Scoring a room upgrade on a cruise is the stuff of dreams. After all, who hasn't had visions of scoring a suite for the price of an inside room? The good news is that upgrades do happen. The bad news, though, is that it's rarely entirely free. In fact, ctually securing an upgrade is hardly a science -- it can and does often come down to luck or a willingness to pay a little more and take a gamble on your cruise cabin.
That being said, there are a few tried-and-true tips, hacks and tricks that you can use to better your chances of a low-cost upgrade on your next cruise. Read on for our 5 expert tips on how to get upgraded to the cabin of your dreams and start getting in the cruise mood now.
A guarantee cabin 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 cabin 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 cruise line’s loyalty programm 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.)
Just like airlines and hotels reward their loyalty programm members, cruise lines do, too. An important point to remember is that the more frequent the cruiser, the more likely they would be offered a free or paid upgrade. Merely joining a cruise line's loyalty programm won't get you automatically upgraded -- even after you've taken a handful of cruises. (Check out our guide to cruise line past-passenger programmes.)
Complimentary or reduced-rate cruise ship upgrades are generally reserved for those in the highest echelons of loyalty programmes, but exceptions certainly happen.
Ships are more likely to sell out during peak periods. But during slow seasons, 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.
What's considered off-peak? Typically November and December (although Christmas sailings are popular, depending on the destination), and the period from January to April often sees fewer bookings, in general. For specific destinations, low seasons includes November to April in Europe; 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, The Best Time to Cruise.
Cruise lines sometimes offer special promotions in which two different cabin categories 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 cabin 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.
Look out for seasonal offers, too. Regent Seven Seas Cruises were among the cruise lines to offer free upgrades as part of their Wave Season deals when the luxury line offered a two-category suite upgrade.
You really have nothing to lose by calling your cruise line and asking the question: “Is there a possibility of a cruise cabin upgrade?” If you're willing to pay for a cruise cabin 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.
Sometimes an upgrade is not a win if you and your cruise line disagree on what is a more desirable cabin location. 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.