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Welcome to our Cruise Ship Etiquette Guide. After cruising for 16 years there’s a few things we’ve learnt regarding the way things work whilst onboard and what is courteous and polite behaviour towards your fellow shipmates.

Let’s start at the beginning of your sailing adventure and the number one important topic.

Hygiene

The most important lesson learnt is that in an enclosed space such as a ship (which you are about to embark on), is shared by thousands of others, and so the importance of personal hygiene is paramount. Not only for your own health but for them too!

Germs are transmitted easily when in an enclosed space. You will see the staff cleaning constantly to ensure surfaces touched by guests have little opportunity to harbour germs that can lead to infection.

You can do your part by taking care of your personal hygiene.

Health Tip: Regular hand washing using soap and water is essential, especially after visiting the bathroom and before entering restaurants.

Many ships now have hand washing stations available at the entrance to the buffet and staff will encourage you to use them together with hand sanitiser before entering to eat.

If the bathrooms have automatic doors, touch the buttons with your knuckles or use a paper towel to operate or turn the handle to open.

In all other public spaces, be aware of cleanliness and take precautions to prevent transmission of germs.

If you do feel unwell, remain in your stateroom and contact the medical centre for advice if it is something you didn’t expect and are unfamiliar with.

Checking in 

Cruise lines are getting more technically advanced with the check in process. This can mean allowing you to check in online prior to heading to the port, printing your own luggage tags, supplying your identification information (passport etc) and in many cases allowing you to upload a photograph to be used to identify you once you arrive at the cruise terminal.

A lot of cruise lines now have apps which help with this process meaning you can hold your check in documents online so when you arrive at the port a member of the check in staff armed with a computer tablet, scans a bar code, reviews your ID and send you off to the next available check in agent. The more you can complete online prior to heading to the port, the less time you’ll spend waiting to check in. To help speed up the check in process, many lines now don’t give out your cruise cards at check in, but they can be found either in your stateroom or in the letter rack outside the door to your cabin.

Many cruise lines now either assign you a check in time or, ask you to choose one that is convenient to you. This helps with crowd control when you consider the number of guests now sailing on some of the new huge cruise ships.

So, if you are assigned a time or choose one, it is really helpful if you can adhere to that time to enable a speedy check in process, not just for you but your fellow travellers. It doesn’t mean that you cannot arrive at the terminal at a different time, but bear in mind, although the cruise line will do their best to check you in, it may be necessary to wait for a short time.

Boarding Day

After you’re all checked in, you’ll be eager to get on board. After clearing security (if this wasn’t done before check in) then hordes of eager travellers will head towards the ship.

On your way to the ship the cruise line will take the opportunity to increase ancillary revenue by encouraging you to have your souvenir embarkation photo taken or for you to purchase various on-board treats, be that a beverage package or speciality dining etc.

Just bear in mind others may not want to take part and so try and keep entrances free of your carry-on baggage etc. This will help the flow of passengers heading on board.

One of the main activities that you must attend, is the compulsory muster drill that all guests must attend prior to departure according to SOLAS (International Convention of Safety Of Life At Sea)

In most cases the location of your muster drill assempbly area is indicated on your cruise card, on the back of your cabin door and on your life vest (normally stored in the closet). The time of the drill is advertised by several announcements over the public address system, on your in room tv and in the daily newsletter that will be either provided at check in or in your stateroom.

All public venues will normally be closed at least 15 minutes before the start of the drill as most cruise staff will be taking part.

If you are in your stateroom, check the preferred route to your muster station by checking the back of your cabin door.

If you have the chance whilst you are exploring your new home for the upcoming days, check out the location of your muster station earlier in the day.

Therefore, it is courteous to attend promptly in order to prevent your fellow sailors waiting too long for latecomers. Follow the instructions given by staff as you make your way to your muster station. There is nothing worse than seeing someone ambling along with a beverage in hand whilst you and your fellow cruisers have been waiting in the blazing sun when drills are held outside!

Also, as there are many important facts provided at the drill that everyone needs to pay attention to, as a matter of courtesy it would be good to listen, avoid using mobile phones, and keeping conversations to a minimum and at low volume to avoid distractions.

Remember there will be many guests attending and seating (if available) will be limited in some venues. If you are able to stand, it is courteous to give up your seat to those more in need than yourself.

It is becoming more common for you not to have to carry your life vest to muster, but if you have to, then make sure you carry it neatly in order to avoid accidents by tripping over trailing straps. 

Once muster is over, again you can show courtesy by climbing the stairs back to your cabin if you are able, leaving the elevators free for those with limited mobility that rely on these to get around the ship.

Elevators

Whilst on the subject of elevators, remember not everyone maybe as mobile as you, or may need a little more room than you in there, to get a walker, wheelchair or scooter onboard.

