There’s not much that’s better than sitting with your feet up, sipping a drink on your cabin balcony, while watching the waves roll by. Except doing all that while sitting on a balcony that you received as an upgrade.
While they may not be common, cruise cabin upgrades do occur. Sometimes it’s the result of a random call from the cruise line offering a better cabin for a small extra fee. Other times it’s from a deal the cruise line is running to spur bookings. And still other times the cabin upgrade comes from a savvy move you make to score an upgrade at no — or little — extra cost.
Before we get too far, let’s make something clear: If you have plans to pay for a cheap interior cabin and get moved to a prime balcony cabin… for free… then you need to adjust your expectations. The chances of getting that sort of benefit are very small. (Trust us, we’ve asked before.)
That said, there are still some techniques you can use to try and get an upgraded cabin for cheap… or even free.
Below we’ve rounded up some of the best ways to get a nicer room on your next cruise. Try these tips the next time you sail and you might walk away with a nicer cabin.
Why Free Cabin Upgrades Are Hard to Get
Before we get into the ways that you might score an upgrade, let’s discuss why it’s hard to find free upgrades for your cabin. Say you are on a ship that is about to sail and you are settling into an interior cabin — just dreaming of a balcony room.
Meanwhile, the ship has a couple of empty balcony cabins that weren’t booked for the cruise. In other words, these cabins are about to sail empty. What’s the harm in simply letting you move up to a balcony room? It wouldn’t cost the cruise line anything and it would make for one happy customer.
Not so fast.
Truth is, the cruise lines have a lot of very smart people that work on cruise pricing. If you’ve ever wondered why the price of a cruise fluctuates, it’s the cruise line looking to adjust pricing to make sure the ship is full while also maximizing the amount of revenue from each booking. And these folks are good at their jobs.
According to Carnival’s most recent annual report, the line had an occupancy rate of 105.9%. A rate of 100% occupancy means that a cruise sails with two people on average in every cabin. A rate of more than 100% means more than two people sail in some cabins.
In other words, Carnival’s ships are full — and it’s not an outlier. Most cruise lines see capacity at over 100%, meaning that there simply aren’t empty cabins on most ships. Therefore, it’s not surprising that it’s rare to see a completely free upgrade on your cruise.
Still, there are some ways you can increase your odds of seeing a move to a nicer cabin, as detailed below.
Cabin Upgrade Tip #1: Watch Prices After You Book; Call If It Drops
If you buy a cruise, then you should still watch the price after you book. It’s a bit of a hassle, we know, but checking in once or twice a month can not only save you money, it might get you a complimentary upgrade.
Here’s how it works. Cruise lines want passengers to be happy. They know that nothing makes passengers more upset than paying for a cruise, only to find a lower rate advertised soon after. So if you see a lower rate, they will often make up the difference (many times with onboard credit).
But if you are interested in a cabin upgrade, then when you see a price drop, let the customer service rep know that instead of receiving onboard credit or a refund, you’d be interested in an upgrade. We recently spoke with a representative that told us this is one way to get a complimentary upgrade on a cruise. After all, after a price drop it may be that the higher level of cabin is now the same cost as the room your originally booked.
A simple phone call could get you an upgrade without having to shell out any extra money.
Cabin Upgrade Tip #2: Ask Guest Services After Sail Away
The old saying goes “it never hurts to ask.” (In fact, that’s what a customer service representative for a major cruise line told us about this tip when we called.) In the case of upgrades, however, it’s best to ask at the right time.
When a cruise ship carries 4,000 people, it’s inevitable that a few of them won’t make it to the ship due to everything from last-minute cancellations to delayed flights (this is why it’s a good idea to have travel insurance).
So while the cabin might be sold, it could actually sail unfilled. In this case, it doesn’t hurt to ask Guest Services if there are any upgrades available. We’d recommend waiting to ask until the second day on the ship, however. The first day on a cruise is maddening for the Guest Services staff as dozens of people are usually at the desk at all hours fixing issues with their reservations.
Instead, waiting until a little later in the cruise will let the initial rush die down and also give time to get an accurate count of what cabins are available. Don’t be surprised if you still have to pay for an upgrade, but it may be for less money than if you called and tried to upgrade before the cruise departed.
Cabin Upgrade Tip #3: Look for Low-Demand Sailings
It’s already been mentioned that most cruises sail at — or above — 100% capacity. But that doesn’t mean every trip does so. And if you can find a sailing that is slightly under full capacity, it’s reasonable to think you could get a cabin upgrade easier.
So which cruises will have fewer passengers? There are a few categories that could see smaller crowds:
Most cruises are between 3-7 days. Trips that are longer than that typically see lower demand as it means more time off work or school. Sailing on longer cruises may see fewer passengers and more available cabins for upgrade.
When school is in session, it’s harder for families to sail. That leads to lower demand (and lower prices) for cruises. If you are able to sail off-season, when school is in session — months like February or October — not only can you find deals, but you could be more apt to get an upgrade.
Over the past decade, there has been a boom in cruise ships. The ships are larger and more extravagant than ever. And most people are interested in sailing on newer ships with all the bells and whistles. Older ships not only are often cheaper to sail on, but may not be as full. On the flipside, there are also fewer rooms available overall on older, smaller ships.
Cabin Upgrade Tip #4: Wait to Buy Until a Free Upgrade Sale
Cruise sales are ubiquitous. No matter when you are looking to sail there will be some sort of special designed to entice you. One of the specials frequently offered by some cruise lines is free upgrades. In these cases you can upgrade your room by getting it for the same price as a lesser cabin. So you can get a balcony cabin for the price of an oceanview room.
Keep in mind that the specials and sales can change at a moment’s notice. If you find a cabin upgrade sale that you like, it’s best to jump on it as soon as you can. Remember that even if the price falls later, you can always call the cruise line and try to get a refund for the price difference.
Cabin Upgrade Tip #5: Complain About Your Cabin
Cruise lines want you to enjoy your trip, sail again, and tell other people how much fun you had. That’s why if you have a poor experience, the cruise lines will often go above and beyond to make it right. So if you have an issue with your current cabin you should absolutely let the staff know. You might get to change rooms or even get an upgrade for your trouble.
One thing you absolutely should not do is try this tip by making up a complaint or wasting everyone’s time with a petty issue. It’s usually quite obvious when passengers are complaining about an issue just to try and get something for free.
Instead, reserve complaining about your cabin only when there is a serious issue that affects the enjoyment of your cruise. You should never complain solely with the intention of trying to get an upgrade.
Cabin Upgrade Tip #6: Pay For It
The bad news is that for most people the only way they will receive a cabin upgrade is the old-fashioned way: paying for it. The good news is that it’s also the easiest way to get the cabin that you want.
Once you book your room on the ship, you can call anytime before your departure date and ask about upgrades. By paying the difference between what the cabin you want is currently selling for and the price you already paid for your current cabin, you can get the better room.
Is it as sexy as working the system for a free upgrade? Absolutely not, but it’s much more of a sure thing. The only time you won’t be able to simply pay for an upgrade is if the other cabins are sold out.
Plus, it’s the most convenient way to get your upgrade without stressing out. Simply pay the extra fee and the room is yours.
Have more questions about getting upgraded? Have you received a better cabin for free? Let us know the details in the comments below.