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Quick, picture "cruisewear." What do you see? I'll bet I can guess:

a. Zha Zha Gabor in a sequined gown
b. George Hamilton in a tux
c. Don Knots in Bermuda shorts, black socks, and tennis shoes

Thankfully, none of that is the norm, though you're almost guaranteed to see at least one of each type on your average megaship. These days, the norm aboard ship more closely mirrors the norm on land, with few antique steamship traditions getting in the way of you and comfort. But while you may not need to put on the Ritz for formal nights, you do need to pack in such a way that you're prepared for whatever climate you're sailing. Thus, this primer.

Shipboard Dress Codes: Going the Way of the Dodo

Ever since 2000, when Norwegian Cruise Line turned the cruise world on its ear by scrapping dress codes that dated from luxury liner days, cruise lines across the board have been toning down or turning off their dress codes to match America's current dress-down culture. During the day, no matter what the line or itinerary, you'll find T-shirts, polo shirts, shorts, and khakis predominating for men, plus casual dresses for women and sweatshirts or light sweaters to compensate for the air-conditioning.

In the old days, most cruise lines programmed evenings to be either casual, semi-formal, or formal, and today quite a few lines still retain that tradition, though in most cases their "code" is now more of a friendly suggestion. These days, formal nights have either melted away entirely or slid closer to what used to be considered semi-formal -- i.e., if you don't want to wear a tux, a dark suit is fine, and if you don't want to wear a dark suit, go with a blue blazer or another nice sport jacket and a tie. Guaranteed, except on some of the ultra-luxe lines, nobody will even notice. Women, think cocktail dresses, sequined jackets, gowns, or a good-looking pants suit for dress-up, but you can also get away with a blouse and skirt or pants, plus maybe some kind of jewelry or scarf to dress things up. At the lines that retain traditional formal nights, expect about two per 7-night itinerary, usually corresponding to the Captain's Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party (usually on the second night, to let people get settled in) and the Captain's Farewell Dinner on the final night.

Semi-formal nights usually ask for a suit or sport jacket for men and stylish dress or pantsuit for women. There are usually two semi-formal nights per weeklong itinerary at lines that still make the distinction. Casual nights (aka "resort casual," "smart casual," "country club casual," etc.) make up the balance of the week, with men requested to wear decent pants and collared shirts and women asked to wear dresses, skirts, or pantsuits.

Pretty much across the board, cruise lines ask guests not to wear shorts, tank tops, and usually jeans in the dining rooms in evening.

What the Cruise Lines Request

Here's the basics of what you can expect at all the major mainstream and luxury lines. Aboard the small, niche-oriented cruise lines (Cruise West, Star Clippers, Windjammer, et al), dress is always casual. And remember, if you don't want to dress up, pretty much every line offers a casual dinner option every night, often in the buffet restaurant.

