The Mysterious World of Cruise Cabin Upgrades

Day -9, Grand Asia 2018

Friday, Sept. 21, 2018 – Chicago

I mentioned in my last blog post that I had accepted a paid upgrade offer from Holland America. This raises some questions on upgrades – who gets offers and what the offers are.

My short answer to these questions is “I have no idea.” Statistically, upgrades are very rare. I assume that upgrade policies vary by cruise lines, and maybe even by specific cruises. In 34 cruises, I have only been upgraded twice. Both were 7-day Caribbean cruises in the low season and from an inside to an ocean view cabin at no additional charge.

There are two types of upgrades. The best is the free move from the “upgrade fairy.” This is usually automatic, meaning you are not asked but just reassigned. You will hear through your travel agent or the cruise line about your new cabin number.

Cruise lines also may make upsell offers, meaning you pay more, but usually significantly less than booking the better cabin from the beginning. In this case, your travel agent contacts you to see if you want to accept the offer.

I know I have limited my upgrade potential in the past by stating “no automatic upgrades” when booking. That is because I have chosen a specific cabin or deck that I like. The cruise line would consider a move from an inside cabin to an ocean view a nice upgrade, for example. But if I went from a good inside location to an ocean view under the galley (kitchen), I would not consider it a good move. In the past I have heard those galley carts rolling around overhead in the wee hours of the morning.

On last year’s Grand Asia cruise, I picked one of four inside cabins in the middle of deck 6. And I said no automatic upgrades, please. I knew any upgrade would most likely take me to deck 1 or 2, and I preferred being on deck 6, even without a window. So I didn’t receive any offers, even paid upsell offers.

The cruise lines don’t share their upgrade strategies, so people on Cruise Critic have speculated about them over the years. Sometimes first-time or second-time cruisers seem to get nice free upgrades, and long-time cruisers never seem to hit the jackpot. People speculate that the cruise line prefers to delight a new cruiser, who might become a repeat customer. Those who cruise frequently don’t need the incentive to keep booking. This logic would seem to apply more to free upgrades than paid offers, and I’m not sure there is any truth to the speculation.

On the other hand, I think upgrade chances do improve when you have sailed with a cruise line many times before My four-star status on Holland America could mean I get an offer that someone who has sailed less might not, or that I get it earlier. It might have to do with when you book. It also could affect the price of the upsell offer. To repeat, I have no idea.

The only way I know to somewhat “guarantee” an upgrade is to pick a guarantee cabin. You are guaranteed a cabin in a category such as inside or ocean view, but the cruise line – not you – will determine which cabin. In exchange, you pay the lowest cruise rate for that category. The odds are you won’t get the cheapest cabin. However, even that isn’t a guarantee. Once in Alaska I paid a guarantee rate for the cheapest cabin on the ship, and that’s exactly the cabin I got.

Here are my thoughts tips about upgrades:

  • Pick a cabin or category that you like for a price that you think is fair.
  • If the upgrade fairy visits, celebrate.
  • If you don’t get an offer (and in actuality, they are rare), don’t be disappointed. Remember Tip No. 1.