Travel Etiquette: By Sea

Vintage Cunard AdAhh…travel by sea. It all seems so glamorous in the movies. When I was 16 I went on a cruise with my Grandmama and her friends. Now I do tend to prefer the company of older women and was quite at home with her and her friends…but I was 16 and there was a casino on board. Basically I spent the whole time watching movies (they showed the Titanic….), trying to avoid drunken sleazy men and trying not to throw up. There was also a lot of eating. A LOT! From what I hear travel by sea has turned into more of a drunken romp than a glamorous trip. I was considering whether or not it was even worth adding this to the travel series. I remembered stories of the glamorous QE2 (when I was younger) and stumbled across the Cunard website and I realized that I just had to include sea travel in the series.

Despite my incredibly horrible sea sickness (I even get queasy on a boat in port) and my ridiculous fear of drowning, being trapped underwater and sharks – I would totally love to do the transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2 with a bunch of fun loving vintage girls. Big band entertainment, gentlemen dance hosts, formal nights and theme parties – oh I am just swooning at the thought. Who wants to join me?

Better yet…who wants to pay for me???

The biggest part of cruise etiquette seems to be the dress code. While I only remember one “dressy” night on my P&O cruise…it wasn’t very formal. Which was a shame as my Gran had insisted on buying me some glamorous new things…instead I ended up wearing this….(f no one else was dressing up I was NOT wearing a formal gown)

Miss Fairchild - Cruise

Don’t I look fabulous? Sheer dragon top, velvet maxi skirt, silver sandal heels and of course black nail polish on the fingers and red on the toes…

So just what are the “rules” of dress on a cruise ship?

My husband and I are taking a cruise. Are there any nights that we don’t dress? We are taking dinner clothes for the really festive nights we know are planned. 

On the first night and the last night aboard people don’t dress for dinner, but wear their ordinary travel clothes. This is because on the first night one is just unpacking and on the last night one has just packed up.”

– Amy Vanderbilt’s Everyday Etiquette: Answers to Today’s Etiquette Questions (1956)

My modern edition of “A Guide to Elegance” agrees…

“If you are lucky enough to embark on a long sea voyage, there exists and established set of rules, which is wise to respect: Arrive on board in a rather casual ensemble; never dress for dinner the first and last nights at sea, but deck yourself out in your best evening clothes on the other nights; relax in sports clothes during the morning; appear for lunch in a slightly less informal outfit. All of which necessitates a mountain of luggage, to the great joy of the few remaining women of unlimited wealth and leisure, who would rather travel by boat than any other way and thus enjoy one of the last orgies of luxury that have survived in our age of interplanetary rockets.”

– A Guide to Elegance by Genevieve Antoine Dariux (2003 edition)

Vintage Cunard Ad

It seems for most cruises this advice remains the same. But aboard Cunard’s ships they do go a little further in regard to dress codes…

“During the day casual shirts, shorts, trousers and beachwear are ideal. The main restaurants require a casual wear dress code for breakfast and lunch, however you may wear shorts in either the Kings Court (Queen Mary 2) or Lido Restaurant (Queen Victoria & Queen Elizabeth). Evenings will be split into 2 different dress codes. You will be notified of the evening’s dress code in your Daily Programme. As a guide, these will be:

Formal evening wear consists of an evening or cocktail dress or smart trouser suit for ladies, a tuxedo, dinner jacket or dark suit for men or you may wear formal national dress or military uniform. Military or Award decorations may be worn on formal nights. A range of gentleman’s formal wear is available to hire on board.

Informal evenings would consist of a required jacket and optional tie optional for gentlemen, whilst ladies should wear cocktail dresses, stylish separates or equivalent.

Please note that after 6pm, shorts and blue or worn denim (for men and women); sandals and sleeveless tops (for men) are not considered appropriate within the ship. On formal nights, any guests wishing to dress more casually are welcome to dine in the Kings Court or Lido buffet restaurant and relax in the Winter Garden or Garden Lounge bar, but should not use other areas within the ship, including our Alternative Dining Restaurants, out of respect for their fellow guests.

Children under 18 do not have a dress code but should dress as smart as possible in relation to the above.”

– Ask Cunard: Dress Code HERE

Vintage Sea Travel

Doesn’t that sound just divine? *sigh* It’s just so damn glamorous.

Though according to THIS article even the dress codes on the famous Cunard ships might be getting a dress down (OMG seriously, I crack myself up so much) in their standards. They are planning on relaxing a lot of the dress code to many regular cruises dismay. They know they can get an everyday cruise anywhere, but glamour and dressing up is a Cunard tradition…one that still continues today. While I am not actually a huge fan of strict dress codes from a purely inclusive position (I want everyone to be able to have a fabulous night out) I do think in this case I would prefer them. You are paying for that experience. The romance and glamour of sea travel at it’s best. Why wouldn’t you want to go all out if you have spent all the money on the tickets?

There are some other general courtesies to pay attention to while cruising…even aboard a less glamorous cruise ship. For that we will turn to my very well thumbed (well…. digitally bookmarked kindle edition) of Emily Post’s Etiquette (18th Edition).

