What to wear on a cruise: The discerning traveler’s guide to packing & dressing well

formal night portrait
Yes, there are still formal nights on most cruise lines – a gown and a tux will always be right.

There are two questions potential cruisers ask us about their on-board wardrobe:

  1. What should I wear?
  2. How should I pack?

It comes down to three fundamental issues: the cruise line you’re traveling on, where you’re going on the cruise (and of course the time of year goes along with this), and how much luggage you plan to take. Of course, underlying all of this is the discerning travel assumption that you want to dress well: dressing well meaning that you are comfortable, appropriate for your destination, and looking good. Let’s begin with cruise lines.

Cruise lines have dress codes. These dress codes (and their interpretations) vary widely and are largely, but not entirely, dependent upon the “category” of the cruise line you choose – and how cruise lines are categorized varies as well. For example, the cruise blog “All Things Cruise” classifies them into the following categories: contemporary (others call this group “mainstream”, upscale contemporary, premium, ultra-premium and ultra-luxury. [See their complete listing HERE.]. If we were to use their approach to categorization, we travel exclusively on ultra- premium and ultra-luxury cruise lines (Silversea, Regent and Seabourn fall into the ultra-luxury category, Oceania into ultra-premium for example) – but of course there’s also Cunard which transcends the norms because it has the usual dress codes in addition to three classes of service.

There are also those confusing dress code labels: formal, informal, casual, smart casual, country club casual and the list goes on. The cruise lines do provide descriptions even if they are occasionally a bit opaque. And don’t get us started on the extent to which the cruise lines fail to observe their own rules by not turning away inappropriately dressed cruisers from dining venues (there’s always a place to dine if you insist on wearing your baseball cap to dinner – just not in the dining room).

We have noticed that although over the years dress codes have generally become more informal, on some of the cruise lines you can expect people to dress well all the time. In fact, we recently read of cruisers new to Silversea who felt decidedly out of place in their “casual” wear even on casual evenings. Casual to the average Silversea cruiser is a step or two up from the norm. You won’t find T-shirts or ball caps on Silversea casual nights – although it can happen and these are the guests who tend to feel very out of place (and they do get the stink-eye from many fellow guests!).

Coco Chanel once said that being well-dressed is a “beautiful form of politeness” and that suits our personal approach to life. We have our own interpretation of the dress codes, and it has never made us feel the least bit out of place. Our general mantra is: dress up a bit. On a casual evening, go smart casual. On informal evenings, go cocktail. On formal – well, go all out. So, here’s how we do it and some of the travel-friendly clothing brands we love (strictly our own unbiased opinions – we get no freebies from anyone).

First, let’s consider the difference between what we might wear on a Caribbean cruise where every day is in a casual, tropical port, and a Mediterranean cruise where you might well be in a big city every day. For tropical weather, you need casual tropical clothes: the Caribbean is casual and laid-back, but the evening on your cruise ship might be more dressed up.

In European cities, you need to be mindful of the weather at the time of year you cruise, and be prepared to walk long distances among people who are generally dressed for their usual work day whatever that might entail. In some senses, dressing simply amounts to common sense. Be respectful of your surroundings and the people who live there; be respectful of yourself by dressing in a thoughtful and comfortable way. And no big sneakers and fanny packs! But that’s just us. But then, how do you pack for all of these eventualities. [Art in Sienna, Italy on excursion and Patty on board a Regent ship in Europe a few years back…]

For us, that means selecting types of clothing and brands that travel especially well, and taking pieces that can do double duty. Here are some examples from our recent trip to South America…

Art took three or four Columbia shirts with him and an Orvis (below – top right shirt). Believe it or not, each of these shirts is easily hand-washable and over-night dry-able. They look like real clothes rather than “travel wear.” Columbia is well-priced and easily packable – and looks good!

