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Updated November 3, 2017
Have you ever been on a flight that's oversold, and the airline representatives start offering vouchers for two, three, even five hundred dollars if you'll give up your seat? Likely you have. Airlines notoriously oversell flights as part of their inventory management because they know a certain percentage of ticketed travelers will cancel or not show up at the last minute. It's not surprising then that many cruise travelers wonder if their cruise line will do the same thing, and oversell their cruise, leading to more passengers than cabins.
If you're curious how cruise lines manage inventory and whether this could lead to you being bumped from your next sailing, here are the basics you need to know.
Will a cruise line oversell my cruise?
"Today it is very, very rare that a cruise line will oversell a cruise," says Scott Koepf, senior vice president of sales for Avoya Travel, an online travel network with more than 750 independent agencies. The practice was more common many years ago, simply because the cruise line computer systems were not as sophisticated and mistakes were made.
So why don't cruise lines use the same tactics as airlines to fill ships? The reason lies with final payment, Koepf says. Most travelers who will cancel their cruise will do so before final payment, roughly 75 days before departure. That means that with more than two months to go, cruise lines have a pretty good idea of how many cabins need to be filled and adjust their promotional tactics to sell out the ship. They don't have to guess like airlines do. In addition, cruisers who cancel after final payment will only get a percentage of their cruise fare back (and in some cases, forfeit all of it), so the lines don't need to worry as much about re-selling those cabins as they're still making money on them.
One way in which a ship might technically be considered oversold is due to overselling group space. "Group space is not considered real space," Koepf explains. "Travel agents will book group space a year in advance. They might think they need 20 rooms, but only book 15 or two. Group space attrition is huge and cabins often get recalled before final payment." This means that cruise lines assume that not all group space will sell and operate as if it won't. If it turns out that more group space sells than the line anticipated, it might need to move people out of those cabins and into another category (or, very rarely, another ship). The cruise line won't kick you off, though; instead, it will offer incentives for someone onboard to switch cabins or cruises.
Which means that most cruisers need not worry about getting a call two weeks prior to their sailing saying that, sorry, but the cruise is oversold and your cabin has been given to someone else.
And yet, it does happen occasionally; consider this post by Cruise Critic reader Rick-n-Lisa, "So we're on our way to Ft. Lauderdale to get on a 10-night cruise on Serenade tomorrow. Booked a guarantee balcony room. As of this morning room still not assigned. No worries, I heard that although it is rare, it does happen. Then I get a call from Royal Caribbean. 'I'm sorry ma'am but I have bad news. Your cruise was oversold. You can do a 7 night on Harmony and $400 onboard credit or we can give full refund.' WHAT???"
Koepf says that such occurrences are extremely unlikely and not something cruisers should spend time worrying about. "With thousands of passengers sailing weekly there are only a few instances where this occurs," he said. "The situation could have been a technical error or even a human error as that will occur. In the few cases that it does occur, it’s usually handled far in advance and the consumer is made an offer they can accept or deny. Last-minute situations are quite rare and even then it seems, handled well, as [we've heard] no stories of consumers standing at the pier unable to get onboard."
And after some back and forth with the cruise line, Rick-n-Lisa did indeed get a room on their booked 10-night cruise. While no one can plan for surprise errors like this one, if you want to do everything you can to avoid any possible bump from an oversold ship, Koepf recommends booking a cabin with an assigned room number rather than a guarantee.
Sweetheart Deals and Other Cruise Line Revenue Management Tactics
Perhaps you've encountered a situation like this one, as told by Cruise Critic member WpgCruise in a thread about the topic:
"We had booked a Veranda (B2) on Riviera [departing] January 13, 2017. Oceania asked us to move over to the Marina January 22, 2017 cruise, offered a PH 1 [penthouse suite] same price as the Veranda, keeping the original perks (free internet and $800 O.B.C.). We took the offer."
Here, a cruise line is asking a booked traveler to switch ships, in exchange for an alluring deal (a penthouse for the price of a balcony cabin). Is this not because the line has oversold the ship and needs to bump travelers?
Not exactly. "When you get a sweetheart deal to move [cabins], it's probably because the cruise line has more demand in that cabin category and needs to move people up," says Koepf.
Take the case of the Oceania Riviera cruise mentioned above. Likely, balcony cabins were selling well on Marina; the available rooms were selling out but Oceania knew it could sell more if it had the space. At the same time, some higher-category cabins were still available, perhaps because a smaller percentage of travelers can afford the higher prices or maybe because there was a cancellation. Either way, the revenue management team at Oceania decides that it makes sense to take the more guaranteed bookings (the balcony cabins) and opens up more of these rooms by finding people willing to upgrade. The line might take a bit of a financial hit offering an upgrade deal than selling the suite at list price, but it's much preferable to turning away the interested balcony bookers and running the risk of never selling the penthouse suite.
Similar tactics are in play with guarantee cabins and waitlists. The cruise lines aren't using these as a way to oversell ships, but as ways to create flexibility in filling ships without slashing prices.
When a traveler books a guarantee cabin, they are guaranteed a room within the category booked (inside, outside, balcony), but they don't know where or in which sub-category. That lets the cruise line sell whichever cabins it can sell, and fill in the gaps with the guarantees. "If a ship has lots of balcony space but it can sell insides quickly, it's better off moving people up and taking a hit [on the balcony cabin fare]," says Koepf -- rather than marking the inside cabins as sold out and risking that the remaining balconies don't sell out. In addition, the cruise lines like this strategy because they can achieve maximum revenue from a sailing without having to publicly discount upper-category fares.
The lure for travelers is you definitely get a cabin, and you might end up in a more expensive cabin than the one you paid for. "The adage that you have a good chance of an upgrade when booking a guarantee still somewhat holds true, but you don't get upgraded as often as you used to," adds Koepf.
Waitlists serve a similar function. If a ship has a limited number of a certain type of cabin and sells them out early, it can start a waitlist, for which would-be cruisers put down a deposit in the hope that someone will cancel. This strategy also lets the cruise line manage inventory to fill the most cabins. With a known list of interested passengers, the line can either make offers to booked passengers to move them up and fill their former room with someone from the waitlist, or see if a sweet deal might not convince a waitlister to get on the cruise by taking a lower-category cabin.
So, the next time the upgrade fairy calls with an alluring offer to switch cruises, it's less likely that your cruise is oversold and more likely that the cruise line wants to make sure that as many interested cruisers as possible get to sail with them that year.