Travel etiquette: Is the art of cultured cruising lost at sea?

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You’re on a cruise in the buffet line. You’re politely waiting your turn to access a sumptuous bowl of fresh fruit. In front of you is a fellow passenger picking out certain berries — with their fingers!

The ultraselective and handsy fruit looter who committed this cruising faux paus did it in front of none other than Nick Leighton, a frequent traveler and host of the weekly etiquette podcast “Were You Raised By Wolves?

It can get worse. Angel Wilson, travel advisor and owner of Dream Journeys, LLC, witnessed a cruising incident that makes the fruit bowl breach seem benign. She recently told CNN Travel via email about an unsettling incident:

“A group of us were sitting at a long table in one of the bar venues on a ship and an intoxicated Scotsman came up to us and asked if we’d like to see what ‘real Scots wear under their kilts.’ He then proceeded to flash us, from the front,” said Wilson, who is a cruise specialist.

When it comes to uncouth, uncultured and downright unacceptable behaviour on ships, experts in travel etiquette and cruising have seen it all. Below they share plenty of bad behaviours for passengers to avoid (and good ones they should emulate).

Don’t start your cruise on the wrong foot

Bad etiquette can start before the ship ever leaves port. Being late, disorganized and impatient during boarding sets the wrong tone for the whole trip.

Maryanne Parker of the website Manor of Manners reminds passengers that “being on time for our own departure is very important. … We need to make sure that we have all of our documents ready to be presented. Patience is a key component.”

Being on time carries over to the rest of the cruise, too, such as shore excursions. “If we are with a group, we should make sure that we are not late and we didn’t forget any documents,” Parker said in an email interview.

Now this is a true prize on a cruise ship — empty lounge chairs. If you’re ready to soak up some sun, have at it. But don’t park your stuff on a chair and walk away for five hours. (Jeff R Clow/Moment RF/Getty Images)

Chair squatting

It’s a quintessential cruising experience – hanging out on the deck enjoying the sun and sea. And it’s prime territory for mannerly malfeasance.

“Don’t be a chair hog. … It’s the No. 1 complaint on cruises,” said Leighton. “This is when somebody gets up at, you know, crack of whenever, runs to the pool deck, puts down blankets and all their stuff, and then disappears for hours, goes back to bed, maybe goes to have breakfast, maybe does something else and that chair is just now sitting vacant for hours and hours and hours.”

But wait – don’t cruise lines have rules against seat saving?

They do, Leighton said. Carnival, for instance, has a policy of removing your items if you leave for more than 40 minutes. But “cruise lines, I think, are also not doing a great job of policing their own rules.”

Leighton said this a recipe for maritime conflict.

“It really is tricky to put the burden on the passenger to try to enforce this because I don’t recommend taking someone’s stuff off of their chair. … That’s gonna be real awkward when they come back – if they ever come back,” Leighton said. Instead, report it to a cruise staffer.

Parents, it’s your job to make sure your energized kids don’t get so wild around the pool that they disrupt other passengers. (Solarysys/Alamy Stock Photo)

No kidding around

Bad deck energy extends to the pool area and other zones as well.

Naturally, kids can get pretty darn excited around a pool (and really, anywhere on the ship.) That doesn’t mean parents should surrender all control.

Cruise Critic, the online cruising advice and news site, tells parents that while you’re poolside with the kids, caution them “not to do that cannonball and splash people sunbathing nearby.”

Wilson has further advice: “Unless the children are in the ship’s kids’ club, the parents should be watching them. Remind children that running down hallways screaming is rude. Try to use inside or whisper voices in the hallways.”

Elevators can be a logjam on ships. Don’t push your way onto an elevator while other users are trying to exit. (Ramunas Bruzas/Alamy Stock Photo)

Elevator agitators

Vertical travel within a cruise ship is another place where things can go sideways.

What gripes Wilson? “People trying to push into an elevator as people are still trying to get off of the elevator. Everyone should be allowed to exit the elevator before anyone tries to enter it,” she said.

Wilson noted a brief ease-up in bad elevator manners. Emphasis on brief.

“Early post-pandemic, it was clear that people expected much more personal space on the elevators. Unfortunately, people are starting to go back to the pre-Covid squeeze, which makes for a lot of very disgruntled passengers, who are very uncomfortable with this break in the new etiquette,” she said.

No one is going to begrudge you a couple of relaxing drinks at sea. But an intoxicated passenger is often an obnoxious passenger. (NAPA/Alamy Stock Photo)

Cruising for a boozing

So you like piña coladas? That’s OK. Just don’t be obnoxious about it.

