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Cruise Columnist
Cruise Etiquette

How Some Cruisers Really
Tick People Off

by Brent Betit

You spend several thousand hard-earned dollars on a cruise, and then some jerk ruins your day by violating the unwritten but widely understood rules of cruise etiquette. I think any experienced cruiser has encountered this once or twice. Doesn't that tick you off?

One of the hundreds of responses to columns that I have received from Sealetter readers asked "what about courtesy at sea?" Yes, what about it? When Mohandas K. Gandhi first heard the phrase Western civilization, he responded that "it would be a good idea." He might have said the same thing about cruise ship civility.

This is a column about cruise etiquette -- a brief and far from complete summary of the "dos and don'ts" of cruising. A cruise ship is a special environment, far different than a neighborhood or a city block. It has its own language and its own rules, many of them not available in any written form. Experienced cruisers understand and generally abide by these rules. Novice cruisers should learn and pay attention to them if they don't wish to be marked as hopeless greenhorns and commit errors they will remember long after the cruise is over. Everyone should be aware that a good cruise ship is a civilized and often elegant environment where courtesy should be practiced routinely. (And if you practice enough, who knows? -- you may get good at it.)

I divide "life at sea" into four distinct though somewhat arbitrary categories, all of which have their own particular rules. The categories are: port activities (which includes embarkation, debarkation, and shore excursions); general shipboard life; shipboard activities and entertainment; meals. Let's start with the first.


You probably learned some of these rules in kindergarten:
  • Don't cut the line (or as the British say, jump the queue). Also, don't "save a space" in the line for your entire fraternal lodge contingent.

  • During debarkation for shore excursions (particularly if tendering), and during final debarkation, don't crowd the corridor or sit on the stairs waiting for your turn. You are simply making the whole process take more time for everyone.

  • Forget your "city face" -- you know: the disinterested, closed-in, anonymous look you practice in the city. A cruise ship is a friendly place and you must enter into its community life to really enjoy it. You will probably also make some new friends as you stand in line.

Do a bit of research before the shore excursion (you can simply ask at the shore excursion desk) to see what is considered proper dress and/or behavior in the country you are visiting during shore excursions. There are dress codes in some countries, and this often particularly applies to churches. Usually, shore excursion sale brochures will contain this information. Remember that you are a guest in another culture during your visit, and ask questions of natives or experienced passengers if you are uncertain how to act.


If you are on a cruise that returns to a port not in your resident country, be aware that most customs will require you to personally report to their agents prior to letting *anyone* aboard debark. I was on one cruise in which a cruiser ignored many public address announcements to report to the agents. As a result, debarkation was delayed by over an hour. This is a great way to make enemies with hundreds of perfect strangers.


Hot tubs are not your personal possession. Usually, there are about four of these on a given ship, with up to 2,000 cruisers wanting to use them at some point during the cruise. So don't sit in the hot tub for four hours ordering pitchers of beer unless it's a rainy day and no one else is waiting. I've always limited myself to about 15 minutes on the few occasions that I was able to actually climb into one. Besides, after you climb out of a four-hour hot tub, you look like a parboiled French fry wearing a sweaty baseball hat.

Ships which conform to SOLAS conventions have self-closing hinges on cabin doors to prevent smoke from spreading in the event of a fire. Guess what? If you just let the doors close, they do so with a bang similar to what a high-powered rifle makes when it is discharged. Particularly at night, when you are returning from the lounge at 3:00 a.m., TRY TO BE QUIET in the cabin areas of the ship!

Pay attention to the shipboard dress codes. If the ship's news says business suit or tuxedo, don't come to dinner or a performance wearing sandals and your loudest Hawaiian shirt. If you want a more casual cruise experience, those exist. Do your homework or ask your travel agent for a recommendation. If you do not understand the various dress code meanings (casual, informal, formal) see definitions at my packing tips column.

Balconies are the good life, aren't they? There is something about opening those sliding doors and stepping out onto a private balcony that seems to make the ocean more your own. This only works, however, when your next-door neighbor isn't drunkenly shouting at his wife every day on his balcony. (Yes, I have had a neighbor like this on a cruise.) If you must argue or have loud parties, either invite your neighbor to come over, or keep it down. On second thought, only invite them to the party. A group argument might not be very productive.

Tip: if your neighbor is of the loud variety, and you don't wish to have an altercation, simply dial security, and they will discreetly take care of the problem. They deal with this often on every voyage.

