What should I wear at sea? Here's what to know about cruise line dress codes
When I was getting ready to take a cruise in October, there were a handful of items I made sure to pack: my passport, anti-nausea medicine, and a blazer and tie.
The cruise line, Holland America Line, had advised me that during the transatlantic voyage from the Netherlands to New York there would be some occasions to dress up. But after lint-rolling my jacket and multiple attempts at a half-Windsor knot, I left my stateroom and realized I may not have needed them.
While plenty of guests were decked out in jackets, dresses and slacks, others were in sartorial vacation mode, dressed in varying degrees of (in)formality.
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First-time cruisers may not realize that ships have some guidelines for clothing, from formal nights to events that call for unique attire, but those rules and recommendations have evolved over time.
"It really has gotten more and more relaxed as we've gone along, especially after the pandemic," said Valerie Dorsey, a franchise owner and travel adviser at Cruise Planners.
Here's what travelers should know about what to pack and wear on their next sailing.
Do cruise lines have dress codes?
Though travelers may associate cruising with formal nights – when lines encourage passengers to dress up for dinner in certain venues, stemming from grand tradition – the onboard experience has grown more easygoing, Dorsey said.
Dorsey said she noticed a shift from true formal wear to "smart casual" or "smart elegant" clothing around 2015 and began hearing more from clients about how other travelers weren't dressing up as much, a change that has irked some guests.
Passengers have gotten more casual on regular nights, too.
That shift has only been exacerbated in the wake of COVID-19 as more travelers work from home, according to Dorsey, though some lines take formal nights more seriously and some passengers choose to go all out, regardless.
"I've seen people dress way up, meaning tuxedos, evening gowns, beautiful clothing, down to 'I'm just going to dinner at Red Lobster tonight,' " she said. "I think it's all over the place."
Enforcement of the dress codes has eased, as well.
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"It used to be if you walked in in a pair of shorts, they would say, 'I'm sorry, you can't enter the dining room,' and they don't even stop people anymore," Dorsey said. "So that's why it's really hard to get a handle on how you're supposed to dress."
If you want to opt out of dressing up altogether, there are parts of the ship that usually remain more casual, even on dressy or formal nights. Travelers can always head to the buffet or other casual eateries, Dorsey said, though on smaller lines more passengers may be dressed up more across the board.
Cruise lines each have their own dress codes, but we've rounded up some of the major lines' policies:
Carnival Cruise Line dress code
Passengers can wear casual clothes during the day, but the line requires smart casual clothing after 5:30 p.m. in its public lounges and restaurants or as stated in the ship's newsletter, spokesperson Matt Lupoli said in an email.
The line's Cruise Casual dress code calls for collared sport shirts, casual pants or jeans – but no cut-offs – and long dress shorts for men. Women can wear items including casual dresses, blouses and skirts or pants, dress shorts and jeans.
In accordance with the dress code, passengers cannot wear regular shorts or gym shorts, bathing suit attire, beach flip-flops and other similar items in the dining room.
When the Cruise Elegant Dress Code is in effect, men can wear dress trousers and shirts, and the line recommends a sport jacket.
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For women, the line calls for cocktail dresses, "elegant skirts and blouses," pantsuits or even evening gowns. Items like T-shirts, jeans, shorts and gym shorts and bathing suit attire are similarly barred from the dining room.
The length of the cruise determines the number of Cruise Elegant evenings, according to Carnival's website. The Cruise Elegant dress code applies for the main dining rooms and the Steakhouse. However, Lupoli said passengers dressed in Cruise Casual will not be turned away from those venues on Cruise Elegant nights.
Royal Caribbean International dress code
Royal Caribbean breaks its suggested attire into several categories. Casual includes polos, jeans and sundresses, but the line asks that guests wear swimwear only on the pool deck and shorts at breakfast and lunch, according to its website.
The line defines smart casual "as a step up from your typical dinner wear," including collared shirts, dresses, skirts and blouses. Passengers are also welcome to wear items like jackets and blazers.
For formal attire, the line said on its website, "make it a night out in your best black-tie look - suits and ties, tuxedos, cocktail dresses or evening gowns." The line may have one to four formal nights on a given cruise.
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Norwegian Cruise Line dress code
"When it comes to what to wear, you can go resort casual or get decked out and look your best – it's your call," Norwegian said on its website.
Cruise casual clothing – including jeans and shorts for men and jeans, casual dresses and shorts for women – is acceptable at the buffet and most specialty restaurants anytime during the day. Guests can wear swimwear at the buffet and outdoor restaurant as long as they have a shirt or cover-up and footwear.
Passengers cannot wear certain items such as tank tops for men, baseball caps and overly faded jeans, those that have holes in them or those worn below the hips in the main dining rooms or specialty restaurants, the line said on its website.
In Norwegian's "more formal dining room or in our more upscale specialty restaurants," the line calls for smart casual clothing, which includes slacks or jeans, dresses, skirts and tops for women, and collared shirts, jeans and slacks for men.
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Holland America Line dress code
Holland America guests can dress casually during the day, though they must always wear shirts or cover-ups and footwear inside, a spokesperson for the line said in an email.
The nighttime dress code has two categories. Smart casual includes a sport shirt or sweater and slacks for men, and a sweater or blouse and a skirt or pants for women. "Shorts, pool and beachwear, distressed jeans and tank tops are not permitted in table service restaurants," the spokesperson said.
On dressy nights, the line recommends blouses, skirts, slacks, dresses, collared shirts and jackets. There will be two dressy nights on most seven-night cruises, with additional dressy nights for longer sailings. Guests can reference the ship's daily program for the evening's suggested attire.
On the line's Grand Voyages, the line recommends suits or dresses when formal attire is suggested. "Grand Voyages are 60-plus-day voyages, and this is the only time guests would be in 'formal' attire," the spokesperson said.
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Cunard Line dress code
Cunard passengers can dress as they like during the day. "Then as the sun goes down, the style goes up," Cunard said in dress code guidelines provided by a spokesperson.
At night, the line asks guests to wear smart attire in the majority of its restaurants, bars and entertainment venues. That includes "smart trousers" with a collared shirt – and optional jacket and tie – for men, and blouses and skirts or "stylish trousers and dresses" for women.
The line also has at least two Gala evenings over seven days of a sailing, when passengers are invited to dress up more.
"After 6:00pm on Gala evenings, it's dinner jacket, tuxedo, or dark suit for the men with a regular tie or bow tie," the line said. "Evening or cocktail dress, smart trouser suit, or formal separates for the ladies please."
How should passengers pack for cruise line dress codes?
Dorsey recommended women bring a "nice long skirt" and a blouse or a dress. "You know, you might wear slacks every other night, but if they come upon a more formal night, then you can kind of dress something like that up," she said.
For men, she suggested packing collared shirts and nice pants – even chinos are formal enough. "And maybe throw one jacket in there and then you're prepared"
Cruise lines may also have special events that call for unique attire, such as an all-white ensemble at Norwegian's White Hot Party.
Even if formal nights aren't as formal as they used to be, they still provide an excuse to get dressed up: cruise lines will have photographers out on those nights to take portraits of guests, Dorsey said.
Nathan Diller is a consumer travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Nashville. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What are cruise line dress codes? Here's what travelers should know