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A rookie’s guide to cruise etiquette

posted February 27, 2018


Celebrity Cruises ship

The idea of taking a cruise holiday has probably crossed all our minds at one time or another. Imagine exploring every corner of a wonderful destination like Alaska, only needing to unpack once and having all your transport and accommodation taken care of. That must surely appeal to all but the most independent of travellers!

However, it is also the case that many people who could otherwise be tempted to book their dream getaway are put off by an unfamiliarity with the concept of cruising. What actually goes on on-board? Will there be stuffy dining rules? Formal dress codes? Cruise ships are undoubtedly much more laid-back and accessible than they were in decades past, but many lines do still prefer – at least on some evenings – for passengers to follow certain guidelines when it comes to elements like dining and dress code.

Here, we will share with you all the etiquette dos and don’ts you need to know if you are preparing to embark on your first cruise and are a little anxious about what to expect. What’s more, we’ll also look a little closer at why taking a cruise to Alaska can be such a rewarding experience. Read on for tips on how to get the most out of your trip.

The dress code

Holland America Line - Captain

The stereotypical image of the main restaurant on a cruise ship is probably of passengers exclusively wearing formal evening attire. Once again, however, the realities on board most liners is very different from what it may have been in years gone by.

During the daytime, there are unlikely to be any dress code requirements whilst you are exploring the ship, meaning you can wear what you want – within reason, anyway! When it comes to the evening, the rules may tighten up somewhat (and they will vary depending on where you eat and what night it is). But generally, the emphasis these days is more on what you should avoid stepping out in, rather than on whether you wear a bowtie.

In general, excessively casual clothing will not go down well with the crew and other passengers, so leave the t-shirts and shorts in your cabin. Jeans are more of a grey area but, if they’re on the smarter end of the spectrum, you should be OK – just don’t risk any which have rips in, whether they’re meant to be there or not!

Holland America Line - Dinner

Most cruise lines have certain restaurants, or at least certain evenings, when a smart standard of dress is definitely required. Again, this usually does not mean that dinner suits and posh frocks are necessary (although they may be encouraged on the odd occasion). In most cases, dressing as you would to go out for dinner in a good standard restaurant at home is a safe rule of thumb.

If you don’t enjoy dressing up and would rather keep things casual, you can find a restaurant on board which doesn’t require smart dress. From bistros to pizza places, there is such a good choice of diners on board any cruise ship that you can pick one that suits you.

While we’re on the subject of dining, we should also mention the fabled ‘captain’s table’. You may have heard about being invited to dine with the captain and wondered what this custom is all about. The truth is that anyone can be invited to share a table with the ship’s captain – invitations are often distributed on a fairly random basis – and you do not need to be a ‘VIP’ passenger to be considered. If you receive an invite through your door and are more anxious than excited, there’s no need to be: the dress code will be the same as it would if you were sitting at any other table and, as a nice bonus, your wine will usually be paid for!

Tipping

Holland America Line - Ocean view room

Tipping, of course, is not just a complicated issue on cruise ships. No matter how polite and courteous we consider ourselves to be, knowing how much extra to pay the person who has served your meal, delivered your room service or helped you in any other capacity can be very tricky.

However, you may be relieved to learn that most cruise lines have already taken this difficulty into account. (And it really can be a difficulty – don’t forget that the accepted rate for gratuities can differ widely from country to country). The majority of lines do not expect you to fumble for change after you’ve finished your meal or ordered your drinks, instead adding a set daily amount to your bill which, depending on who you sail with, can be reduced or removed entirely if you feel any part of the service you’ve received has not been up to scratch.

We spoke to Mallory, who runs the travel and lifestyle blog Plaid Shirt Yoga Pants and who recently enjoyed an Alaskan cruise herself, to find out more about how tipping works on most cruise ships: “When booking an Alaskan cruise, first-time cruisers might not realise that tips are not included, but there is a standard tipping policy rate. Before making the final payment, budget for tips. Tipping is customary for room service, dining service, additional alcohol, childcare and more. Most cruise lines have a set per-person, per-day gratuity that can be paid by card or cash directly to the people who served you.” You can read more about Mallory’s thoughts on many other aspects of cruising by visiting the cruise section of her website here.

Consider your fellow passengers

Holland America Line - Dining couple

Our final piece of cruise etiquette advice should really be common sense, but it’s amazing how often people can fall foul of it.

Dining on cruise ships, particularly in the formal restaurants, is often done in groups. Large tables seat a number of passengers who may not have met before (generally up to 10, although smaller tables can often be arranged upon request). For this reason, it is important that you take the time to consider your co-diners.

