this allows you to check your bags on the ship, and have them automatically checked on your return flight.  While there is a cost to the service, the nice benefit here is that you don't pay overweight baggage fees to the airline if you do this, so in this way, checking bags on your cruise can actually save you money.

Do I need to put tags on all of my luggage?

You’ll need to put the provided tags on checked bags (so the cruise line can deliver them to your room).  Carry-on bags do not require any tagging – though we recommend putting standard tags with your contact information on them just in case.  In fact, we often put the cruise line’s checked bag tags on our carry-ons just in case something were to happen (truth be told, we accidentally checked a bag a few months ago – so this worked out nicely).

Carrying Bags Off at the End of Your Cruise

Disembarkation is never fun (who wants a cruise to end?!), but a little forethought can make things less painful.  If your goal is to get off the ship as early as possible, most cruise lines offer “express disembarkation” or "self disembarkation" where you carry off all your bags yourself.  That means no porters, no nothing – just you and your bags.  If you’re a light packer or on a short cruise, this can be a nice option, as you’ll save some time for sure.

It may be however you just have too many bags to carry off the ship (especially if you did a lot of shopping on vacation), so you want to check bags.  You should still hand-carry valuables, documents, medications, and anything else that is really critical.

Checking Bags at the End of Your Cruise

Any bags you don’t want to carry off the ship yourself can be checked on the last night of your cruise.  On the last day (or earlier), you’ll be provided with color-coded and numbered luggage tags to affix to any bags you want the cruise line to handle.  Fill out your contact information, and note the tag color/number.  You’ll then leave your bags outside your state room on the last night, and they’ll be collected by the crew.

Luggage Tag Numbers with Schedule for End of Cruise
Luggage Tag Numbers with Schedule for End of Cruise
Bags Ready to be Picked Up in the Hall on Celebrity Edge
Bags Ready to be Picked Up in the Hall on Celebrity Edge

In the morning, when disembarking, the number/color will help you find the section with your bags.  This number/color also correlates to a specific time by which your bags will be ready.  Disembark before that time, and your bags may not yet by ready for your pickup in the port facility.

**Tip: Usually these tags have a small section with the tag number/  Affix this to the back of your stateroom card, which will be scanned when leaving the ship.  This makes it easy to reference your color/number when it’s time to retrieve your luggage.  If your tags don’t have this, simply take a photo before putting your bags out in the hall.**

Departure Tags with Number Stuck to Back of Cruise Card (Seapass)
Departure Tags with Number Stuck to Back of Cruise Card (Seapass)

Have more questions about packing?  We've got an entire packing section for you.  Comment below with questions, and we'll help you get ready for your next cruise!