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Is Traditional Cruising Gone Forever?

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There are still a few cruise lines offering the authentic “at sea” experience: assigned dining times, afternoon tea and mandatory dress codes.

CruiseMates recently did an article to re-define cruising; “Defining Cruising 2.0,” which represents the new standards that have replaced the older traditions of cruising.

Traditional sea voyages, as originally defined by the great ocean liners, included reading a daily schedule each morning followed by lunch, daily afternoon tea and mandatory dress-code dinners in assigned seating restaurants, with the same tablemates and service people nightly. Shipboard games were bingo, bridge and shuffleboard. The entertainment included one stage show nightly, followed by drinking or dancing and the only alternative was a small casino or going to bed early.

For the most part, this style of cruising has been replaced on contemporary cruise ships with anytime, open seating dining rooms, much more relaxed and non-obligatory dress codes, a much wider range of onboard activities suitable for younger, more active people and a diversity of entertainment nightly after dinner.

While this style of cruising has not completely disappeared, it has become so integrated with new-style cruising that many traditionalists insist we are losing touch with the very definition of cruising as they knew it.


What Do We Stand to Lose?

Prior to the year 2000 taking a cruise mandated a complete disconnect from the “real world” for the duration. It was difficult and expensive to stay connected. There were no cell phones, email, Twitter or texting.

Cruisers enjoyed scouring the daily schedule for events like Captain’s Cocktail Parties, formal nights, days at sea and activities like trivia games and even bingo. Absent these activities, the only option was sitting in a deck chair and watching the sea go by. This was especially true on days at sea, which the vast majority of traditional cruisers insist they prefer to visiting ports of call. Cruisers were told what time to show up for dinner, where and with whom they would sit and what they were expected to wear.


Is Traditional Cruising Dead?

The question becomes – are there any cruise lines that still offer this traditional style of cruising? The answer is a qualified “yes.” There are some cruise lines that have changed the least, or in some cases they have older ships where the traditional style of cruising still prevails although some of the modern conventions are also offered.  Here are the remaining traditional cruise lines, in order:

Crystal Cruises: Without a doubt, the cruise line that has retained the most traditional style of cruising is Crystal Cruises. With just two ships, each of them built before year 2000, the line still offers two pre-assigned dining times nightly, with pre-assigned tables, dining companions and the same wait staff each night of the cruise.

Crystal is a very formal, luxury cruise line where cruise traditions such as “High Tea” are done with exceptional attention to detail. High Tea on Crystal comes with a string quartet playing Mozart and Beethoven. Musicians and wait staff turn out in full dress powdered wigs, corsets and other robe a la Française. Piles of freshly baked cakes, pastries and scones with clotted cream are served with a vast selection of teas, each brewed to specific tea sommelier standards.

Crystal has mandatory formal nights where nearly every gentleman will don a tuxedo and ladies parade in the finest modern gowns. Officers in their dress-white uniforms join the passengers for pre-dinner dancing to standards played by a jazz quintet. Naturally, Crystal is a big hit with single ladies with the means to enjoy the best things in life.

Crystal’s two ships are not bereft of modern technology. They have excellent Internet access and even offer classes in computer programs. But the line also focuses on more traditional cruise culture such as arts and crafts classes, music lessons and always several guest lecturers speaking on a variety of topics.

Cunard Line: This British cruise line has three ships offering a very traditional style of cruising based on the golden age of ocean liners. Cunard ships are larger and more densely populated than Crystal’s, but with a wide variety of price categories that makes it possible to offer a classic cruising style without the luxury prices of Crystal.

But the people who want the luxury style of Crystal cruising can also find it on Cunard ships by booking either of two premium categories of staterooms and dining. These premium suites are known as the “Queens Grill” and “Princess Grill” categories which include much larger suite staterooms and privileged access to the corresponding dining rooms for every meal.

The rest of the passengers are assigned to the much larger “Britannia Dining Room” where they offer the traditional two pre-assigned dinner seatings nightly with the same tablemates and wait staff. There are formal nights on every cruise, generally on nights when the ships offer time-honored Cunard traditions such as the Black and White Ball and the Ascot Ball.

These balls are now a traditional part of the line’s 180 year history. They were born in the days when ocean liners were considered state of the art for world travelers. They feature a 10-piece band backing a singer crooning the dance standards of the great swing era.

So, while the difference is subtle, Cunard has a 180-year history of classic ocean travel traditions to which they continue to pay homage as a part of the Cunard cruise experience. Crystal is a modern cruise line that has brought the time-honored cruise traditions into the 21st Century. Both approaches are equally valid and rewarding, but it is fair to say that while Cunard has much more distinctly historic British element, Crystal is more immersive in luxury.

But the strict adherence to traditional pre-assigned dining and dress codes, including formal nights, has remained largely unchanged on both of these cruise lines.

Holland America: Our next contender is Holland America Line. For cruise traditionalists the older and smaller ships of Holland America, particularly the S-class named after the Statendam introduced in 1992, still offer most of the elements of the traditional cruise experience. However, on Holland America the traditions co-exist alongside many of the newer elements of Cruise 2.0; alternative restaurants, open-seating anytime dining and more relaxed dress codes.

