Cruise Ship Etiquette: What’s the Dress Code These Days?

We break down the dress code expectations on today's ships.
cruise ship restaurant

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 vacation 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 travelers. 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 theater, 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 Interestingly, many do not publish specific requirements for women, although it can be assumed the same attire for women is also discouraged.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 theater. 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.

Carnival is similar, requiring dress slacks and dress shorts and suggesting (but not requiring) sport coats on “cruise elegant” evenings, while noting that many men choose to wear a suit and tie or tuxedo. Princess Cruises still uses the “formal night” moniker, suggesting tuxedos or dark suits, gowns, elegant pantsuits, or cocktail dresses. In rather confusing nomenclature, Norwegian refers to its daytime attire as “cruise casual”, and its evening attire as “smart casual,” asking for at least a collared shirt and closed-toed shoes for men.

Cunard is perhaps the most diplomatic cruise line when describing evening attire, saying: “If you want to make an effort in the evening you won’t be alone.” Some evenings are designated “gala evenings,” but Cunard suggests themes like “Roaring 20s,” “Black and White,” or “Red and Gold” rather than publishing outright dress requirements.

Regardless of the cruise line, the fashion choices made on board do tend to be pretty diverse. Outside of the basic requirements (like no shorts at the dinner table), passengers will generally wear what they’re most comfortable in. On some gala evenings on a Cunard Transatlantic crossing I was on, I saw several passengers wearing white-tie complete with tails (I spotted more than one top hat that same evening), while another passenger at an adjacent table looked utterly comfortable in an untucked button down shirt with slacks.

Which cruise line has the most relaxed dress code?

Most expedition cruises like Lindblad and Hurtigruten have no expectation of formal (or even particularly elegant) dress, due to the active nature of those sailings. Some cruise lines, like Windstar, have also done away with formal dress codes, as do specialty sailings like the combination passenger/freight Aranui Cruises in Tahiti. Viking Ocean Cruises also eschews formal nights, but requests no jeans at dinner.

Virgin Voyages has perhaps the most liberal policy of the big ship cruise lines, saying, “We encourage you to wear more than a bathing suit if you go to a restaurant and kindly consider shoes, but your style is your style.”

Alternative options to dressing up

Don’t let a dress code scare you off cruising, even if you’re traveling on a line that hosts formal nights. Most cruise lines have relaxed their policies enough so that most travelers will be able to attend a formal night with the clothes they keep in their closet at home—even if it’s a simple request for a collared shirt and a prohibition on jeans at dinner.

Really want to avoid the fancy dress? Remember there’s always the buffet, and room service—casual dressers always have the option to indulge in a night in and wear whatever they please.