12 things you must pack if you’re traveling somewhere tropical for Spring Break
Take it from me: I live on a Caribbean island.
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About two years ago, I moved to St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, after wintering there since 2016 (remote work FTW!). In addition to packing for myself for four-month stretches and accumulating the best things for full-time #islandlife, I’ve hosted more than a dozen visitors and counting—shockingly, a free place to stay in the Caribbean is a draw.
All that is to say: I can share on excellent authority what items are absolute musts to make room for in your checked luggage or carry-on bag for a tropical vacation. (And don't forget your face mask for the plane... and in case your destination has different COVID-safe requirements than you're used to at home.)
1. Reef-safe sunscreen
You know that protecting your skin during long days outside should be top of mind as you plan your trip. There are a couple of things to consider if you’re packing your own sun protection. First, you may need to ante up the cash to check a bag: The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that adults use a full ounce of sunscreen—the amount that would fill a shot glass—per application and to reapply it every two hours in the sun. Therefore, the TSA-sanctioned carry-on limit of 3 ounces won’t even get you through a day outdoors. If you’d otherwise not check, though, it may not make financial sense: While island and/or resort sunscreen prices may be more than what you find in your local Walmart, they’re still less than the $30 most airlines hit you with for checking a bag.
What’s more, studies found that some chemical UV-protectant ingredients are harmful to sea life. In fact, the U.S. Virgin Islands banned sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate—with potentially a $1,000 fine for first-time offenders.
One safer bet that I really like and I can find on-island—or you could pack in your checked bag, if you’re going that route—is Australian Gold Botanical Mineral Sunscreen. It doesn’t contain any offending ingredients and blends in better (if not perfectly) than other mineral-based lotions I’ve used. I also apply the tinted face sunscreen from the same brand. It’s not greasy and doesn’t leave white residue—and comes in a 3-ounce, rollaboard-friendly tube.
- Get Australian Gold Botanical Mineral Sunscreen on Amazon for $15.99
- Get Australian Gold Botanical SPF 50 Tinted Face Mineral Lotion on Amazon for $15.99
2. Long sleeves and pants
I hear you scoffing, “But the weather forecast lists highs in the mid-80s every day—and I wear T-shirts the moment the temps at home crest 60 degrees!” But long sleeves and pants aren’t only good for keeping you warm: They also protect your skin from too much sun and from those pesky island mosquitoes and sand fleas—a.k.a., no-see-ums or mampies, as we call ‘em in the V.I.—that come out around dusk.
Choose synthetic fabrics for daytime, such as the nylon-spandex blends of rashguards, which promise to protect your skin from UV rays. Switch to airy linens at night to keep you easy-breezy. If you’re like me and you acclimatize quickly, bringing a cardigan or sweater won’t be the worst thing for those nights that cool to the low 70s.
3. The right footwear
Sandals are de rigueur, of course, and if you’ll be traipsing around unevenly paved or cobblestone streets (you probably will be on most islands), leave those stilettos at home in favor of block heels or wedges, if you must have the extra height at all. A pair of sneakers is a good idea if you plan to hike or explore off the beaten path. Finally, if you intend to snorkel using rented gear, pack an old pair of low-rise running socks—ideally synthetic, not cotton—to protect your feet from blisters in the flippers.
Also worth bringing along: water socks, like these rubber-soled spandex ones, to provide surer footing on slick rocks or boat decks and protect your feet from sea urchins or fire coral. (Trust me on this last point.)
Get the VIFUUR Water Shoes on Amazon starting at $8.68
4. Insect repellent
One of the less brag-worthy things about living on an island: The tiny biting creatures that also inhabit it. Because mosquito-borne illnesses are always something of a concern in the tropics, it’s wise to pack protection.
Skip those essential oil-containing products, which smell great but are largely useless. (I once found a dead mosquito floating in the water of my lemon-eucalyptus oil diffuser, so I guess she wasn’t exactly repelled by it.)
In terms of active ingredients that work, DEET is the king of the repellents, but picaridin rates comparably well and is less noxious-smelling and greasy on the skin. You can get effective products in pump sprays and lotions that don’t exceed carry-on size restrictions, or wipes that don’t even count as liquids. For a weeklong trip, you won’t need more than one of those options.
5. A refillable water bottle
Packing your own (empty) water bottle will serve you well on your travels, from the plane to your destination. First, it’ll save you some cash on overpriced bottled water at the airport if you fill it from a fountain after going through security. Once you arrive at your sunny locale, you’ll be sweating a ton, so you’ll want it to keep you hydrated. Finally, islands like mine don’t often have good recycling programs in place for plastic bottles, and in the best-case scenario, the empties have to be shipped off as garbage to landfills elsewhere; worst case, they end up on our roadsides, beaches, and in the ocean.
If you bring an insulated water bottle, like the one from Brita that topped our tests, you’ll have refreshing, ice-cold sips all day long. To note: While this bottle filters water to improve its flavor, it won’t kill bacteria, so be sure to ask if it’s safe to drink the water at your destination or if you’ll need to pick up a gallon at the local store.
6. Reusable drinkware
While we’re on the subject of beverages, you may find yourself sipping on something other than good ole H2O. I recommend bringing a thermal tumbler for frosty blended drinks, draft beer, soft drinks, and cocktails, and/or an insulated coozie for soda or beer. They’re reusable (cutting down on trash) and keep your drinks from melting, sweating, and warming up in the sun.