So, considering that, before barging into the first one that arrives, let the people who want to alight get off, bearing in mind some may need more time to get out. Trying to get on the elevator before everyone gets off isn’t polite nor smart, it only delays the process.

When you do get on, move towards the back if possible, to make way for others who may get on after you on another deck. Health Tip: to prevent transmission of germs, why not press the elevators buttons with your knuckles (both when calling one and once inside selecting your chosen deck), not the end of your fingers? There’s less chance of you putting your knuckles in your mouth and catching something unpleasant!

Dining

Cruise Ship Etiquette whilst dining can be a minefield, whether in the Main Dining Room, Buffet, Speciality restaurants or casual venues.

Main Dining Room – Breakfast & Lunch

On most lines, where breakfast and lunch are offered in the Main Dining Room, it is normally open seating. So, you will be seated at the next available table. The door hosts may ask if you wish to share a table and so may be seated a little faster. 

If you don’t want to share, don’t be shy of saying so, but do be prepared to have a short wait until a table of your requested size becomes available. 

If you do share, please remember it maybe with people you have never met, so be nice!

Main Dining Room - Dinner

If you are on fixed time dining, try as much as possible to be prompt at your assigned dining time, especially if sharing a table. Many wait staff like to ensure the whole table is served at the same time and so may wait until everyone is seated before commencing service. 

If the cruise line has fixed dining times, and you are on ‘early’ seating, it is even more important to be prompt as the restaurant staff need to prepare the tables for the next seating and being late for dinner has a knock-on effect.

Obviously plans can and do change, so if you don’t intend to dine with your tablemates and know this in advance it is only courteous to let them know beforehand if possible, so they are not left waiting and wondering if you are going to turn up. When we know we are not eating in the Main Dining Room the next day, we’ll let our tablemates and/or the wait staff know (if we have been assigned to a specific table) so they’re not left hanging around in the hope we’ll turn up.

If you have selected the increasing popular ‘flexible’ dining option where you can eat at a time of your choosing and have make advance reservations, again try and be prompt or cancel the reservation in advance if not needed. Some lines will only hold your table for a short while after your reserved time before releasing it for those waiting in line. Remember many of your fellow travellers may have not had the opportunity to make reservations and are waiting in line for the next available table.

If you haven’t made reservations (it isn’t always compulsory) don’t worry, if it is busy, the door hosts may give you a ‘pager’ that will buzz and illuminate when a table becomes free. If so, why not retire to the closest bar or lounge and relax in comfort, leaving the entrance clear for others to be attended to?

Buffet (and other casual informal dining venues)

These are the places where being polite, patient and courteous are great qualities to possess and show towards your fellow travelling companions.

They will be busy at every mealtime, and tables maybe at a premium at peak times. So, if possible, once you have finished your meal, vacate your table to free up seats for those trying to find a spot to sit and enjoy their food.

Often lines develop at food stations such as an omelette counter where chefs are preparing fresh egg dishes, so be patient and wait in turn, it never takes long to receive your freshly cooked order.

Despite lines, it is unlikely that food is going to run out, so you don’t have to cut in line to grab the last of the salad!

Many ships now have hand washing stations available at the entrance to the buffet and staff will encourage you to use them together with hand sanitiser before entering to eat.

Health Tip: Whilst discussing the topic of self service, please use the utensils provided, DO NOT pick up food with your fingers and DO NOT return something to the counter that you have handled. In addition, if you do see someone doing this, please report it to a member of staff so possible contamination can be prevented. This also applies to the self-service beverage areas. Don’t handle cups, mugs, glassware that you are not going to use. Don’t fill personal drinks containers directly from water dispensers, germs can be passed from not only your container, but from those of others! If you see something inadvertently spilt on the floor, catch the eye of a member of staff and they will ensure the area is made safe so that there isn’t the danger of someone taking a tumble.

Safety Advice: Don’t overload your plate or try and carry too much at once. Hot food can cause injury, not just to yourself, but to those around you if spilt on the floor or heaven forbid over someone. Remember, food isn’t going to run out. If you are dining alone, it can be tricky carrying your food and finding a table. However, staff will be on hand to help, just ask.

Speciality Restaurants

The growth of additional chargeable venues for lunch and dinner is on the increase to provide more choice for you, the cruiser, but also as an additional source of revenue for the cruise line.

Most will require advance reservations as spaces are limited and many will levy a penalty if you cancel your reservation at short notice. So, bear this in mind if you do have to change or cancel your reservation. It’s only polite in order that the restaurant staff know how many ‘covers’ they are to expect and cater for.

Once again, being prompt for your reservation is key and courteous as the restaurant may have your table booked for another party later in the day/evening.

