After more than 20 years of cruise writing, we still find most questions and comments revolve around shipboard wardrobe.
First-time male cruisers worry most about that dreaded term "formal night" and wonder if it means only a tuxedo is acceptable. (It doesn't. The percentage of men wearing formal evening clothes varies considerably from one cruise line to the next.)
Veteran passengers are divided into two camps: those who enjoy dressing up and those who don't. The former complain loudly about fellow passengers who fail to comply with dress codes on formal nights or, even worse, who go to the cabin after dinner and change into sweatsuits for the rest of the evening. The latter point out that they wear coats and ties (or dresses and other professional attire) to work every day and should have the freedom to dress as they please on vacation.
To add to the confusion, suggested dress codes have relaxed on many cruise ships as more and younger newcomers arrive on the scene. But with more than two dozen cruise lines to choose from, it's easy to find one that matches your wardrobe wishes.
If you look at a cruise line's brochure, read the fine print at the back, and see how the company describes its dress codes. Princess Cruises, for example, defines evening dress standards as casual ("open neck shirts, slacks and sports outfits are appropriate"), semiformal ("ladies usually wear dresses or pantsuits; men wear coats and ties"), and formal ("women usually wear evening gowns or cocktail dresses; men wear tuxedos, dinner jackets or dark suits").
The most confusing term is "semiformal"--which Princess uses rather than "informal"--a term that was once used on all ships to designate an evening when men were requested to wear jacket and tie. But too many new cruisers confused "informal" with "casual" and showed up jacketless. Other lines such as Holland America have changed proper attire for "informal" nights to "jackets required, ties optional."
Then there's the very casual Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, whose brochure promises, "With us, dressing for dinner means putting on a clean T-shirt."
The following is a rundown of passengers' comments on dress, and which cruise lines match different preferences:
* "We love to put on our best clothes and spend a glamorous evening out with other people dressed like we are." Cruise lines with the most elegantly dressed passengers (and the highest percentage of men wearing tuxedos or dinner jackets, usually more than three-fourths of them) include Celebrity Cruises, Costa Cruise Lines (in North America), Crystal Cruises, Cunard Line, Holland America Line, Orient Lines, Princess Cruises, Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, Royal Olympic Cruises (in the Americas), Seabourn Cruise Line and Silversea Cruises.
* "My wife likes to dress up, but I'd rather just wear a sport jacket and tie." Cruise lines that are more relaxed on formal and informal night dress codes (often because they carry more first-time and younger cruise passengers) include Carnival Cruise Lines, Commodore Cruise Lines, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. But note that even on these ships, more than half the men will wear formal attire on formal evenings.
* "My husband won't go on a ship that requires him to wear a tie, but that doesn't mean we don't wear nice clothes, just no tie, please." The U.S. flagships from Alaska Sightseeing, American Canadian Caribbean Line, American Hawaii Cruises, Clipper Cruises and Delta Queen Steamboat, as well as Special Expeditions and Norway's Bergen Line, are relaxed about dress codes, but most do like men to wear a sport jacket at the captain's welcome-aboard dinner. At Renaissance Cruises and Windstar Cruises, passengers are expected to appear "casually elegant" in the evening, with no jeans or shorts, but no jacket or tie ever required. While the new Disney Magic from Disney Cruise Line accepts casual clothing (but no shorts, T-shirts or jeans) in the evening in two of its four restaurants, the other two, "suggest that men wear jackets and ladies wear dresses or pantsuits."
* "We don't care what other people wear, and don't want someone to tell us how to dress." Anything goes on some budget cruise ships, short three- and four-day sailings, expedition vessels and many European cruise ships. In fact, we suspect European passengers sailing in the Mediterranean never even look at the program's suggested dress codes. And destination- or adventure-oriented passengers are much more interested in bringing along comfortable clothes and shoes to wear ashore than what they don for dinner. If this is your idea of a vacation, check out Costa Cruise Lines (in Europe), Mediterranean Shipping Cruises, Premier Cruises, Regal Cruises and Royal Olympic Cruises (in Europe). On these sailings, only one-third to one-half of the male passengers wear formal attire.