What to Wear on Formal Night

If there is one topic that can get cruise lovers in a debate quicker than grandma Betty falls off the flow rider its the argument about what people wear on cruise formal night. There’s not much give and take either with this argument.

Cruise traditionalist, typically made up of seniors and the upper middle class, feel that if you can’t wear best suit or even a tux on formal night you should stay in your cabin so you don’t pollute the public areas with your shorts…and god forbid sandals. The new cruisers on the other hand tend to take the opposite approach and think grandma and grandpa need to get with the program and realize that times have changed. Heck even most businesses are business casual now and with airlines charging for checked backs it can be tough packing clothes to take on a cruise without being hit with another fee.

Where do the cruise lines weigh in on this topic? Well they don’t all agree either and rarely do they even enforce the dress codes they put in place (much to the dismay of the cruise traditionalist) unless someone shows up to the dining room in a wife beater and cutoff shorts. The following are the official main line dress code policies per their respective web sites.

Carnival Cruise Formal Night
The Carnival formal night dress code has changed within the past couple of years and they have gone so far as to drop the term “formal” all together. They now refer to the evening as “Elegant Dining”. The official dress code for Carnival formal night is as follows:

Cruise Elegant Dining Dress Code: Gentlemen – Dress slacks, dress shirts. We also suggest a sport coat. If you wish to wear suits and ties or tuxedos, by all means we invite you to do so. Ladies -cocktail dresses, pantsuits, elegant skirts and blouses; if you‘d like to show off your evening gowns, that’s great too!

Carnival does go on to point out that all shorts, bathing suits, jeans, cut-off jeans, t-shirts, baseball hats, sportswear and sleeveless shorts are not allowed in the dining room on elegant night. Jeans and nice shorts are allowed in the dining room on other nights.

Royal Caribbean Formal Night
Royal Caribbean actually has three types of evenings onboard 7 night and longer cruises. Those nights are casual, smart casual and formal. The official code is as follows:

Casual: Sport shirts and slacks for men, sundresses or pants for women
Smart Casual: Jackets and ties for men, dresses or pantsuits for women
Formal: Suits and ties or tuxedos for men, cocktail dresses for women

Having sailed with Royal Caribbean a couple of times in the past year I can say this isn’t highly enforced. In fact I don’t even remember the smart casual night. I certainly wasn’t wearing a sport coat those nights and I don’t remember the Royal Caribbean formal night dress code being that strictly enforced.

Disney Cruise Formal Night
Disney ships typically run a three or four night itinerary which only leaves time for one dress up night that only calls for a jacket for men and pantsuit for women. On the seven day trips there is one formal and one semi-formal night onboard Disney ships. Disney’s official cruise dress code policy is as follows:

cruise casual—no shorts, swimwear or tank tops
“dress-up night”—jacket for men, dress or pantsuit for women
formal wear for men: tuxedo or suit; for women: gown or dress;
semi-formal wear for men: suit/jacket; for women: dress or pantsuit.

Princess Cruises
Princess Cruises seems to be a little more strict regarding dress code on formal night and has been known to direct people to the lido deck buffet if they are not at least in a jacket for formal night. The official Princess dress for formal night is as follows:

Evening gown, cocktail dress, or elegant pant suit for women.
Tuxedo, dark suit or dinner jacket and slacks for men

Norwegian Cruise Lines is the first major cruise line to buck the traditional system of a formal night by only having two types of dress codes, cruise casual and smart casual. In fact anyone that thinks these dress codes are too strict is the type of person that will never be pleased. These loose laid back policies of Norwegian Cruise Lines is why I think they could quickly move up my top 10 cruise line rankings. Here are the official NCL dress codes:

Dress cruise casual anytime during the day, in the buffet and in most specialty restaurants. For women, it includes summer and casual dresses, skirts, regular or capri pants, shorts, jeans and tops. Khakis, jeans, shorts and casual shirts are fine for men. Swimwear is acceptable at the buffet and outdoor restaurant, but a shirt or a cover-up and footwear are required. Cruise casual is also allowed day and night on embarkation day.

Wear smart casual if you are eating dinner in the Aft Main Dining Room (our more formal Dining Room) and in Le Bistro, on cruises that are more than five days long. For women, it includes slacks or jeans, dresses, skirts and tops. For men, it’s jeans or slacks with a collared shirt and closed-toed shoes. Traditional Bermuda shorts along with long socks, loafers and a blazer are all acceptable during a Bermuda cruise.

We want you to be comfortable, but tank tops for men, flip flops, baseball caps, visors and jeans that are overly faded, with holes or tears and worn below the hips are not permitted in any of our main dining rooms or specialty restaurants. Kids 12 and under are welcome to wear nice shorts in all our restaurants. You may want to pack a sweater too—air conditioning can be chilly.

The Other Lines
Other major lines such as Holland America and Cunard are much more strict on formal night dress codes enforcing them throughout the ship and in the case of Cunard there are at least three formal nights on a seven night cruise. This is no doubt a reflection of the typical cruiser of these lines as they tend to be older and more traditional in nature. So if you have been thinking of booking one of these cruises the nightly dress code will be something to consider. Don’t expect to slip by the Maitre’d in your khaki’s and polo on these ships.

What’s My Take on Cruise Formal Nights?
As with most bitter arguments the best answer really lies somewhere in the middle. But that’s no fun for debate so I’m going to side with the youngsters on this one. It shouldn’t matter whether you have a tux on or even a coat and tie. As long as you don’t show up looking like you just got off the pool deck then nobody should care what you are wearing.

Cruise formal nights date back to a time when ocean liners were split up amongst class levels (think Titanic) and while the upper class dined in their tuxedos and formal gowns in the main dining room, the lower classes were given second class treatment and not allowed to mingle with the other guest… sounds a lot like the buffet at the lido deck to me.

The funny thing is… most of the truly wealthy nowadays don’t really act stuck up like this. In fact the luxury lines (the ones the true rich cruise on) for the most part do not even have a formal night. It’s the upper middle class instead traveling in $700 balcony cabins that feel the need to show their superiority over lower class cruisers. Don’t believe me? Check out some of the message boards. They call them “new cruisers” and “Carnival cruisers” and blame the cruise lines for catering to them. They talk about days long gone by when not everyone could afford a cruise and there were no issues with jeans in the dining room. They talk about how if they can’t afford to pay the luggage fee for their cruise clothes then they shouldn’t be cruising. Its comical, sad and infuriating all at the same time.

The best advice I can give to all cruisers is take a page from the those traveling on the true luxury cruise lines such as Regent Seven Seas and Oceania. Instead of worrying about what everyone else is wearing on formal night. Just sit back, enjoy your vacation and worry about yourself.