What Should I Expect on Formal Nights?


Formal nights are part of the cruise experience on many ships. If you are a regular with your favorite line, you know what to expect. If you are new to cruising or trying a new line, these tips should help.

The cruise industry understands segmentation. There are different lines catering to different types of passengers. A cruise company often owns several lines, each with a different customer profile. This can vary by age and income. Everyone is welcome, it’s your vacation, but know the personality of your line before you book.

Your travel agent should be your best resource. Ideally their agency specializes in cruises or has an expert on staff. It’s important to understand the personality of the ship. Viking River Cruises sponsors Masterpiece on PBS. The 50+ couples market demographic is important to them. (1) There are lines for people who consider long sleeved shirts as formalwear. There are lines for people wondering if you can wear medals earned during your military service. Ask your travel agent for details.

What’s Up with Formal Nights?

Many people are introduced to cruising via a special occasion. It might be a honeymoon or wedding anniversary. Maybe it’s a trip of a lifetime or bucket list item. It might be a themed cruise. This trip might be very important to someone sitting nearby in the dining room. Don’t spoil their experience by ignoring the rules and recommendations.

Let’s have some Q&A:

  1. How many formal nights? Usually at least one. The cruise literature will tell you.
  2. Any chance of a party? The captain’s welcome cocktail party often takes place on a formal night. People join a receiving line (or skip it). Passengers are introduced to the captain. Professional photos are taken. The photo shop is hopeful you will buy them.
  3. Is a formal dinner longer? Generally, no. The hotel side of the operation runs like a well-oiled machine, especially if there are two dinner seatings.
  4. Is the food different? It’s likely to be a bit flashier, but should generally be in line with the quality of your other dinners. It might be lobster night or Beef Wellington night.
  5. What about entertainment? Formal nights are big events. On larger ships there’s often a show or themed dance planned for those evenings.

How Should I Dress?

Years ago, the British aristocracy literally dressed for dinner. They wore white tie and tails. Then lots more British people got money, moved into the middle class and copied the mannerisms of the gentry. If you watched Downton Abbey you know how they dressed. In the 20th century, the men’s tuxedo suit became synonymous with formal wear. Most cruise lines will be OK with a dark suit and tie if you don’t want to pack a tux. White dinner jackets are acceptable in warmer climates. On some lines like Cunard, you will see people from other countries in their traditional dress. You will see Scots wearing dressy kilts and military officers in dress uniforms.

Womens clothing is more complicated. The rules are simpler for men. Generally speaking, cocktail dresses should be fine. The Little Black Dress (LBD) should come in handy. People do wear gowns on dressier evenings.

Where can you get answers? Your travel agent should be able to tell you. The FAQ section of the cruise line’s website should help. Your dozens of friends who have sailed before should have opinions.

I Really Don’t Like Dressing Up. What Should I Do?

Fortunately, you have options.

  1. Choose another cruise line. There are plenty targeting different market segments and personality types.
  2. Dine elsewhere. The ship likely has casual dining alternatives.
  3. Dine in your cabin or on your balcony. There should be a room service menu in the desk.
  4. Spend the evening ashore. This is tricky. The formal night would need to be during an overnight port stay. If it’s a late sailing, you would need to get back to the ship in time.
  5. Buy clothing in port. They’ve got stores. It will be a souvenir when you get home.
  6. Rent a tux for the night. The ship should have rentals available.

Formal nights are part of the cruising experience. In today’s casual world, many people look for reasons to dress up. Make some memories.

Story courtesy of Bryce Sanders. 

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