Cruise Rules: A Guide to Etiquette, Dress Codes, Tipping, and More

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If you have been on a cruise before, you know they have a whole series of traditions and rules that may be puzzling to the first-time cruiser. You don’t want to find out you have not packed the right wardrobe for all occasions, or that you have violated some unspoken rules about how to behave.

Whether you are going to Alaska, Europe, or the Caribbean, there is a certain etiquette expected onboard a cruise ship. Knowing the cruise rules will ensure you never feel underdressed or out of your element.

Here are ten answers to questions you may have about enjoying yourself on a cruise.

1. What Shouldn’t I Pack for a Cruise? 

One classic first-timer mistake is to pack too much. You don’t want to be stumbling over your baggage in your stateroom because you brought too many outfits! 

Although you will want to bring at least one formal outfit, bring a change of accessories so you can wear the same outfit twice with different looks.

Although most of your time will be spent in casual resort wear, leave the ripped jeans and cut off shorts at home. Even cruises which espouse a casual vibe prefer you to respect the culture by eschewing sloppy attire.

Do not pack bottles of alcohol in an effort to save money. Do not under any circumstances pack illegal drugs or firearms.

You should also not pack electronic equipment like hairdryers, electric irons or electric blankets, which could pose a fire risk.

Leave anything of high sentimental or monetary value, like heirloom jewelry, at home. Although you will have a safe in your room, why take that risk? 

2. Do I Need Formal Wear on a Cruise? 

As mentioned above, you should always bring at least one formal outfit on your cruise. Part of the fun of a vacation at sea is the tradition of a formal dinner. You may even be invited to sit at the Captain’s table! 

Respect the ways of the sea. When the crew puts on their dress whites, you should dress accordingly. Royal Caribbean recommends a step up from regular dinner wear, so bring your tuxedo and evening gown if you have them! 

Research your cruise before booking so you can accurately assess their level of formality. Some cruises aim for old-style glamour, with dressy dinners every night. If you like this kind of elegance, make sure you bring enough outfits for formal dinners and dances every evening. 

Other cruise lines aim for a less formal approach. However, you should check carefully the agenda of your trip to make sure that you are appropriately prepared for every event you plan on attending.

It is your vacation, but you are sharing space with a large number of people. By obeying the cruise rules and adhering to the dress code, you can avoid any altercations and misunderstandings about what kind of dress is appropriate. 

3. Who Should I Tip on a Cruise Ship? 

With eating in restaurants, many of them fancy, you might think you need to tip all of the waiters and wine stewards who take care of you over the course of your cruise. Luckily, most cruise lines have taken care of this question with a gratuity fee added to your final bill.

For example, Royal Caribbean cruises add an automatic daily tip added to your onboard bill of $12.95/day per person ($15.95/day per person for suites). The funds are pooled and then divided amongst cabin stewards, dining crew, and housekeeping staff.

Princess Cruises does the same, with the same per person charge and a slightly lower rate than RCC for suites.

Norwegian Cruise charges more: $13.99/day per person, and $16.99/day per person for passengers in suites. These funds are pooled and distributed to staff. 

Waiters are not the only people who may help to make your cruise pleasurable. There are masseuses, entertainers, babysitters, tour guides, and crew members. 

Tipping policies vary by the cruise line. Princess Cruises does not include spa or casino staff in its pooled tips, so you may want to slip these employees a special acknowledgment of good service if you are on a Princess Cruise.

Some cruise lines have strict no-tipping policies. Others may allow independent contractors like exercise instructors and youth counselors to solicit their own gratuities. 

If you feel you have received poor service, you may contact your bursar or concierge to ask that a particular automatic tip be removed from your bill. 

4. How Do I Handle My Kids on a Cruise? 

Many families find a cruise vacation to offer the perfect blend of activities to keep all members of the family entertained, no matter what age they are. Some cruises even let kids cruise for free

It’s important to check the minimum age requirements for your cruise. Some cruises are adults only. Others, like Disney cruises, are aimed at the younger crowd.

Most cruises are appealing to families because there are activities you can enjoy together, and yet possibilities for some time apart. Many cruises offer Kids’ Clubs with activities that will keep them happy throughout the day. They will be busy making friends with other kids and you can have a little time relaxing on the deck or in the spa.

Good cruise etiquette means following the rules for the Kids’ Club. If they require that you remain on board while your child is in their care, do not sign up for a day-long excursion while Joey is in the Club. If he gets sick, they need to find you right away.

10 Popular Cruise Activities for Kids of All Ages
Photo: Copyright Cruise Hive

Be on time picking up your children when the Club is closing, as well. The youth counselors may well have other duties on the ship they need to get to after their shift is done. Babysitting during the evenings may entail extra fees.

Don’t let your young children go running around the ship unattended. A large seafaring vessel still presents hazards for unaccompanied minors. 

Other cruisers might get annoyed if you let your children run around unsupervised near the pool, movie theatre or other play areas. Keep your kids in line for their own safety and for the cruising pleasure of all aboard.

