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.
Even if there was, as Cruise Critic member Sail7seas wisely pointed out when we polled message board readers on how to nab upgrades, "Do ya really think we'd post it on a public forum?"
If you're sitting by the phone, waiting for the upgrade fairy to call, there are a few basic things to know about 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? Yeah, right, and the upgrade fairy does have wings and a magic wand. 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. "Free upgrades are more of what I consider a thing of the past," says Melissa Gower-Pence, a group cruise specialist with Craft Cruises in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. More common are "upsells," or upgrades for a reduced cost.
But if you're still yearning for that upgrade, how do you get one? We contend the best way to land an upgrade offer is to hope and pray, because for the most part, there's little rhyme or reason to who gets a bump. Member paul929207 nailed it on the head when he wrote, "If there was something you could do [to] get an upgrade, everyone would be doing it."
Other Cruise Critic members echoed the same sentiment. "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. "We have had two upgrades in the past couple of years with Princess Cruises, but how and why we really don't know," Putterdude posted.
The agents agree. "There is no magic button, it's not that common, and it's always best to book the cabin in which you'll be content," says Jennifer Lennox, a Disney cruise specialist with the agency Off to Neverland in Keller, Texas.
That being said, Cruise Critic members do report some strategies that have increased their odds of getting offered an upgrade. Their best recommendations include these five tips -- and one warning why a freebie 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. (Learn more about guarantee cabins.)
Member CraftyEC reserved a guaranteed Verandah Suite on a Seabourn cruise, which had six subcategories of cabins, all at different prices. "It could have been anything from V1 to V6, and we got V5, which would have cost us more if we'd chosen this." How much more? To give one example, a V1 suite on Seabourn's seven-day "Turkey and Greek Isles" voyage in October 2013 was listed as $3,999 per person; a V5 cabin like the one CraftyEC nabbed was $800 per person more.
Bottom line: Don't book a guarantee in any given category unless you would be satisfied with any cabin in that category.
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 he or she 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.)
Cruise Critic member B-52, a Gold-level member (the lowest level) of Royal Caribbean's Crown & Anchor Society loyalty program, reported going online two nights before departing on a cruise to find a suite upgrade awaiting approval. A $35 fee was assessed "either for taxes or a suite room attendant -- I'm not sure, but it did not matter. Paid it immediately and printed out a new Set Sail Pass!" B-52 wrote.
Complimentary upgrades are generally reserved for those in the highest echelons of loyalty programs -- Crown & Anchor members who have taken at least 25 cruises, for example -- 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).
When Dapaddo saw such a promotion, the Cruise Critic member jumped at the chance for an upgrade and ended up with a Spa Deck-level cabin with floor-to-ceiling windows, "and we didn't have to pay anything extra."
AceDoc monitors the Internet for such offers. But 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 such as this and are then able to offer the upgrade to their clients," said vacation specialist Renee Gerber with Cruise One in Woodstock, Maryland. You can also sign up for cruise line promotional e-mails to get notices of sales in your inbox. Check out Cruise Critic's frequently updated cruise deals section, too.
Sail during low-demand seasons. Ships tend to sell out during peak periods. But during slow times, they may 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," 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.
Just ask. 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 momoftwinteens, who once landed a free upgrade from an obstructed-view cabin to an oceanview 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, suggests Gower-Pence, the cruise specialist from Colorado. "These offers are on a first-come basis, and as the agent I act immediately because I know my experienced cruisers really want to take advantage of them," she said.
But make sure you work with an agent who has experience in this arena. "I have found that some [travel agents] are better at this than others," kazu said. "Some have relationships with the lines or know their workings. Others do not."
Firefly333's agent covered the $25 fee cost to upgrade from an inside to an oceanview cabin. So, technically, that's a free upgrade, right?
And now, our tale of caution:
Be careful what you wish for. 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."
Newbie cruiser Quicksilver925kzy took to the message boards to ask whether to lock in a specific cabin on a P&O Cruises voyage or accept an automatic upgrade. Kiwi_Kruzer replied: "An upgrade sure sounds nice, but it's not always for the best. You could get a higher grade cabin, but its location may not be desirable." And once you move, you can't move back, finetuneit warned.
This takes us back to our original advice: The best way to get an upgrade is to hope and pray, but be careful what you hope and pray for.