"Smart casual and above?" "Casual elegance?" Cruises tend to have more styles of dress than your average vacation.
Between the fancy (and often ambiguous) dress code names, theme nights and appropriate attire for certain countries, trying to decide what to pack can be frustrating. You don't want to stick out like a sore thumb amid your fellow cruisers, and you definitely don't want to be turned away for dinner. (Yes, that actually happens, but we'll make sure you'll be decked out in the proper duds! For more on dress code infractions, read What to Expect on a Cruise: The Main Dining Room.)
Understanding what you should and shouldn't wear and knowing what you can get away with is much less stressful than winging it. Not only will packing be a breeze, but you will also avoid surprises like finding out you could have rocked your cargo shorts on casual night, instead of those unnecessarily snug slacks you pull out of the closet once a year.
If you feel confused or uninspired about what to pack for your next cruise, we're here to decipher the dress codes with photos of stylish examples of acceptable cruisewear.
Note: Wearing camouflage is illegal in many cruise destinations throughout the Caribbean (including Antigua and Barbuda, St. Lucia and Grenada) and elsewhere around the world, such as in the Philippines and Oman. Disobeying these laws could result in fines, or even worse, jail time if you don't pay them.
Regardless of where you're cruising, make sure you pack comfortable clothes and shoes -- especially if you plan to do a lot of exploring on the ship. Pretty much anything casual goes for daywear onboard, but there are a few exceptions. Generally, men aren't allowed to wear sleeveless shirts in the main dining rooms. While swimwear can be worn almost anywhere outside, including poolside bars, swimsuits are not permitted in most public areas, including some outdoor dining venues. You can dine in a swimsuit in the alfresco section of the buffet, but make sure you dry off and cover up when you head indoors to grab a plate of food. A similar rule applies to bathrobes -- wear them to the spa but not to breakfast.
When the hot sun is shining, shorts, T-shirts, bathing suit cover-ups, sleeveless or tank tops and casual sun dresses or maxi dresses are ideal options for cruisewear. By the pool or on any of the outside decks, expect to see just about everyone in a swimsuit. (In Europe, expect to see your fair share of Speedos!) If your ship offers recreational activities such as a rock-climbing wall or basketball court, remember to pack socks and sneakers.
If you're cruising in Alaska or run into a rainstorm in the Caribbean or Europe, you'll probably spend most of your day inside. Loungewear, such as sporty pants with T-shirts and hoodies, is a suitable option for both men and women during the day -- as are jeans, khakis and capris and casual tops with a sweatshirt, sweater or scarf for warmth. Keep a rain jacket or fleece handy in case you want to soak up the scenery from outside.
What you wear ashore depends on the time of year, climate, landscape, intended activity and cultural customs. It's a good idea to check weather forecasts and country-specific dress codes before you depart and have an idea of what activities you might do in port (such as a hike or a visit to a mosque). Following are a few cruise-inspired dress codes to follow when going ashore.
Popular itineraries: Caribbean, Hawaii, Mexico
What to expect: Hot days and cooler nights
What to pack: Loose-fitting clothes are great for both the humidity and as bathing suit cover-ups. Women should pack shorts, tank tops and sundresses. Men can wear T-shirts, sleeveless tees and button-down tees with shorts. You might want clothes that wick for active pursuits in the hot sun and a light sweater, jacket or pashmina scarf for cooler nights. If you're going to do a loud tropical shirt, this is the place to do it.
Popular itineraries: Alaska, Norwegian Fjords
What to expect: Fluctuating temperatures, surprise rain showers
What to pack: Bring lots of layers, including a water-resistant jacket. Comfortable sportswear, durable shoes and hiking pants are ideal for both men and women on more active excursions. You'll want warm hats, gloves and jackets for scenic cruising by glaciers or mountaintop tours, such as dogsledding. But don't forget your swimsuits for hot tubbing and the occasional hot day.
Popular itineraries: Mediterranean, British Isles, Baltic
What to expect: Lots of walking and a slightly dressier casual style
What to pack: Comfortable closed-toe shoes and layers. Men and women may want to one-up their normal casualwear or avoid loungewear and athletic clothing, especially if you plan to dine ashore. Muted colors or trendy tones will also serve you well; the last thing you want to do is scream "tourist."
Popular itineraries: Middle East, Indonesia
What to expect: Modest dress requirements, even in hot climates
What to pack: Choose loose-fitting clothes that cover your knees and shoulders. Women should pack capris or pants and sleeved blouses, while men can sport long shorts or pants and T-shirts. A lightweight scarf is useful for covering up at mosques and holy sites.
When it comes to packing dinner attire for your cruise, don't panic. Most nights are more casual than dressy. You can normally count on two formal nights on a seven-night cruise, with the remaining evenings more relaxed. Refuse to wear a tie on vacation, or can't be bothered packing a garment bag with fancy dresses? Choose room service or the buffet for dinner, where the evening's dress code isn't in effect.
The most ambiguous of all the dress codes, evening casual -- also known as smart casual or country club casual -- can range from very relaxed (jeans and a cute top) to more refined (khakis and a polo, or a flirty dress) depending on the cruise line. The easiest way to decide what to pack is by asking, "What would I normally wear on a date to a nice restaurant?"
We recommend a dress or nice blouse with slacks for women and khakis with a polo or a short-sleeve button-down shirt for men. But check your cruise line's dress code -- many allow jeans on casual night. Let your ship's personality guide you, too: Celebrity's casual might be very fashion forward, while Carnival's is closer to a night on the boardwalk, Windstar's akin to yachting attire and Holland America's like an evening at the symphony.
Formal night can be intimidating. Some cruise lines (think Cunard or Crystal) are more formal than others -- and across all lines interpretations of "formal" can vary. Some cruisers go all out, as if they'd stepped off a luxury liner from the 1920s. If this appeals, you can't go wrong with a tuxedo (black or white) or gown.
Others enjoy the chance to "clean up" without going crazy; a dark suit and a little black dress will do nicely. If you want to have fun with formal night, pack your favorite cocktail dress, dapper hat or fascinator, playful ties, jewels and cuff links. Cruisers also can rock formal military uniforms or the custom formal attire of other countries -- such as the Barong Tagalog (pictured) or a dress kilt from Scotland.
Many cruise lines offer theme nights. It's a chance to get creative and makes for fun photo ops. Disney Cruise Line's pirate night is one of the most popular, with kids and adults in costume, although little ones are encouraged to dress up like a princess or their favorite super hero throughout the cruise. Other theme nights include Carnival's Mexican Fiesta, Norwegian's White Hot Party and Royal Caribbean's '70s and '80s theme parties.
If you want to get creative and bring your own costume, check in with your cruise line beforehand to see whether a theme night is offered. Otherwise, most cruise lines have accessories for purchase onboard. Disney's shops even sell full costumes.
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Updated January 08, 2020