Cruise Ship Dress Codes: Explained

April 13, 2015

Unless you manage to smuggle Gok Wan into your suitcase before you board or you have Trinny and Susannah on speed dial, you need to plan your own personal cruise collection well before you set off on your cruise and when it comes to cruising and clothing, deciding where to go can seem like the easy part!

The real test is working out what all the different dress codes mean and how that relates to the clothes that are hanging in your wardrobe or screaming ‘buy me’ from the shop windows on the high street.

But never fear, is here to guide you through this fashion minefield.

Read on to find out what those pesky dress codes actually mean and how they’ll fit in to the cruise you choose, so you can be that annoying cruiser who, when it comes to what to wear, always gets it just right, rather than joining the ones who are beating down the doors of the onboard boutique in the throes of a last minute wardrobe crisis!



To most of us Brits, casual means one thing and one thing only – jeans!

The good news is that denim in the form of jeans, jackets, shorts and skirts – or even a combination of the above if you feel like rocking this year’s double denim trend – is generally a perfectly acceptable daytime casual cruise look, often combined with that other wardrobe staple – a T-shirt but check before you go for lunch – those designer jeans may cut it for a promenade on deck but some lines such as Crystal, Swan Hellenic and Thomson don’t allow jeans in their restaurants, however expensive they might have been!

Fitness freaks can feel free to lounge around in lycra during the day (but leave the saggy-bottomed trackie bottoms at home please) and of course no cruise suitcase is packed until it contains at least two swimsuits and cover ups (bear in mind swimwear and flip flops are almost always a big no no at mealtimes, unless you’re having a relaxed poolside snack).

Casual can be harder to get right for an evening look as it’s all about looking as if you haven’t tried too hard (which usually takes loads of effort!) but in general the rule is to ditch the denim and T-shirts in favour of casual shirts and trousers/smart shorts for men and laid back skirts, sundresses and ‘dressy’ tops for ladies.

For him: A casual polo shirt with that cruise classic – a freshly pressed pair of lightweight trousers – and deck shoes. Nautical and nice!


For her: A maxi dress is your perfect casual cruise companion as it looks as good with flip flops by the pool as it does with a statement necklace and wedges in the evening.


Resort Casual

This American phrase stems from the classic preppy country club chinos-and-polo-shirt/v-neck sweater look that’s actually quite dressy, yet understated at the same time.

That said, most Resort Casual codes allow for jeans these days but err on the smarter side of denim.

Those baggy, saggy, gone-at-the-knees old friends you mooch around at home in just won’t cut it on a cruise!

Smart chino shorts, trousers and skirts in a neutral palette of khaki, beige, navy and white are a good place to start when building your Resort Casual wardrobe.

Then you can add a bit of individuality with linen tops, less-structured shirts, summer dresses and splashes of colour (or should that be color?) that will take you from day to night in classic American style.

For him: A pair of knee length chino shorts with a short-sleeved shirt for lunch. Cover those knees and add a casual jacket for dinner.


For her: An on-trend shirt dress can be dressed up or down and will blend in with this understated dress code while also giving a nod to fashion. Tropical prints would look fantastic in a sunshine destination.

Woman in green dress lying down on a palm tree at tropical beach, Maldives

Smart Casual

Now this is where it gets tricky. After all, don’t the two phrases contradict each other – a bit like saying sad/happy?

The American term Elegant Casual is a more helpful way of thinking about it but there’s no doubt that the ‘oh I’ve just effortlessly achieved this incredibly chic yet laid back look’ can be a tall order to pull off.

Again, due to our enduring love affair with denim, many Smart Casual codes do allow for jeans during the day but do yourself a favour and buy a smart new pair before you board. When it comes to shorts, smart is in – football shorts and pink terry toweling hot pants, not so much!

If you’re cruising in hot weather, treat yourself to some new swimwear – no scaring off the other pool-loungers in ancient budgie smugglers or too-tight bikinis please!

And remember, a decent beach cover up and the most sophisticated shades and sunhat you can source are your friends when it comes to looking as good as you feel as you lounge by the pool.

When night falls, Smart Casual really becomes a challenge worthy of the savviest fashionista. It’s bad enough looking as if you’ve forgotten to get changed but the ultimate cringe factor comes when you’re channeling your glammest Shirley Bassey in a room full of understated elegance but smart trousers, shirts and shoes (no trainers please!) for men, and simple but sophisticated dresses – with moderate heels, wedges, smart ballet flats or embellished sandals – for ladies are always a good option.

