Those of us who have been cruising awhile can remember the glory days of cruising. Back in the day, we would cross our fingers and wish for an elusive visit from the “upgrade fairy”.
With no discernible rhyme or reason, she would sprinkle her pixie dust upon unsuspecting passengers who happily found themselves upgraded from an interior cabin to a balcony, or from a balcony to a spacious suite. It was an exhilarating feeling and strategies to increase your chances were a constant discussion topic in the cruising community.
Why Cruise Lines Upgrade Passengers
Upgrading passengers is quite practical. Cruise ships like to sail at as close to capacity as possible. More people on board means more spending, and that means more profit. Cruise lines can entice people with deals on last-minute bookings to fill up their cabins.
But when the available cabins are suites and other higher priced staterooms, the deals don’t look attractive at first glance. Instead, they can create goodwill with their currently booked passengers by upgrading them to a higher category cabin and then offer the lower category cabin at a discount to new passengers so it will sell.
The Win/Win Solution
It was good while it lasted. As cruising has become more popular, cruise lines have been trying to stay competitive by keeping fares low. Low fares have been great for attracting bookings, just not as good for the cruise lines’ bottom line. As a result, they’ve had to become more inventive at ways to increase revenue.
Cruise lines have realized that currently booked passengers might be willing to pay a little extra to lock in an upgrade. Sometimes passengers would a get a phone call from the cruise line asking if they would like to upgrade to the next category cabin for say $200 or whatever amount the line thought they could get. It would still be cheaper than if the passenger had booked the higher category to start with. The cruise line makes a little more money with the upgrade and has the opportunity to still fill the lower category cabin. So it’s a win for the passenger and a win for the cruise line.
Which Cruise Lines Have Upgrade Programs
In true capitalistic fashion, cruise lines are now letting the market decide what upgrades are worth. Currently, three lines, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity Cruises have moved to a system where passengers now bid online for upgrades.
But as cruise line trends often spread from one line to all of them like wildfire, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the bidding system implemented on most lines before too long.
Norwegian’s program is the Norwegian Upgrade Advantage, Royal Caribbean calls it, RoyalUp, and Celebrity has named theirs Celebrity MoveUp. Regardless of the name, each cruise line’s program works quite similarly.
First things first, though, before you jump on board and start bidding for a sweet suite, there are a couple of things you should know.
Receiving the Offer
At some point after the final payment date, you might receive an email letting you know you are eligible to bid for an upgrade.
Nobody likes spam and cruise lines love to send out a constant stream of offers trying to entice you to book with them. But to ensure that you don’t miss the opportunity to bid on an upgrade, you’ll want to make sure you’ve signed up to receive marketing emails from the cruise lines.
Norwegian Cruise Line sends out email invitations approximately 80 days before the sailing. Unfortunately, not everyone receives an invite. Eligible reservations need to be made directly with Norwegian or through a participating travel agent. In case you haven’t opted-in for marketing emails or if it has gone to a spam folder, you may also see the banner “Let’s Get You Upgraded!” when you log in to your booking.
In addition to email notifications, Royal Caribbean has a handy tool that allows you to check online to see is your reservation is eligible. All you need to do is type in the primary passenger’s last name and booking number into their website here.
Celebrity Cruises begins its MoveUp upgrade bidding program 30 days before the sailing date. As with Royal Caribbean, Celebrity also allows you to check online to see if your reservation is eligible for the Celebrity MoveUp program on their website here.
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Going Once, Going Twice, Sold to the Highest Bidder!
When you open the bidding page, you’ll find a list of staterooms you are eligible to bid on. Generally, you’ll only be allowed to bid on staterooms that are two meta categories higher than the one you are booked in. Meta categories are the major stateroom categories, like Inside, Oceanview, Balcony, Mini-Suite, and Suite, and do not include the variety within a category related to deck, ship location, or obstructed views. Therefore, if you book an Inside, you likely won’t see Suites offered in your list of categories you can bid on.
This list has three columns. In the first column is the stateroom category you can bid on, which includes a stateroom description and photo.
In the second column is a slider bar where you can set your bid. The cruise line sets the minimum and maximum range you can bid. The slider may start at $25 for moving up from an Inside to an Oceanview, while upgrades from Balcony to a Suite may start at $1000.
As you move the slider from left to right increasing your bid, in the third column, a meter reflects the “strength” of your bid, stating where it stands along the spectrum of weak/poor to strong.
You may bid on as many different categories as are in your list, but as soon as the cruise line accepts one of them, all your other bids are canceled.
Bids Are Doubled
Be aware that the amount you are bidding is a per person, double occupancy bid. Whatever your slider bar says your bid is, that amount will be doubled when accepted. If you are a single cruiser, it’s still doubled. If traveling with 5 in a stateroom, the bid amount only applies to the first and second passenger, the other 3 in your cabin upgrade for free!
Promotions and Special Category Considerations
If your original booking included any promotions, like a beverage package or onboard credit, you get to keep those. However, you won’t be eligible for any new promotions unless it is a specific perk of the stateroom you upgraded to.
