What is one of the most coveted "prizes" of cruising? An upgrade! Is it any surprise that so many of us want them? Upgrades make us feel special and appreciated by the increasingly impersonal cruise lines. And who doesn't enjoy telling friends and table-mates how you were upgraded 18 categories? A few years ago, upgrades were quite common, as cruise lines sought to reward loyal repeat passengers, and to curry favor among high-producing travel agencies by letting them pass along these bonuses to their best customers. It was not uncommon to receive an upgrade just for the asking.
But times have changed! As the cruise lines become increasingly focused on the bottom line, complimentary upgrades have all but vanished. In years past, front-line cruise staff like reservationsists or district sales managers had the authority to award upgrades. Now, however, this perk is usually controlled by the Revenue Management department, which is responsible for maximizing the amount of money brought in from every cabin. That means if the cruise line thinks there is even a slight chance that someone will pay for a room, they'd rather see that happen than upgrade you to a higher category. On the flip side, if the cruise line finds that some departures are only filling up at the lowest price points, it might sell many more "guarantees" than it has cabins, and start upgrading passengers. The line might do this at random, or based on things like the time of booking, repeat passenger status or the travel agency that handled the booking.
A friend at one cruise line told me that upgrade requests from travel agents are forwarded to a director, who then forwards them to Revenue Management. If Revenue Management finds the request worth reviewing, it is only reviewed a few days prior to sailing--and in most instances, upgrading is done at the pier, when the passenger checks in.
That said, I requested the "upgrade policies" from many major cruise lines to find out how easily upgrades can be obtained, how a request is processed, and who can approve them. The following policies apply to requests made outside of the normal channels, or the random upgrading cruise lines sometimes do to shuffle inventory. Please bear in mind that these policies may change. In some instances, upgrades policies requiring "executive approval" may be OK'd by front-line or supervisory employees to resolve customer service issues. But trust me--someone will question every upgrade request at some point, and they all must be justified!