There are vacations, and then there are island vacations. White sandy beaches combined with crystal blue waters, palm trees swaying in the breeze and nonstop piña coladas are truly the stuff dreams are made of. But things can go awry pretty quickly when you’re on a tropical trip, which is why you need to be prepared for anything. Unlike travel to the next state over, staying on an island often brings with it hefty upcharges on necessities like sunscreen and water, and occasionally scarcity in products you might be used to finding readily available at home.
I recently vacationed with my family in Turks and Caicos. The trip was a 10 out of 10 when it came to stunning scenery, delicious food and fun adventures, but it was a four out of 10 when it came to sunburns, heat rashes, stomachaches and more. The locale’s blistering sun, coral reefs and diverse menu options wreaked havoc on my kiddos’ overall health, and had I not packed a huge Ziploc bag with supplies, we would have been searching the island for basics like aloe vera, Neosporin and first aid instead of hanging by the pool.
We go to the islands for a reason — it’s a total escape from our day-to-day reality. In order to truly savor that experience, you want to pack the necessities so that you’re not overspending on basic items you likely already have at home. Below is a recap of some of the necessities I brought on our trip, plus all the things I forgot and wish I hadn’t.
$24.95 $19.95 at Amazon
Island sun is strong, and even those who reapply sunscreen endlessly are seemingly bound to get a little red. At nighttime, lather up with this beloved organic aloe vera gel from Seven Minerals Store that has more than 57,000 positive Amazon reviews. It's your best defense for moisturizing and replenishing the skin — it's alcohol-free and doesn’t have a sticky residue.
$9.95 at Amazon
We love this device as a solution for bug bites. As soon as you notice a bite, put the Bug Bite Thing to use to remove the venom from your bite, therefore reducing the itchiness. At less than $10, it's worth bringing along on your island vacation to try to subside any bug bite itchiness. You can read our full review of this product here.
$4.36 at Amazon
Scrape your foot on a sharp shell? Kill germs and keep infections at bay with some good ol’ fashioned Neosporin.
$59.99 $54.88 at Amazon
If you’re traveling with kids, a thermometer is a must-have — the key to discerning whether a cough or a runny nose is actually “something” is whether or not a fever is also in play. I love this Braun for grasping an always accurate inner ear temp, but if your child prefers a no-touch forehead thermometer, this is the one to get.
$8.94 at Amazon
A one-stop shop for all your potential vacation ouchies, this first aid kit from Welly includes bandages, hand sanitizer, triple antibiotic ointment and hydrocortisone cream for anti-inch ointment.
$77 at Supergoop!
Trust me when I say you’re going to need a lot of sunscreen. Like, a whole lot. I brought four lotion tubes and four spray screens on our spring break vacation and we ran out on the fourth day — and were forced to pay $35 per small tube from the hotel gift shop. That's why it's worth investing in this jumbo set from my favorite clean sunscreen brand, Supergoop!. Yes, it’s big, but if you’re checking luggage it’s well worth hauling on your trip.
$11.99 at Amazon
This just in: Mosquitoes exist everywhere, even in paradise. Avoid bug bites during island hikes or alfresco dinners by spraying down your crew with this DEET-free repellent that has more than 1,700 positive Amazon reviews and is TSA-approved, thanks to its travel-friendly size at 3.4 ounces.
$24.91 at Amazon
Island sun can do a number on your energy levels and leave you feeling dehydrated, which is why I always travel with a week’s worth of Liquid I.V. single-serve sticks. Packed with vitamins (B3, B5, B6, B12 and C) and non-GMO ingredients and electrolytes, the sticks can be mixed with water, delivering tons of hydration. They’re great for island hangovers too.
$19.99 $9.99 at Amazon
Trust me when I say this $10 pouch is worth every penny. Backed by more than 63,000 Amazon positive reviews, the IPX8-certified waterproof pouch has a secure locking mechanism that protects your phone from water, dust and scratches. My favorite detail, however, is that the pouch is screen-touch sensitive, so even when it’s submerged in water, you can still take photos.
