Cruise Ship Etiquette: The Unwritten Rules You Need to Know

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Ever taken a cruise and been bewildered by the occasional guest who just doesn’t seem to understand basic etiquette?

Or maybe you’ve accidentally broken a cruise ship rule, and had a guest tut as they walk past?

It doesn’t take much beyond common sense to be a good cruise passenger, but to help, I’ve compiled a list of the etiquette rules everyone should follow when on a cruise ship.

1. Use Good Elevator Manners

An elegant elevator area on the Carnival Radiance with a patterned blue carpet, wood-paneled doors, and modern circular light fixtures creating a welcoming atmosphere for guests transitioning between the cruise ship's multiple levels.

Cruise ships have a lot of decks, and not everyone wants to take the stairs, which means the elevators can get busy. Don’t be that person who barges into an elevator the second the doors open – let people out before you get in!

It’s such a basic thing but you’d be surprised at how entitled some people can be.

It’s also nice to let anyone with a wheelchair, scooter, walking aid or pushchair into the elevator before you. They don’t have the option of moving over to the next one that arrives quite so quickly.

And please, please… If you want to go up, press up. If you want to go down press down!

Some people think that they can beat the system by ‘pressing up to go down’, but all that means is that the lifts become even more crowded and when the door open nobody can get in.

Some newer cruise ships have those fancy elevators where you program which floor you want, and then you’re directed to an elevator.

A touch screen elevator control panel on a cruise ship, displaying deck numbers for passengers to select their desired floor, modernizing the experience with its sleek digital interface against the metal elevator wall.

This system works really well, if you stick to it. Don’t just take the first one that shows up if it’s not yours, or if won’t take you to your floor at all.

2. Dress Appropriately

A man in vintage-style swimwear stands out at a cruise ship buffet among formally dressed passengers, highlighting the contrast between casual swim attire and evening wear in the traditionally elegant dining area.

I get that it’s your cruise and you want to enjoy it in comfort, but you have to be respectful of other people, including in how you dress.

Follow the dress code. That means don’t show up for breakfast in your PJs, as tempting as it might be, and don’t walk into the buffet in swimwear.

You don’t have to follow the formal night dress code, if you’d rather dine in the casual areas of the ship, but that doesn’t mean you can disregard the entire dress code!

Suggested read: What not to wear on a cruise

3. No Reserving Sun Loungers!

Sun loungers on a cruise ship deck are reserved with towels and personal items, awaiting the return of passengers who've marked their spots for relaxation and sunbathing, reflecting a common practice on busy sea days.

Cruise ship pool decks do get crowded on sea days when the weather’s nice, and it can be hard to find a pool lounger in a good spot sometimes. But that doesn’t entitle you to reserve one with a towel and then disappear for lunch for a couple of hours.

Cruise lines do try to cut this behaviour out, and some will attach a tag to a sun lounger showing how long it’s been vacant – and then eventually remove the items from it and open it up to other guests.

But the crew can’t constantly watch all loungers. If you want a good one, go and sit on it.

4. Don’t Cut In Line

A smiling customer service representative assists two passengers at the Guest Services Priority Line for Club Orange on a Holland America Line cruise ship, with a bouquet of orange roses on the counter.

Queuing can be boring, but don’t be impatient. Whether you’re in the line at the buffet, or waiting to speak to someone at the Guest Services desk, you can’t assume that you are more important than everyone else.

It’s ok in a buffet to move out of line if you only want one or two things and there’s an opening. Weaving in and out of the different stations is OK, as long as you are respectful and don’t barge anyone else out of the way.

5. Wash Your Hands

Cruise lines will have handwashing stations available as you enter the buffet area, and some will have crew members there to remind you to wash your hands. Royal Caribbean even has the special Washy Washy crew to make it more fun.

And the new Costa Cruises ships have these incredible machines that even wash your hands for you!

An automated hand washing station on a Costa cruise ship, featuring motion-activated soap dispensers and sinks, encourages hygiene with a convenient and contactless method, set against a backdrop of warm wood paneling.

So please, just wash your hands. It doesn’t take long, and it helps to keep everyone safer in the buffet areas, stopping the spread of germs and making sure everyone can enjoy their full cruise without getting sick.

6. Learn To Sneeze

I don’t want to sound patronising, but most young kids know how to sneeze, and yet it seems like so many people on cruise ships don’t have a clue.

Sneeze into a tissue and get rid of it, or sneeze into your elbow. It doesn’t matter if you look like you’re dabbing, it’s a much better way of controlling those germs than sneezing into your hands and then getting your mucus on all the handrails or the buffet utensils. Ugh.