When choosing a dress, a good rule of thumb is to pick something that wouldn’t look out of place for a posh lunch or afternoon tea with the girls. If you can’t imagine ever wearing it during the day, it’s probably too dressy for a Smart Casual night at sea. Tea dresses, simple shifts, wrap dresses and maxis all say stylish smart cas’. Whereas sequins, ball gowns, mini dresses or slinky bodycon styles all scream ‘tried too hard’!

For him: A long-sleeved white linen shirt with navy trousers and smart shoes is an effortlessly elegant look. Add a smart v-neck sweater or blazer if temperatures drop.


For her: Now the blouse is back, why not add a couple to your collection to alternate with your dresses with a skirt or tailored trousers? A cigarette pant looks great, and is the closest you’ll come to an actual cigarette onboard!



For many closet stylistas the chance to unleash their inner Brad and Angelina on the red carpet on a Formal night is one of the highlights of cruising.

For men it’s easy – time to dig out the dickie bow and the penguin suit for the ultimate in black tie glamour.

That said, dark suits with ties are also acceptable on most formal nights and the more fashion forward men onboard will opt for that slim-fit, skinny black tie look – though not all of them will end up looking like David Beckham!

Whatever he chooses, the key to carrying off formal chic is making sure his suit fits. It doesn’t have to be a bespoke Jermyn Street one-off but if it’s too tight he’ll look like he’s eaten all the pies even on night one and if it’s too big he’ll be rocking the unadvisable ‘I borrowed it from my dad’ look.’

For ladies, formal nights are the stuff fashion fantasies are made of and if you want to, the time to break out that knock ‘em dead floor-skimming showstopper or for an equally glam look, a shorter cocktail dress is equally acceptable.

Take a trusted friend shopping to get her honest opinion on your after dark look, and if your long evening gown is a flouncy taffeta affair that wouldn’t look out of a place in the bridal party of a 1980s wedding, perhaps it’s time to head to your nearest department store to find something a little more sleek and modern?

For him: The classic tuxedo. Why not? How often do you get the chance to channel the ultimate in timeless style? Don’t forget to polish those shoes!


For her: You’ll know your perfect dress when you find it, and with so many figure-fixing options out there, there’s something for everyone. But remember, even though the little black dress is a classic, colour or deep navy look better on most people, especially on the more, ahem, mature of us! Don’t be afraid to throw a little sparkle at it – now’s the time to shine in a red carpet-worthy outfit.


Think You’re Sorted…Not So Fast!

For every rule, there’s an exception, and this is definitely true when it comes to cruise lines and their dress code policies – so don’t close that suitcase just yet!

Here are some notable exceptions you need to be aware of on the following lines:



We all know Cunard’s famous as the go-to cruise line for those who want to flaunt their finery on the formal nights but it’s not all diamond chandelier earrings, rustling silk and billowing taffeta!

Cunard’s Elegant day dress code is similar to a Smart Casual code on other cruises. The denim that many lines allow for these days is occasionally spotted on Cunard but most cruisers err on the side of formality and leave their favourite skinnies at home.

We know where we are with the Formal dress code but Cunard’s Semi Formal nights are much trickier to get right.

For men, this easily translates to jacket with no tie required, paired with smart trousers but for ladies the ‘dress, blouse and skirts’ guideline may seem simple but it’s actually as clear as mud!

Our advice is to stick to dresses as buying a skirt tends only to create a new problem of what to wear with it!

Black tie is a clear no-no but a hint of glitz is fine if that’s what floats your boat style wise. If you come armed with two or three dressy knee-length frocks you feel comfortable in, then you’ll be sorted.

Think along the lines of what you’d wear if you were being whisked off for dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant (you can dream, can’t you?) rather than being whisked around the ballroom a la Cinderella.

Don’t forget jewellery and accessories are your friends when it comes to creating different looks with the same dresses.

cruise ship dress codes


American cruise liner Oceania is a rare beast in that it has no formal nights but its Country Club Casual code means there’s no slouching around in anything too comfortable either thank you very much!

Country Club Casual is similar to Resort Casual, so jeans are OK for daytime but frowned on after 6pm in public areas, as are shorts and T-shirts.

Again, it’s best to think along the lines of that classic American Ralph Lauren/Brooks Brothers/Tommy Hilfiger look – luckily alternative options are available on the British High Street for those without a billionaire budget to pull off that rich off duty American look!

Many men wear jackets (but no ties) to dinner in the more formal onboard restaurants but smart shorts are OK in the more casual dining venues. Ladies should stick to understated separates and dresses – this is not a cruise line for flaunting individual fashion flair unless you really like to be the centre of attention!

cruise ship dress codes

Island Cruises

If you just want to get on with enjoying your holiday, and the thought of having to meticulously plan your wardrobe makes you want to hurl yourself off deck to swim to the nearest desert island where you can dispense with clothes entirely, then laid back Island Cruises is the line for you.