  • Carnival: Carnival sticks to a two-tiered system, with most nights being casual and one or two (depending on the length of the cruise) being designated formal, though their definition of formalwear for men ranges from tuxedos down to "tie and slacks."
  • Celebrity: Celebrity sticks to the traditional formal/semi-formal/casual mode, with one formal night on cruises six nights or shorter and two or three on cruises seven nights or more. As is the norm these days, the line's dress code says both male and female passengers "may prefer" more dressy attire on these evenings.
  • Costa: Costa is a dress-down line, with most nights designated casual and two evenings called formal, although passengers "may choose to either dress formally, elegantly in a suit for men and cocktail dress for the ladies, or more casually in elegant resort wear, as how you want to enjoy your night is up to you." One casual night per weeklong cruise is very casual, with many passengers donning bed sheets for the line's traditional "Roman Bacchanal Toga Night."
  • Crystal Cruises: Traditional three-tiered code, with a mix of formal, informal, and casual nights.
  • Cunard: Traditional three-tiered code, with a mix of formal, informal, and casual nights.
  • Disney: Disney Cruise Line has toned formality down to the point where a sport jacket for men is considered dressy enough. All three- and four-night cruises include one "dress-up night" where men may choose to wear a jacket and women a dress or pantsuit. Seven-night cruises include one formal and one semi-formal.
  • Holland America: Though it has a reputation as one of the dowdier cruise lines, and though it retains the old three-tiered casual/semi-formal/formal schedule, HAL is no stick-in-the-mud, with dress suggestions that include a courtly nod to modern style: "Gentlemen: Although business suits or tuxedos are suggested attire for formal evenings, they are certainly not required. You are welcome to wear a jacket and tie on formal nights."
  • MSC Cruises: At MSC, guests are urged to enjoy "resort casual" clothing most nights, with women needing no more than a cocktail dress and men no more than a suit or jacket and tie for formal evenings (two on all 7- to 10-night cruises).
  • Norwegian Cruise Line: The line that got the casual movement started has a pretty simple rule: "Resort casual attire is always appropriate morning, noon, and night." For those who do wish to dress up, the line's "optional formal" captain's cocktail night gives you an excuse. The line also has some exceptions to the usual industry-wide dining room standards: Blue jeans are allowed in all dining rooms on sailings from Houston ("due to the Texas culture"); Bermuda shorts or Scottish kilts with knee-high socks are allowed in all dining rooms on Bermuda sailings ("as these are considered formal dress in Bermuda"); and Hawaiian shirts are allowed in all dining rooms, as long as you're wearing "proper slacks."
  • Oceania: Oceania has an across-the-board "country club casual" dress code, day and night. Many men still don sport jackets in the evening, but that's about as formal as it gets.
  • Princess: Princess goes with a two-tiered system, with most nights designated "smart casual" and two per 7-night cruise designated formal. It also specifies that "torn" jeans, rather than just jeans in general, are not to be worn in the dining rooms. Bare feet neither.
  • Regent (formerly Radisson Seven Seas): Traditional three-tiered system, with a mix of formal, informal, and "country club casual" evenings.
  • Royal Caribbean: Royal Caribbean updates the three-tier dress code by having most nights designated casual, a few on weeklong cruises or longer "smart casual," and one or two formal. Casual calls for sport shirts and slacks for me and sundresses or pants for women. Smart casual dresses things up a bit, with jackets and ties for men and dresses or pantsuits for women.
  • Seabourn: Usually very traditional Seabourn follows a two-tier system, with most nights declared "elegant casual" (slacks, shirt, and a jacket for men, sun-dresses, skirts, or pants with a sweater or blouse for women) and the rest formal.
  • SeaDream: The most dress-down of the luxury lines, SeaDream advertises "no tux for guys, no gala gowns for gals." There is no formal dress code beyond suggesting "resort casual" apparel.
  • Silversea: Traditional three-tier system. On casual evenings, open neck shirts, slacks, and sports outfits are appropriate. On informal evenings, ladies usually wear dresses or trouser suits; men wear jackets, tie optional. Formal evenings see women in evening gowns or cocktail dresses; men wear tuxedos, dinner jackets, or dark suits.
  • Windstar: Another line for the casual set, with a dress code that says, "There are no formal nights, no costume parties, no requirements for suits and ties." Casual elegance is the phrase of the day, "just as you would dress on your own private yacht."

If you do feel like dressing up but don't own your own formalwear, most lines that do formal nights also offer tuxedo rental, with contact information usually included with your cruise tickets. With some lines, it's also available on their websites.

Dressing for Your Destination: Warm Weather Itineraries

In general, cruise destinations divide fairly easily into warm- and cold-weather regions, though season the time of the year you travel might throw a monkey wrench into that reasoning.

In the Caribbean, the temperature stays within a fairly narrow range year-round, averaging between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, though in summer the combination of sun and humidity can get very intense, especially at midafternoon. Trade winds help cool things off on many of the islands, as may rainfall, which differs island to island -- Aruba, for instance, is very dry, while in Nassau it seems to rain briefly every other time we're there. Winter is generally the driest season throughout the region, but even then it can be wet in mountainous areas, and afternoon showers often give the shores a good soaking -- sometimes just for a few minutes, sometimes for hours. Temperatures on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula and in Central America can feel much hotter, especially on shore excursions to the humid interior. Hurricane season lasts officially from June 1 to November 30, traditionally the low cruise season. Temperatures during winter South America sailings will generally be in the mid-60s to low 80s, though that can vary depending on your itinerary.

The Mexican Riviera (a.k.a. western Mexico) is traditionally sunny, with average daytime temperatures in the mid-80s. Showers are brief and usually occur at night, when the temperature drops by about 10 degrees. Humidity is moderate during the November to April dry season and higher from May to October.

Hawaii is, of course, a.k.a. paradise. Along the coast, daytime temperatures are usually between the mid-70s and mid-80s, while the mountains can be quite a bit cooler, with summer daytime temperatures in the 60s. On the leeward side of the islands, away from the wind, temperatures occasionally get into the low 90s, while the high slopes of Mauna Kea, the state's highest volcanic peak, are regularly covered with snow in the winter.

Bermuda, too, enjoys a wonderfully temperate climate due to the proximity of the Gulf Stream, which flows between the island and North America. There's no rainy season and no typical month of excess rain. Showers may be heavy at times, but the skies clear quickly. During the April-to-October cruise season temperatures stay in the mid-70s to mid-80s, and even in summer the temperature rarely rises above 85 degrees Fahrenheit, with a breeze cooling things down at night.

