5 Ways to Get a Cruise Ship Cabin Upgrade

--by Elissa Leibowitz Poma, Cruise Critic contributor

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.

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. 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. If there was something you could do [to] get an upgrade, everyone would be doing it.

Travel 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.

That being said, there are some strategies that have increased the 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.

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.

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!".

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).

Some cruisers monitor 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. You can also sign up for cruise line promotional e-mails to get notices of sales in your inbox.

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,"a frequent cruiser mentioned. "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).

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 a woman 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. "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.

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. "Some have relationships with the lines or know their workings. Others do not."

And now, a tale of caution:

Be careful what you wish for. One frequent cruiser eceived 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."

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.

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.

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