Travellers who take the risk of booking a cruise cabin guarantee face two big questions: Do you really save enough money to make the suspense worth it? And, perhaps even more important, what are the chances you'll wind up with an upgrade?
While those who book their cruise in a more traditional manner instantly receive a cabin assignment, folks who book a cruise guarantee cabin are only promised a stateroom -- somewhere, anywhere on the ship -- in the same category that they've chosen. The actual cabin will not be assigned until sometime after your booking (often a few weeks or days prior to departure).
(If you want to know more about the traditional way to book, we can also give you advice on how to choose a cruise ship cabin.)
Travellers are guaranteed a cabin in the category they've chosen, but there's always the possibility of an upgrade. The real risk is simply giving up the chance to pick your spot -- midship, high deck, low deck, etc. If you don't get that upgrade (and even if you do), you might end up with the oddball cabin no one wants because it's a strange shape, under a noisy deck or a long trek from the lift.
As simple as this may sound, guarantees remain something of a mystery to many cruisers. Central to this is the fact that there is no standard method of dealing with them: Each line has its own unique policy that we'll outline below, including how long you need to wait before you get that cabin assignment. But first, we'll address those two burning questions mentioned above:
Will I Save Money?
The answer depends on which line you choose. In some cases, even if you don't get an upgrade, you can still save a few quid. Seabourn is among those that sell guarantee cabins at slightly lower fares.
In other cases, there's no real savings; Crystal, Disney and Holland America are among those that told us they permit guarantees, but you'll pay the same as anyone booking a cabin in that particular category. With these lines, you only get a deal if you score that upgrade. Otherwise, you've simply gambled away your right to pick a cabin location.
Will I Get Upgraded?
Savings or no, the lure of the guarantee is the possibility of an upgrade -- and it does happen. If you book a guarantee in a certain category and that category is full, you might get upgraded to an empty cabin in a higher category. On the other hand, someone else (perhaps a member of the past-passenger programme with higher status) might get upgraded and you might get their cabin in your category. However, a guarantee passenger is more likely to be upgraded than someone of the same status who booked an allocated cabin at the same price.
As there's no way to predict what you'll get, the cardinal rule of booking guarantees becomes: Don't book a guarantee in any given category unless you would be happy with a cabin in that category! In other words, if you will not be happy with anything less than a suite, don't book an inside guarantee.
As obvious as that may seem, we once met a couple whose travel agent convinced them that if they booked an inside guarantee, they were "virtually" assured an upgrade to a balcony cabin. They decided to save the money and book the inside guarantee rather than the balcony cabin they'd planned on. Unfortunately for them -- and perhaps not surprisingly -- they wound up with an inside cabin on the lowest deck, in the category they paid for. Fortunately, the ship wasn't full and they were able to upgrade (and paid plenty for it), but their cruise could nearly have been ruined.
No matter what a travel agent or anyone else tells you, the cruise line is not obligated to give you a cabin in a higher category than the level you booked. When booking a guarantee, do exactly what you would do when booking an assigned cabin -- book the least expensive category that you will be happy with. An upgrade is a nice surprise, but not something you should count on. (For other ways to improve your onboard digs, see our story on five ways to get a cabin upgrade.)
Ultimately, the decision to go for a guarantee or not depends on your cruise preferences. If the cruise line is offering a guarantee at a lower fare than the least expensive assigned cabin and you really don't care too much about your cabin, go for it. You are, after all, guaranteed to get at least what you paid for, and you just might be lucky and get that great upgrade. And it does happen ... sometimes.
On the other hand, if you won't save any money by booking a guarantee, you'd probably do just as well by looking at a deck plan and choosing a specific cabin you know you'll be happy with. If you're very particular about location, then a guarantee definitely isn't for you. Only go for this type of guarantee if you're a risk-taker who thrives on the suspense.
For a closer look at guarantees, we asked each major cruise line to detail their own policy on guarantee cabins.
How It Works: Azamara offers guarantee cabins if all assigned suites and staterooms are sold out in a particular category. You are guaranteed the category you have paid for and, occasionally, might get put into a higher category.
When You'll Know: Guarantee cabins are typically assigned between two and three weeks prior to departure, although some are assigned the week of sailing.
How It Works: Passengers can choose a category type (inside, outside, etc.) and pay a price lower than the regular fares for that category. They will be berthed in a cabin within the chosen category -- so no chance of a free upgrade. (Upgrades are only available when the line is running a free-upgrade promotion.)
When You'll Know: Guarantee cabins are typically assigned about one week prior to departure, although some are assigned the week of sailing.
How It Works: On select sailings, guarantee passengers may either be allocated a generic cabin within the type they paid or offered a higher category cabin for the same price.
When You'll Know: Generally, passengers will learn their cabin number about 20 days prior to sailing, but sometimes the line lets them know just a few days before departure or even on the day of sailing.