But not to be outdone, Columbia makes some terrific choices for women as well…

But those Columbia shirts Art wears aren’t just for day-time touring. The right one with a jacket in the evening takes him to dinner on a casual night (remember, casual on a Silversea ship is this kind of dressing)…

In addition to Columbia, Art likes Tilley shirts. They’re more expensive than Columbia, but they last for years…

…and unless we’re headed to the Caribbean or the South Pacific, we don’t leave home without a packable jacket — Cole Haan is a favourite…

…then there are the evenings. Finding packable evening wear isn’t as challenging as it might appear. There are several approaches. First, Art has a wonderful new tuxedo which, since it’s Italian wool, actually packs well. But how can he make a tux do double duty? The wonderful sales associate at “Tom’s Place” in Toronto where he bought the new tux last fall, suggested that this shawl-collared jacket would be terrific as a dinner jacket on a more informal night. So, that’s what it became…

 

formaltux

dinner jacket

But what about cocktail dresses and formal gowns? Patty has found that Joseph Ribkoff and Frank Lyman are probably the best for “packability.” And now she has added a Lisa Drader-Murphy (all Canadian designers) to her list.

…and a Lauren Ralph Lauren jersey gown never goes astray…

formal lauren gown

…with the SJP (Sara Jessica Parker) sparkly shoes, anything can look dressed up! Patty has owned a strapless Joseph Ribkoff gown for about ten years. Paired with a variety of little jackets, it looks like a completely different dress each time she wears it on a cruise.

formal ribkoff gown

Let’s finish off with a family portrait from the Queen Mary a few years back when our son joined us. Formal nights on Cunard are true formal nights. Love it!

DSC05092

Now it’s time to decide what to pack for the upcoming Asian cruise!

Advertisements

The discerning guide to cruising part 2: Packing for your cruise

suitcaseFor some people packing for a vacation is a task to get over with as soon as humanly possible.  For some others of us it’s a real pleasure to think about the very best of our wardrobes and essential ‘stuff’ that  we’ll live with for a week – or two, or three.

We’re just about to bring those well- traveled suitcases up from storage for another outing this coming weekend.  We’re getting readying to pack for our Caribbean vacation; and not a moment too soon since we’ve been dropped in a frigid deep-freeze up here in our neck of the woods.   We’ll begin with almost a week in Barbados and end with a week in St. Maarten, with a week-long Seabourn yacht cruise to Caribbean yacht harbors sandwiched in between.  After eleven cruise vacations, experience tells us that packing for a luxury cruise has a few peculiarities.  Here are some truths about cruising that we will use this weekend as we pack those suitcases.

1.  Cruise ships do not have irons and ironing boards in staterooms.  Ever.  And you cannot bring one.  They are a fire hazard, and unless you want to schlep to the communal laundry cum ironing board cubby that may (or may not, it needs to be said) be available on your particular cruise ship, then possibly wait in line for the privilege of ironing, this fact will guide your clothing choices.  We have two words of advice for you: No linen.

2.  Cruise ships have dress codes.  How many times does this need to be said?  There are different cruises for different people.  If you don’t like to get dressed up, don’t select a cruise line that indicates it is an important part of the cruise.  If you want to truly enjoy your cruise, take advantage of the chance to notch up your wardrobe choices.  There are several brands of clothing for women that can provide fantastic choices for formal, cocktail or elegant casual dressing in pieces that are virtually wrinkle-free even after a day or more in your suitcase.  Our favorites are Joseph Ribkoff, Frank Lyman, Linda Lundstrom Essentials and Simpli.

For men, it’s even easier: just rent a tuxedo.  Most mainstream cruise lines provide this service that you take advantage of before you cruise – and when you arrive on board, there is your tux and all its accoutrements, including shoes if you remember to order them, hanging in your on-board closet. Just be sure to measure accurately.

A family portrait aboard Cunard's Queen Mary 2 last summer.  It's the only way for the three of us to get a professional portrait since we live on a different continent than our son.  A great opportunity when we're all dressed up.
A family portrait aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 last summer. It’s the only way for the three of us to get a professional portrait since we live on a different continent than our son. A great opportunity when we’re all dressed up.

Despite the fact that Art does, indeed, own a tuxedo and all the trappings, he has rented on more than one occasion and enjoyed not having to pack formal clothing.  Two things we have learned:   first, although some of the formal rental companies attached to the cruise lines do have women’s clothing, you will not want to be caught dead in their selections.  You can do so much better by taking a packable gown; and second, the higher end the cruise line, the less likely it is that they have this rental service.  Ultra-luxury lines do make the reasonable assumption that their passengers who choose to dress formally will own a tuxedo.

