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What to pack -- and what to leave at home

Michael Mohr

Packing smart lightens the load and eases the journey.

Sunscreen? Check. Extra socks? Double-check. There are some things you'll never forget to pack, whether you're headed to the Swiss slopes or the wilds of Africa. But your go-to packing checklist will only get you so far. Each vacation type — from a rugged eco-tour to a weekend getaway to a Mexican beach escape — comes with its own packing needs. Maximize your suitcase space by following our handy guide to what to bring and what to leave at home. You may be surprised by what we've uncovered!


Cruise
 
Bring: An alarm clock
If you want to wake up for that oceanside sunrise, pack your own gear: Very few cruise lines stock alarm clocks in their cabins. The no-alarm rule isn't universal — Euro River Cruises and One Ocean Expeditions, for two, offer cabins with alarms — but most major cruise lines don't specify alarm clocks in their amenities. It's best to come prepared with something jangly and loud. (This rule is especially important if you're in a windowless interior cabin, where day and night hours look completely identical.) 
Leave at home: Irons and other items with heating elements

When it comes to appliances, there's no hard and fast rule for what's allowed or prohibited on cruises — each line sets its own policies. Some, like Norwegian, allow hair dryers and curlers, while banning hotplates, clothing irons and "any other item that may create a fire hazard." Disney and Royal Caribbean add coffee makers to the do-not-bring list; Cunard merely prohibits "inflammable or hazardous items," leaving the actual definition of such items to their own discretion. The safest course of action is always to contact your specific cruise line before embarkation to avoid the embarrassment of having to bail your bag out of the ship's banned-items jail

Eco-tour
 

Bring: Extra batteries or a solar charger
Your camera battery just died, and your back-to-basics eco-lodge has no outlets. To avoid getting caught with your power down, stock up on replaceable batteries for your camera, flashlight and other gadgets if your tour operator can't guarantee charging solutions. If you're the type to take your cell phone everywhere, there are other eco-friendly solutions. Samsonite Luggage Window Solar Charger (shop.samsonite.com, $50) fits most cell phones and takes 13 hours of sun to juice up completely. For the iPhone junkie, Eton's Mobius Rechargeable Battery Case with Solar Panel (etoncorp.com, $80) is compatible with the latest 4 and 4S models, and since it doubles as a heavy-duty phone case, you'll get the power of the sun and defense against drops and dings. 

Leave at home: Mosquito nets
Let's not gloss over the risks: According to the World Health Organization, 30,000 travelers become infected with malaria every year. Add in yellow fever, encephalitis and dengue fever, and the little buggers are a serious concern in tropical and subtropical areas. Luckily, most eco-tour operators know the hazards and provide mosquito nets for guests — making nets one less item to cram into your overstuffed bag. Instead, use that extra space for malaria prevention medication and an effective DEET-based insect repellent.

Road trip 

Bring: A multitasking car charger
There's nothing worse than the strains of "On the Road Again" petering out halfway through your road trip because your iPod has lost its charge — except maybe getting lost in the middle of the desert because your smartphone, and its mapping app, also conked out. Give yourself (and Willie Nelson) a hand and pack a reliable car charger for your music player, phone and other electronics. ThinkGeek's Power Bullet Charger (thinkgeek.com, $15) amps up the juice with dual USB ports, allowing you to charge two devices at once from a standard car cigarette lighter. And when you reach your hotel, it plugs into a standard wall socket to keep the electrons flowing. 

Leave at home: Caffeine pills
We know, we know — Amarillo is almost on the horizon and you just need one last boost of late-night energy to make it. Unfortunately, while there's little risk in moderate caffeine use, popping those pills — or slurping down energy drinks — can make you a hazard to yourself and other drivers. According to the National Institutes of Health, caffeine intoxication can result in tremors, tachycardia (increased heart rate), and "psychomotor agitation." Pill concentrations vary, but the 200 milligrams of caffeine in over-the-counter Vivarin is equal to two and a half cans of Red Bull — and too much of either can spell danger. Pull over and take a rest instead. Amarillo will still be there in the morning.

Amusement park

Bring: Ready-to-eat snacks
Every good penny pincher knows to pack his own snacks when visiting a pricey theme park. But remember: not all foods are the same when it comes to theme park policy. Although Disney World allows you to bring in outside food, state law prohibits employees from "storing, preparing, cooking, or reheating any food" brought in by guests. That means everything must be completely ready to eat — no instant oatmeal or Easy Mac! (Universal Resort has a similar policy.) Another item you'll have to provide yourself at Disney: chewing gum. Walt reportedly hated the goopy stuff and banned its sale within the parks. Draconian? Your shoes won't think so. 

Leave at home: A first-aid kit
It's tempting to over-prepare for an emergency, but the House of Mouse and other major amusement parks have you covered when it comes to basic health issues. Each Disney theme park has first-aid stations staffed by certified nurses who are equipped to fix minor scrapes and internal ailments. You'll find a wide array of free products, from Tylenol to Tums to bandages, in addition to blood-pressure checking stations. Universal Resort, Six Flags, and Cedar Point offer similar first-aid stations at their parks, so there's no need to fill up your pack with pills you may end up not even needing. 

