Cruise ship etiquette: What’s the dress code these days?

Cruise ship etiquette: What’s the dress code these days?
Written by Travel Adventures

Dress codes have been part of cruising from nearly the beginning. On the old TV series The Love Boat, turning out in formal evening attire was all part of the fun of a holiday at sea. Days were casual and carefree, but come nighttime, guests’ outfits were glamorous and sophisticated. The less-discussed part was that the dress code served as a functional barrier to entry – you needed formalwear to go and enjoy the full experience.

Today, most cruise lines have relaxed their dress codes slightly – almost none of them require black-tie attire (even on “formal nights”), but the notion that cruises are dressy is still something of a damper on interest in cruises. As a former travel agent – albeit now some years ago – I often struggled to sell cruises to clients who had never been on one. “I don’t like to dress up,” they’d say.

At the time – it was the early 2000s – cruise lines were still generally adhering to dress codes more rigidly, and that was a turnoff for some travellers. Celebrity Cruises even went so far as to serve the full dining room menu in a cordoned off portion of the buffet to passengers who still wanted to “dine out” on formal nights, but didn’t want to adhere to the dress code for that evening. Cruise lines have since evolved – here’s what you should know about today’s dress codes.

The basics

Policies vary by cruise line, but there are some commonalities across brands. During the day, the basics are near-universal: Unless at a pool bar or pool restaurant, passengers are generally expected to wear a top, bottoms, and footwear while walking around the ship. Swimwear is generally only acceptable at or very near the pool (buffet restaurants are usually quite near pools, and generally allow dry swimwear or swimwear with a cover up).

At dinner, particularly in the main and specialty restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and theatre, most cruise lines prefer a dressier look for men, requesting passengers refrain from wearing shorts, sleeveless T-shirts, flip-flops, and baseball caps. Interestingly, many do not publish specific requirements for women, although it can be assumed the same attire for women is also discouraged. A good rule of thumb for cruisers is to always pack at least one pair of long pants that are not jeans, for dinners onboard.

As far as dress prohibitions, cruise lines tend to follow policies similar to airlines, disallowing guests from wearing clothing bearing messages that are distasteful or patently offensive.

Formal nights

Most cruise lines will host formal nights at least once on a weeklong voyage. In the past, this would have meant black tie, but today the expectations are generally more relaxed. Many cruise lines have even stopped using the word “formal” to describe these evenings because of the implication of formalwear – nowadays, that’s almost never the case.

Celebrity Cruises has certain evenings designated as “evening chic,” where many passengers will dress more formally (think casual-wedding attire, or what you’d wear to dinner at a nice restaurant), but Celebrity notes that on these evenings “smart casual” is still acceptable in restaurants and the theatre. Holland America Line requires collared shirts and slacks on men in “fine dining” restaurants (i.e. not at the buffet or quick service counters) at minimum on “dressy” nights.


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