“Know your personal drinking limits!! No, it’s not cute that you’re so drunk you can’t even walk or you’re flashing your penis to people or vomiting in pools,” Wilson said. “Don’t yell at bartenders because it’s taking too long to get a drink. They’re working hard and going as fast as they can.”

Parker had a couple of sobering reminders about the consequences – from embarrassing to deadly – of overindulging.

Before going on a bender, remember that “we will be seeing the same people for at least another week or two. Also, being intoxicated is very dangerous while being on a cruise – we read about scary reports every single day,” she said.

And Leighton reminds people to know – and follow – your cruise line’s rules about bringing your own booze onto a ship. (Here’s the policy for Royal Caribbean and Disney).

Lots of hungry passengers dine in the cruise ship Costa Fortuna. Dining rooms and buffets are important places in which to bring your etiquette A game. (Frans Lemmens/The Image Bank Unreleased/Getty Images)

Food fights

Don’t be a buffoon at the ship’s buffets, our experts cautioned.

Looking “presentable and clean” is a must, Parker said. “We do not need to go an extra mile, but looking sloppy, unkempt and dirty is extremely unpleasant to all of us.”

Leighton reminds cruisers to be kind to the staff – especially during mealtimes.

“Things go wrong. You might get the wrong meal. Your steak might be overcooked. … Nobody is trying to sabotage your vacation on purpose. If we do ever have an issue, I think we just want to be polite about it.”

And Wilson has a good reminder whether at sea or on land: “If you touch it, you take it. Period. Don’t put it back. Go throw it in the trash if you like, but do NOT put it back. Please wash those hands and/or use sanitizer whenever entering a dining venue.”

Guests enjoy evening entertainment on the MSC Euribia. Show the entertainers and your fellow passengers some courtesy — don’t walk out in the middle of an act and put your phone on vibrate. (Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)

Don’t be a showtime show-off

Wilson had a couple of etiquette reminders if you’re taking in some evening entertainment.

“If there’s a chance you might walk out, do NOT sit towards the front. It’s so disrespectful to the performers to see people walking out of shows while they’re performing. At least wait till they’re between songs or scenes,” she said.

“If you must utilize your phone during a performance, please turn the screen brightness all the way down. Please silence all notifications and calls.”

A lovely view of Opunohu Bay in Moorea, French Polynesia. You know what’s not so lovely? X-rated escapades on such balconies, which aren’t that private to prying eyes. (LindaTancs/iStockphoto/Getty Images)

Not-so-private balconies

It’s a fact – a sea voyage can be a time for romance and vigorous expressions of love. But it’s not time for X-rated public exploits on your stateroom balcony, which can be seen by folks on land and other ships.

“If you don’t want security to see it or for it to possibly be seen on the internet or used as an example in a cruise line gameshow, don’t do it on the balcony,” Wilson said.

“Also, every balcony has a neighboring room, please keep the music to a reasonable level. Not everyone has the same taste in music.”

If you need a smoke break, give your fellow passengers a break and light up in a designated area. Remember that not all outdoor areas are smoking zones. (VvoeVale/iStockphoto/Getty Images)

Puff goes the vacation

Also, smoking is prohibited on many ships’ cabin balconies, according to Cruise Critic. The smoke can also blow into the balconies of your neighbours.

If you want to take a smoke break during your voyage, check with your cruise lines’ most recent rules, which can be subject to change.

Royal Caribbean says that “smoking is permitted in designated outdoor areas, must be properly disposed of, and never be thrown overboard.” Cunard allows smoking only in designated areas of open decks and a cigar lounge, which allows only cigars and pipes.

Standards might differ

One other reminder the etiquette and cruising experts had: Etiquette expectations might differ depending on the cruise line and the area where the ship is going.

“There is a difference between the Caribbean vibe on a cruise and the European one,” Parker said. “The dress code will definitely differ. If we are traveling to the Caribbean, the weather is warm and humid year-round. People expect us to look very relaxed and revealing. Visiting Europe, the dress code is definitely more formal, and the people are more traditional.  We also need to consider the seasons and prepare for it.”

Wilson just took an 18-night cruise in Japan in April and also noticed cultural differences.

“People held doors for others more and just seemed to be more conscious of the people around them. The elevator squeeze is much more frowned upon on Asian cruises for sure.”

And “on luxury cruises vs. mass market, the dress code is definitely elevated, no matter the destination,” Wilson said.

In the end, Leighton said basic good manners applicable to living in general will serve you on a cruise ship.

“As long as you’re using the sort of baseline manners of just wanting to be respectful and mindful and making an effort to just acknowledge that other people exist, that is what is important here,” Leighton said. “And yes, if you can also incorporate the local etiquette of where you are … that’s a nice bonus. But as a baseline, I’ll just take good manners.”

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