There are no formal nights and indeed no dress code at all onboard, so technically you can have dinner in your bikini – but you wouldn’t do that to your fellow diners, would you?

Island Cruises may be laid back but it does rely on a basic sense of decorum from its clients!


Norwegian Cruise Lines

If you can’t be bothered teetering around in stilettos and trying to get a bow tie just right but you’d like something a little bit more dressy than Island Cruise’s ‘anything goes’ ethos, then Norwegian Cruise Lines Casual Resort Wear policy, which is in operation at all times, is a good option.

Want to eat in your shorts?


Maybe you feel like glamming up for dinner?

Also fine on this freespirited Freestyler of a cruise line.

The only banned clothing in the restaurant is ‘faded or ripped jeans.’ And we assume that goes for faded or ripped denim hot pants too! Bottom flashers need not apply!

Azamara has a similar Resort Casual policy but they’re a better option for those who prefer a little more formality at mealtimes as bare feet, tank tops, swimwear, caps, shorts and jeans (whether that’s ripped, faded or box fresh) are all no nos in the restaurants.


Cruise Style and Cruise Styles

Just as no onboard itinerary is the same, there are differences on every cruise ship when it comes to what to wear but to make life easier, there are some general dress code rules that make planning your next cruise less headache inducing!


Relaxed on the River

River cruises are the new kid on the cruise block and because of this, they reflect our casual modern culture rather than harking back to the glam’n’glitzy old school formality of seagoing lines (we’re looking at you Cunard!).

Plus there’s unlikely to be space for a chandeliered ballroom on your typical river-dwelling vessel.

When it comes to river cruising, if you pack whatever makes you comfortable in the relevant climate, you won’t go wrong.

But think about what you’re doing offboard too. If you’re planning to visit a swanky restaurant or two on a cruise passing through Paris, Vienna or Prague, you’ll need to dress the part.

Although it’s rare to find formal nights on river cruises, many of them do have ‘Captain’s dinner’ and ‘farewell dinner’ events. There’s no need to dig out a smart jacket or little black number but if you want to, you won’t end up cringing out of overdressed embarrassment, as lots of people like to dress up a bit for these evenings.

Think of fancy restaurants these days – you often see men in smart jackets next to guys in polo shirts. It’s all about individual taste and style – but if you’re going down the ultra casual route, spare a thought for your fellow diners – those elastic-waisted shorts might mean you’ve got more room for dessert but they might raise a few eyebrows and put the people at the next table off their soup!

cruise ship dress codes

Small but Sophisticated

Generally speaking, going for a smaller cruise line can mean that you do get more bling for your buck.

Cunard is the most famous ‘dressy’ cruise line but smaller, expensive, all inclusive lines like Silver Sea, Voyages of Discovery and Seabourn pride themselves on their well heeled clients who are a very different crowd from the family groups who enjoy a much more casual vibe on their chosen vast floating holiday resort.

That said, even the most exclusive ship can’t escape the 21st century and Seabourn have recently relaxed their dress code, welcoming smart jeans until 6pm.

In fact, the only way you’ll show yourself up is if you wear swimwear inside, skimpy shorts in the restaurants or fail to wear full formal attire in the restaurant on formal nights when the code is strictly enforced. Yikes – do they push you overboard for forgetting your cufflinks?

Bear in mind that, whilst the big cruise lines like P&O and Royal Caribbean are attracting a new younger crowd of cruisers, these smaller vessels’ old school clientele’s idea of casual is likely to be a lot smarter than average, so if you want to fit in with the crème de la crème of cruising darling, it might be time to up your game and dress to impress!

Cruise dress codes can be daunting – especially for the cruising newbie – but as you become a seasoned cruiser you’ll get a feel for all the dos and don’ts (and an impressive wardrobe full of clothes to choose from).

The most important thing is to choose a cruise with a dress code you’ll enjoy wearing – this is meant to be a holiday, after all, and if trussing yourself up in black tie makes you feel like a prize turkey you’ll have about as much fun as they do at Christmas!

And if all else fails, port stop offs can be a great opportunity to shop til you drop for your cruise ship catwalk.

After all, the biggest and most popular cruise ship destinations are used to thousands of people like you disembarking determined to treat themselves (think less souvenir t-shirts from the tourist market and more hitting the famous department stores of NYC or the designer boutiques of Paris or Rome!). So what if you’ve already got the perfect wardrobe – as every canny cruiser knows, there’s no such thing as enough shoes, ties, handbags or dresses!

Group of unrecognizable friends making a toast with red wine

Still confused?

We’ve very helpfully complied all the cruise lines into a big comparison table so you can see exactly what’s what before you book!