Try to let your hard-working room steward know what your schedule is for the day. Most are like benevolent poltergeists: you never see them, but when you come back, things are moved around in your room and there's a chocolate on your pillow. In order to work their magic, they need to get into your room -- and contrary to what it seems like, they actually do get some hours of the day and night off. They can better serve you if you allow them the time they need in your cabin.

Tip your room steward based on your satisfaction with the service. If you've ever had an incompetent room steward, I would be surprised. Most of them are diligent, hardworking, pleasant folks who get a fairly meager base salary and depend on tips - not just for themselves, but often to support a family back home. So budget for this when you plan your trip. Tips, by the way, are always left for the room steward in the obligatory envelope on the last night at sea. For a classy touch, bring some personalized stationary along and write a thank-you for exceptional service. This will earn your room steward points with management, and perhaps even result in a promotion. One final thing about that tip: don't wait and leave it in the room when you depart on the last morning, as there is no guarantee that your steward will find the envelope first.


No, you don't have to participate in all those shipboard activities like Bingo, horse racing, the talent show, the belly-flop contest, or the ladies-only "fruit in the pool" game. But if you do participate, bring your sense of humor along. In fact, make that a rule for your entire cruise.

Don't try to reserve seats in the entertainment lounge or theater. Most cruise lines prohibit this, and it is quite annoying to come at a reasonable time and find oneself sitting behind a post while several hundred empty seats have sweaters draped over them (particularly when sometimes those seats stay empty all evening). If you can't get there on time, don't go. Obey the "No Smoking" signs. I shouldn't have to mention this one.

If you are engaged in a loud conversation about, say, a recent surgery, and you can't quite hear yourself and your conversation-mate over the comedian's amplified voice in the lounge, maybe you should consider finding another place to talk. Your fellow passengers would be grateful.


Arrive on time for your meal, particularly if you are sharing a large table with people you don't know. Waiters understand etiquette themselves, and will not normally serve anyone until all diners have arrived. If you are routinely late, you will disrupt your tablemates' meals, and cause logistical problems for the waiter who may be hustling to clean up for the second seating, or who may want to get back to his or her cabin and collapse after a fourteen hour day.

It is polite everywhere else but nevertheless *not* expected that you will offer to share your wine with the table. If you are offered wine from a tablemate, consider politely declining and ordering your own. This will avoid the sometimes annoying situation where you trade drink orders with people you don't know for an entire cruise. If you are on the other end, do not feel that you must buy the table rounds.

As with the room steward, tips for your waiter, assistant waiter, and head waiter are offered (in this case in person) during the last night of the cruise. You may notice that some of the tables in the dining room are empty the last evening. Those tables were occupied by Neanderthals who ate in the buffet line the last night to avoid paying tips to their table service personnel. Don't be a Neanderthal.

Yes, it is OK to order two entrees just for yourself if you have a raging appetite. Just remember that the midnight buffet is only a few hours away.

These are just a few of the many basic tips on cruise ship etiquette. If you are an experienced cruiser, you probably can think of a few dozen more. If so, I would be delighted to hear from you, and may follow up with a column including the best responses.

Perhaps the best guide to cruise etiquette is ordinary common sense. Of course, you may agree with Gary Winkel, who said "if common sense were as unerring as calculus, as some suggest, I don't understand why so many mistakes are made so often by so many people." He's got a point. To become a member of the civilized rank of cruisers, think about your actions and consider whether, if someone did a particular thing to you, it might just tick you off. If it would, don't do it.

Happy cruising.


Brent BetitBrent Betit is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont with his wife and two young children.

Brent is also the Executive Vice President of Landmark College in Putney Vermont, and we are proud to announce that Landmark College has received a U.S. Department of Education Title III (Strengthening Institutions) Grant. Landmark is one of only 32 institutions selected from among approximately 1,800 applicants for this highly competitive grant program and Brent and his staff worked with Senator James M. Jeffords and his staff at the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions who provided substantial support, advice, and guidance during Landmark's two-year quest to gain funding within the grant program. Congratulations, Brent!

Brent has written many SeaLetter columns on such subjects as sea-going language, cruising with kids and cruise etiquette. To find all of Brent's SeaLetter columns and cruise reviews, visit our SeaLetter COLUMNISTS Index.

Brent is always interested in your comments and suggestions and may be reached at: Brent@sealetter.com.

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