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Complimentary Upgrades – The Good, The Bad, The Confusion

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There’s been hundreds of industry experts offer their explanations and musings on the topic, as well as thousands of experiences and opinions posted on the cruise information web sites. I’ve previously published articles on the topic myself.

But, I don’t believe anyone, including the cruise lines, have any accurate, real, explanation for when, who, why, and what reason complimentary upgrades are given to passengers.

The easiest and simplest upgrade situation to understand is when the various cruise lines run sales which include a free upgrade at the time of booking. This is a tool often used by the cruise lines. Rather than lower the price of cabins, they do so in a manner that makes it appear that besides the “already low price” they offer, they are willing to give you a bonus by giving you something for nothing.

And, it is true, there is some value to those upgrades. There’s also a bit of a catch.

In recent years the cruise lines have added many more categories to their cabins; subdividing identically sized and laid out cabins which are only differentiated by their location on the ship. And most often the upgrades they offer at time of booking are changes within a cabin type (I.E. inside to inside, ocean view to ocean view, balcony to balcony). The flaw is it’s the cruise lines who’ve determined that one location is more attractive (and therefore more costly) to their customers. It is possible the passenger will prefer the less costly cabin location.

In many cases the lowest price available to sail a ship is booking a ROS (run of the ship) guarantee. This allows the cruise line to place you in any cabin on the ship, dependent entirely on their choices for their inventory management.

This may be the very best way to book your cruise if all you want to do is be assured you’ll be sailing on that ship. On occasion this method can result in very significant upgrades, which leave the customers delighted. However one should most reasonably expect to be placed in a cabin in the lowest one third of cabin categories available.

There’s a bit of a myth on the topic of upgrades when travel agents may say, or imply, that their customers always get free upgrades because of their contacts at the cruise line, or the amount of volume they do with a cruise line.

I believe working with a travel agent is the most important thing someone considering going on a cruise can do to help insure smooth sailing. Some travel agents do have key relationships with various cruise lines, but no agent is going to guarantee each and every customer a free upgrade (unless it’s being offered by the cruise line). That said, there are travel agents who will go to bat for their clients with their contacts at the cruise line to request an upgrade. To think they will do that for every client is naïve. They may do so for their most loyal and frequent customers, but even then it is only a request.

Every ship that sails, prior to departure is supplied with a list from their home office, listing all those passengers who have been designated VIPs. It could be their most very frequent passengers, or celebrities, or media and press, and lowly writers from Making the cruise line’s VIP lists can often also mean put to the front of the line if upgrades are available.

I’ve had my own theory, totally unresearched and unproven, that often complimentary upgrades are handed out to first time cruisers with the particular cruise line. I understand that seems to defy logic, as one would think the frequent customers should be rewarded first. However, if you’re a regular but not super frequent customer, I think they kind of assume you’re loyal to their brand already, and are more likely to make the attempt to impress the first time cruiser on that line, to attempt to turn them into a repeat customer.

So, holding to my theory, when filling in your online registration for your first cruise with a cruise line, where it asks you if you have sailed other cruise lines, and how many times, exaggerate your previous cruise experiences on other lines, using big numbers. And if you’re offered a great free upgrade, let me know.

Amidst all the confusion on the upgrade topic, there is some logical business management that exists in the process as well.

– The cruise lines want to fill as many cabins as they can on a ship, and want to get as much revenue as possible from the sale of those cabins.

As a sailing date approaches their yield management programs will show them if certain categories are selling better than others. If a category is overly popular and inventory becomes limited, it is possible they’ll upgrade those already booked in that category, to create space to meet demand. Of course, the people requesting that category could be offered the upgrade for the same price of the lower category, but that doesn’t seem a common occurrence. The reason – if they lowered the price, they would face demand for price reductions from those already booked.

Now, I do believe, that in those situations, where they are upgrading someone to create space, they will choose to upgrade the people in the lower category who paid the highest price. Like airline seats it’s often difficult to find a group of passengers on a ship who paid the same price for the same category cabin, even with today’s “flat pricing” policies in place.

The latest twist to the upgrade game is cruise line phone calls to offer low priced upgrades (to up sell the customer). Rather than release the “Upgrade Fairy” to pick and choose which passengers to reward with an upgrade, they will call passengers or their travel agents, and offer rather significant upgrades, at a lower price than what they would have paid if they had booked that cabin originally.

The cruiser’s biggest dream is that they arrive at the pier and are informed they have been chosen for a free upgrade to the largest Penthouse Suite on the ship. I’m not going to say that it has never happened, but I think that while we always keep hope alive, it’s not likely that it’s going to happen.

I’ve had several cruise lines tell me that on occasion their top suites do indeed sail empty. Especially true in the case of ships with side by side suites. They hesitate to put someone in that empty suite, who in casual conversation on the adjoining balconies, will end up telling the suite passenger who paid full fare, that they’d been upgraded after only paying for a cabin next to the boiler. They make one low revenue passenger incredibly happy, and make a “high roller” guest a tad upset.

It can never hurt to request complimentary upgrades. I don’t recommend you rely entirely on what I’ve opined about in this article, because it’s all so complicated, it’s possible none of what I wrote may be true.

– A View From the Kuki Side of Cruising –







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Comment from Kenneth Eden
Time January 12, 2011 at 5:25 am

I do not discuss the “particulars”of my cruises, ie: price, cabin etc.. But, here is one example of a cruise that had very good intentions, and failed from the get go.

The cruise line WAS one that we both really loved to sail with. Not only the cruise line, but the particular “class” of ship was our favorite. Everything about it was to our liking, mostly, and we were anxious to explore the vast Pacific coast of Mexico. We had noticed some minor short commings with this line, on previous cruises and let them slide, chocking it up to “it happens”.

