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The end of formal nights on cruises


Gerry Eggert has taken a lot of cruises in his 78 years. But the Chilliwack, B.C., resident has noticed something recently: People aren’t dressing up like they used to.

He took his concerns to Facebook and quizzed a group of fellow Holland America Line fans: “This should draw some controversy!” he began. “My wife and I … don’t particularly like the ‘relaxed’ dress code HAL now allows in their main dining rooms, especially on ‘gala’ formal evenings.” He asked how fellow cruisers in the group felt.

The query struck a nerve and sparked more than a few squabbles, differences of opinion and downright insults.

“Only undertakers wear suits in today’s business environment!” wrote one retiree who doesn’t care to dress up on vacation.

“If you want to dress like a construction worker eat outside with the construction workers!” one woman wrote.

“Dress like you are going somewhere nice, not McDonald’s or Burger King,” someone else suggested.

But the conversation revealed a deeper truth: Formal nights, a holdover from a grand cruising tradition, are becoming less formal — when they exist at all. And while that might be welcome news for travelers who just want to relax on vacation, it’s a sad turn for many who love to dine with a dressed-up crowd.

“There has been a bit of an evolution in the dress code overall,” says Colleen McDaniel, executive editor of the news and review site Cruise Critic. “It doesn’t mean that everybody loves that. And in fact, many people who visit our message boards who are very much in favor of a formal night — and a formal dress policy — really, really don’t like it when people show up who are not in formalwear.”

Cruise lines typically have a night or two during a sailing where passengers are encouraged to dress up for dinner in certain and get professional photos taken. The suggested attire varies, but typically, it includes at least a dress, pantsuit or skirt and blouse for women, and dress pants and a collared shirt for men.

Many lines that still host some kind of dressier-than-usual night have eased requirements or made their dress code a mere recommendation. And as the number of dining options on ships has expanded, so have nonformal venues beyond the main dining rooms.

Celebrity Cruises, which describes itself as a “modern luxury” option, changed formal night to “evening chic” in 2015, allowing designer jeans and making a sport coat or blazer option for men. Holland America Line introduced “gala nights” in 2015; while a jacket and tie there is preferred, it is not required. Carnival Cruise Line changed its formal night to “cruise elegant” several years ago, adopting “more of a resort-style dress guideline.” Norwegian Cruise Line has a “dress up or not night.” And Royal Caribbean International recently started holding a “wear your best” night on cruises of five nights or fewer, with the message: “Say goodbye to Formal Night, and hello to Wear Your Best. Get glamorous. Be chic. It’s time to shine — your way.”

For some travelers, the loosened rules signal a disappointing end to a beloved way of life — not just in cruising, but also in society in general. They point out that travelers don’t dress up as much to take a flight, or go out to dinner, or attend a wedding or religious service.

Many of the companies that have relaxed their policies say they’re responding to preferences of modern passengers, who may prefer a more casual vibe on board, not wanting to load down their luggage with suits or evening gowns. More people are cruising, an estimated 30 million this year, and that growth is coming from travelers who are not necessarily looking for fancy exrestaurants periences, insiders say.

Other lines, many of them newer, eschew the idea of a dedicated formal night altogether, opting for “country club casual” (Oceania), “elegant casual” (Viking Ocean) or merely “more than a bathing suit” (the new Virgin Voyages).

At least one operator isn’t budging from tradition. Cunard, a line famous for its transatlantic crossings and old-school glamour, holds two or three “gala evenings” every seven days of a sailing where guests are encouraged to “be at your most glamorous when the clock strikes 6 p.m.” That means something like a flowing ball gown for women and a tux, suit or kilt with jacket for men. Bow ties, regular ties or cravats are all acceptable. But even Cunard has nonformal settings where dressed-down can go, including the buffet, casino and pub.

The wildly varying terms and enforcement policies can lead to some trepidation on the part of new cruisers and head-scratching even for those who have been around the ocean a few times.

“A lot of the cruise lines, their terminology has been so nebulous,” says Liam Cusack, managing editor of Cruise & Travel Report and administrator of the Facebook group Holland America Line Fans. “Resort chic — what exactly is that? Or ‘country club casual’ — people don’t know what that is.”

The subject can be especially intimidating for those who haven’t cruised before. Emma Le Teace, 25, who runs the website Cruising Isn’t Just for Old People, said her most popular articles tend to revolve around dress codes.

“I think a lot of people are really afraid of the dress code, and they really shouldn’t be,” she says.

Le Teace said some of her fellow millennial cruisers actually enjoy the chance to dress up — as long as it’s not mandatory.

“Some people wear their prom dress again; when are you going to get the chance to do that?” she says. “Some people really love it. I think it’s about choice.” n

Formal night on a Cunard Cruise in the 1940s. The cruise line has not budged on its dress code for “gala evenings,” where guests are encouraged to “be at your most glamorous when the clock strikes 6 p.m.”

Cunard Cruise Lines

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