Cruise Etiquette That You HAVE to Know (Read Before Sailing)

Cruise etiquette

A cruise is a fun vacation, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to mind your manners. In fact, cruising encounters lots of situations that you may not see in normal day-to-day life that means there are etiquette rules you may not even realize you’re breaking. I can tell you, however, that other people do notice.

Don’t worry though, from dress codes to theaters, from tipping to elevators, I have all the cruise etiquette you need to know before you sail.

Chair Hogging (And What to Do if Someone Does it)

Chair hogging sign on a cruise ship
Saving chairs for long periods without using them? That’s definitely rude. However, if you think a chair is saved, you shouldn’t just move someone’s stuff.

Let’s begin with what is perhaps the biggest faux pas, but it’s one you’ll see on any cruise. I’m talking about chair hogging, where people put things on pool chairs to claim them and then aren’t seen again. If you go on social media, you’ll see this is one thing that gets people really going. It’s gotten to the point where cruise lines post notices about not saving chairs for too long. But there are two sides of the etiquette here.

First, the chair saving. If you aren’t going to use a chair right when you arrive, don’t save it. If you’re setting things down to go swimming, that’s perfectly fine. But if you’re heading down early to simply save a spot while you go do other things, just don’t do it.

On the other side, what’s the etiquette if you suspect someone is hogging a chair? You don’t just move someone’s stuff. If you think someone is just saving a spot, let a pool attendant know. They typically give a period of about 45 minutes before removing belongings. In the meantime, you’ll likely need to find another spot to sit.

What to Know About Tipping

Perhaps no part of cruising causes as much tension as figuring out tipping. Nobody wants that awkward conversation with their spouse of “was I supposed to tip them?” after an interaction.

Here’s the etiquette: You’ll be charged a daily gratuity fee while on the ship. It’s normally around $16 per person, per day. This covers the vast majority of tips. So your room steward, the waitstaff, and others are covered by this charge, which you can prepay before the cruise, or it will be charged once on the ship. If someone offers great service, you can definitely tip them directly, but it’s not required.

These daily gratuity charges don’t cover optional services. So if you get a drink at the bar, or dine in a specialty restaurant, or get a spa service, there will be a tip automatically added on. This is normally 18%. Again, you can tip more if you want, but don’t feel obligated. Bottom line, if anyone on the ship is supposed to be tipped, then it’s usually taken care of automatically, not out of pocket.

Anyone off the ship isn’t covered by the daily gratuities. So it’s customary to tip luggage porters at the dock ($1-2 a bag) or your guide on shore excursions (I do $10-$20).

Not Being Loud in Hallways

If you’re heading back to the room after a night out, it’s polite to keep the noise level down as sounds travel easily through the cabin doors.

Cruises — especially shorter ones — are known to be a good time where you let loose a little. Don’t go in expecting it to feel like visiting a library. One place that it’s polite to watch your noise level, however, is in the hallways. You should consider these quiet zones in general, but especially during the nighttime and early morning hours.

Cabins are fairly soundproof but for whatever reason the doors don’t do a good job blocking sound. It’s no big deal until you hear people passing by in the middle of the night loudly talking as they come back from the bar.

So just because you don’t see anyone around in the hall, if you’re being loud there are definitely people that can hear you. As a courtesy, just keep it down.

Dress Codes for Formal Night

What’s the etiquette when it comes to dress codes on the ship? During the day it’s casual everywhere — shorts, flip-flops, t-shirts, no problem. The only thing is that you don’t want to do is head into the buffet in your swimsuit only. Wearing a coverup is just fine.

At dinner you want to step it up a bit if eating in the dining room or other restaurant. It’s still casual, but you want to do a little more than wearing shorts and a t-shirt unless you eat in the buffet.

Formal night? You can get dressed up as nice as you want — including a tux or evening gown. But unless you’re sailing a really high-end line, that’s not required and most people don’t go to that level. What you will want to do is dress a bit nicer. Things like shorts and ballcaps and tank-tops are a definite no. For guys, a button-down shirt and a nice pair of pants would be polite and for women, a nice blouse or dress is plenty.

Theater Etiquette You Have to Know

Theater on a cruise ship
No one likes late-comers who try to find a spot near the front, disrupting the show for others.