7. Be Considerate In The Theatre

Passengers are seated in the contemporary theater on MSC Virtuosa, waiting for a performance to begin. The theater features modern lighting and a muted color palette, creating an inviting atmosphere for entertainment.

You need to treat the cruise ship theatre just as you would a theatre on land. Sit down, and stay quiet – it’s not fair on the other guests if they want to hear the performances and you’re loudly talking over everything. It’s also not fair on the performers, who are trying to do their job.

Also, don’t sing along unless it’s a special event where you’re supposed to. It doesn’t matter if you know all the words, your neighbours in the seats nearby want to hear the professional on stage, not your warbling.

8. Don’t Reserve Seats

Just like with sun loungers, you can’t be reserving seats in the theatre for long periods of time. 

It’s absolutely fine to hold onto a seat for someone in your party if they’ve nipped to the toilet, but you can’t do what some people do and send one person to the theatre half an hour before the show starts to mind several seats until the rest of the party appear at the last minute.

9. Make Sure You Tip

A cheerful bartender in a vibrant blue Hawaiian shirt and straw hat pours a drink at a Royal Caribbean bar, sharing a moment of joy with laughing guests clad in tropical attire, encapsulating the lively spirit of a cruise vacation.

A lot of people take issue with tipping on a cruise, either because they aren’t used to tipping at home or they just don’t like the idea of gratuities, and would rather tip crew members individually who they feel have earned it.

The problem with that is that a lot of the behind-the-scenes crew are working hard for you but would never get tipped that way.

It’s better to stick to the daily gratuities, and then tip a little extra on top if you want to reward someone. Don’t forget to tip people like the luggage porters either.

Read more: Can You Refuse To Pay Gratuities On A Cruise?

10. Let Kids Have Fun, Within Reason

Two smiling children, a girl in a yellow ombre dress and a boy in a white shirt and beige shorts, stand together on the deck of a Fred. Olsen cruise ship, with the ship's pool and the open sky in the background.

This one’s a double-edged rule. The first part is obvious – if you’re a parent on a cruise ship, encourage your kids to have fun but don’t let them run amok around restaurants or the pool deck. They need some semblance of manners too, and it’s not fair if they’re causing chaos for other passengers and crew members.

But on the flip side, don’t be that person who books a cruise on a family-friendly ship and then wants kids to sit silently, just because you like peace and quiet.

Go find an adults-only part of the ship if that’s how you feel – otherwise, let kids make memories and have fun, as long as they aren’t being rude.

11. Respect Adults-Only Areas

Close-up of the 'Serenity Adult Only Retreat' sign on a Carnival Cruise ship, featuring stylish turquoise script on a frosted glass panel set against a wooden background with a blurred ocean view at sunset in the distance.

A lot of cruise ships aim to serve a wide range of guests, and so they’ll have family-friendly pool decks and loads of facilities for kids, but then an adults-only area away from all the noise for those who want something a little quieter.

Now, just because the daybeds there are a little nicer, or the pool is a little quieter, that doesn’t mean your little prince or princess can be the exception to the rule and you can take your little ones with you to these adult-only areas.

If you’re travelling with children but want to head to the adults-only areas of the ship, go drop them off at the kids’ club for a bit.

12. Use Earphones For Music

A man stands on a cruise ship deck, gazing out at the ocean, with white headphones on, enjoying the serene view and his music in a moment of relaxation and reflection.

It’s understandable to want to enjoy your favourite music when you’re lounging by the pool, but guess what? Not everyone has the same tastes in music.

So, it’s not reasonable to blast your music out from your phone or a speaker in a public space on the deck.

Whether you’re into Abba or ZZ Top, or anything in between, keep the tunes to yourself and have your own little silent disco, so that you don’t annoy others with your playlists.

Suggested read: The Best Songs For Your Cruise Playlist

13. Be Polite!

It’s crazy how entitled some people can be on a ship, so always remember this golden rule – be polite to everyone. It doesn’t matter whether they are crew or other passengers, use manners, ask nicely, be kind, and everyone will get along so much better.

If another passenger is being rude to you, don’t lower yourself. Be polite, walk away, and report them if it’s an issue.

And don’t treat the crew like they’re your slaves for the holiday. Politeness will often lead to even better service, anyway!

14. It’s OK To Be Firm

That being said, don’t be afraid of being firm with crew members when you’re on a cruise if they get a little bit pushy with you.

This only applies in certain scenarios, typically the spa and, on rare occasions, the stores. They might try to convince you to pay for extra products or additional treatments. It’s fine to say no – that isn’t bad etiquette.

If they become very pushy, you can be stern (without shouting) and then go report them to Guest Services.

15. Smoke And Vape In Designated Areas

A 'No Smoking' sign placed on a wet circular table with a mosaic trim, surrounded by metal chairs on the wooden deck of a cruise ship, conveying a clear non-smoking policy in the outdoor seating area.

