Which side of the ship should my cabin be on?
What are the chances I'll get an upgrade?
How do I get a cabin with a good location?
When looking at a ship's accommodations, what is meant by a "guaranteed" stateroom or suite?
Here's the basic definition of a guaranteed cabin, taken from our feature story on the subject: "While those who book their cruise in a more traditional manner instantly receive a cabin assignment, folks who book a 'guarantee' are only promised a stateroom -- somewhere, anywhere on the ship -- in the category that they've chosen. The actual cabin may not be assigned until sometime after your booking (more likely, closer to departure)."
Why would someone book a guaranteed cabin?
Travelers are guaranteed a cabin in at least the category they've chosen, but there's always the possibility of an upgrade. The real risk is simply giving up the chance to pick your spot -- midship, high deck, low deck, etc. You'll never get a cabin in a lower category than you paid for, but you might get the worst cabin in that category (such as one that's small or noisy).
Money-wise, the advantage of a guarantee is that it will usually save you a few bucks. Cunard, Carnival, Seabourn and Costa are among those that sell guarantee cabins at slightly lower fares.
Does it make a difference which side of the ship your cabin is on?
In most destinations, it probably makes little difference which side of the ship your cabin is on. If the ship sails close enough to shore, the side pointed toward shore might be a tiny bit better because you might see land from your cabin's window. But more likely, during the day you'll be in public areas and can look in any direction, and the more scenic side of the ship when you're docked will vary from port to port based on the harbor entrance or pier set-up.
In destinations with scenic cruising days, such as Alaska, glaciers and other beautiful scenery can be on both sides of the ship. And often the captain will turn the ship so both sides get the good view.
Ultimately, if you find your cabin is on the wrong side of the view, simply cross the ship and spend time on one of the outer decks that does have a view!
What are the chances that my cabin will be upgraded?
Most ships tend to sell out because cruise lines try very hard to fill cabins. Upgrades are pretty rare, so book a cabin category you know you'll like and that fits your budget. If you get offered an upgrade, that's great, but you don't want to depend on getting one. A good travel agent should be able to guide you in making the right cabin choice for your travel needs and budget.
Upgrades typically go first to the most loyal passengers or to agencies that sell high volumes of specific cruise lines. If you'd like to increase your chances of getting upgraded, prove your loyalty by booking most of your cruises on the same line. Or, find a travel agent that's a preferred vendor of the line on which you'll be sailing and establish a relationship with that agency.
My wife and I have been cruising for years, but getting a good location (mid-ship, balcony) has never been offered when we book. We always end up having to settle for the front of the boat or the aft. Are all the good cabins really pre-booked, or is there some inside-the-industry hoarding going on here?
The truth is that the booking window for a cruise vacation is different from land vacations. You might book flights and hotels to visit another city just a few months before you wish to travel. In the cruise industry, booking three months out is considered last minute. Many people actually make deposits on cruises a year to six months in advance.
If you really want the most choice of cabin categories, you have to book early. For example, in the summertime, you could book an upcoming fall sailing with just a few months' notice -- and not find much choice in cabin availability. At the same time, you could be booking a fall cruise for the following year (yes, itineraries are published more than a year in advance) and you would find greater availability and choice.
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