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Do I Need Formal Wear on a Cruise?

When it comes to cruising, everyone always has questions about formal wear.

Do you need it, or don’t you? That always seems to be the question. And the answer is easy: it’s entirely up to you. These days, most cruise lines know people want to tailor their vacations to their own unique tastes. For this reason, they give you plenty of options. Here’s what you can expect on most ships—from Carnival, NCL, and Royal Caribbean’s mega ships to Avalon and AMA Waterways river cruises.

The Norm

Most evenings on a cruise, you can wear whatever makes you most comfortable—within reason. Swimsuits, tank tops, and shorts are typically frowned upon in the main dining rooms and dance halls. But you can get away with wearing them at the buffet and more casual eateries. I find a pair of dark denim skinnies and a pretty blouse are plenty nice enough for just about any evening activity, from dinner to dancing.

Formal Night

Back in the day, when you booked a cruise, you would be told how many formal nights to expect on your cruise. Typically, on a seven night cruise, there would be at least one formal and one semi-formal event. For the most part, this holds true today, but they aren’t highly publicized. And you’re no longer expected to take part. You can if you want to, but if you don’t want to worry about anything other than relaxing on your vacation, then sit back and enjoy the ride. On the other hand, some people love to dress up. There’s nothing they’d rather do than spend the afternoon in the ship’s spa getting their hair, makeup, and nails done for the big event. The choice is yours. Do whatever your heart desires.

Some people go all out on formal night. Many women wear ball gowns, while men wear tuxedos. But this is pretty rare these days. For the most part, wear a simple cocktail dress or nice slacks at best. Men typically don dress pants and a button down shirt. If you’re planning to eat in the main dining room or at one of the specialty restaurants on formal night, I recommend making at least a tiny bit of effort. But you don’t have to. If you’re comfortable in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, the servers won’t stop you from taking a seat. And they’ll treat you as though you’re dressed to the nines.


If you prefer to keep it casual but you don’t want to make a poor showing at one of the more upscale restaurants, have dinner at the buffet instead. There are no formal wear expectations in the dining hall and chances are you’ll find the exact same fare that’s been served in the main dining room. I’m a fan of putting on something a little spiffier than my day wear after the sun goes don’t often bring anything dressy enough for formal night.

Packing Tips

I don’t mind putting on a pretty dress every now and then, but I almost exclusively travel with only a carry-on suitcase. It’s nearly impossible to fit anything too fancy inside and still get in the necessities. When packing for a seven night cruise, I take two dresses, one pair of dark wash or white jeans, and three or four pretty tops. This leaves me plenty of room for all of my more comfy day wear but also gives me lots of options for creating fashionable combinations at night. I’m never at a loss for something to wear that works for every occasion. Statement necklaces and scarves are a great way to spruce up any outfit, and they don’t take up a ton of space in your bag. I take just three pairs of shoes for my entire trip—sandals, sneakers, and something a bit flashier to go with my evening wear.

Now that you know what to expect, are you excited to dress up, or do you prefer to go casual? Share your ideas with the Wanderlust Wayfarer Facebook group.

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