Flights were fine, pre-cruise hotel was fine – these things if they go wrong could cause one to have a bad cruise, or dampen it a little. Nothing was awry.

We got a complimentary upgrade on this cruise, about a week before we sailed. We had NEVER asked for one with this line, and had only sailed with a balcony on their newer ships. Our travel agent was shocked at the upgrade, since this line is known for not being too generous with them. Boy, we were impressed, a balcony up grade!!

So, we wended our way to the cabin. WAY – WAY forward, the first cabin portside, bow-wow location. As I placed the card in the door slot, the slot fell to the floor. No steward, nobody to be seen. I went to the Pursers Desk, and after a long 25 minute wait, a ships mechanic took me to the cabin, opened it up, and left. Not a word from him.

The cabin, well, it would not make Good Housekeepings top 100. It was filthy. Hairs in the tub, frayed towels, cracked tiles, ring around the toilet. The sheets were stained, under the bed were dust bunnies, even a used tote bag covered with dust was there. In the drawers one held melted chocolates, another a USED Q-tip. Balcony rusted, decking stained(greasy), and the fridge was not working. Incidently, a bottle of wine from the cruise line, and champagne and chocolate dipped strawberries from our travel agent were placed in the cabin, and the ice bucket was full of ice – its not like somebody “forgot” about this cabin.

Three times during this cruise the door knob and the key slot fell off. Three days into the cruise, after constant complaining, the cabin was cleaned. We never once saw our steward, as the cabin was attended to during dinner. Three times the toilet stopped working.

Needless to say, we will never sail this line again. Interestingly while talking with another passenger during a cruise on a different line, they too had a similar experience with this cruise line, and have never been back.

Be carefull what you wish for. AND never settle for a filthy cabin. Oh, the ports were wonderful.

Comment from Kenneth Eden
Time January 12, 2011 at 7:29 am

Dear Kuki – thank you for supporting the travel agent when boooking a cruise.

I have had the same TA for many years, he is independent, owns his own agency, and actually has an office, not some cyber goon that hides in a bedroom with a computer, wearing – well, lets not go there – office and has not a care about a clients passionate needs for the perfect cruise booking.

Back in the 1970’s I used what was one of the finest travel agencies in the world, Thomas Cook Travel. They were heaven to work with, alas, they got bought up by Wagon Lit and one booking with them, and I never used them again.

All of you at cruise reviews and cruise mates do a wonderful job. I enjoy the site, obviously!

Comment from Luke
Time January 13, 2011 at 9:27 am

Upgrades on cruises are so hard to get, so I appreciate your post on it.

Comment from dee jansen
Time January 14, 2011 at 11:39 am

I agree with everthing you “purpose” is happening with upgrades. On our very first cruise, we were upgraded TWICE before our cruise date. Once from inside to outside, second to balcony. And a nice one at that! Cruised 7 times (same line) since and no upgrades. For our next cruise we have booked a cabin in category E1 in a part of the ship that they have the more extended balcony than others of same category. They use to be called a category E2, but now that most have realized that some cabins have a larger balcony that what is printed in their brochure, it was adventacious to create a new category and boost up pricing. They happen to mess up our reservation this time and inadvertently gave our booked and deposit paid cabin( 4 months previous to this fiaso) to someone else and asked if we’d like an “upgrade to D1, to which we decline due to the fact that I know its no bigger and has a smaller balcony. I insisted on an upgrade comparable to the larger balcony that we booked in the first place. Well, all said and done, we have a Junior Suite now.

Comment from Kenneth Eden
Time January 24, 2011 at 5:04 am

Back in the good old days of truly enjoyable cruises, the 1980’s, there was a move afoot to shrink the number of categories available for booking on cruise ships, not all, and not on all cruise lines, just on some, as the cruise lines put it.

There would be suites, outside and inside cabins, spread about 4 to 6 pricing categories, the reason was no secret. Old ships that lacked the newer bells and whistles wanted to shrink back from competition of the newly built ships, offer a simple format of fares and deck plans. It flat out did not work.

The old ships had non-compartmentized cabins and staterooms. Think of it as a car built by a human, versus one built by a computer/robot. The auto term is unibody.

Old ships had cabins built to fit spaces and areas within the confines of the ship. A cat. 7, for the sake of nothing, really, could have dozens of cat. 7’s over diffferent decks, with square footage varying from cabin to deck and back.

The new ships had compartmented cabins, built like box cars or house trailer, one unit, including the bath, built and slotted into the ship.

Today, there can be 10 cabin categories, or more, cabins or staterooms indentical, and located all over the ship, all at different prices. What you pay for in reality is the LOCATION of said cabin. On some ships, same cabins, same size, same everything, can offer a better dining room and better linens and conciege services, at a higher price for such amenities, BUT you are still in the same cabin as one priced lower.

Having said that, there are passengers that demand a certain location, be it near, or away from elevators, near the pool, close to the dining room, upper deck, vs other locations. These are not requests, they are real demands for specific locations. Pricing is noted, for these locations, as well as for wheel chair access, and the now rare as hens teeth single cabins. Yes, there were actual single cabins, priced for one, not at the absurd cruise rates imposed today by most cruise lines.

The unitized cabins today offer a sameness in cabins found on nearly all contemporary cruise ships. It is true, you can be upgraded, from a cat. 9, lets say, on the lowest passenger deck, outside cabin, to a cat. 6, lets say, on an upper deck, the price may be higher, you save some dough, but, the cabin is identical. Same is true for a lower deck balcony cabin, upgraded to a higher deck canin. Same cabin, same balcony, you save some dough.

If somebody can not see what an upgrade is, its called getting a more expensive cabin and paying the old rate, then, there is something wrong with that person. Any upgrade, from one price and saving the difference in fare, is an upgrade.

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