The reason these older and smaller ships are still the most traditional is mostly by popular acclimation of the passengers. These ships tend to offer longer cruises in more exotic regions which attract older, very experienced cruisers. These older cruisers basically learned the traditional style of cruising many years ago which makes them much more predisposed to maintaining that traditional style.

Holland America offers the choice between traditional and open seating, anytime dining, but the two are offered in different dining rooms so the traditional cruisers are not exposed to the more casual modern style. The older ships also restrict casual dining to the Lido area nightly, so the recommended dress code is still taken very seriously by the other cruisers throughout the rest of the ship on formal nights.

Carnival Cruise Line: Although this may come as a surprise to some of you, the last cruise line we recommend for traditional style cruising is Carnival; rightly regarded as a contemporary and mainstream cruise line. While this is true, there are aspects of Carnival ships worth noting for traditional cruisers.

Carnival still offers traditional cruise dining as an option, along with open seating anytime dining which is now more popular. So, don’t expect the majority of cruisers to voluntarily adhere to a formal dress code or any dress code at all; but when it comes to activities and cost structure, there are still many traditional elements to Carnival Cruise Line.

For example, Carnival has never gone in for the added slate of alternative dining choices that other mainstream cruise lines offer. NCL and Royal Caribbean both have several added-cost restaurants on most of their ships. The newest ships from both of those lines have as many as ten added-cost restaurants.

Carnival has added many dining options over the years; but without the added service charges. There is Mongolian barbecue, sushi, New York style deli, pasta and seafood. Most of the Carnival ships have but one alternative restaurant, the Steakhouse. Three of the ships have no alternative dining at all. The recent dustup over Carnival’s decision to offer premium steaks in the dining room at a reasonable fee just shows how seriously Carnival passengers take the line’s adherence to traditional cruise pricing

So, with Carnival what they do not offer may be more important than what they do. Carnival has avoided what many people see as the new “nickel and diming” approach to cruise costs where cruise lines impose small fees for a number of little things throughout the cruise. Carnival still includes almost everything in the basic cruise fare as they have always offered; the only exception making gratuities a mandatory service charge rather than optional.

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Comment from George
Time October 23, 2010 at 2:19 pm


What about the three other British lines P&O, Fred Olson, & Thomson. Also, I think Celebrity, RCCL, and Princess have much of what you talk about. Oddly, the dressiest ship I have been on was the Disney magic. True Disney people are all about tradition, however with a Disney flair.

Comment from Kenneth Eden
Time October 24, 2010 at 5:21 am

I think it quite unfair to exclude the above cruise lines for not offering the “traditional” cruise experience. Surely, anyone that has taken cruises since the late 1960’s, as I have, has certainly seen many changes in the industry, mostly good ones, and the not so good, are truly NOT GOOD.

Take for instance the cruise lines multiple restaurants, for additional fees, that offer similar on-board dining, such as Olive Garden, Outback TGIF and other chains, buffets al-la-Golden Corral – that is what most people in the USA and Canada dine at, not to mention the swill stalls at most malls, so, the cheap-nickel-dime cruise lines offer it on board, although, not to me, I don’t eat in that fashion, ever.

I watched a video, on line, of a new ship, and, believe it or not,. the dishes for their Italian restaurant I recognized from a TV ad for Olive Garden. Now, I am not saying that the chains are running eateries on some ships, but, that was odd. Another thing to look for in in the cruise ships brochures, LOOK for correct table settings, LOOK for mentions of food, and the references to fresh, and mention of the chef(s), LOOK for menus. Scan the cruise lines sites, and just LOOK.

Back in the early 1980’s I took my one and only cruise on a certain cruise line, and wanted to tour the ships galley Kitchen, for those unaware of the proper term). I was told NO, its 150 microwave ovens and the food comes cooked, and thawed in the micros. This same cruise line offered powdered eggs, no sunny side ups. So, beware of what you order, ask questions and by gosh, don’t complain, do your research, and book a better line next time.

I agree with the above, to include the Briish lines, they are known for European service, as are Crystal, Cunard, and HAL. Oceania, while very pricey, offers a superb culinary experience at sea.

Keep reading the reviews for cruise ships here at, they tell it like it is.

Comment from Paul Motter
Time October 24, 2010 at 10:02 am

To be honest, we don’t generally cover the European cruise lines here as much as US-based ones solely because I have not had a chance to try them out. I have nothing against P&O or Fred Olsen.

As far as Celebrity and RCL, my point was to find ships that offer the “traditional” experience where almost everything you see on the ship is included in the price of the cruise. I just don’t think you can say that about Celebrity, RCL or Princess.

I personally prefer those latter cruise lines because of their diversity, but I would not say they are traditional in the sense of assigned dining times, few added costs and manadatory dress.

I only included Carnival because I think it still offers the most inclusive cruise experience for a MAINSTREAM cruise line. Some of their ships do not even have an alternative restaurant.