For instance, if you were eligible for a Norwegian Pick One perk with your Inside stateroom booking, upgrading to a balcony by bidding does not make you eligible for the Pick Two or Take All promotions.
However, if you bid on a spa room, the spa perk is something that goes along with the specific stateroom, so you would receive that perk. Conversely, if you had a spa room and bid on a suite that does not include spa room perks; you will lose it with an upgrade and must purchase spa access separately.
Other considerations include gratuities. When upgrading to a category where a higher daily gratuity is charged, you will be responsible for the associated increase.
And finally, if you’ve purchased travel insurance, you may want to increase your coverage if your upgrade bid is accepted. While a $25 per person fare increase might not be worth the effort, if a $1000 bid is accepted, you’ll want to be sure it’s also covered in your policy.
Each stateroom in your booking will need to place separate bids. If one bid is accepted, the other stateroom keeps its original location. If both bids are accepted, both are upgraded, but may not be located near each other. For families traveling together and who wish to have rooms close together, bidding for an upgrade is probably not a good idea.
There Are No Take Backs
Upgrades are non-refundable. Once your bid is selected and accepted by the cruise line. It’s yours. No going back. Your bid can be accepted at any time, from as soon as you submit your bid, right up until days before sailing. If you change your mind or your financial situation has changed, you are allowed log back in to rescind or modify bids you have submitted.
Stateroom location depends entirely upon availability. Keep in mind; available staterooms close to sailing date may be available because they are the least desirable on the ship. You may end up with a balcony cabin directly beneath the pool area or above a show lounge. It might be a noisy or high traffic location and you’re stuck with it. Therefore, bidding for upgrades is probably not for cruisers picky about cabin location.
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Tips For Winning Bids
That’s really what everyone wants to know, right? How to be successful at winning upgrade bids? After an exhaustive search of passengers self-reporting how their bids fared, it’s clear that there are many variables to account for. There is also likely reporting bias. Passengers who think they might have bid too much aren’t exactly going online to brag about it.
In addition, when passengers report their bids were successful, they aren’t reporting enough detail to analyze exactly why they were successful. We don’t know how much they originally paid for the stateroom they booked, how much the upgraded room cost, both at the time of booking or when bids opened, how many staterooms in the category were available for new bookings, or even how many people were in the cabin.
That being said, there are numerous accounts of bids being accepted which were rated “poor” and virtually no one reporting they submitted “strong” bids at or near the maximum amount. Therefore, rolling the dice with a low bid can be an effective strategy, although not a reliable one. Assuming that there are a number of identical poor bids to choose from, it’s unclear how the cruise makes its final selection.
You can always bid higher, of course, but low winning bids of $25-$50 per person for a single category upgrade are widely reported. Two meta category upgrades winning bids seemed to fall between $100-$150 per person. The numbers for upgrading to a full suite, however, are all over the map. Depending on the suite and cruise line, it could be anywhere between $600 and $2000+ per person.
Playing The Odds
Numbers definitely matter here. Your chances of upgrading with a “poor” bid from an Inside or Oceanview to a Balcony is probably much greater than from a Balcony to the Owner’s Suite. There are a limited number of suites and a huge number of balcony cabins. With all the people in Balcony cabins bidding on that handful of suites, you likely need to bump your bid up in to get noticed.
Similarly, bookings with just two passengers will have more upgrade options available to them than a family with 4 or 5 in a stateroom as not all staterooms are configured for more than 2 passengers.
Know Before You Bid
For those interested in bidding, it’s a good idea to track what the different cabin categories cost when you make your reservation. If you book and Inside and a Balcony would have cost you $500 more, then you’ll have a better idea on how to bid. For instance, you shouldn’t bid $250 per person because then you would have been better off just booking a balcony in the first place.
What’s The Category Selling For Now?
Go to the cruise line website and do a mock booking to see how much the stateroom is selling for now and how many within that category are still available. If a Balcony stateroom now costs $200 more than what you paid, try placing a bid that would be less than or equal to that amount. If there are a lot of unsold balcony staterooms, you may be successful bidding even lower.
Some passengers have had luck outside of the bidding process by calling the cruise line and asking how much it would be to upgrade. You might get a better deal bidding, but by calling you might lock an upgrade in for less than you were planning on bidding. It never hurts to ask. If the phone quote is too high, you can then still try bidding a lower amount online.
Always Book the Stateroom You Want First
If you have your heart set on having a balcony during your cruise, don’t book an inside counting on getting a screaming deal for an upgrade to a balcony. You should always book a category of stateroom that you will be happy with. There’s never any guarantee that the cruise line will even offer you the opportunity to bid. Nor is there any guarantee that, even if you submit a high bid, they will select it. The worst thing would be to have a big black cloud over your vacation because you are disappointed you didn’t snag that upgrade.
Honestly, the bidding for upgrades is genius on the part of the cruise lines, but it’s far too easy to get caught up in the game of bidding and excitement of an upgrade. Passengers are wise to keep their emotions in check and place bids based on facts and odds.