Vntage Sea Travel

Meeting Others

Much of the fun of a cruise is meeting other people, and the friendly, fun atmosphere fostered by the crew makes it easy. You’ll have many opportunities to meet new people. Don’t be shy about introducing yourself and saying where you’re from and what you do. That’s expected on a ship. There will be lots to talk about but remember to steer clear of the conversational no-nos: politics, money, religion, and your personal health issues.”

– Emily Post’s Etiquette (18th Edition)

I really should file that under stuff I shouldn’t talk about ever….but seeing as how they are my favorite topics I imagine I would alienate everyone on the first night….just like in my everyday life.

Vintage Cunard Ad

Recreational Activities

Most cruise ships offer a wide variety of activities. As you sample the works, consider this:
• Deck chairs are available for sunning and reading, but that doesn’t mean they’re your personal real estate. Don’t leave your belongings on a deck chair to save it for later use, since they are usually in much demand.
• Most activities, including the gym, have sign-up sheets. Arrive on time for your scheduled activity. If you can’t make it, call to cancel so that another passenger has the opportunity to join in.
• Limit your time on exercise bikes, treadmills, and other equipment to twenty to thirty minutes when others are waiting. Always wipe down any equipment you’ve used; it’s not only polite but a health necessity.
• If you’re a jogger, run only during the allowed times. Passenger cabins often lie beneath the jogging deck, and off-hour jogging might keep someone from sleeping.
• Limit hot tub time to fifteen or twenty minutes unless no one else is waiting.”

– Emily Post’s Etiquette (18th Edition)

All very sound advice. This is pretty basic cruise/hotel/resort/general gym advice. Now I love to run…but do people seriously run while on a cruise? Surely there are way more fun things to do…like eat? Or visit the planetarium. Yup, you heard right, the Queen Mary 2 has a planetarium.

Vintage Sea Travel

Meals & Entertainment

On many cruises you’re assigned a table and dine regularly with the same passengers. If you are traveling with a group of friends and would like to sit together, make the request when you book the cruise. Soon after boarding, pay a visit to the dining room and speak with the maître d’ either to confirm premade arrangements or to request special seating.

If you are seated at a table with people you don’t know, make an effort to learn their names and a little bit about them. Restaurant manners apply. (See Chapter 8, “Dining Out.”) At your first dinner together , decide how you will pay for wine: whether you take turns buying the wine or agree to split the bill each time. Of course, nondrinkers shouldn’t be expected to chip in. If you’re completely miserable with your tablemates, speak discreetly with the maître d’ about a change.

Cruise ships are famous for their high-quality evening entertainment— shows, musicals, revues— and your talented crew are the stars as well. Seats are usually at a premium: It’s first come, first seated. Be fair to other passengers and don’t hold seats for anyone but your traveling companion. If you’re with a large group, make plans to meet up after the show.”

– Emily Post’s Etiquette (18th Edition)

This was the worst part about my cruise. My gran and her friends treated me like a person, the other elderly people we were seated with….not so much. They kept asking me things you would ask a 4yo. But there was all I could eat food. So basically I just kept shoveling it in to stop from acting like the snarky teenager I was (who of course thought I was so grown up).

Queen Elizabeth - Captain's TableThe Captain’s Table aboard the Queen Elizabeth in 1939

The Captain’s Table

It’s the custom on many ships for the captain and other officers to host a table. The criteria for invitations vary ship to ship, but generally dignitaries, celebrities, and passengers in the stateroom equivalent of a penthouse are invited. This perk may be extended to passengers who are frequent sailors and is sometimes arranged through a travel agent. If you receive an invitation you may be asked to wear formal attire. Remember to thank your host at the end of the meal and again with a short handwritten note.”

– Emily Post’s Etiquette (18th Edition)

This would have actually been the highlight of my trip had my gran not done the “Don’t you know who I am?!?!?!” routine to get a seat. (My gran was a minor Aussie celebrity having been in various movies and tv like the “Mike Walsh Show”, “Number 96” and of course “Heartbreak High”). I have always abhorred celebrity diva behavior…probably because I would die of embarrassment regularly when she used it to get everything from a seat at the captain’s table…the pushing ahead at the local supermarket check out. The Captain clearly wasn’t impressed, especially as she had a tendency to get wasted and throw the word “cunt” around a lot. That part I didn’t mind….but other people did tend to take issue with it.

Quiet Please

A cruise is a time to get away from it all, and some peace and quiet comes with the package. Noise carries on a ship: Talk quietly in corridors, don’t let doors slam, and turn down TVs and radios. If you need to complain about noise, dial security so that you won’t have to confront the offender yourself.”

– Emily Post’s Etiquette (18th Edition)

Yes, Yes and YES! When I wasn’t eating I was sleeping…or trying to. Not easy when your grandmama decides to bring every other drunk old lady back to your very tiny 2 berth cabin (basic cabin…not a suite) for a casino after party. So be quiet when walking along the halls and if you have a room mate be sure to leave your friends at the bar.