$54.99 at Amazon
When your days are full of nonstop island fun, when the sun sets, sometimes all you want to do is watch some Netflix — or, if you have kids, Disney+. Bring along a Fire TV Stick to ensure you can stream from all your favorite services wherever you are.
$29.99 at Amazon
While falling asleep to the sound of the ocean crashing is magical, waking up at dawn to island tropical birds squawking is not always so magical. Ensure everyone gets all the shut-eye they need on your trip with this handy portable white noise machine from Yogasleep that has three sound settings, robust volume and a handy lanyard that's great for attaching to a beach chair for midday naps.
$139.99 at Amazon
Reminder: The point of this vacation is to relax! And nothing sounds more relaxing than sitting on a beach reading a good book. Lighten your travel load by ditching the hardcovers and opting for the Kindle Paperwhite, which reads like a real paper book, even in the bright sun. With a battery life of 10 weeks and a virtual library with millions of options, this is the best way to read on the go.
$39.99 $24.99 at Amazon
Whether you’re hiking through the rainforests of St. Lucia or relaxing on the beaches of Aruba, you want your smartphone to be fully charged. The answer is this Belkin power bank, which has both a lightning port and a USB-A port, meaning you can use the same cord to charge your phone and refill its battery. More to know: The Boost can also charge your AirPods and iPad, providing an additional 35 hours of battery life.
$49.95 $39 at Amazon
While your beach scene may be filled with live music courtesy of the hotel’s steel drummer, you’ll want to have tunes for your hotel room or any private adventures you go on. The JBL Clip is my favorite portable speaker because it’s tiny enough to toss in your purse or carry-on bag and has a built-in carabiner that you can attach to everything from a backpack to an umbrella stand.
$130 at Amazon
You know what I refuse to do on vacation? Iron. But wrinkled clothes are also a major pet peeve. My solution is this portable steamer that can either steam press for a pristine look or steam naturally for a spiffy but not stiff-as-a-board look. Weighing less than 2 pounds, the steamer is small enough to toss in your carry-on bag.
$13.98 $11.98 at Amazon
Here’s the thing about kids: They hit a breaking point, even in paradise. When you see they’re at their limit, that means one thing for our family: iPad time! My 4-year-old daughter doesn’t nap anymore, but she often needs zone-out times during our travels, which means watching a show at the pool, during dinner or back in the hotel room. I love this iPad case because it's easy for her to carry, it’s shockproof for when she inevitably drops it and it has convertible kickstands for hands-free watching.
From $38.36 at Amazon
Yes, snorkel sets are bulky, but trust me, it’s worth the hassle of transporting — mainly to avoid the germs of communal options at your hotel and on boat tours. I bought this set for myself and my husband, and we used them the entire time we were in Turks, both on tours and while snorkeling as a family off the beach. High quality and ultra durable, the set’s biggest selling point is that each one comes in a handy carrying bag.
$18 at Primary
Even if your kids don’t typically wear rash guards, you still want to pack them, as the island sun is much stronger than what they're probably used to. To avoid making my mistake of overpaying for the hotel’s option, invest in a few of these cute and colorful rash guards from Primary, each of which has built-in UPF 50 sun protection and is made from 80% recycled nylon.
$118 at Vineyard Vines
A wrinkle-free, lightweight shirt that's moisture-wicking and quick-drying? Yep, it exists, thanks to Vineyard Vines, and it comes in island-friendly light hues that will have you looking right at home while simultaneously feeling cool as a cucumber. It’s the perfect option for sunset sails and alfresco dinners alike. The brand also makes a lightweight, water-repellent blazer that's perfect for dressier occasions in warm temps.
