In recent years, what to wear on a cruise has become a source of confusion for passengers. Back in the 1920s, dress codes may have been complicated and rigid but everyone knew exactly what was required. Fast forward nearly a century and people, fashions and expectations have all changed.

It’s also good to consider how much to pack, so you’re prepared for every eventuality but your cabin’s not overflowing with clothes. Whether you’re off to the Mediterranean, cruising the British Isles or heading to the Norwegian fjords, here we talk you through the fashion essentials to take with you.

Pack clever

One of the benefits of a cruise is that there’s usually no limit to how much luggage you take, however it’s important to consider the amount of room you’ll have in your cabin. If you’ve booked a standard cabin, wardrobe space can be tight, but there are ways of planning your wardrobe to overcome this.

Start with the essentials – pack key items which you know you can wear with several different outfits on various days, such as your favourite pair of jeans and that sweater you live in during the colder months. Adding accessories will brighten up the look without taking up much room. Most ships have laundry and dry-cleaning facilities, so even if you don’t bring enough clothes for the entire trip you can freshen items up and style them again in a different way.

If you’re flying to your cruise port you’ll also be restricted by the airline’s guidelines, and should prepare for the unfortunate eventuality of misdirected or delayed luggage. Pack a carry-on bag with essentials like underwear, a swimsuit and some casual clothes. That way you’ll have a capsule wardrobe until the rest of your bags arrive.

Know the dress code before you board

Dress codes aren’t there to catch you out, but it pays to be prepared and follow cruise clothing etiquette. First of all, not all cruise companies have the same dress code. What is acceptable on some ships may be frowned upon on others, so make sure to read any guidelines you’re sent by your cruise operator before you pack. Luxury lines tend to have stricter requirements and a more formal cruise dress code, whereas on some adventure cruises you can wear whatever’s most comfortable.

It is also worth doing your research before you book to make sure the cruise will have the atmosphere you’re looking for – whether it’s a bit of evening glamour or the ability to eat your dinner in a t-shirt and flip-flops.

Dress comfortably during the day

During the day you want to be comfortable above all else. One essential is a pair of comfortable shoes and some socks for exploring the ship, as well as for sightseeing and on-shore excursions.

It’s fine to wear swimwear in pool areas and also in more informal public areas like outside and poolside restaurants, though some form of cover-up may be expected if you’re away from the pool. For the ladies, a light summer dress, sarong or beach wrap will be perfectly acceptable.

If the ship has an al fresco eating area, swimwear is usually acceptable, but you should cover up when heading inside. Elsewhere, smart-casual wear is generally the way to go.

The evening is your chance to dress up

For many people, one of the reasons for choosing to cruise in the first place is to get dressed up. It’s a chance to wear the kind of finery that’s rarely required in everyday life. To this end, many cruise lines’ dress codes change from 6pm when thoughts turn to dinner. Gone are the days, however, when men were expected to wear a white tie and full tuxedo in the restaurant or any other public room every night.

These days, most cruises will host one or two formal evenings a week when elegant evening wear is expected – a dinner jacket or dark coloured suit for men and an evening gown for ladies. More relaxed dining typically applies the rest of the time, meaning a suit jacket and trousers for men and cocktail dresses, skirts or smart trousers for women.

On most cruises, the likes of jeans, baseball caps, t-shirts, shorts and swimwear are generally not allowed in dining rooms, so do make sure you pack some smart-casual wear even if you don’t intend attending any of the more formal dinners.

If fancy dress is your thing, check with your cruise line beforehand whether any themed nights are planned during the cruise. For example, you can get in costume for P&O Cruises’ country & western, tropical or decade-themed nights, whereas Marella Cruises runs entire 80s-themed cruises.

For those who wish to avoid the formality of dressing up, the ship will often provide more casual dining options as an alternative to formal evening. This means you can go smart-casual in the buffet restaurant instead, or even have in-cabin food and dress how you like.

Pack for your destination

If you’re going on a Scandinavian or Alaskan cruise, make sure you have suitably warm clothes that will allow you to layer up when on deck. If your destination is more tropical, pack a sun hat and sunglasses but also some light rainwear for any tropical downpours – they won’t last long but it pays to be prepared for them.

It’s also important to dress for the type of activity or excursion you typically enjoy. If you’re travelling on a mega ship, you’ll have the option to enjoy the rock climbing walls, sports facilities, running tracks, casinos and nightclubs. This will of course determine whether you pack trainers or dancing shoes, and active clothes or a sparkly number.

When planning water-based shore excursions, your normal pool attire might not do, so pack some functional swimwear that won’t move when you’re snorkelling or diving. And if you’re visiting religious sites such as cathedrals or temples, remember to include something in your case so you can dress modestly. In hot countries, ladies might choose to just take a scarf to cover their shoulders, and remember to wear a dress long enough to fall below your knees.

Dressing for a cruise needn’t be tricky. You’re there to enjoy yourself after all, not just follow rigid rules and regulations. As long as you’re aware of the dress code policy before you go, you can effortlessly fit in to any situation – from casual daytime poolside relaxing to formal evening glamour at dinner.

Image credits: volunteerprincess.com, alisonchino.com and ovscruise.co.uk

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