A real score for cruise passengers is a free or cheap cabin upgrade. Just like with airline seats, you can’t count on an upgrade — but it sure feels great when it happens. Several methods will help improve your chances of landing in better cruise ship accommodations.
Before I get into details, some facts: On a typical ship, the basic categories of cruise room are inside (no view), outside (with window or porthole), balcony, mini-suites and suites. It’s rare to get more than a one-category upgrade, so don’t think you can book an inside cabin and wind up in a fancy suite. More common is that you might find an upgrade to a better inside cabin. Make sure you have realistic expectations.
Your best course is always to book the nicest cabin you can afford. That said, here are some tricks to scoring a discounted cruise ship cabin upgrade and landing better cruise rooms without breaking the bank.
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Look for an upgrade sale
Cruise line sales are the easiest way to score cheap or free upgraded accommodations. Various mass-market brands will run periodic promotions, especially during the fall and winter “wave season” sale periods. You also might also see discounted upgrades offered on cruises during shoulder seasons, such as immediately after children return to school in the fall.
Cruise ship room with balcony. CUNARD
Free or discounted promotions encourage upgrades from inside cabins to ocean-views and from ocean-views to balconies. One tactic during these sales is to list outside and balcony cabins at the same price. If you can’t find a deal on moving up a category, you may see a free upgrade to a bigger or better-located cabin within the category you originally planned to book. (Even within categories, the size of cabins and prices vary.)
Book a ‘guarantee’ cabin
When you book a cruise, you typically choose a cabin in the location you desire. With a “guarantee” cabin, you leave it up to the cruise line to assign you accommodations either in the category you booked — or a better one. The bet is that your category will sell out and the cruise line will have to move you up for free — say, from an outside to a balcony cabin.
In the worst-case scenario, you end up in the category you booked; in the best case, you get your dream cabin. There is a catch, though. Since you still can’t choose your specific cabin, you could end up in a noisy or otherwise undesirable area of the ship — even if the room is technically an upgrade from what you booked. For example, that great view you think you snagged may end up being blocked by lifeboats.
Related: Why it pays to upgrade your cabin
Join a loyalty program
Cruise lines naturally give preference for upgrades to frequent cruisers who are members of their loyalty programs. It’s easy to join and you may not even know you did — your name may be added to a cruise line’s email and mailing list after your first cruise with the brand.
As a loyalty program member, keep an eye out for promotional deals you’ll receive, including emails and newsletters, which will alert you to discounts about upgrades before non-members get word or pricing that’s only for members. You may also receive invitations to bid for upgrades or get offered discounted upgrades on cruises you’ve already booked.
In addition, you can rack up points for perks that eventually may include free or discounted upgrades. For instance, if you reach the top Diamond status with Carnival Cruise Line’s VIFP (Very Important Fun Person) loyalty program, you get a one-time free cabin upgrade.
Work with an experienced cruise travel agent
Travel agents, especially those who do a lot of business with a particular cruise line, have a certain amount of pull. Your agent may be able to snag you an upgrade by contacting the cruise line and asking for a favor. You may not know you have been upgraded until you get to the ship, as it will be based on last-minute space being available.
Your travel advisor may also be able to steer you toward specific cruise lines or sailings where you stand a better chance of an upgrade. In addition, your agency may have access to special group rates, meaning you’ll pay a discounted price for that upgraded cabin you desire.
Bid for an upgrade
A few years ago, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and MSC Cruises were among the cruise lines that took a page from international airlines (such as Qantas and Aer Lingus) and began offering bidding programs for upgrades.
Infinite Veranda cruise cabin on Celebrity Edge. CELEBRITY CRUISES
These online programs are basically silent auctions that only select cruisers (preference is given to loyalty club members) are invited to join. The cruise line sets a minimum bid, and you can go up in price from there.
Your chance of an upgrade may be based on luck, skill or both. The advice from successful bidders is to go up from the minimum, but how much is a personal choice. Some people snag better accommodations for under $20, some for $100 or more. You don’t pay anything unless your bid is accepted. New in 2022, river line cruise Uniworld launched its own bid-for-upgrade program.
Ask once on board
The hotel director on any cruise ship has a certain amount of discretion in moving guests to different cabins. Being bold enough to ask for an upgrade once you are on the ship may pay off.
To try your luck, you’ll want to ask about an upgrade at guest services. Since the crew there will spend embarkation day fielding a whole bunch of questions and complaints from grumpy, travel-weary cruisers, your best bet may be to head to your assigned cabin and wait until the second day of your cruise to ask for an upgrade.
Put on a big smile, be super friendly and ask if there is any chance a better cabin is available. If you aren’t offered an upgrade for free, you might suggest you are willing to pay a small fee.
Mention your special occasion
If you are celebrating a special occasion on a ship — such as a birthday, anniversary or honeymoon — the cruise line or your travel agent may find ways to fete you, including by upgrading your cabin.
When you book your cruise, note in your reservation (or remind your travel agent to note) that you are celebrating a special event in your life. Whether you are a loyal customer or a first-timer that the cruise line hopes will become a repeat cruiser, you may be rewarded with an upgrade.
This sort of upgrade would typically be a “surprise” that occurs when you check in at the pier, so you can’t plan for it in advance. It never hurts to remind the staff how excited you are to be celebrating on the ship and ask if there is any chance for an upgrade.
Which cruise cabin should you choose? Learn more here:
The 8 worst cabin locations on any cruise ship
5 best cruise ship suites
Which cruise ship cabin category should your family book?
Why you should splurge for a suite on your next cruise
Advantages to booking an inside cruise cabin
A quick guide to the most popular cruise lines
21 tips and tricks that will make your cruise go smoothly