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Debunking the "Upgrade Fairy" Myth

by George Leppla of

One of the most appreciated and least understood parts of the cruise industry is the process whereby some people get upgraded into a better cabin than they paid for. While there are many reasons that upgrades occur, keep in mind that the cruise lines' main motivation is profit. You might be a great person, but the cruise line didn't give you that upgrade on your last cruise just because they like you. They did it because it is economically profitable for them to do so.

Let's take a look at the many kinds of upgrades and how people get them. 

The "Buy Now and Get A Free 2 Category Upgrade" upgrade.  This is a case where you are offered an upgrade at the time of booking. There are a couple of ways this can happen.

  • First, the agency you are booking with may belong to a buying group or consortium that is having a special promotion for the cruise line. In exchange for the consortium members promoting a cruise line during a specific time, the cruise line offers an upgrade on most bookings made during the promotion. The cruise lines hope that the extra promotion will give them more sales. The travel agencies use the extra value of an upgrade hoping for the same thing. There are a couple of drawbacks, however. You will seldom see this kind of promotion during the first three months of the year when bookings are very heavy, and you will find that the most popular ships or itineraries may be excluded.  All in all, the customer usually ends up getting a good deal.
  • Second, the cruise lines may offer "free" upgrades at the time of booking in order to stimulate sales on a specific ship, sail date or itinerary. If the sales on the MS Cruise-O-Rama are slow for December sail dates, the cruise line may offer free upgrades to ALL travel agencies. Again, the hope is that the promotion will increase sales.  When sales are back to normal levels, the free upgrades are stopped. 

Then we have the "Guaranteed Rate, or TBA (To Be Assigned)" upgrade. This type of upgrade is the cruise lines' method of always having an inexpensive cabin to promote. The first cabins to sell on many ships are the most and least expensive.  When the least expensive cabins are sold out, the cruise line is left with trying to promote the mid-range priced cabins, and they may be doing this against other cruise lines lowest prices.

Not a good way to catch the consumer's eye, so they came up with the TBA cabin. In this reservation, you pay for an inexpensive cabin but you are not assigned a cabin until very close to the sail date. The cruise line "guarantees" you that you will get the category that you paid for... or better!  This gives the cruise line the chance to sell the same inexpensive cabins over and over, moving previous purchasers up into higher cabins. Indeed, some ships are built with this process in mind. Carnival ships have very few category 1A cabins. Princess ships sometimes have low categories that have only 3, 4  or 5 cabins in them. You know that they are going to sell more than this and they do. They just move the first purchaser up into the next category and so on. This deal can be sold on minimum inside or minimum outside categories.

If you are the type of person who doesn't mind what kind of cabin you have or where it is on the ship, this is one of the best ways for you to purchase a cruise. You get a great price but you give up all control over what kind of cabin you get or where it will be located. One word of caution: I have seen many people buy an inexpensive TBA with the expectations that they will be upgraded... and then it doesn't happen and they are stuck with a cabin that they don't like. I advise my customers to take this kind of deal ONLY if they would be happy in the kind of cabin that they are purchasing. That way, if they don't get upgraded, they still have a cabin they can live with--and in.

The "Right Place at the Right Time" upgrade. This kind of upgrade can happen for a number of reasons and all of them have to do with luck. Let's pretend that it is 2 weeks prior to sailing and someone calls the cruise line and cancels. They have a mid-priced cabin and the cruise line has already figured out the TBA assignments. If possible, the cruise line may do a "chain reaction" upgrade. Category "B" cancels, so they move up someone from category "C", then move someone up to the now empty "C" from category "D" and so on. This accomplishes a couple of things: 4 or 5 couples may be very happy that the cruise line likes them so much that they were offered a free upgrade and, more importantly, the cruise line ends up with an inexpensive cabin to sell at the last minute. If they were to keep the category "B" cabin and sell it at a discount, they would be violating their own stated policy of having the best discounts on cabins sold months ahead of time. Soon, no one would buy ahead of time, instead  waiting until the last minute to see what kind of deal they would get.

The urban legend is that you can walk up to the ship on the day of sailing and get on for next to nothing. The reality is that if you get on at all, you will probably pay a very low price for a very inexpensive cabin. I know, your brother's friend's mother-in-law's uncle once went on a cruise for $3.98 and had the owner's suite. I've heard it before... but it seldom happens. Remember, the cruise lines promise that if the price of the cabin you buy goes down, you can rebook your cabin at the new price. Technically, if they sell you a category "ABC" cabin at a price that is less than the rest of the people paid, they could be hit with all kinds of requests for refunds. If they upgrade people so the only thing they have to sell on the date of sailing is the lowest price cabins, discounting doesn't come into play as much.

The "Now That I'm On The Ship, I'll Get A Great Deal On A Better Cabin" upgrade. Some people buy an inexpensive cabin hoping that someone on the ship will cancel or not show up at the last minute and they can pay a small premium to be moved up into a better, empty cabin. It does happen sometimes, but the amount you pay will be about the same as you would have paid if you had reserved that cabin in the first place. The problem is that if Mr. Smith misses the ship, the cruise line may not know that he is flying ahead to meet the ship at the first port of call. Wouldn't be very nice if he was there waiting and the cruise line had sold his cabin.  If Mr. Smith cancelled within the three days prior to sailing or just missed the boat, the cruise line does NOT have to refund his money. If Mr. Smith had insurance, THEY refund him his money. That cabin can stay empty all week and the cruise line doesn't lose a dime except in onboard revenue. Of course, if they know for sure that Mr. Smith is not coming, they'll be glad to move  you into that empty cabin... for a fee.

The "Welcome Back" upgrade. Most cruise lines have a frequent cruisers club of one kind or another. One of the perks of these clubs is that you may get offered a free upgrade on your next sailing. You get notified through a direct mailing, or your travel agent can check and see if you are eligible for any additional upgrades or discounts.

The "We Screwed Up" upgrade happens when you write to the cruise line with a legitimate complaint and they offer you an upgrade on your next cruise as a form of apology or compensation. This type of upgrade can also be offered when there is a change in ship or itinerary. Because you may have to change your travel plans, the cruise lines may offer you some inducements to accept any changes and these may include cabin upgrades.

When there is an upgrade to be given out, who gets it? You stand a better chance of getting an upgrade if you are a past customer. You stand a better chance of getting an upgrade the earlier you make your reservation.  Will it help if your travel agent asks? It wouldn't hurt, but it probably won't do you much good either. For the most part, upgrades happen or don't happen. I have had times when I begged for an upgrade and got nothing. I have had times when a customer got a great upgrade and I didn't expect one. You never know.

Don't take a chance on ruining your vacation by buying an inexpensive cabin and hoping for an upgrade. Buy the cabin you would like to have, then if you get upgraded, you are that much ahead. If you don't, you'll still be comfortable.

By the way, run like hell from any travel agent who promises you an upgrade while booking you into a lower category. If they can deliver it, have them put it in writing. Any travel agent who tells you they can positively arrange for an upgrade "later" is not telling the truth.


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