I’ll be honest, I don’t go to the theater that often unless it’s on a cruise. You may not either and wonder about the etiquette. In this case, I think it’s common sense but you’d be surprised.

For one, if you are showing up after the show starts — no big deal. But don’t head down looking for a seat in the front or one that means half the row has to get up to let you in. If you show up late, look for spots near the back so you aren’t disturbing everyone.

Also, be mindful of people behind you. If you bring your camera and want to take photos or video, don’t raise it way up and block someone’s view or have the brightness turned way up.

Elevator Etiquette People Seem to Forget

It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of elevators on a cruise ship. With upwards of 20 decks on a ship, people use elevators multiples times a day during the cruise. For those that don’t cruise often, there’s definite etiquette you want to follow.

First and foremost, when the elevator stops let people off before you try to get on. Otherwise, you get a traffic jam at the door where no one is able to get in or out.

If you’re going just a floor or two, then take the stairs unless you have a mobility issue. Using the elevator for such short distances just slows everyone else down… and the elevators are slow enough already.

Finally, one more etiquette tip is that if someone is already waiting for an elevator, it’s polite to let them on first as sometimes space is limited even if the elevator closest to you opens first.

Buffets: What’s Rude and What’s Polite

Buffet on a cruise ship
The buffet is the restaurant with the biggest crowds on the ship, so a little politeness can go a long way.

One spot that requires some manners is the buffet. It’s the most popular restaurant on the ship by the number of meals served, which means there are lots of people sharing the space.

Proper etiquette starts with what your mother always told you to do — wash your hands before you eat. There are sinks and hand sanitizer stations, but you’d be surprised — or maybe not surprised — by how many people skip this. Gastro outbreaks on a cruise ship are a real thing, so wash up.

Similarly, avoid touching the food. Everything will be plated already, in which case you take the plate or there will be tongs to serve yourself. Don’t just grab items off the buffet.

During busy times, it’s also nice if you can make your choices quickly instead of just standing there trying to figure out what you want. As well, if you’re done eating, moving on so that others can have a table to sit is also nice. 

Kid Behavior Is a Major Etiquette Point

Traveling with kids? Cruises are one of the best family vacations you can have. It’s polite, however, to make sure your kids aren’t messing up anyone else’s vacation.

That means in the places designed for kids, they should have an absolute blast. I’m talking about the areas where you drop them off with the staff, or areas like the waterslides onboard or the sport areas on the pool deck or the arcade.

But other places, they should be on their best behavior. There are horror stories of parents just letting kids run wild around the ship, doing whatever they want, like getting on elevators and pressing all the buttons. Leave kids out of the adults-only areas of the ship. Make sure they are having fun, but not disturbing other passengers.

Keep Your Language (and Conversation Topics) in Check

On a cruise, it’s no fun to be a total prude and well, most people don’t have that problem. Drinks are flowing, the atmosphere is fun, and you’re hanging out with people you like. But there’s a fine line between having fun, and crossing that territory of saying things you shouldn’t say.

That’s why you want to keep your surroundings — including other people — in mind. So if you’re hanging out at midnight at the tequila bar, who cares if your language gets a little colorful? But if you’re doing the same thing at 2 p.m. by the pool when there are kids and families around? That’s something completely different.

Same thing with sensitive topics. I’ll never forget being in an elevator with a passenger who wanted to bring up presidential politics to a couple of total strangers. Me and the other woman couldn’t get off the elevator fast enough. People are there to have a good time, not get into debates.

Most Important: Having a General Awareness of Others

Crowd on a cruise ship
With thousands on a cruise ship, simply having an awareness of others onboard is the most important etiquette tip of all. Be mindful of others and you’ll be in good shape.

One bit of etiquette is a bit hard to explain but is perhaps the most important is something I’d just call general awareness of others.

There can be 6,000 passengers on the ship. They are going here, there, everywhere. People are walking and talking, stopping to look at shops, making a quick turn when they change their mind on where they are going or getting turned around and doing a 180.

You want to keep a general awareness of others around you. So if it’s you and two friends, you don’t walk three-wide down the hallway, blocking everyone else. If you make a sudden turn or stop, keep in mind if there is someone behind you. But it’s not just walking around, it’s just about anything you do in crowds — just keep others in mind and realize you aren’t the only person on the ship.

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