Auctions for cruise vacations have all but fallen by the wayside. Those who like a game of chance, however, still can name their price for better ship accommodations. Cruise lines are encouraging select cruisers to bid online for cabin upgrades, and there are deals to be had.
These programs are relatively new. Norwegian introduced its Upgrade Advantage Program in 2017. Royal Caribbean followed in late 2018 with RoyalUp. In 2019, Celebrity Cruises introduced MoveUp and Azamara launched Azamara Upgrade.
Negotiating these silent auctions is part luck and part skill, but the results can be amazing. For examples, blogger Chris Gleason of Top Dog Trips snagged an upgrade from a mini-suite to a two-bedroom suite in The Haven for his family of four, bidding $3,500. With his successful bid, he paid just more than $9,000 for a nine-day Baltics cruise on Norwegian Breakaway, a savings of $5,000. It was "a steal," he says.
If you're interested in bidding on cruise cabins to snag a deal, here's what you need to know.
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Updated October 10, 2019
How Cruise Bidding Programs Work
The cruise line programs are similar to more established airline bid-for-an-upgrade auctions. Dozens of international airlines -- including Icelandair, Qantas and Aer Lingus -- invite select coach passengers to go online and designate how much they would pay for an upgrade to business or first class.
Who is invited to bid may be based primarily on how much you paid for your ticket in the first place and your participation in frequent flyer programs.
Like the airlines, the cruise lines are not inviting everyone to bid for upgrades. They are looking to reward both their loyal passengers and those who spend more on their cruise vacations. If you booked at a deep discount, don't expect an offer. Azamara is the only line to say upfront that it gives priority to Le Club Voyage members based on their program level.
Invites to bid for a cruise upgrade may also depend on such factors as how booked up the ship is and which category you originally booked. Most importantly, you won't be asked to bid unless you have opted to receive marketing emails from the cruise line, so that's a must-do.
If you make the cut, an emailed invitation will direct you to a special website where you can slide a color-coded dial to indicate your bid. If you don't get an email and are sailing on any of the RCCL brands (Azamara, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean), you can also go online and enter your reservation number to see if you qualify to bid for an upgrade.
There is typically a minimum bid to get the ball rolling, and the dial indicates the strength of your offer relative to other bidders. Red, for instance, is encouragement to bid higher, while green purportedly gives you a better chance of landing an upgrade.
A few clicks and you place your bet and wait to see if your bid is accepted. The programs differ slightly -- for instance, with Norwegian you can only bid up to two categories, for example, from an inside to an ocean view or balcony. With Royal Caribbean, you can look at minimum bids for various stateroom categories and select the amount you are willing to spend for each. You only pay if your bid is accepted.
Even if you bid in the favorable green zone, there is no guarantee you'll get an upgrade. Conversely, you may get an upgrade even with a "poor" red zone bid.
Cruise Critic members tout their success stories on the message boards, and you can learn some tips from the experiences of others.
TJTrips paid $75 per person for an upgrade from an aft inside cabin to a midship balcony on Norwegian Epic. FLcruisergrl bid in the red range and went from an aft balcony to an aft Penthouse in The Haven. CarrieAP bid slightly higher than the minimum, but still in the lowest range, and was rewarded with a Spa Suite in The Haven.
Even before you consider bidding, it pays to check what the situation is in terms of any reduced upsell fares for your desired cabin, other Cruise Critic members warn.
Want2Cruise 701 received an email offering the opportunity to upgrade from a Celebrity Suite to a Royal Suite or Penthouse, for a minimum bid of $1,000 per person. That same afternoon, prices for the fancier suites dropped, and the cost to upgrade was less than $1,000. "Maybe there are deals to be had but be very careful. You really have to be watching prices and know the price history for your particular sailing. Good thing we didn't bite," Want2Cruise 701 writes.
Improving Your Chances
There are strategies that may help in landing a successful bid. Rather than bidding the minimum, you may stand a better chance if you go up a little to differentiate your bid from others -- from a suggested minimum of $75 to $95, for instance.
With the more established airline programs, passengers report the most success when bidding 20 to 40 percent of the difference between what they paid and the established fare for their desired seat. Translated to cruise, if you book an ocean-view stateroom for $800 per person and are bidding on a mini-suite currently selling for $2,800, your best chance of landing an upgrade would come if you bid at least $400 per person.
You may have a better chance of an upgrade if you pick a cruise with a lot of upper level cabins available. On the other hand, a nearly sold-out cruise may mean the line needs to find someone in your category to upgrade.
After you make your bid, it's a waiting game to see whether you are successful. Some bids may be accepted quickly, others only within days of your sailing. Royal Caribbean reserves the right to notify you up to 24 hours in advance.
If you want, you can up your bid as the sail date gets closer. You can also change your mind and cancel the bid, as long as it hasn't yet been accepted.
Once accepted, the amount of your offer is automatically charged to your credit card and is nonrefundable. There's no turning back.
While getting an upgrade for a bargain price is exciting, it's still a game of chance. For that reason, it's ill advised to book a lower category than you really want with the hope of getting an upgrade. If having a certain type of cabin is a must-do, you are better off seeking the best sale price you can find.
Here are some other things to consider:
All bids are per person, based on double occupancy -- regardless of how many people are sharing the cabin. If you bid $200, you are committing to $400. This works great for a family of four; you only pay for two people for the upgrade. It does not work for a solo traveler.
When you commit to an upgrade, you lose your ability to choose a specific cabin and location. You take what you get. An exception is if you qualify to bid for specific suites. If you're choosy about location -- you want to be midship for more stability -- upgrading might not be for you.
If you are traveling with a group or have connecting rooms, there's also no guarantee everyone in your group will get an upgrade offer nor that your cabins will be together should you win the bid.
The cruise bidding process does not work for those who have booked a wheelchair-accessible cabin as you won't be guaranteed those rooms.
The upgrade may come with extra charges. You will be charged for gratuities based on your upgraded cabin category, and the price of your travel insurance may also rise.
As with any "deal," it's important to do your research. Read the fine print about the upgrade programs on the cruise line websites. If your dream vacation depends on a certain cabin, alleviate the chance factor by going with a more traditional upsell deal. If you do successfully bid, consider your upgrade a nice surprise.