For more information and a few relevant stories, you might want to red our post on dressing for dinner on a cruise and on what the heck ‘smart casual’ means.

3.  Cruise ships will ask you to put our luggage outside your stateroom about 11 or midnight the evening enforce you disembark.  This is a double-edged sword.  You don’t have to fuss with packing on your last morning, but you need to be prepared.  You’ll need a piece of carry-on luggage that holds everything you might need in the morning.  And do not forget any vital piece of clothing you might regret not having in the morning– Like your pants!  Just a tip if we may:  do not pack your ship-board key card.  You will need it in your hand to disembark on the last morning.

cruise ships in port5.  Cruise ship bathrooms are very dark and usually have a threshold that you will need to walk over in the dark.  This means that you should pack a night light to leave on in the bathroom if you want to avoid the possibility of injury if you have to get up in the middle of the night.  We always have one of those poppable, battery-operated night lights that you can simply put on the counter or the back of the toilet for just enough light to keep you out of trouble.  It never leaves our luggage so we always have it with us (but remember to pop out at least one of the batteries when you pack it or it will inevitably turn itself on in transit and your batteries will be dead).

6.  Cruise ships sell over-the-counter medications, but they may be expensive and may not be a brand you recognize.  We always take along a stash of common medications.  Of course, since Art is a doctor, we often have even more than the normal supply and have been known on many occasions to share our stash with fellow passengers in need.  Here is Art’s guide to your basic requirements:

  1. Analgesic (acetaminophen or ibuprofen )
  2. Anti-histamine/decongestant
  3. Anti-diarrheal (loperamide)
  4. An anti-nauseant (meclazine is preferred for motion sickness, but it is not available in Canada; dimenhydrinate works)
  5. Band-Aids (you’d be surprised how often these come in handy)
  6. Sun screen (need we say more?)

7.  Cruise ships are usually highly air-conditioned. Even in the Caribbean (or especially in the Caribbean).  Although men usually have this covered in the evening, women often find strapless and sleeveless garments to be cold.  You’ll be happier if you take along a nice shrug that goes with everything.

Well, I guess that about does it.  Now we need to put these guidelines into practice.  Bon voyage!

Dressing for dinner: An eye on cruise line dress codes

The Discerning Travelers strike a pose on board a Celebrity cruise ship on a designated formal night.

Some people like a kind of laid-back beach holiday that finds them schlepping around in a T-shirt and shorts with a cold brew always at hand.  Others have to sky-dive or parasail or bungee jump every day.  We are travelers of a different stripe.  We like to drink great wine, walk for miles and miles exploring new and now-familiar cities, have new experiences, sample a new cocktail or two – and dress for dinner.

There’s something just a bit sad about how people “dine out” these days.  Just recently, we read a blog where the writer suggested that dinner is really only about the food.  Well, we respectfully disagree.  Dinner is about dining, and dining refers to a whole lot more than eating.  You can eat anywhere, including your couch.  Discerning travelers are also discerning diners.  We are interested in the whole experience.  Where we eat and the surroundings are as important as the food, and part of those surroundings focus on what you wear when you eat.  Cruises are a prime example of what, where and how one can eat.

The very first time we cruised, we were bemused by the vast number of people who chose to remain on deck in their bathing suits all day and most of the evening, leaving their deck chairs only long enough to load up their plates at the nearby buffet, returning to sit on the edge of the chair, face in their plates, chowing down through the pile of food.  (Presumably they then leave to use the facilities – but we are only guessing here).  Food for us is much more than eating, and dressing for dinner is one of the pleasures of both land and sea-based vacations.

This past weekend, we took some time to make a few decisions about what to pack for the upcoming vacation that will put us on land in Puerto Rico for a few days and then at sea  through the Caribbean, up to Bermuda and then farther up to New York.  Packing for a cruise has its special considerations as we peruse the various ‘dress codes’ that cruise lines use.

Cruise lines seem often to have a language of their own.  Every cruise line has in its FAQ’s a question that goes something like this:  What is the dress code on board?  The answer depends on the line, its brand and its target market.  Let’s look at a few.