It’s ok to smoke or vape on a cruise ship, but only in the designated smoking areas. It’s not fair on other passengers to have to smell your smoke around the rest of the ship.

The most common offence is people who try to sneakily smoke or vape on their balcony. It’s not allowed, and the smell will bother other passengers around you. It might be inconvenient but stick to the rules and go smoke in the proper areas. Otherwise, your neighbours will report you, and you will get in trouble

16. No Loitering On The Running Track

Color-coded running and walking tracks in the recreation area on a cruise ship's deck, with clear symbols indicating lanes against the backdrop of the vast blue ocean and clear skies, promoting fitness and leisure at sea.

Around 99% of the open deck spaces on a cruise ship are designed for people to relax and take it easy. The other 1% is the running track.

And yet you wouldn’t believe how many people decide to hang around on the running track for a conversation, or to snap a selfie with the horizon in the background, completely oblivious to the sweaty person pushing for a good 5k time who is rapidly approaching and has to dodge around them.

When you’re taking in the view from a cruise ship’s open deck, stop for a second and look down. If you see a track under your feet, move!

17. Only Take What You’ll Eat

A hand holding a plate with a slice of watermelon and a pastry against the backdrop of a calm sea view on a cruise ship, offering a simple yet satisfying snack while enjoying the serene ocean environment.

In the buffet restaurant, there are two etiquette rules that you should be following.

The first is to make sure you are always getting a new plate every time you return to the buffet. Leave the dirty ones on your table and they’ll be cleared away. While you might think you’re helping to reduce the work by reusing a plate, you’re actually risking spreading germs.

Also, don’t let your eyes be bigger than your belly. Take only what you’ll eat, don’t load up just to leave a pile of uneaten food. It’s better to make multiple small trips, especially as cruise lines are working so hard to reduce food waste.

18. Share The Hot Tubs

A bubbling hot tub on the deck of a cruise ship awaits passengers, with a view of tranquil blue skies and a picturesque mountain in the distance, offering a relaxing retreat amidst the beauty of the cruising route.

There are often thousands of people on a cruise ship at any one time, and yet only a handful of hot tubs.

It’s simple enough to do the sums – if one or two people hog the hot tubs, then hundreds of people won’t get a chance to use them. You’re going to have to share, and you should ideally avoid spending all day in them and get out to let others take a turn every once in a while.

Plus it’ll stop you looking like a shrivelled prune when it’s time to go grab lunch.

19. Hush Up For Announcements

Every now and then during your cruise, you’ll hear announcements over the tannoy system from the captain, or the cruise director, or another senior officer.

Sometimes these are really important, and other times they might be interesting to hear, even if you don’t think so.

Just because you’re not bothered about a particular announcement doesn’t mean everyone else nearby doesn’t care. If someone’s making an announcement, zip your lips (or at least keep your voice down) just until they’re finished, so that others can hear what’s going on.

20. No Sharing Of Drinks Packages

Me and my friend Hannah enjoying our vacation on a cruise ship, toasting with vibrant pink drinks in a lively lounge area, sharing a moment of relaxation and joy together.

Most cruise lines enforce the rule that, if one passenger in a stateroom has a drinks package, then everyone in that room has to have one too.

However, there are ways around this, and also not everyone in the same travelling group will be sharing one cabin, particularly if you’re part of a larger family or friend circle.

Don’t be tempted to cheat the system and share drinks packages. Not only are you robbing the cruise line, but it’s this that will cause cruise lines to raise prices for everyone in order to make their money.

Plus, you can get your package cancelled if you’re caught, so it’s not worth the risk.

21. Be Punctual

Booked an excursion or an activity on the cruise ship? Be on time. Being on holiday is no excuse, because other people will be waiting for you. Group activities can’t begin until everyone has turned up.

Also, don’t be late back to the ship when you’re due to leave. The cruise ship will leave without you if you’re really late, but it’ll hang around if you’re en route – even though it’s holding up the ship for those who made it back in good time.

22. Know Your Limits

On the subject of drinks packages, it’s fine to enjoy yourself on a cruise, but don’t be a drunken idiot. If you’re not the nicest tipsy person, maybe alternate between alcoholic and soft drinks. And certainly, don’t let yourself get so wasted that you’re vomiting somewhere you shouldn’t be.

Know what your limits are, have a great time, but stay in control.

23. Trash Goes In The Bin, Not The Sea

A stainless steel waste bin on a cruise ship labeled for separating 'Paper, Plastic, and Metal' from 'Glass and Cans,' with a sign above it reminding guests to show respect for the ocean and the law by disposing of trash properly onboard.