How It Works: Crystal Cruises offers guarantees in all categories, except CP (Crystal Penthouse -- the highest category); passengers book guarantees at the same fare as an assigned cabin in that same category. You would want to do this if you are hoping for a free upgrade to a better cabin category that is sold out (it happens, but rarely) or if the line is still selling cabins in your category but has no more staterooms to assign (so you're on a kind of waitlist).
When You'll Know: Cabin assignments may be made as early as one month prior to departure, or as late as the day prior to departure. Most cabins are usually assigned one week before sailing.
How It Works: With a Cunard guarantee, you are assured a cabin in the category you booked or better. However, free upgrades are possible only within the room type booked. (For example, if you book an outside cabin guarantee, you might get a better outside cabin but you won't get upgraded to a balcony.)
When You'll Know: Cabin assignments may be made anywhere from 150 to one day prior to departure.
Disney Cruise Line
How It Works: Disney Cruise Line offers guarantees in any given category at the normal fare for that category, depending on availability. Passengers are eligible to get upgraded at no additional charge, but upgrades are rare.
When You'll Know: Cabin assignments generally take place within 30 days of departure, but timing can vary.
How It Works: Fred. Olsen does not offer guarantee cabins. Instead, it offers something called Anchor Fares, which require bookings to be paid in full up front with no refunds. Room numbers and cabin grades are not known at the time of booking. Upgrades aren't allowed with Anchor Fares.
When You'll Know: Cabin assignments are given by the line when cruise tickets are issued.
Holland America Line
How It Works: Holland America guarantees are offered in specific cabin categories, depending on availability, at the normal fare for that category. Passengers who book these cabins might snag a free upgrade if they're lucky.
When You'll Know: Assignments are made between 30 days and one week before sailing.
How It Works: All Marella bookings are gurarantees. Passengers are only able to choose cabin categories -- not specific staterooms. Assignments are then made by the line at a later time.
When You'll Know: Assignments are made prior sailing.
How It Works: MSC Cruises offers guarantee cabins selectively based on inventory. Guarantees are typically only available for double cabins. There's a chance you'll get a nicer cabin in this case: Passengers who book a guarantee cabin are eligible for a free upgrade if available.
When You'll Know: The time frame for assignment of guarantees can vary according to the sailing, category and type of guarantee. In general, guarantees are assigned within two to three weeks of sailing and in some instances may not be assigned until embarkation.
Norwegian Cruise Line
How It Works: Norwegian's guarantees are offered for a stateroom in the category the passenger initially paid for, or possibly a higher category at no extra cost.
When You'll Know: Assignments are made any time after final payment has been received, up to the day of sailing.
How It Works: Guarantee cabins are offered within specific categories at the prevailing rate, once all available cabins in that category have been assigned.
When You'll Know: Oceania Cruises' cabin assignments are made within 45 days of sailing. It could be the day after the reservation is made, after final payment is due or even upon embarkation.
How It Works: Passengers book the cabin grade of their choosing but have no say over cabin number, deck or placement on the ship, all of which are up to the cruise line. Upgrades are possible.
When You'll Know: Staterooms can be assigned any time between booking and the sailing date.
How It Works: Depending on availability, Princess Cruises offers guarantees within specific categories as an alternative to an assigned cabin, and you will be assigned a room in that category or better.
When You'll Know: Cabin assignments will be made at any time between booking and several days before departure.
Regent Seven Seas
How It Works: If a cabin category is sold out, RSSC is usually able to offer guarantee cabins for that category. Passengers who book guarantee cabins may get free upgrades if they are available.
When You'll Know: Cabin assignments are usually made just before departure, anytime from one week up to the day of.
How It Works: Royal Caribbean offers guarantee cabins, based on availability. Prices are traditionally on par with the rates for assigned cabins within the same category. Free upgrades are not available.
When You'll Know: The timing varies, but cabin assignments are generally made four to six weeks prior to sailing, although some are assigned the week of departure.
Seabourn Cruise Line
How It Works: Seabourn occasionally offers guarantee fares as a special promotion on select departures. They are typically offered as a "run of ship" guarantee at a flat fare for outside and balcony suite categories (not the larger suite categories).
When You'll Know: Guarantees are typically assigned about a week prior to departure.
How It Works: Silversea Cruises offers guarantees if all assigned suites are sold out in a particular category. This is, like many other lines' guarantee programmes, a waitlist for a possible free cabin upgrade. You might get upgraded or you might not, but you will get at least the category you booked.
When You'll Know: A suite may be assigned at any time before departure.
How It Works: Windstar offers guarantee cabins if all assigned suites and staterooms are sold out in a particular category. If a room open ups in a higher category than the one you've guaranteed, you could get a complimentary upgrade.
When You'll Know: Cabin assignments could be made as late as the day of sailing, but normally they are made much earlier.