I fell in love with cruise travel more than a decade ago and in those 10+ years I've participated in many spirited discussions with other travelers about the pros and cons of formal night. This topic sparks heated debate every time a cruise line relaxes its dress code. And—let's face it—almost all of the cruise lines have become less formal in an attempt to attract younger cruisers and to keep pace with America's trend toward ever more casual dress.
I'd be happy if every cruise line eschewed formal attire requirements, but I'm one of those travelers that hates to pack more than is strictly necessary. In my opinion, high heels and a full-length gown are simply not necessary. Casual-meets-elegant is more my style. But, that's not to say I don't understand those individuals who love to get dressed up and enjoy a night on the town—or out at sea.
If you love the sorts of events that you have to prep for all day (spa trip, nail salon, et al), it's downright painful to think about giving them up. But that's what has happened over the years as cruise lines try to find the right balance for evening attire.
To try to appease everyone, some cruise lines have instituted formal optional nights or have restricted the dress code of one restaurant to formal while other outlets downgrade to elegant or resort casual. This works for some people while other travelers who defend formal night in all its glory can't stand walking through the ship with all the other slobs that didn't opt to dress up.
Defining the Three Dueling Dress Codes
Most cruise lines offer an evening dress code that roves between two or three options: resort casual (also called smart casual or country club casual), elegant casual (often dubbed informal or semi-formal), and formal.
Resort casual: Women can wear jeans or slacks, sundresses, or a casual skirt and top; men should select jeans or slacks with a collared shirt (no tie necessary).
Elegant casual: Women opt for pantsuits or dresses while men don pants with a jacket (with or without tie) or sweater.
Formal: Women dress to the nines in an evening gown or cocktail dress and men wear tuxedos, dinner jackets, or dark suits.
Nearly all cruise lines agree that it's never appropriate to enter a dining room with bare feet or wearing flip flops, swim trunks, shorts, or a tank top. Jeans and tennis shoes are also on the no-go list for many lines.
Which Cruise Lines Have Ditched Formal Night?
If you don't want to be bothered with the formal night dilemma, sail with one of the lines that doesn't offer them to begin with: Azamara Club Cruises, Carnival, Disney, Oceania Cruises, SeaDream Yacht Club, and Windstar Cruises. Even luxury line Regent Seven Seas Cruises is often an option in this regard since they only offer formal optional on sailings of 16 nights or longer.
Celebrity, Costa, Norwegian, Seabourn, and Silversea are trying to split the difference by offering formal optional evenings or dining rooms that will welcome guests dressed in a more casual fashion.
The best bet for fashionistas is still Crystal Cruises or Cunard. If you're intrigued by the idea of formal night but don't own a tuxedo or evening gown, you can actually rent evening wear from CruiseLineFormal.com and have it delivered to your Holland America or Prince cruise (depending on your embarkation port).
Andrea M. Rotondo is a freelance writer based in New York City. She covers cruise news and luxury travel trends for Fodors.com and writes for a variety of outlets, including her website Luxury Travel Mavens. Follow her on Twitter: @luxtravelmavens.
Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Crystal Cruises