5. What If I Miss the Ship on a Cruise Stop? 

If you book an excursion at one of your ports of call, you will be strictly instructed about what time you need to be back on the ship. The cruise ship cannot wait for you if you overdo it at a local bar in Mexico, get lost in St. Maarten, or lose track of time in Italy.

Your cruise ship must stick to its schedule, so if you are late for embarkation, the ship may leave without you. Then you may face a vacation-crushing problem.

You will need to “catch up” to your ship by flying or somehow getting transport to the next port of call, or one of the ship’s subsequent stops. If you are in the Caribbean,  this may be more difficult than you think. Inter-island planes may not run regularly.

Plus, all of your belongings are on board! You may not catch up with your luggage until you return home.

Also Read: Top 6 Videos Of Cruise Passengers Missing The Ship

Don’t let poor time management ruin your vacation. Make sure you follow the rules. Set your clock to ship time, in case you are crossing time zones.

6. Can I Skinny Dip or Sunbathe Topless? 

If you are traveling in Europe, you may see that sunbathers have different customs and fashion preferences than in the United States. You may see women on local beaches without their bikini tops, or even people in the nude.

If you are taking a cruise with a carrier that caters to Americans, expect to follow American standards of modesty. Don’t expect to sunbathe topless by the pool.

Even if you have a suite with a balcony, it’s recommended that you err on the side of caution and leave your nude sunbathing habits at home. Again, you are sharing a relatively small space with a large number of people with disparate customs and standards. Try to be respectful of others, even when their customs are different from your own. 

Do not skinny dip in the ship’s pools, even the adult-only ones, if it is expressly prohibited. Often pool areas require swimsuits and footwear for hygienic in addition to aesthetic reasons. 

7. Can I Skip the Lifeboat Drill? 

Every cruise holds a training session on the first day which shows you where to find the lifeboats and how to conduct yourself in case of an emergency. If you have been on a cruise before, you may be tempted to skip this lesson and get the party started.

Respect your crew and the laws of the sea. You need to attend this session as part of your agreement with the cruise line. Crises do occur, like hurricanes or power outages. You need to know where to go if you need to evacuate.

At the drill, you will learn how to properly put on and secure a life jacket and what to do in case of an emergency. You will get a full overview of evacuation and lifeboat embarkation procedures, muster stations, and how to find them. You will have to show you know how to put on your life jacket.

Ryndam Lifeboat
Photo Credit: Roger W (Creative Commons)

Every passenger must attend the drill, no matter how many times they have cruised. The only way to know where to go and what to do in case of a disaster is to attend the drill and find out where your muster station is located.

Cruise staff will call roll call and may even search the ship to find people who are trying to cheat by not attending. Some ships may even make you get off the ship if you skip the drill. It’s that serious.

8. Can I Smoke on a Cruise? 

Most ships offer designated areas where some forms of smoking are allowed. Usually, this may include nightclubs and casinos, or cigar rooms. You cannot smoke in your stateroom unless it is specifically permitted.

Cruise ships may travel amongst countries with different laws on marijuana. It is best to avoid any issues at all by not indulging in this substance while on board. 

Check whether vaping is permitted on your cruise ship. Normally, this will be allowed anywhere that cigarette or cigar smoking is permitted.

Generally, you should be respectful of your fellow passengers who may not like the smell of smoke or who may have health concerns. Therefore, smoking on balconies is generally frowned upon, as the smoke may waft to lower cabins. 

9. Can I Save Seats on Deck on a Cruise Ship? 

You have seen them at the beach. They are on cruise ships as well. Chair Hogs! 

Some people get up early and put a towel on a recliner in a prime spot of the deck, either by the pool or by the bar. Then they go off and enjoy breakfast, or the spa, or other activities, all while hogging up the chair so no one else can sit there.

This is obviously not very accommodating of your fellow passengers, especially when you “save” more than two deck chairs for a group! Some ships have policies on this practice, and others do not.

Generally, we advise staking out a hogged chair for a while to determine that the person has not simply stepped away to the bathroom or shower. If you determine that someone has not returned to their chair for an hour or more, then you might want to let a staff member know.

Saving seats is not polite, whether it is on deck or in the restaurant or movie theatre. The restaurants usually have assigned seating or set dining times, so you can book meals with your group when you book the trip. However, saving a row of seats for the midnight show is just as rude as saving chairs on the sundeck if you aren’t going to use them for a few hours.

Let other people have a chance! 

10. What Happens If Things Get out of Hand on a Cruise Ship?

It’s important to be a law-abiding citizen on a ship. You can have fun, but if the crew believes you are acting in an illegal, dangerous, or threatening manner,  they have every right to evict you from the vessel.

You may be required to leave the chip if you bring illegal drugs on board. act in a disorderly manner, or buy a minor alcohol. 

If you are apprehended for illegal behavior and you are not at port, many ships will confine you to the “brig,” or onboard prison until you reach the next port of call. 

Cruise Rules: Obey and Keep Everyone Happy 

Cruises are usually vacations where you can let loose and relax, without having to worry about too many regulations. However, when you are traveling on the sea with hundreds, even thousands, of other people, following some basic cruise rules of etiquette will ensure that you all have a fun and safe time.

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