We wish there were a magic elixir you could whip up to get a free or low-cost cabin upgrade on a cruise ship. We'd be chugging it all the time. But sorry -- no can do.
Before you sit by the phone, waiting for the upgrade fairy to call, there are a few basic things to know about cruise ship cabin upgrades. First off, understand that cruise lines deem certain cabins better than others, even within the same cabin type (inside, outside, balcony, suite). An upgrade means you're moved to a cabin in a better category than the one you originally booked. Does that mean you will relocate from the lowest inside cabin on the ship to a balcony suite? More likely, you'd be moved to a cabin that's very similar to the one you booked but is somehow better in the eyes of the cruise line (on a higher deck, in a more convenient mid-ship location, etc.). You might not notice a difference, but you can brag about being upgraded later.
Second, free upgrades -- where your cabin is relocated to a better one at no additional cost -- are fairly rare. More common are "upsells," or upgrades for a reduced cost.
But if you're still yearning for that upgrade, how do you get one? "I have cruised more than 50 times on a variety of lines and itineraries and have only received one upgrade, so I really do think it is luck of the draw," CRUISERTN wrote on our message boards. That being said, Cruise Critic members do report some strategies that have increased their odds of getting offered a cabin upgrade. Their best recommendations include these five tips -- and one warning why a free upgrade isn't always what it's cracked up to be.
Book a guarantee cabin
A "guarantee" means you're assured a cabin in the category you requested, but are not assigned a specific cabin until a short time before departure -- usually a week, give or take. If you book a guarantee in a certain category and it's full, you might get upgraded for free. On the other hand, someone else (perhaps a member of the past-passenger program with higher status) might nab the upgrade, and you'd get their cabin in your category. There's no way to know. Bottom line: Don't book a guarantee in any given category unless you would be satisfied with any cabin in that category. (Learn more about guarantee cabins.)
Cruise the same line often
Just like airlines and hotels reward their loyalty program members, cruise lines do, too. An important point to remember is that the more frequent the cruiser, the more likely she or he would be offered a free or paid upgrade. Merely joining a cruise line's loyalty program won't get you automatically upgraded -- even after you've taken a handful of cruises. (Check out our guide to cruise line past-passenger programs.)
Complimentary or reduced-rate upgrades are generally reserved for those in the highest echelons of loyalty programs, but exceptions certainly happen.
Book a free upgrade promotion
Cruise lines occasionally offer special promotions in which two different cabin grades are priced equally -- so if you book the usually pricier cabin at the lower-cabin cost, you're theoretically getting a free upgrade. These "free upgrade" offers can either be for cabins within the same category type or from one category to another (i.e., outside cabins at inside rates or balcony cabins for outside prices).
If you truly want the inside scoop on when such a promotion might happen, book your sailing through a travel agent who's well-versed in cruising. Travel agents get advance notice of promotions and are then able to offer the upgrade to their clients. You can also sign up for cruise line promotional emails to get notices of sales in your inbox. Don't forget to check out Cruise Critic's deals page for price alerts and other offers.
Sail during low-demand seasons
Ships tend to sell out during peak periods. But during slow times, they might set sail with some cabins left open. Those open spots thus create wiggle room to provide passengers with upgrades.
If your off-peak cruise isn't full and the cruise line decreases fares in an effort to boost bookings, that's a good time to ask your travel agent or cruise line representative for a free upgrade -- especially if you're not eligible for the price reduction.
"I watch prices before final payment is due," member geoherb wrote on the message boards. "On our last two cruises, we've been able to upgrade to better cabins at lower prices a few months before final payment. In one instance, we went from an inside cabin to an outside."
What's considered off-peak? The periods between Thanksgiving and Christmas and right after New Year's often see fewer bookings, in general. For specific destinations, low seasons include: May and September in Alaska (when the weather is often chillier than in the summer), September through November in the Caribbean (peak of hurricane season, kids back in school), and early January and May in the Mexican Riviera (when young ones return to school after holidays). Find out more about off-peak times for your preferred cruise destination in our story, Best Time to Cruise.
You're really rolling the dice with this one, but why not just ask? What do you have to lose?
"Maybe the secret is calling without expecting anything and being very polite," said Cruise Critic member momoftwinteens, who once landed a free upgrade from an obstructed-view cabin to an ocean-view cabin. She made the telephone call directly to Norwegian Cruise Line after noticing a price drop once her final payment went through.
Most free upgrade decisions are made by cruise line directors or other higher-ups in the revenue department. If you're willing to pay for an upgrade, call your agent or cruise line about two weeks before departure. But recognize that these kinds of offers are on a first-come, first-served basis.
One Cruise Critic member reported that their travel agent covered the $25 cost to upgrade from an inside to an ocean-view cabin. So, technically, that's a free upgrade, right?
Be careful what you wish for
Sometimes an upgrade is not a win if you and your cruise line disagree on what is a more desirable cabin location. When Cruisin' Chick received an upgrade on her first Carnival cruise, the cruise line thought it was a bonus, but she considered it a downgrade. The cabin was directly underneath the dining room, where some pretty intense vacuuming revved up each night at midnight. It was such an annoyance, that, for the past few cruises, she specifically had the agent mark her reservation "no upgrades." If you have strong preferences about being on a lower deck or midship versus forward or aft, or if you've purposefully booked a room near friends, you might not want to seek out an upgrade if you can't be in control of the upgraded cabin's location.
Also important to note is that once you get upgraded, it can be difficult to relocate and nearly impossible to move back to your original cabin selection. Don't accept an upgrade without doing some research on your potential new digs. Cruise Critic members frequently take to the message boards to compare cabins eligible for upgrade and to ask advice about accepting such an offer. Because sometimes the room you hand selected is better than a higher-category room the cruise line picks for you.