Cruise ticket? Check. Sunscreen? Check. Camera? Check.
For many cruise passengers, formal nights on cruise ships are festive occasions that call for getting all dressed up, having a portrait taken by a ship photographer, and swirling into the dining room like a celebrity on the red carpet. But others, puzzled about what to wear (or who don't want to change out of comfy shorts and T-shirts), avoid formal nights altogether.
Even the phrase “formal night” is enough to turn off some prospective cruisers, and it's one reason why many cruise lines have eased or renamed their dress code requirements in recent years. Carnival Cruise Lines, for example, uses two instructive codes: cruise casual and cruise elegant. The first allows jeans and dress shorts for men and summer dresses and capris for ladies, while the second ups the ante to dress slacks for men and cocktail dresses for gals.
Dress codes vary by line, of course, and knowing your specific line’s vibe will go a long way in helping you decide what to pack. Among the major operators, Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line are at the most casual end of the spectrum and luxury line Cunard at the most formal. With the exception of Norwegian, which has no formal nights, pretty much every other line falls somewhere in between these.
In general, very formal attire for men typically refers to a tuxedo, while a dinner jacket or a dark suit can work for a more relaxed cruise line. For women, a floor-length dress wouldn’t be out of place on lines like Cunard, while a cocktail dress or pantsuit works for other lines. Still unsure? It's better to overdress than under-dress. That way, you can enjoy your meal, and you won't be politely turned away because you don’t meet the basic requirements of a line’s policy.
More about how formal nights work: For cruises that last up to five days, you can expect one dress-up night. For a seven-night sailing or longer, there will be two or more. And it’s not just about the dinner. On most of the major cruise lines, photographers will be around to capture the moment, with cruisers lining up at least an hour before the dining room opens. To avoid lines, wait until after dinner, when the frenzy has died down. Unsurprisingly, formal night photographs are not included in a cruise fare.
For those who simply don’t enjoy dressing up, it should be said that even on the most high-end ships, no passenger is ever required to dress formally. Cruisers can simply avoid the main dining room or specialty restaurants on formal nights and dine at a casual buffet station or order room service instead.
Finally, note that on some upscale cruise lines -- Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, and Windstar Cruises, for example -- the dress code is always elegant casual, special dining night or not. This generic term typically means slacks and collared shirts for men and dresses or pantsuits for women.