Most cruise lines still generally operate on a fixed serving basis, meaning that passengers are usually expected to arrive at their table at a specific time. Your fellow diners will not appreciate being held up from ordering by your party arriving late each night, no matter much you enjoyed the shore excursion that delayed you.

Remember that those you sit with will most likely have their own plans for after dinner – whether they want to enjoy a show or meet up with friends – and, just as importantly, that you will probably share your table with the same people for the duration of your cruise! With this in mind, you can see why making a good impression and showing basic good manners is important.

If the worst comes to the worst and you know you won’t be able to make the evening meal sitting that you had arranged, let the restaurant’s staff know as soon as possible. They will most likely be able to shuffle things around and serve you at an alternative time.

Why Alaska?

Alaskan mountainscape

There’s an awful lot of choice out there for anyone keen on setting sail. Cruises cover everywhere from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean, so there are few popular holiday destinations in the world that you won’t be able to visit on a cruise. However, Alaska is among the most unusual and rewarding places to explore in the comfort of an ocean liner. There are glaciers, whales, bald eagles, Gold Rush towns, national parks and lush fjords. It offers adventure, wildlife and rare views you can’t find anywhere else.

Megan Singleton, the expert behind the inspirational Blogger at Large site, told us that even though she has now enjoyed about 10 cruises, Alaska is still the destination she recommends to anyone seeking their own ocean adventure: “When people tell me they are planning a cruise and ask me where they should go as first-timers, I always say Alaska. There is so much to see from the sea! Take the silent meander up to Margerie Glacier where you’ll hear the ice crack like a rifle shot then calve into the sea. If you’re lucky, kayakers will be paddling beside it so you get a sense of its size – about 30 stories high from sea level!

“Whales will play and splash all around you and the first time the captain tells you which side to look everyone will leap up and dash to the nearest window. After a couple of days it’s so normal you barely look up from your book.

“Alaska was owned by Russia until 1867 when the United States bought it for $7.2 million. Consequently, you’ll see lots of Russian architecture and of course shops selling furs and Russian dolls.

“For me, Alaska is the best place to start your cruising experience.”

Some tips and tricks

Whale in Alaskan sea

If you’re booking that holiday of a lifetime to explore one of the world’s most beautiful spots, you may want some tips on what to do – and wear – when you get there. Fortunately, we have spoken to several travel bloggers who have first-hand experience of exploring Alaska on a cruise, and who were able to share some of their expert advice:

Packing

Glacier

“Take a pair of binoculars so you can see things like whales breaching and if you’re lucky you’ll watch them group feeding as they work together to herd fish in a circle then take turns swooping up under them with their mouths open wide.” (Blogger at Large)

“Even in summer Alaska is chilly. And wet. Juneau is officially the wettest city in America (Seattle the cloudiest!) So take a jacket and also good boots for walking. Even just around the little towns, a comfortable (yet cute, of course) walking shoe/boot was the best purchase I made before I went.” (Blogger at Large)

Excursions

Bear catching salmon

“An Alaskan cruise calls forexcursions at the ports. I say, if you’re going to spend the time and money, get out and experience Alaska!” (A Farmgirl’s Dabbles)

“Book your excursions as soon as you get on board so you don’t miss out. You’ll be offered things like dog sledding or a float plane ride to a salmon farm. We took the latter and stood in awe watching black bears come out of the woods and stand in the river catching their sashimi lunch while bald eagles stood watching for a morsel nearby.” (Blogger at Large)

“Almost every excursion I went on and port that we visited had a salmon or seafood option. Even if you are not a seafood fan, like me, make sure to taste the salmon. While in Skagway, my family visited Liarsville Gold Rush and participated in a salmon bake and went on a whale watching tour in Juneau which also had a salmon bake. No matter where you taste the salmon, you will enjoy this Alaskan favourite.” (Plaid Shirt Yoga Pants)

On-board

Holland America Line - Balcony

“Some things are just worth spending a little extra money on, and a balcony cabin is worth everything when cruising Alaska. The favourite part of our days was opening up the balcony door, still groggy with sleep, to see how the scenery had changed overnight. Rolling into a new port early each morning, the balcony scene was hushed and peaceful, with other guests emergingonto balconies here and there, cups of hot coffee in hand. Sleeping in is always a bonus while on vacation, but I beg you to not miss the early mornings on the balcony during your Alaska cruise.” (A Farmgirl’s Dabbles)

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