Although the cruise line suggested dress code maybe informal, some speciality restaurants on several ships enforce a code such as long pants for gentlemen and closed toed shoes. It is polite to adhere to the requirements so as not to embarrass the door host if they have to deny you entry and politely request that you return to your cabin to dress appropriately.  

It may not bother your fellow diners but spare a thought for the employee who has to enforce the rules. It’s not their decision, but management, so try and not blame them.

Attire

Dress codes, how strict are they? Are they enforced? This all depends on the cruise line so it’s important to check before you book your dream cruise.

All cruise companies will publish a guide on what is acceptable attire whilst sailing with them, so check out their websites for help and advice.

Whilst many of the mainstream cruise lines have dress codes, these range from very formal to extremely relaxed.

In the main there are guidelines on what is acceptable attire in the buffet and restaurants during mealtimes. This invariably means no swim wear, or bare feet during breakfast and lunch to long pants and collared shirts for gentlemen and no sleeveless tops in the evening.

The ‘suggested’ dress code for the day will be detailed in the daily newsletter either provided in your cabin invariable the evening before, or on the app which, if available, lists each the details of the day’s activities.

However, some lines still have rules about the wearing of shorts after 6pm in many areas of the ship and strict requirements for certain venues such as bars and the main dining room.

Some cruise companies publish examples of what you need to pack for ‘smart casual’ evenings and what is acceptable for the formal or ‘black tie’ nights.

Of those that offer a relaxed attitude to dress, they most probably will have one or more evenings where you are encouraged to ‘dress up’. Some examples are ‘Wear Your Best’, ‘Evening Chic’, ‘Dress-Up or Not Night’, or a ‘Gala Night’. Don’t forget the numerous opportunities set up to encourage you to pose for photos which will be available later for purchase as a memento and keepsake of your cruise!

One of the most formal lines is Cunard which expects the dress code to apply to most public areas of the ship after 6pm. For formal evenings it is expected that men are dressed in a Tuxedo, dark suit or kilt with bow tie or regular tie. Ladies are expected to wear an evening gown or cocktail dress. On informal evenings men are expected to wear a jacket but a tie is not compulsory.

Again P&O Cruises have a dress code, and although not quite as strict as Cunard, still discourage men from wearing shorts in many public venues after 6pm and on ‘Black Tie’ nights the wearing of formal wear is expected for the whole evening.

You are not obliged to take part in any ‘formal’ evening and there will always be alternative venues available where you can dine and relax.

In addition to the ‘formal’ evenings, there will invariably be themed nights ranging from ‘White Nights’ where you are encouraged, as the name suggests, to wear white clothing, ‘Tropical or Caribbean’ parties where, as implied, the wearing of colourful clothing is encouraged, to various 70’s, 80’s or ‘Glow (with florescent face painting)’ dance events. 

Depending on the time of year, various other events could be arranged to celebrate dates such as Halloween and St Patrick’s Day.

Unsure what to pack for your cruise vacation? Read our Ultimate Cruise Packing List for some ideas.

Punctuality

One of the main advantages of a cruise is the ability to visit several places during your sailing. 

Depending on the time you have in each port, this will determine what you can do whilst ashore.

However, one the most important things to remember is to be back onboard by the deadline set by the captain in order you can set sail for your next port of call.

Now, the port you are visiting may not be on the same time zone as the ship was on when you initially set sail from at the start of the cruise.

Tip: It is ESSENTIAL that you take note of the instructions in the daily newsletter of what time to set your watch to. Many cruise lines insist you stay on ‘ships time’ and the final boarding time relates to that, NOT local time. Always check any notice boards erected near the gangway that will tell you what time you must be back onboard..

With the increase in use of ‘smart’ watches or even mobile phones to tell the time, check that they don’t automatically change to local time if you are expected to stay on ‘ships time’ and locally it is hours behind that. The last thing you need is for your watch to say it’s 4pm local time and you thinking you have another hour before you must be back on the ship at 5pm when in fact it is already that time according to ‘ships time’!

Also, if exploring independently, take into consideration how long it will take you to get back to the ship. Consider how busy the traffic maybe later in the day and the sheer volume of people catching ferries, cable cars, cabs, buses and all other modes of transport back to the cruise terminal. Bear in mind many of the smaller islands have a limited number of main roads to/from the dock and if there are any issues such as incidents resulting in road closures you could be delayed.

Also, once back at the cruise port, you could be subjected to security processes including and not limited to passport control and security screening before you reach the ship. Think about the number of people on the cruise, it could take some time for 6,000 passengers to embark if they all turned up 5 minutes for the boarding deadline!

The last thing you want to do is miss the ship and to see it sailing away from the dock without you onboard! Don’t be a ‘pier runner’!

Tipping

Now this must be one of the most contentious and controversial topics discussed by cruisers.