Mexican vacation

Bring: Eco-friendly sunscreen
Chances are, you won't forget sunscreen on your beach vacation. But you may need to do a little research ahead of time to make sure you're bringing precisely the right kind of lotion. Chemicals in your sunscreen can have a negative effect on fragile coral reef ecosystems, and some Mexican eco-parks, including Xel-Há and Xcaret, are protecting them by banning sunscreens that contain certain compounds. Before crossing the border, look for lotions that are light on the questionable chemicals, such as paraben, cinnamate and benzophenone. Opt instead for eco-conscious brands like Burt's Bees (burtsbees.com, $18) and Tropical Seas (tropicalseas.com, from $4.50). 

Leave at home: Charitable donations (unless you've planned ahead)
Many American travelers hope to turn their trip abroad into an opportunity to help out; a popular plan is to bring clothing to donate to a local orphanage or charity. But know before you go: According to the U.S. Department of State, Mexico's customs regulations prohibit the importation of used goods, including all textiles. So that pile of clothing you're intending to hand out in Tijuana might not make it south of the border. Donations of medicine and other items are allowed, but they must be approved and arranged in advance with Mexico's customs department. You can still do good — just arrange it beforehand instead of hoping for negligent border patrol officials. 

Weekend flight

Bring: Tablet toothpaste, bar shampoo, and stick deodorant
On a short trip with no checked baggage, there's no time to waste on the TSA. If you're traveling light with just a carry-on, avoid the 3-1-1 liquid policy (3.4 ounce bottles or less, one-gallon plastic bag, one bag per passenger) altogether and fly dry. Stock up on TSA-friendly alternatives to liquid products, like Lush's Toothy Tabs (lushusa.com, from $4), foaming toothpaste stand-ins that come in a variety of flavors, and J.R. Liggett's bar shampoos (jrliggett.com, $7), which are detergent-free and come with a range of supplements for hair health. Finally, remember to pack a reliable solid deodorant — gels and aerosols are subject to the TSA's 3.4-ounce rule, but the stick stuff isn't. 

Leave at home: Gel shoe inserts
The TSA is more concerned about planted bombs than plantar warts. Like any other type of gel, shoe cushions fall under the TSA's regulations — good luck finding inserts that weigh in under 3.4 ounces. Instead, invest in a pair of comfy travel shoes, or skirt the TSA's regulations by using plastic or memory-foam insoles instead. Wondering what else passes the TSA test? Take advantage of the agency's Can I Bring? online search engine to inquire about every kind of carry-on, from alcohol (3.4 ounces or less, please) to Zippos (one per guest). 

All-inclusive resort 

Bring: Top-shelf liquor
Sure, all-inclusives may be all-you-can-drink, but they're often more about quantity than quality. Because some resorts have contracts with local brewers or suppliers, the drinks included in the package price might not be premium quality. Many resorts, like the Sugar Bay Resort & Spa in St. Thomas or Bali's Meliá Benoa, will state this up front, but others are craftier. Always scan vacation packages for references to "local" or "house" liquor. If you're hoping, for example, to toast a special occasion with a nice bottle of champagne, it's a good idea to bring one into the resort yourself. 

Leave at home: Tip money
Most all-inclusives will save you from constantly reaching for singles by including gratuities in the package price. In fact, some resorts actually ban employees from accepting any money from guests. No matter how grateful you are towards the bellboy for lugging 12 bags up to your hotel room, you'll have to suppress your generous instincts. Again, the policy isn't necessarily consistent; both Sandals and Mexico's Karisma Hotels & Resorts, for example, include gratuities in their upfront prices, but smaller resort operators may diverge from this policy. Make sure you know their expectations before you book, and if there's any doubt, contact them directly and ask.

Ski trip 

Bring: Ibuprofen
Packing a painkiller for a ski vacation might seem like a no-brainer — but it's not just for those après-ski aches. Earlier this year, a study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine reported that the drug could prevent the fatigue, headaches and nausea that characterize altitude sickness, with fewer negative side effects than drugs like Diamox that specifically target the illness. The study found that ibuprofen reduced the probability of altitude sickness by 25 percent at altitudes from 4,100 to 12,570 feet, a range that encompasses most top skiing areas, including Breckenridge, Whistler Blackcomb, and Switzerland's Zermatt. 

Leave at home: Your ski gear
Skis, boots and poles aren't exactly compact, so nix the U-Haul and rent your equipment on-site. It might be cheaper than you'd expect: Ski Country Resorts & Sports in Breckenridge, for example, offers packages from $21 per day for a full set of gear, and less if you bring some items on your own and rent piecemeal. The deal looks even rosier if you're flying to the slopes. Ski equipment will count as your first piece of checked luggage and can lead to fees of $50 for a domestic roundtrip on Delta or American. 

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