In Europe, Mediterranean countries like Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Spain (plus the French Riviera) can get hot in summer, with temperatures in the high 70s to low 90s.

No matter which warm-weather region you'll be visiting, casual daytime wear aboard ship means shorts, T-shirts or polos, sundresses, and bathing suits. The same dress code works in port too, but in many places it's best to cover up if straying from the beach. Bring a good pair of walking shoes or sandals if you intend to do more than lie in the sand, and aqua-socks might also be a good idea if you plan to snorkel, take inflatable launches to shore, participate in watersports, or take any shore excursions that traverses wet, rocky terrain or involves boats. A folding umbrella or lightweight raincoat or poncho is a good idea for destinations that experience regular tropical showers. Lastly, remember to pack sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen. All are available aboard ship and in the ports, but sunscreen in particular will be a lot cheaper at your local market than in a gift shop -- just don't try to fly with it in your carry-on, as security might mistake it for, well, you know. You might also consider bringing a plastic water bottle that you can refill aboard ship, rather than buying overpriced bottled water in port. Same warnings about flying apply.

Dressing for Your Destination: Cold Weather Itineraries

While Southeast Alaska, where most cruises sail, has more temperate year-round weather than the rest of the state, summers here are still unpredictable. In May, when the cruise season gets going, I've experienced icy rain at the waterline and hiked in new snow at the top of Juneau's Mount Roberts -- but I've also seen a lot of beautiful, crisp, sunny days. June is the driest of the three true summer months, July the warmest (and also the busiest), and August the month where you'll usually experience the most rain. Rainy weather usually continues into September, though I've sailed here as the season wrapped up and had sunny days all week long. Some towns are rainier than others no matter what time you sail: Ketchikan, for instance, gets about 150 inches of precipitation annually, more than three times Juneau's total. In general, daytime summer temperatures are usually in the 50s and 60s, though the damp climate can make it seem colder, as can wind, proximity to glaciers, and excursions to higher elevations. Some days can also be nicely warm, getting up into the 70s or occasionally into the 80s.

This far south you won't experience the famed midnight sun, though days still seem to go on forever. In June, Juneau gets about 18 hours of sunlight -- sometimes at 10pm there's still enough to read by. Farther north, in Anchorage, Denali, and Fairbanks, the sun dips below the horizon for only a little over four hours on some June days. Summer temperatures here are roughly comparable to those in Southeast.

The rule for Alaska is layering. In addition to some lightweight clothing to wear aboard ship (including a bathing suit, as most megaships have covered pool areas), you'll want to bring some variation of the following items for daytime use:

  • A lightweight, waterproof coat or jacket
  • Two sweaters or fleece pullovers, or substitute a warm vest for one
  • Two to four pairs of pants or jeans
  • Two pairs of walking shoes (preferably waterproof)
  • A warm hat and gloves
  • Long underwear if you're on a May/September shoulder-season cruise
  • A folding umbrella

Despite the cool temperatures and sometimes overcast conditions, you'll still want to pack sunglasses and sunscreen, especially if you'll be doing a lot of active shore excursions or spending a lot of time on deck, whale-watching. That's also the reason you'll want to bring binoculars and/or a good camera, preferably with a telephoto or zoom lens and with lots of digital memory or film. Because whales, eagles, and bears aren't the only wildlife in Alaska, you'll also do well to pack some mosquito repellant. Bugs aren't as big a problem in Southeast as in the more central parts of the state, but if you get into the forest on shore excursions, they can still get annoying.

Temperatures on summer Canada/New England cruises are usually very pleasant, averaging in the 60s and 70s. Temperatures in Nova Scotia will be on the low end of that scale, often dipping into the 50s at night, while you can expect hot temperatures if you're sailing from New York, where summer days are often in the 80s or 90s. Temperatures in Boston are usually in the 70s in summer. On September/October fall foliage cruises, expect temperatures in Canada to range from the low 40s to the low 60s. Rain-wise, the situation is unpredictable, with bright, crisply sunny days followed by a full 24-hour socker of a storm. Fog is also common, especially on New Brunswick's Fundy Coast and the Atlantic Coast of Nova Scotia. A lighter version of layering is called for here, with a long-sleeve shirt or light sweater over your T-shirts, polos, and dresses. Pack a combination of shorts and long casual pants as well, plus good walking shoes and a light jacket for use in the evenings. Fall cruises call for a bit heavier clothing, but you'll rarely experience really bone-chilling cold on these cruises. As always, remember your sunblock, sunglasses, hat, and folding umbrella.

Summer cruises in Europe's Baltic Sea region are timed to some beautiful weather, with temperatures generally ranging from the low 60s to the high 70s. August might see some rain.

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