Over the years it was customary on many cruise lines for the ship to encourage you to leave a gratuity for your stateroom attendant and dining room wait staff at the end of your sailing. In most cases this was done by envelopes being left in your stateroom in which you could put cash and handover to the relevant members of staff. Guidelines would be provided for the suggested amounts per day to be given. How much you actually gave was entirely down to you. Some lines still operate this system, but many others have changed as detailed below.

In addition to this, when you purchase a beverage, invariably a fixed percentage is added to the price as a gratuity for the bar staff. This still occurs today, unless you have purchased one of the numerous beverage packages now offered by most lines. In this case, when you order a drink, no additional gratuity is charged as it is built into the daily cost of the package.

However, in some markets the gratuity is included in the price of drinks as it is not normal practice or even allowed for an additional amount to be added to the bill.

Now, over the past few years there has been a move for cruise lines to add a daily ‘service charge’ for every person booked into the cabin to the cost of your cruise at the time of booking if you elect to do so and this is commonly known as ‘pre-paid gratuities’. So, once you are onboard, strictly speaking there is no requirement for you to tip more in this case.

In some instances, if you select ‘freedom’ dining at the time of booking, the cruise line will make the pre paying of gratuities mandatory to ensure that the staff serving you are given a share of the ‘pot’ as you may not have the same servers throughout the cruise because you decide to dine in various venues.

However, some cruise lines have decided to include the daily service charge into the cruise fare, in effect eliminating gratuities and so no extras are expected or charged.

If you choose not to add ‘pre-paid’ gratuities at the time of booking and the cruise line does not force you to add them, then invariably once on board these will be added to your onboard account on a daily basis for each person in the stateroom.

Whether you can request for these to be removed in order that you can tip who you want, when you want and by how much, depends on the cruise line. Either check the cruise line website before you book to see if this is possible or whether it can be done before you set sail or enquire at Guest Services once on board. The process can vary by line, some may ask you to complete a form, or ask that you provide a reason why you want to remove the charges to making you wait until the cruise is over and providing it in the form of a refund.

With the increase in popularity of alternative dining venues which incur a cover charge, in most cases this also includes the gratuity to be given to the staff in that establishment.

There are now ‘dining’ packages offered by several cruise lines that you can purchase either in advance or once onboard that enable you to dine in several speciality restaurants over the course of the cruise, and again the cost of these will include the gratuities for the staff.

Obviously, there are no rules preventing you for tipping staff additionally as and when you see fit, be that at the bar when you get a drink, in a restaurant at the end of your meal or your stateroom attendant at the end of the cruise. The decision is entirely down to you. 

However, etiquette suggests that if you are invited and do attend regular events where you are served complimentary drinks, such as a daily ‘cocktail hour’ in a dedicated lounge for frequent cruisers or suite guests, that you tip your servers if you see fit, as they may most likely have been ‘seconded’ from a normal bar where they would earn tips to serve you.

Many cruise lines offer ‘butler’ service for those staying in suites and concierges that can arrange things on your behalf. Again, etiquette suggests that they are rewarded at the end of the cruise. Once again this is voluntary and a personal decision.

Chair “Hogging”

Now, once again this is a very controversial topic. In places where seating is at a premium, such as on the pool decks, especially close to the swimming pools, in the theatre or other entertainment venues, there is a temptation to ‘reserve’ seats for your entire party.

Most cruise lines discourage this with signage advising that the saving of seats is not permitted as where seat reservations are not required, all seating is offered on a ‘first come, first served’ basis.

Several cruise lines advise a time limit on the use of sun loungers on the pool decks and where they have not been occupied for a specified length of time, your belongings will be removed and taken to specified location for safe keeping. therefore, freeing up the loungers for others to use. How strictly enforced can vary from ship to ship and how busy the pool attendants are.

Smoking

Another major topic of debate is smoking. Although smoking is now banned in staterooms and on private balconies, there will be designated areas of the ship where people can enjoy a cigarette. There are penalties for smoking in the cabin that could be imposed by the ship such as a ‘cleaning’ charge.

Various cruise lines allow smoking in the Casino, but sometimes may have a no smoking section or set one day as totally non-smoking in the whole of the venue.

Safety Tip: Do not smoke on a stateroom balcony. It can be uncomfortable for your neighbours and under any circumstances, DO NOT throw smoking materials overboard from anywhere, it is one of the most dangerous things should something catch fire.

For non-smokers, conversely, try and not leave items on your balcony such as towels or swimwear, as these could blow away and cause injury or even worse if they catch fire.

Top Ten Tips

  1. Check the Dress Code
  2. Return Promptly to the Ship
  3. Understand the smoking policy
  4. Ideally vacate Chairs when finished
  5. Show up to Muster Drill 
  6. Embody politeness
  7. Show Courtesy
  8. Above all HAVE FUN
  9. Follow the Rules
  10. Encourage Personal Hygiene

 

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