I have a 20-ounce tumbler from Tahoe Trails that I love: It kept a drink cold in the blazing midday sun for two hours while I ran a half marathon—and I hadn’t even added ice to it. And its fliptop lid doesn’t leak! If you mostly sip from a bottle or can, you must get a 4-in-1 insulated coozie, like the one from Gteller that I found on Amazon. Its smart design accommodates 12-ounce beer bottles and both regular and skinny cans, keeping your sips chilled till the very last drop. This one comes with a second lid so you can also use it as a 14-ounce tumbler for cold or hot beverages.
Finally, you may have noticed that many municipalities and companies have banned the use of plastic drinking straws as a means to protect turtles and other sea life. Well, on an island, we actually have those creatures, so all you’ll find at local restaurants are those crappy paper straws. If you prefer to sip pretty, bring your own reusable straw along. Our top pick from Final Straw is pricier than some, but it comes with a nifty carrying case and a cleaning brush.
- Get the Tahoe Trails 20-ounce Stainless Steel Tumbler on Amazon for 12.99
- Get the Gteller 4 in 1 Stainless Steel Can/Bottle Insulator on Amazon starting at $7.50
- Get the Final Straw on Amazon starting at $17.97
7. A sun hat that stays put
You may have heard about the trade winds, which brought explorers like Columbus to the Caribbean in the first place. They are real, they are glorious for keeping comfy in the sun, and they will blow away hats that aren’t secured (as well as cause Marilyn Monroe moments with full skirts—so pack and wear those with caution).
For a sun hat you won’t have to chase down the boardwalk, look to this option by Solaris. It has a wide brim, a size-adjustable rear strap, a chin drawstring, and a hole to pull a ponytail or bun through. Whatever you pack, a tight fit and/or a chin string are clutch for security.
8. A dry bag (or two)
Unless you have a snorkel mask or other water gear that you swear by, you can rent decent equipment in most places, so there’s no need to take up space in your luggage with it. One thing worth bringing, though, is a dry bag.
If you plan to only carry essentials to the beach, a smartphone-sized pouch will do the trick. While many phones are water-resistant these days, you’ll need the protection if you intend to swim in salt water with your device—or to bury it in the sand near your towel to hide it from thieves (sadly, it happens). If a boating excursion is in the plan, you’ll be happy to have a larger tote for keeping your towel and change of clothes from errant sea spray.
9. A flashlight or headlamp
One of my favorite things to do with my guests is to take them on a pre-dawn hike to the beach below St. Croix’s Point Udall—the easternmost land in the United States in the Western Hemisphere—to be the first on American soil to witness the sunrise. But unless it’s a full moon, the trail down to the best view from Jack and Isaac’s Bay can be pitch dark.
If you intend to do anything outdoors in the no-sunlight hours, don’t waste precious smartphone battery life on the flashlight and bring along a hands-free headlamp (Petzl is my preference) or a small flashlight, like our test’s best value pick, the Anker Bolder LC40. Either will be of use if there’s a power outage while you’re on your trip, too (another common occurrence, at least where I am).
10. A quick-drying, sand-free towel
You’re going to the beach, so your brain might immediately go to the traditional terry-cloth beach towel. And while those feel plush, they require a ton of space in a suitcase and take forever to dry in humid, tropical climes.
A 100% cotton Turkish Peshtemal towel acts as a beach blanket as well as a coverup or sarong, won’t absorb sand, and dries both you and itself efficiently and quickly. The thin material folds up much smaller for packing, too. I recently bought a six-pack of Pestemal towels for under $60 on Amazon, so I have plenty on hand for visitors. For one designed with traveling in mind, opt for Bay Laurel’s offering, which comes with its own cinch bag to keep it tidily contained in your suitcase.
11. Your passports (yes, plural)
If your destination is a foreign country, this travel document is required. While the USVI and Puerto Rico advertise heavily that U.S. residents don’t need a passport to come (which is 100% true), there are many other non-American islands a short boat or seaplane ride away—and who wants to pass up the chance to island-hop to a full-moon party on Tortola? At least, that’s what happened to a friend’s (pre-COVID) visitor because he didn’t bring his passport.
The other “passport” you’ll need in these post-COVID times: your vaccine card. Depending on your destination, you may need to show it—though it’s wise to check the rules at your destination before you even book your trip. (The USVI’s COVID travel guidelines keep changing—shocker.)
Outfit both documents in style with a travel wallet, like this one from Zoppen, which also contains RFID protection for the chip in your government-issued passport and is highly rated on Amazon. Reviewers rave about its storage and organization for all your travel documents, and it comes in 36 colors, so you’ll probably find one that suits you.
12. A pet carrier (but not your pet)
This one’s extra credit, but hear me out. For a variety of reasons, islands often have a massive stray-animal problem, with too many unwanted dogs and cats roaming around and not enough good homes within our tiny and isolated borders to take them all in. Luckily, many wonderful charitable programs exist—such as St. Croix’s Paws from Paradise—that call on travelers to assist in escorting these lovable critters to partner shelters and then their forever homes stateside. It costs the animal chaperone literally nothing other than a few extra minutes at the airport on either end—the charities cover the fees—and it’s both rewarding to know you’re helping save a furry life and fun to be the passenger toting the adorable puppy or kitten onboard.
Pet carriers, however, are always in short supply. Bringing along an empty one to donate to the cause or to use as a travel escort on your return trip is always appreciated—and who knows, you may decide to adopt your own fuzzy friend to keep as your ultimate souvenir! (For evidence, see: Gus.) Our best value pet carrier from Pet Peppy is airline-approved and features expandable sides to offer space for a furry travel companion to stretch out during a layover without taking them out.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.