Comment from Kenneth Eden
Time October 30, 2010 at 5:41 am

Carnival gets a bad rap all too often, and I am pleased to see the line mentioned above as MAINSTREAM. Personally, Carnival is not my choice for cruising, however, the facts presented below are admirable.

Carnival got its start in the late 1970’s, by Micky and Ted Arinson. They bought one old, tub of a ship, Canadian Empress, and without any spare money, sailed her on very cheap cruises. The ship was an old, tired, dark inside liner, with lots of wooden paneling that passengers had carved initials, and some other unmentionaable words, into. The crew was not well trained, but they were genuinely friendly. The majority of cabins had upper/lower berths, many did not have private baths en suite, Along came another old tub, which I new from Greek Lines, the ancient TSS Queen Anna Maria. She too was like the first ship, old and dumpy. These ships became the Carnivale, with an E, and the Mardi Gras. Next came the old Transvaal Castle, a mail/passenger ship that sailed between England and South Africa for the Union Castle Line. A major rebuild befitted this ship, and she was called Tropical. Soon redecorating met the first two ships, and Carnival boomed with new passengers. Perhaps no other brand at sea has had such success, and has transformed the industry as Carnival has.

Mainstream is the hallmark of Carnival, it goes back to the more traditional cruises these three early cruise ships offered. One would be hard pressed to not be impressed by the libraries Joe Farkus has designed for all of the Carnival ships, even through those sailing today, the mega ships.

If it were not for Carnival, and Micky Arinsons vision for the future of the cruise industry, there would surely be no Holland America Line, Cunard, Princess, Costa and Seabourne. Not to mention the new Aida Cruise Line that Carnival owns and has built from the sea up over the past few years.

Comment from Kenneth Eden
Time October 30, 2010 at 5:52 am

Im my comment above, I inadvertently listed the Tropical, – the correct ship was:

Festivale (again, one with an E). Tropical came later


Comment from Robbie Fields
Time November 7, 2010 at 8:45 am

Well, Paul, I am half way through a 14 day repo on the Norwegian Gem and I am a little shocked.

The cruise industry is as dynamic as the IT industry these days … what was the norm yesterday may be just a memory today.

The MDR? I think that distinction now belongs to the buffet upstairs. I have never so many people eat dinner up there, myself included I regret to say. Why? Most nights there’s just isn’t anything special on the MDR menu. During the first 7 nights, there was just 1 “gala” night with duck, beef wellington and lobster all loaded on that night’s menu. The maitre d’ told me there was another night where they had to switch from roasted pork loin to prime rib but the change was never made on the posted menu!

From 3 years ago, there’s whole new demographic working in food service. Predominantly middle aged Filipinas! Were they recruited out of retirement? They don’t exude any professionalism whatsoever. I have a theory that like any good Asian woman they are depressed watching the US dollar (in which they are paid) exchange rate.
How’s this for a change? The tables in the MDR are not set for breakfast or dinner! All they have is a rolled up cloth napkin containing knife and fork and a goblet as a place setting.
I really enjoy the production shows and NCL has some good ones but where are they? One production show for the entire first 7 nights. Oh, and they have eliminated the guitarist position in the show band which plays havoc when they do not play along with pre-recorded tapes, e.g. when backing “guest” singers.

I did not pay minimum rate, about $400 more, in fact, but I truly feel like a steerage passenger. The new “class” system on NCL is so blazingly obvious and self advertising.

So in a way, it may be better that we just reach the end game of a la carte pricing rather than the dilution by a thousand cuts of the traditional cruise experience.
I told the maitre d’ today that as transportation, cruising may be still a bargain but as an unforgettable holiday experience, it is very far from that goal these days IMHO.

Comment from Robbie Fields
Time November 9, 2010 at 6:52 am

Erratum : the MDR tables are not set for breakfast nor for lunch.

Last night the menu announced “Prime Rib” but pork loin was substituted. I was not amused. It seems that the menus were already printed far in advance.
One improvement : an excellent string quartet plays nightly in the Star bar opposite Cagney’s.

Comment from Kenneth Eden
Time November 12, 2010 at 10:04 am

Robbie, nd all others that are not amused with the menus on any given cruise ship, especially in the MDR.

The main “mega cruise lines”, we know who they are, do indeed print their menus way in advance of sailing dates, provision only in port of embarkation, notably Miami, and ogften these same menus are used for YEARS.

Look for menus that are dated, with the date and often, port in which the meal is served, look to see if the ship provisions IN PORT, such as bringing fresh seafood on, fruits in season, look to see if the chef or sous chef(s) are taking charge of these provisions. Look at brochures and on line to see if the table(s) are SET CORRETLY, look for the words maitre ‘d hotel, sommeliers –

Passengers are getting what they expect on the ships, on the main stream ones, and thats what you can find in any new town center, or main thoroughfare in US and Canada, chain restaurants, and that style unfortunately plaguwes certain ship lines.

I do not eat in the chains, and I carefully learned over the years which ships do in fact prepare and carefully plan meals on a day to day basis.

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