Interacting With the Crew

All crew members are trained to be friendly and helpful, and to do whatever they can to make your cruise as enjoyable as possible. Don’t take advantage of this friendliness to monopolize their time or socialize with them beyond their official duties. Treat crew members respectfully and always say “please” and “thank you.”

– Emily Post’s Etiquette (18th Edition)

This last part I think is quite possibly the most important. They are there to help, don’t make their life miserable by demanding the world without so much as a thank you (yes I am talking to you Grandmama).

Vintage Cunard Ad


The staff on most cruise lines is tipped, although some smaller lines have a no-tipping policy, including gratuities in the ticket price. When there is tipping, most cruise lines have simplified the process by charging a daily fee, ranging from approximately $ 10 to $ 15 per day, which covers restaurant and room personnel and is shared among the staff. You may wish to tip your cabin attendant or waiter more, which is fine. Put your extra tip in an envelope with the employee’s name and hand it to him personally on the last day. Also, a 15-percent gratuity is generally automatically added to any beverages purchased, and 18 percent is added to spa services.”

– Emily Post’s Etiquette (18th Edition)

I did read a few different posts on various cruise line websites and this seems to be the norm. In Australia tipping is quite rare as most people in service jobs earn a minimum wage (minimum wage here is about $18-$19 an hour) that you can actually survive on. It is a custom I am very unfamiliar with and would probably need to make copious amounts of research and calculations to feel comfortable doing this. If in doubt check with your cruise provider and hopefully some of the more well traveled ladies will chip in.

I do know that a lot of the cruise employees, at least on my cruise, were islanders who were paid very, very little. Despite being horribly rude to them my gran insisted we tip properly as she knew all too well how little they were paid. The only upside.

I guess my last piece of advice would be if travelling with a friend/family member/group – make sure you are compatible. That you have similar ideas about the event. I thought I would be hanging out and playing canasta with my gran and her friends on deck for the most part. Instead I ended up alone with not much to do while they hit the casino.

Vintage Cunard Ad

So who is up for a glamorous sea voyage? Or should we just all stay home in our pj’s and watch “An Affair to Remember”?

Miss Fairchild xoxo

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9 Responses to Travel Etiquette: By Sea

  1. Sigh, Ive never been on a cruise but the vintage descriptions in pictures you include make it sound divine. Im afraid the modern reality would fall far short of my ideal but I do love the idea of a the Queen Mary. My in laws took it and loved it. I also love that they allow dogs on board too

    kate the old fashioned way

  2. Teresa says:

    Even though I am not very fond of the idea of travelling by sea… I would definitely be up for a glamorous vintage voyage!

  3. No travel for me! I’m afraid it makes me dreadfully sea-sick….!

  4. Helga says:

    Ha, my G’s Mama took the family on a 10 day cruise a couple of years ago-so I packed all my best frocks and as many accessories as I could fit in, as I was determined to do it in the most classy way I could. We didn’t expect to have a good time, but we DID-and I discovered classic champagne cocktails! There were a lot of oldies, which was fine by me. Last year we did a 3 day cruise from New Orleans to Mexico and back, and it was filled with young party goers, and wasn’t nearly as charming.
    I think vintage glamour is the ONLY way to cruise, and I would certainly do it again! XXX

  5. The Quirky Quaintrelle says:

    Your Grandmama sounds quite a character! My Dad was hugely into cruises and from the stories I’ve heard and videos I’ve seen, this is something I’d also love to do one day but I must confess, the movie Titanic has probably influenced my thinking (the spectacle not the sinking!), and I fear nothing could live up to my romantic notions. *le sigh*

  6. I long to go on a glamourous old fashioned cruise! If I ever win the lottery or inherit money from a long lost aunt it’s first on my list.
    I like the old fashioned traditions especially dressing for dinner, which we still do on most of the holidays I’ve been on recently.
    I used to go on holiday with my nan, the kind of holiday with 60 elderly ladies and little me on a coach across France!

  7. husband is a cruise head and keeps nagging me to go on a trip when he gets those super mega deal discounts (which I admit are really good discounts). I feel sick on a ferry that is docked, I spent eight hours vomiting and feeling sick on Spirit of Tasmania and I am am not interested on being on a ship! But all my converted family who were initially completely disinterested swear to me that the ships are so large you can’t feel the motion so who knows. I just hate the thought of being in a confined space (I don’t mean the cabins, I mean the whole huge ship…)

  8. Randi says:

    The thought of modern sea travel, especially to tropical destinations, has always seemed kind of tacky to me- probably because cruises are so popular here. Also, I’m not exactly a social creature, so the thought of being trapped on a boat with people who may potentially try and befriend me is a little frightening….
    That said, the thought of floating about the ocean in high style, with dinner dress codes and scheduled activities, seems incredibly delightful!
    Great post!

  9. nessbow says:

    I’ve never been on a cruise, but it’s definitely something I’d like to try someday. It seems as though it would be so relaxing and glamorous.

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