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Dress for Success on Your Next Cruise

What Kind of Clothes Should I Take on My Cruise?


Couple with champagne on cruise ship deck
Steve Mason/Photodisc/Getty Images
One of the most frequently asked questions that cruise travel agents and experienced cruisers get from first-timers is, "What kind of clothes should I take?" The answer to this question has become more complicated as our culture has evolved into a more casual society. If you had asked me ten years ago if I thought we would ever allow business casual dress at my office, I would have answered a resounding, "NO WAY!". After all, we had classes on "dressing for success" back in the 1980's. I remember that women CPAs were told to always wear a gray suit with a white blouse in order to look professional. However, in 1999 we started allowing business casual dress on Fridays, and in the summer of 2000, we started having business casual every day, unless you were meeting with clients who still dressed up.

So now you might ask, how does this relate to dressing for a cruise? Well, as our culture has changed the definition of "dressing for success" in the work place, cruise lines have become open to a more casual atmosphere. Sailing ships and many yacht-like ships such as those operated by American Safari Cruises have a casual dress code. Norwegian Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises, and Oceania have loosened up their recommended dress code for dinner on some ships as they have moved to open seating for dinner. Other cruise lines have also made formal attire optional or decreased the number of formal nights.

I believe that cruise lines are making an attempt to match what is going on in the work place. If passengers aren't having to buy dress clothes for work, they might not want to buy an entire new wardrobe just for their vacation. In addition, to attract younger cruisers, ships believe they need to provide more flexibility for passengers in dress, shore excursions, and shipboard activities. Finally, I think that people today are much more likely to express their individuality and diversity than they were when I first started out in the work place over 35 years ago.

On the other hand, there are people out there who LOVE to dress up, and going on a cruise gives them a good excuse to do so, especially now that our society has gone more casual. If you have purchased a gorgeous formal dress with sequins or a fine tuxedo, you want a chance to show off. And, we all look so good when we make the effort! However, if half the people at dinner are dressed in khakis and golf shirts, it tends to ruin the overall atmosphere for the formally-dressed passengers. In addition, many passengers do not want to stand out in a crowd as being overdressed. My mother always told me it was better to be overdressed than underdressed, but even that rule seems to be changing.

Traditional cruise lines usually have one or two "dress-up" nights on each seven-day cruise. Men often wear tuxedos, but dark suits have become more prevalent has our society has dressed down and cruise vacations have become more mainstream. It's a little harder to determine what women should wear. Cocktail dresses (long or short) seem to predominate on "dress-up" nights. But we ladies certainly have more flexibility than the men do. For the other nights, standard dress for men and women ranges from business casual to "Sunday best."

You will see sport coats and collared shirts on most men and pants suits or casual dresses on the women if you are on a ship that features "country club" or "business" casual for the entire cruise. Sometimes at the captain's dinner, it will be a little more dressy, but as I noted before, you will see a diversity in dress.

So what's a cruiser to do? First, if dressing up (or not dressing up) is one of your key factors in a successful cruise vacation, then be sure to confirm what the dress code is for dinner before you book. Your travel agent, cruise line, or Internet bulletin boards/forums should be able to help determine the appropriate dress code. (If dress code is NOT that important, then focus your cruise line/ship selection on what is important to you such as destination or price.) The best thing about the whole cruise dress-up debate is that with all of the many cruise ships available, there is something for everyone!

Use this cruise packing list to help plan your cruise wardrobe.

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