I hardly feel like this one needs explaining, and yet people do sometimes throw things overboard.

That’s a real dick move, because you’re actively polluting the oceans and potentially harming the wildlife. There are plenty of bins/trash cans around the ship, so just find one for your rubbish.

24. Don’t Be A Slob

A cozy cruise ship stateroom furnished with two twin beds, patterned throw pillows, and a soft neutral color scheme, with a curtain-drawn window letting in natural light, inviting passengers to a comfortable and restful space at sea.

Your cruise cabin will be cleaned and tidied by the stateroom attendants throughout your cruise, but you should still put some effort in yourself. They have a lot of rooms to get round, so don’t leave your room an absolute state for them.

You don’t have to leave it spotless, but tidy up after yourself a little, and make their lives a little easier.

25. Potty-Trained Kids In Pools Only

A small child in a bright green shirt and swim nappy cautiously steps into the sparkling blue mosaic-tiled pool on a cruise ship, representing the careful curiosity of young swimmers.

If you’re sailing with young children, you have to make sure that they are toilet-trained before letting them use the pools. Some cruise lines will have kiddy pools where swim nappies are OK, but most of the time, in the regular pools, those are banned too.

The only cruise ships pools I know of that allow kids in swim nappies is are the older P&O Cruises ships (before Iona and Arvia). That’s because the pools are larger, much deeper and being a British cruise line, the ships aren’t subject to the CDC rules as American ships are.

But still, any ‘incidents’ in a pool will cause it to be shut down and deep cleaned.

Do you want to be the person responsible for everyone else missing out on the pool for a day just because you decided your child was special and the rules didn’t apply to them?

26. Stay Quiet In Corridors

A long, narrow corridor onboard a cruise ship with patterned blue carpet featuring star motifs, flanked by cabin doors with decorative fish plaques, suggesting a theme that evokes the oceanic environment of the journey.

You would hate it if you were exhausted after a full day of cruising adventures, but then someone kept waking you up by walking down the corridor outside your stateroom talking loudly. 

Regardless of whether you’re an early riser or a night owl, you have to keep the noise in the corridors to a minimum, just like you would in a hotel (I hope).

The stateroom walls and doors aren’t the thickest, sound will get through, and it’s not fair on other guests.

27. Close Doors Gently

Just as you should be quiet when in the corridors around the ship, also try to be quiet when entering or leaving your cabin. Those doors are often heavy, and can slam even if they’re on a soft-close mechanism.

Wardrobe and drawer doors can be loud too sometimes, if you’re careless with them. Just be considerate of your cabin neighbours, and they’ll hopefully be respectful of your own peace and quiet too.

28. No Smuggling Of Anything Prohibited

A security officer and a trained canine patrol the corridor of a cruise ship, providing safety and assurance to passengers. The image reflects the diligent security measures taken to ensure a secure environment aboard the vessel.

Cruise lines have a long list of banned items, and while most of them make sense, there might be some where you’re tempted to break the rules, either to make your cruise more comfortable or to save money instead of paying for things onboard.

However, if you get caught while boarding, you can cause some serious hold-ups for others trying to board their cruise, which isn’t fair. You could also get into real trouble, like this passenger who was banned for life.

Cruise ships sometimes have sniffer dogs on board to search for illegal items. So be cool, stick to the rules on what you can bring onboard, and there’ll be no problems.

29. Cancel Anything You Won’t Attend

Woman cancelling reservations on a cruise

A lot of cruise excursions or activities onboard will sell out far in advance because they’re so popular. And then some people just won’t show up – they decide they’ll just be lazy by the pool instead.

That’s harsh because, if you cancel, you open up the spot, and someone else could book onto the activity instead, and they might be frantically checking in the hope that there are cancellations. Make sure that, if your plans do change, you cancel anything you’re going to miss.


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Final Word

I’m sure none of these are particularly shocking to most of you, but I’ve witnessed so many people who don’t seem to follow these basic rules!

Demonstrating good cruise etiquette is easy, and while I know this is a long list, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble just being polite, respecting everyone else on the ship, and making sure those sneezes go into your elbows!

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Cruise Mummy

Jenni Fielding is the founder of Cruise Mummy. She has worked in the cruise industry since 2015 and has taken over 30 cruises. Now, she helps over 1 million people per month to plan their perfect cruise holidays.

Read more about me

3 thoughts on “Cruise Ship Etiquette: The Unwritten Rules You Need to Know”

  1. What are CDC rules?

    • The CDC is the Centers for Diseased Control & Prevention in the USA and they have many rules regarding hygiene on cruise ships. More info here:

  2. We’ve all seen many of these bad manners but prevalent it all boils down to being on the wrong ship.

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