Formal night on the Regent Seven Seas Navigator.

Some cruise lines have begun to distance themselves from the more formal evenings, which is a shame in a way, but we do recognize that there are people who don’t find it fun to get dressed up.  If, however, there is a dress code in the dining room, you’d do well to follow it, or risk the stink-eye from fellow cruisers, or worse, ejection from dinner to a more casual corner of the ship.  Some cruise lines actually refuse you entry to the dining room if you are not properly attired (God love Cunard) while others seem to turn a blind eye (although, rest assured, other passengers don’t and you’re being disrespectful of their experience).  So, if you don’t like to get dressed up, pick a different line!

Regent Seven Seas cruises that has played host to us on two vacations over the past three years is a six-star line that has gone to what they call “elegant casual” for every evening with “formal optional” nights on longer cruises.  On this kind of a cruise line, people do follow the dress code, and many cruisers who prefer the more laid-back approach of say NCL, might find the dress formal even on elegant casual nights.  Their dress code says, “Attire ranges from Casual to Formal Optional. Casual wear is appropriate for daytime onboard or ashore, and consists of resort-style outfits. Casual wear, including shorts and jeans, is not appropriate after 6:00 pm, with the exception of the final evening of the cruise.”[1]  The cruisers on Regent do take appropriateness seriously.

Patty and son, Ian, descend the central staircase on Cunard's Queen Mary 2.

Silversea, a line we have traveled on only once last winter, another six-star line, has this dress code: “Evening attire falls into three categories: casual, informal and formal. On casual evenings, open-neck shirts, slacks and sports outfits are appropriate. On informal evenings, women usually wear dresses or trouser suits; gentlemen wear jackets (tie optional). Appropriate formal evening wear for women is an evening gown or cocktail dress; men wear tuxedos, dinner jackets or dark suits. On formal nights, guests dining in La Terrazza may opt to wear casually elegant attire (dresses or trouser suits for women; jacket, tie optional for men).”[2]  Again, they take this seriously.

On Cunard last summer, formal meant formal.  Full-length formal gowns and tuxedos far outnumbered the cocktail dresses and dark suits on the Queen Mary 2, and anyone skulking around in shorts quickly departed (and were not welcome in the dining room in any case).

Next week we’ll be aboard the Celebrity Summit, our third trip on this line.  Our documents indicate that there are two formal nights on this eight night cruise and the rest are “smart casual & above” a category of dress that often baffles and leaves it open to serious interpretation.  In general, however, this means no T-shirts, jeans, shorts or flip-flops.  It means a summer dress or pants and fabulous top for women, and open-collared shirt with slacks and cool shoes for men.  A really cool, above-smart-casual man will wear a jacket as well.

Formal nights for us mean evening gown and tux.  Art always frowns when he has to pack his tux (he frowns only at the packing of it, not the wearing ), but this time he’s in luck. Celebrity has a formal-wear rental program and his tux with all the accoutrements (and he even ordered formal shoes) will be hanging in our suite when we open the closet door on Saturday afternoon.  And it will fit perfectly: we know this from past experience.  All it requires is for you to measure carefully and input the correct measurements when you pre-order online.  Patty, on the other hand, will schlep formal gowns (or in this case one formal gown with two different optional jackets for ease of packing).  A tip for formal gowns for cruises: when you’re shopping for one, always gauge its heft before you try it on.  If it’s heavy, don’t even take it into the dressing room.  Then if it passes the weight test, take a bunch in your hand and ball it up.  When you let it go, if it still has creases, leave it on the rack.  Remember, you’re not permitted an iron in your stateroom on a cruise ship.  The best you’ll be able to do is go to a communal laundry room to wait in line for an iron.  If it doesn’t pack well, don’t buy it.  Then find several different kinds of wraps – better yet jackets these days.  Wraps are cumbersome and usually look overly stuffy.

There's nothing better than the sight of a man in a tuxedo - unless it's two men in well-fitting tuxedos. Art & Ian onboard the Queen Mary 2.

The experience of dining in a wonderfully appointed dining room surrounded by people who have taken the time to look their very best for the evening is a vacation experience that everyone should have once in a while.

There's a little bit of "Gloria" in all of us!