$68 at Free People
Fun fact about Turks & Caicos in the springtime: The island is very, very windy. And while I had brought a packable sun hat, it was useless, as it kept blowing off my head. I wish I had invested in this cute option from Free People, which comes in four colorways and has a built-in chin strap to keep it in place on even the windiest of days, on choppy boat rides or on island convertible excursions.
$68 at Vuori
Multifunction clothing is key when it comes to smart packing, and these shorts from Vuori fit the bill. Perfect for travel days, the elastic waist Kore is also moisture-wicking and quick-drying, which means you can wear them straight from the plane to the pool without needing an outfit change. Available in 14 colors and sizes XS to XXL, the shorts also boast more than 5,400 positive reviews.
$69 at Nordstrom
Chock-full of ventilation, Melin hats are beloved not only for how cooling they are but also because they’re super lightweight and water-resistant — they can even float! The brand’s bestselling A-Game style has a modern and sporty design, comes in eight colors and has a moisture-wicking lining that is also antimicrobial.
$58 $49.50 at Larq
Avoid paying exorbitant fees for bottled water — and save the planet by using less single-use plastic — with Larq, a water bottle with a built-in filtration system that not only improves tap water’s taste but also removes lead, heavy metals, chemicals, chlorine, VOCs and more as you sip through the flappable straw. Available in two sizes and two monochromatic hues, this is also the chicest water bottle on the market. More to know: One Larq filter can clean up to 40 gallons of water, equivalent to 300 single-use plastic bottles, and the bottle includes a silicone-coated carabiner for easy transporting.
$89 at Mark & Graham
Islands are sandy and wet, which is why you need a beach bag that can handle the elements, and this one from Mark & Graham is my new favorite. Available in three size formats, the Steele tote comes in a slew of fun colors from bubblegum pink to canary yellow. In addition to being completely waterproof, it's also got two brass grommets at the bottom of the bag, perfect for shaking out unwanted sand at the end of the day. For an extra $12.50, the bag gets even cuter with a big monogram in a contrasting color.
$62 at Set Active & $78 at Set Active
A mix-and-matchable set that's both comfortable and cool, these pieces from celebrity-beloved brand Set Active are great because once you choose one of the chic, monochromatic colors, you can then corral everything from leggings and sports bras to cropped sweatshirts, sweatpants and more to your cart. The overall look will ensure you’re traveling in style, from the airport to your hotel.
From $34.39 at Amazon
A cover-up guaranteed to block UVA and UVB rays is just what your dermatologist ordered, and we like this one because it’s also packed with UPF 50 and it's machine-washable. Available in 16 colors and patterns and sizes XXS to 3X, the dress also has a hood and drawstring and two roomy pockets.
$275 at Cami and Jax
If you’re like me, tan lines stress you out. That's why I love this strapless, bandeau-style swimsuit from Cami & Jax. Designed with subtle cutouts and a cute tie closure in the back, the one-piece is flattering and stylish and will leave you with nary a tan line.
$262 at Maui Jim
These polarized wrap sunglasses from Maui Jim are perfect for cutting the ocean glare. The classic square-shaped glasses are not only lightweight and embedded with rubber nose pads but they also have a super-thin glass lens that provides crisp optics. While the Maui Green lens is definitely on-trend, three slightly more subtle lens hues are also available. Looking for a cheap sunglasses option for kids? I bought these shatterproof Ray-Ban dupes in four different colors for my kids and can’t say enough about them!
$14.95 at Amazon
Something I didn’t forget while packing for our trip was my beloved Sea to Summit dry sack, which I bought more than a decade ago and continue to bring on every vacation. Lightweight and totally pliable, the waterproof sack is great for packing liquids to and from your destination (if anything leaks in the bag, it stays in the bag!), but once we arrive I use it to keep my valuables dry while at the beach, at the pool or on a boat. Available in seven sizes and five colorways, the bags are also lined with a white interior that reflects light and makes it easier to find your stuff on the go.
Looking for a travel credit card? Find out which cards CNN Underscored chose as our best travel credit cards of 2022.