While cruise lines have gotten more and more casual over the years, many still keep the tradition of a formal night where guests must dress up. On some cruises, formal night includes a captain’s ball or reception, where the captain leaves the bridge to mingle with passengers. Like any big party, it’s all about what you wear.

No need to stress, though; most cruise line dress codes are explained for captain’s balls, so you know exactly what to wear on a cruise with a formal evening. Follow these cruise tips to be extra prepared for the evening dress code.

Different Types of Captain’s Events

On Carnival cruise ships, the first formal night of the cruise, or the only formal night for shorter cruises, begins with a captain’s toast. Passengers gather in the main atrium of the ship, where they enjoy live music, cocktail specials and a toast from the captain. On some sailings, younger cruisers can get a captain’s hat as a fun souvenir.

Royal Caribbean ships have a formal night where the captain dines at the head table during both dinner hours. Long-time passengers of the cruise line and special guests are invited to dine at the table with the captain. Even if you don’t get invited to the head table, you can still enjoy the captain’s toast and a glass of champagne.

When you sail on Princess Cruise Lines, only itineraries over five nights have a formal night. This means 7 night cruises will have a formal night. On this night, the captain introduces the officers with a champagne toast in the ship’s piazza. Past guests of Princess can also join the Captain’s Circle party, typically held the second formal night of the cruise. The party includes an appearance by the captain and free drinks.

Break Out Your Suit

Dress for a captain’s dinner, toast or reception is fancy and formal. For men, at a minimum break out the sport coat, button-down shirts and collared shirts and nice tie, paired with khaki pants or solid-colored dress pants.

Many men opt for a full two- or three-piece suit or tuxedo to make it a truly black-tie affair. No flip-flops, baseball caps, tank tops, or t-shirts allowed here; save them for the pool deck. Instead, wear nice dress shoes, and don’t forget a pair of dress socks.

Don a Fancy Dress

Picking your formal night dress is an important part of your cruise vacation. With a formal dress code, there are a few options to chose from.

Ladies, now is the time to pull out the evening gowns, cocktail dresses, or even ball gowns from the back of your closet that you never thought you’d wear again. Pantsuits and elegant skirts and dress shirts and blouses are also acceptable, or even a nice sundress.

Leave your capris, swimsuits, and flip-flops in the cabin as well, instead choosing a nice pair of heels, flats or fancy sandals (think lots of rhinestones and embellishments). This is also a great opportunity to wear that diamond necklace or your grandmother’s ring that's too special to wear on regular days. Just be sure to keep any valuables locked up in your stateroom’s safe whenever you’re not wearing them.

Dress Code Tips

If you don’t own a tuxedo or don’t want to drag yours on board, many cruise lines offer tuxedo rentals. You can rent yours online before the cruise, and it will be waiting in your room before formal night. The onboard stores often rent tuxedos as well but can run out quickly, so it’s a good idea to rent yours online ahead of time.

You’re on vacation, so a little pampering is in order. Make an appointment with the onboard salon to get your hair done and indulge in a mani and/or pedi before the big night.

Many of these nights offer opportunities to take formal pictures with the captain. If a captain’s photo tops your list of souvenirs, consider coordinating outfits with your family or traveling partners. The professional photographers can capture a great photo that you can frame for your home or even use on your Christmas card.

When to Dress Up

The dress code for formal nights on cruises is different than what guests wear at specialty restaurants or the main dining room. While formal nights are just that, for formal wear, guests have a little more freedom in what they can wear on their other nights out.

  • Norwegian Cruise Line advises guests to pack ‘smart casual’ for a night out at their fancier dining room and specialty dining options, think semi-formal, and cruise casual clothing is allowed everywhere else on board.
  • Disney Cruise Line has a few nights where tank-tops and swim wear are not allowed at dinner, as well as a pirate theme night. Don’t forget to pack for these.
  • Celebrity Cruises also suggest ‘smart casual’ for dinner in their specialty and main dining room, as well as evening chic at their formal nights.

Keep in mind your destination when packing: for Caribbean cruises, you will want lighter, casual dress clothing as the weather will be hotter than, say, an Alaska cruise. Don’t forget your swim wear and cover-ups.