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Formal Night on a Cruise: Here’s What to Wear

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tuxedo, required for some cruise formal night dress codes

Cruise ticket? Check. Sunscreen? Check. Camera? Check.

Tuxedo… ?

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.

18 Comments

  • JoAnn says:

    Get rid of the formal nights all together, with the cost of checking a bag and paying additional fees for this to carry special clothing is dumb. If you want to dress up use a nice shirt and slacks that can be carried on.

  • Tom says:

    I respectfully disagree. Companion and I greatly enjoy formal night. It is an opportunity to feel a bit dressy in an elegant setting with like minded cruisers. People who are not interested, need not participate.

    Having those nights sets the stage for those interested. It is also a great time for those photos that we neglect to have taken the other 51 weeks a year.

  • Roy says:

    I participate in enough formal outings for business, I want to relax on a cruise. I enjoy the food at dinner and do not want to skip that. I could justify slacks and a nice shirt should suffice, I am opposed to shorts at dinner, you need to draw the line somewhere!

  • JoanJet says:

    luv the formal night! we never usually dress up so rockin the tux once in a while is a blast!

  • gofinsc says:

    Limit formal attire to the fancy, extra-cost restaurants on the lines, where like-minded individuals can exhibit their finery to each other. In the regular restaurants, just always have casual dress, which means no beachwear or shorts. As Roy says. It would cost a lot less if you didn’t have to buy a long dress (or two or three) for each cruise. You can’t eat comfortably in a coat and tie. And most people you see you don’t want to see in an evening gown or suit anyway.

  • Teresa says:

    I love Formal night on the cruise, I even got others in party excited about he idea of dressing up. Its fun and it never hurts to look you best.

  • Ron says:

    As long as there is an alternative dining site I could not care less

  • Tina says:

    I don’t see why some people want to limit or get rid of formal night on a cruise. We happen to enjoy formal night very much, it’s just part of the entire cruise experience. I would never except cruise lines to get rid of the casinos just because I don’t gamble. If someone wants to sit around in their shorts and eat diner, there is always the rest of the ship. But don’t say take away formal night, just because YOU don’t feel like getting gussied-up. How selfish.

  • BETTY says:

    LOVE FORMAL NIGHTS-DISCONTINUED CRUISING WITH NORWEGIAN WHEN FORMAL NIGHTS WERE DISCONTINUED &TOTALLY CASUAL ENSUED. TO EACH HIS OWN & WE CHOOSE CRUISE LINES WHICH OFFER FORMAL NIGHTS.

  • Barry says:

    As a man, on formal nights: I bring a black suit, wear a regular ‘formal’ shirt (not wing collar) and cummerbund. Unless one looks carefully, you’d not realize that I’m not in a tux. Then…I have black slacks to mix and match with other garments as well as a black ‘blazer’ to do the same. Due to weight restrictions when flying, this approach saves lots and allows me to still be elegant when walking hand in hand with my gowned wife.

  • Bill says:

    We like formal nights, nothing wrong with getting dressed up now and then. If you don’t want to pack your “fancy” duds, just plan ahead and have them rented, your tux and evening dress will be waiting for you in your cabin. And if you don’t want to dress beyond shorts and T-shirts at all, you can get the same meal (or a burger) on a Lido deck or by room service. Nobody loses.

  • John says:

    Formal Attire is for Wanna-Be’s and snobs, nothing more. If you go on a cruise you should not, NOT have to dress how someone else wants you to dress! It is a ridiculous thing on cruise ships. I agree that no shorts should be enforced at dinners but slacks and nice shirt should be enough. These people that say they never dress up and like it, well that is being fake or a fraud, you are who you are and putting on an act does not change that fact. DO AWAY with formal dinners and act normal, not acting like fakes……

  • Ken says:

    While traveling, I wear my dark blue sports coat. that way I don’t need excessive baggage and am ready for formal nite.

  • Phyllis says:

    I live in a rural town so I love having a chance to dress up on formal nights. One of the reasons I love taking cruises.

  • Eric says:

    Formal night is the only chance most people get to have that taste of elegance and pomp usually reserved for few. when I don’t want elegance, on formal nights I go to the alternative dining or Buffet.

  • Muriel says:

    I have been cruising for many years and always looked forward to dressing up on formal nights. However, with todays cost of extra luggage, I’ll take one formal dress not two and a pair of shoes that goes with most everything else. I still like dressing up for the evening. For those that don’t, cruise lines offer so many alternatives today for casual dressers and everyone can enjoy their vacation without feeling pressured to dress up. It’s your vacation, do what you enjoy.

  • Marlene says:

    Dressing up for dinner on a cruise is all part of the fun. For those who complain about having to wear something other than jeans to dinner have a choice of eating at the buffet. My husband and I love the opportunity to wear fancy attire and we’re not wanna-be’s or snobs. I’ve actually seen people not very dressed up attend cruise elegant dinner anyway, in most cases it’s someone dressed in $150 pair of jeans and nice button down shirt.
    Can’t please everyone anyway, if you don’t want to dress for dinner than don’t. You have the option of going up to the buffet, it’s not like you’re going to starve.

  • Jo Ann G says:

    I love formal nights. We get dressed up have a great dinner, maybe dance or go to a show.
    If we were on the mainland some where, we’d dress up too. My husband loves renting a tux, because he doesn’t need to drag a suit and shoes. Frankly, I think we’ve all gotten too casual.

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