The demise of formal nights on cruises
Gerry Eggert has taken a lot of cruises in his 78 years. But the Chilliwack, British Columbia, resident has noticed something recently: People aren't dressing up like they used to.
He took his concerns to Facebook and quizzed a group of fellow Holland America Line fans: "This should draw some controversy!" he began. "My wife and I ... don't particularly like the 'relaxed' dress code HAL now allows in their main dining rooms, especially on 'gala' formal evenings." He asked how fellow cruisers in the group felt.
The query struck a nerve and sparked more than a few squabbles, differences of opinion and downright insults.
"Only undertakers wear suits in today's business environment!" wrote one retiree who doesn't care to dress up on vacation.
"If you want to dress like a construction worker eat outside with the construction workers!" one woman wrote.
"Dress like you are going somewhere nice, not McDonald's or Burger King," someone else suggested.
But the conversation revealed a deeper truth: Formal nights, a holdover from a grand cruising tradition, are becoming less formal — when they exist at all. And while that might be welcome news for travelers who just want to relax on vacation, it's a sad turn for many who love to dine with a dressed-up crowd.
"There has been a bit of an evolution in the dress code overall," says Colleen McDaniel, executive editor of the news and review site Cruise Critic. "It doesn't mean that everybody loves that. And in fact, many people who visit our message boards who are very much in favor of a formal night — and a formal dress policy — really, really don't like it when people show up who are not in formalwear."
Cruise lines typically have a night or two during a sailing where passengers are encouraged to dress up for dinner in certain restaurants and get professional photos taken. The suggested attire varies, but typically, it includes at least a dress, pantsuit or skirt and blouse for women, and dress pants and a collared shirt for men.
Many lines that still host some kind of dressier-than-usual night have eased requirements or made their dress code a mere recommendation. And as the number of dining options on ships has expanded, so have nonformal venues beyond the main dining rooms.
Celebrity Cruises, which describes itself as a "modern luxury" option, changed formal night to "evening chic" in 2015, allowing designer jeans and making a sport coat or blazer option for men. Holland America Line introduced "gala nights" in 2015; while a jacket and tie there is preferred, it is not required. Carnival Cruise Line changed its formal night to "cruise elegant" several years ago, adopting "more of a resort-style dress guideline." Norwegian Cruise Line has a "dress up or not night." And Royal Caribbean International recently started holding a "wear your best" night on cruises of five nights or fewer, with the message: "Say goodbye to Formal Night, and hello to Wear Your Best. Get glamorous. Be chic. It's time to shine — your way."
For some travelers, the loosened rules signal a disappointing end to a beloved way of life — not just in cruising, but also in society in general. They point out that travelers don't dress up as much to take a flight, or go out to dinner, or attend a wedding or religious service.
"The change in dress is a reflection of the change in times," said one user on the Cruise Critic message boards in November.
Many of the companies that have relaxed their policies say they're responding to preferences of modern passengers, who may prefer a more casual vibe on board, not wanting to load down their luggage with suits or evening gowns. More people are cruising, an estimated 30 million this year, and that growth is coming from travelers who aren't necessarily looking for fancy experiences, insiders say.
Other lines, many of them newer, eschew the idea of a dedicated formal night altogether, opting for "country club casual" (Oceania), "elegant casual" (Viking Ocean) or merely "more than a bathing suit" (the new Virgin Voyages). Virgin, which launches its first ship next year, has made a point of rethinking almost every element of a cruise — "which includes pesky dress codes," chief commercial officer Nirmal Saverimuttu said in an email. "If our Sailors want to get fancy and dress up, they're welcome to, but if they want to keep it cool and casual, we say go for it."
At least one operator isn't budging from tradition. Cunard, a line famous for its trans-Atlantic crossings and old-school glamour, holds two or three "gala evenings" every seven days of a sailing where guests are encouraged to "be at your most glamorous when the clock strikes 6 p.m." That means something like a flowing ball gown for women and a tux, suit or kilt with jacket for men. Bow ties, regular ties or cravats are all acceptable. But even Cunard has nonformal settings where dressed-down can go, including the buffet, casino and pub.
Deciphering the codes
The wildly varying terms and enforcement policies can lead to some trepidation on the part of new cruisers and head-scratching even for those who've been around the ocean a few times.
"A lot of the cruise lines, their terminology has been so nebulous," says Liam Cusack, managing editor of Cruise & Travel Report and administrator of the Facebook group Holland America Line Fans. "Resort chic — what exactly is that? Or 'country club casual' — people don't know what that is."
Cruise lines include information about what to wear in their frequently asked questions materials, and many online experts offer tips and explainers to decipher the codes.
John Heald, Carnival Cruise Line's brand ambassador and a senior cruise director, said he frequently fields dress code questions on his popular Facebook page.
"There are still a few people who are afraid of what other people will think," Heald says. "And a few who are concerned about what other people are wearing."
In July, he joked that he was going through withdrawal symptoms because he had not been posed a single question on the topic so far that day. That post prompted more than 400 comments, some sharp words and at least one response from a woman that included a reposting of Carnival's official "elegant"-night dress code.
"Some of you need to read it since some of you think that jeans and flip flops are appropriate in the main dining room on 'elegant' night," the commenter wrote. "I can care less what you have on, you could at least just follow the rules why is this so hard."
Heald says his advice is always: "If you're comfortable, you should not worry about what other people think, because 99 percent will look at you and say, 'I hope you're having a great time.'"
The subject can be especially intimidating for those who haven't cruised before. Emma Le Teace, 25, who runs the website Cruising Isn't Just for Old People, said her most popular articles tend to revolve around dress codes.
"I think a lot of people are really afraid of the dress code, and they really shouldn't be," she says.
Le Teace said some of her fellow millennial cruisers actually enjoy the chance to dress up — as long as it's not mandatory.
"Some people wear their prom dress again; when are you going to get the chance to do that?" she says. "Some people really love it. I think it's about choice."
Cusack says he, too, has seen younger cruisers embracing the opportunity to dress up.
"Especially among people that are hardcore fans of the movie 'Titanic,' they want that whole experience," he says. (Well, most of the experience.) But for some, navigating the nuances is still a challenge.
When Kate and Josh Fox-Fuller took their first cruise this summer, a Mediterranean voyage for their honeymoon, they discovered the Royal Caribbean ship would have two formal nights rather than the one they prepared for. On the first night, Kate Fox-Fuller said they kept getting notifications to dress up. So she put on her "cocktail-slash-sundress" and her husband donned his "business casual" outfit, and they headed to the buffet, where they had eaten all their meals. There, surrounded by casually dressed families, they realized the dress code was only for the more formal dining room.
Despite her effort, when Fox-Fuller was in the restroom, she said an older woman wearing a mother-of-the-bride-type gown commented on her outfit.
"She was like, 'Did you know it was formal night?'" Fox-Fuller said. "I was like, 'I'm wearing a sundress, it's fine.' It was very intense."
On the second formal night, she said, the couple took a different approach: "We just didn't leave our room."