Cruises are popular vacation options for many people, but whether you know it or not, there are fashion rules that must be observed while you are on board. But, there is no need to be uneasy about having the right clothes and wearing them at the right times. While cruises might be high on the etiquette of fashion, it's easier than you think to learn how to dress for a cruise. Our quick, comprehensive guide will teach you how to dress for a cruise effortlessly, so you can spend more time relaxing and less time worrying about a fashion faux pas.

Find Out the Cruise's Dress Code

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Packing for a cruise can be a source of confusion and frustration. There are a lot of things you have to consider, like your destination, the shore excursions you are interested in, onboard activities that are available, and even the length of a cruise. All of these factors determine what you will need to pack. However, as a rule of thumb, the easiest way to make sure you're packing the right clothes is to look up the dress code for your cruise.


All cruises have a dress code guideline, either online or in the information they send you when you book the cruise. This guideline is something like a lifejacket in the middle of a stormy fashion crisis. Our best advice is to trust in the dress code if you want to know how to dress for a cruise appropriately. The cruise line wants to make your vacation stress free, after all, and they do have the best access to regular climate conditions predicted for the duration of the cruise. The dress code is a neatly packaged way of making sure all passengers of the cruise are adequately prepared.

Breaking Down How to Dress for a Cruise

Most cruise dress codes teach you how to dress for a cruise through categorizing attire from casual, smart casual, and formal. These three main categories usually come with recommended activities or times to wear certain clothing so that you are presentable at all times. Let's break it down!


  • Casual: Clothes that are generally comfortable for daytime wear, which means jeans, t-shirts, polo shirts, sundresses, blouses, and athletic wear. Keep in mind that casual daytime wear is meant for the day, as most cruises enforce a dress code for meal times. While shorts and sundresses are fine for breakfast and lunch, the same is not true for dinner.
  • Smart Casual: A cross between casual and formal, a smart casual outfit is usually meant for evening dining that does not require formal dress. Smart casual means collar shirts, slacks, nice dresses and skirts, pantsuits, and sport coats.
  • Formal: Your best evening clothes, meaning your nicest suits, ties, and cocktail dresses. Not every cruise has formal nights, but for those that do, a tuxedo and floor-length evening gown are recommended.

Daytime Attire

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Most of your cruise activities will take place during the day, which is why knowing how to dress for a cruise during the day is very important. Casual daytime attire brings comfort to the forefront, while also prioritizing being presentable at all times. While comfortable at home might mean daytime pajamas, it's best if you leave your PJs in your room on a cruise.

Most daytime attire for warm-weather cruises consists of shorts, summer dresses, t-shirts, and open-toed sandals. Daytime wear for cold-weather cruises means cozy sweaters, jeans, comfortable jackets, and close-toed shoes. Whether your cruise is to a warm or cold destination, it is generally your best bet if your daytime attire is loose-fitting and comfortable.

Athletic and Swimwear

Many cruises have gyms on the boat or port at the shore for excursions that are athletic, such as hikes or rock climbing. If your cruise offers gym amenities so you can keep up with your workout on vacation, then you should pack athletic shorts, tank tops, t-shirts, running shoes, and extra socks. Knowing the outdoor excursions available on your trip will help you make sure you have the appropriate clothes.

Similarly, most cruises have different swimming options, either swimming on the deck or swimming in the ocean during port. Either way, it's smart to bring more than one swimsuit with you so that if one is wet, you have a dry suit to change into. However, we are compelled to point out that swimsuits and bare feet are for pool areas only. Anytime you are not swimming or on the pool deck, it is best if you wear a coverup, such as a shirt and shorts or a dress to wear over your swimsuit. Flip-flops or pool shoes are also a necessity to walk to and from the pool area.

Shoes

Daytime shoes are shoes that are comfortable to walk in, both on shore and on deck. Sandals, flats, canvas shoes, boat shoes, and tennis shoes are all good options for daytime wear. For sandals and flip-flops, make sure to pack at least two pair to be safe; flip-flops are notorious for breaking right when you need them. For other close-toed shoes, make sure you have enough socks!

Evening Attire

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If we are being honest, evening attire is probably the clothing that causes the most problems when you are thinking about how to dress for a cruise. Most, if not all, cruise lines have dinnertime dress codes for all of their dining rooms, so you need to make sure you have the right options to be able to dine with everyone in the evening.

Smart Casual

The overall rule of smart casual is clothes that are nice, but not fancy. Think about clothes you might wear to church, holiday events, or casual dinners - those clothes are what a cruise would call "smart casual". Generally, since most cruises only have a few formal nights, you will need more smart casual evening attire options than genuinely fancy clothes. Smart casual does not require ties or floor-length dresses.

For men, smart casual clothes consist of button-up shirts, dark jeans, khakis, or slacks; for women, nicer dresses than sundresses and skirts that fall to the knee are recommended, although women can also opt for khakis or other nice pants and a blouse.

Formal

Many cruises have formal nights where formal attire is required to enter the nicer restaurants on the ship. Cruise itineraries will include when formal wear might be necessary, so you should know if you need one or two formal outfits. For most cruises, recycling your formal attire is perfectly acceptable, so only packing one formal evening outfit is necessary.

For men, formal attire means a nice suit with a jacket; for women, formal dresses are determined by the fabric and cut of the dress, but you can play it safe by packing a dress that might be worn to a cocktail party. If the event on the cruise specifies black-tie dress, then men will need a tuxedo and women will need a floor-length dress.

Shoes

Evening wear shoes are much different than the shoes you would wear during the daytime. For smart casual shoes for men, you might be able to get away with nice canvas shoes, but it is better if you have leather shoes or loafers for the dining area. Formal shoes for men will typically be leather dress shoes for suits or tuxedos. Smart casual shoes for women might include wedged sandals, heels, or flats, while formal shoes will almost certainly be a nice pair of heels.

Additional Tips

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Cruise lines do not offer self-service laundry, but for a small fee, you can request laundry service and dry cleaning for any of your clothes. This means you can pack light on casual daytime attire and that your athletic gear doesn't need to stink up the rest of your luggage.

Families with children do not need to pack quite as severely to the dress code for the cruise, as children enjoy some leeway. Casual and smart casual for children can be the equivalent of what they might wear to school; formal attire for children does not need to be anything more formal than they might wear to church events.

It's also a good idea to take along a second smaller suitcase specifically for any souvenirs you might buy. This is especially true for longer destination cruises where the ports will take you to lovely tourist shops.

If you are feeling snazzy, you might consider packing accessories. Hats are always a good idea, both for warm-weather and cold-weather cruises. Light jackets and cardigans, scarves, and beach tote bags are often useful to have access to for the sake of comfort.

Conclusion

cruise ship at night

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In review, there are different dress requirements for casual, smart casual, and formal clothing. There are also unspoken rules of what you can and cannot wear when you are not on the pool deck. Dressing in pajamas outside of your room is a no-go for most cruises, even for breakfast. Packing multiples of certain clothes - such as swimsuits, certain shoes, socks, and underwear is a good idea just to play it safe.

In retrospect, learning how to dress for a cruise is not as difficult as it first seemed. As long as you have access to the cruise dress code and itinerary, you should be able to avoid a mortifying fashion faux pas incident on your trip. Knowing how to dress for a cruise is mostly a matter of following etiquette rules and dressing appropriately for activities. Doing a little homework and pre-planning of which activities you will partake in will make the process of packing for a cruise much less stressful.

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