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The Ultimate Guide to Bidding for Upgrades on Your Cruise

Everyone likes the idea of getting a good deal on an upgraded cabin, and a lot of cruise lines now offer this opportunity through a bidding process.  There are a lot of mysteries about how this works and what the secret to winning an upgrade bid is, so we’re going to help clear this up.  We’ll explain the bidding process, share some reasons cruise lines like this system (and they’re not all the reasons you’ll expect), and tell you what to do and what not to do in order to maximize your chances of winning an upgrade on your next cruise.

the ultimate guide on bidding for cruise upgrades

Bidding for Cabin Upgrades: The Background

Not long ago the way to get an upgrade was to either call your travel agent or cruise line and ask for the price, or hope for some magical upgrade surprise.  This wasn’t ideal for cruise lines, because it meant that there was a chance they were leaving money on the table when people didn’t know to ask about upgrades.  

A few years ago, however, most cruise lines switched to a bidding system.  In fact, most of them use the same system - a product called Premium Upgrade from a company called Plusgrade.  They provide the website (branded to look like the cruise line) and logic that ties into the cruise lines and helps drive this.  In fact, if you’ve ever bid for an upgrade on a flight, train ticket, or hotel room, you’ve probably used Plusgrade’s product before.  

plusgrade logo on virgin voyages site

Which Cruise Lines Let Guests Bid for Upgrades?

Most, but not all of the big name cruise lines in North America offer this as an option now.  This includes Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian, MSC, Princess, Virgin Voyages, and others.  One big name that’s missing?  Carnival.  Carnival Cruise Line actually has their own process where, weeks or days before a cruise, they email guests with a link to a special upgrade offer for them.  Guests can take it or leave it.

After you’ve booked a cruise, you may see references to upgrade programs on the website, in an email, or in the cruise line’s app.  While many cruise lines have their own names for this, such as Level Upgrade, MoveUp, or Royal Up, it’s all the same idea, and it’s all driven by Plusgrade.


How to Bid for Cabin Upgrades

Some time before your cruise you’ll have the opportunity to go onto a website and see a list of stateroom types that you can bid on.  There’s usually a short description of the room, some photographs, and a slider that lets you adjust your bid.  The minimum bid varies on the sailing, the room type, and what you’ve already paid (or your existing room type). Once you decide how much you’d like to bid, you put in your credit card or other payment information.  Prices are usually per stateroom - not per person (but check the fine print).  


Sometime before your cruise, maybe weeks, maybe just minutes, the cruise line will pick the winners.  They may not all happen at once, and you can usually go back to the website to check the status.  If your bid says ‘expired’ or something similar, then you didn’t get that upgrade.  If it’s ‘pending’ then there is a chance you could still win.  You can bid on as many types of rooms as are presented - they won’t let you win more than one type.  Also, you’ll only pay if you do win.  Usually, cruise lines email you if you’ve won a bid (some also notify you if you don’t), but many guests find they notice a credit card charge for their win even before they’re otherwise notified.  


Mistakes When Bidding for Upgrades

Paying More Than Necessary

Humans are kinda funny (I’ve yet to have AI write an article on CruiseHabit, you can tell by my typos).  We sometimes get so caught up in a process we forget there are better ways.  For example, I’ve seen guests bid more than they could pay for the room outright.  If you’ve paid $2000 for your inside cabin, and now you’re thinking of trying your luck at getting upgraded to a balcony room, think about what it’s worth to you, but make sure you can’t get it for less!  The cruise line or travel agent may have balcony rooms available for purchase.  If the prevailing rate is $2700, then you’ll just pay the $700 - no bidding needed!  Do keep in mind that anytime you adjust your rate, you’re actually adjusting your fare, so other parts of the promotion, such as how much onboard credit you get, may change.  A good travel agent can help you navigate these waters.  Read more about the importance of using a good travel agent.


Letting the Excitement of a Bid Get to You

Auctions, even asynchronous ones like this, can be exciting.  Anytime something is gamified we can get so excited that we lose sight of the goal.  Don’t forget to stick with what you are comfortable spending.  You may think your bid is a longshot, but if you do get it, that money is being charged to your credit card right away, and there is no going back (you can’t get a refund and go back to your previously booked room). This also means not getting tricked by the gauges showing how likely your bid is to get accepted.  They serve absolutely no function beyond trying to get you to put out more money.  


Bidding for an Upgrade is Like Getting a Guarantee Room

Cruise lines often let you book a guarantee room, where you pay to get not a specific room, but a type of room - and you don’t get to choose the exact room number or location.  You can learn more about that in this video about cabin types.  One of the downsides of guarantees is also a downside to bidding for upgrades, in that, unless there is only one of the room type you’re bidding on, you could get ANY of those rooms, so if you’re worried about being next to a loud club, or too far forward or aft (which can be hard for those prone to motion discomfort), then bidding for a room may not be for you.   

Common Misconceptions about Bidding for Cruise Cabin Upgrades

What’s Included with Your Upgrade

Generally, if you win a bid for a new room category, it’s just like you booked that room to begin with - you get all the benefits that come along with it.  There can be exceptions.  For example, on Celebrity, booking a suite generally comes with a premium beverage package.  If, however, you booked a standard stateroom and don’t have a drink package, or have only a classic drink package, you’ll not receive the deluxe package if you win an upgrade to a suite.  While this is somewhat of an exception, you should always check to be sure that anything you expect to get, beyond the room itself, is actually included in the price when bidding for an upgrade.


Whoever Bids the Most Will Win the Stateroom Upgrade

This seems logical, but there are at least two reasons that it’s wrong (maybe more - we don’t always know all of the factors cruise lines may be considering).  First, if I paid $1000 for an inside room, and you paid $3000 for a balcony, it’s generally the case that these differences are taken into account when bidding.  If I bid $500 for a suite, but you, having paid three time what I did for the cruise fare, bid $400 for the same suite, you’re probably at an advantage - which makes sense, as you’d potentially get that suite for $3400, instead of my winning it for $1500.  


Another reason the highest bidder doesn’t always win is because no one has to win.  In fact, this comes up as a question frequently, when guests see that a sailing is sold out, or is out of a certain type of room, but then they’re able to bid for upgrades on that cruise, or for that sold out type of room on the cruise.  Is this a mistake?  Not at all!  Things happen, people cancel cruises at the last minute sometimes, and when that happens, the cruise line will want to put someone in that room, and they want that someone to pay for it, so they’ll take someone who bid the most (or who is willing to pay the highest net cost between their fare and their bid).  I’ve twice won bids for upgrades where just days before, the room type I bid on was completely sold out - and this is a common situation.  It also relates to why cruise lines love this bidding system…

How Cruise Lines Win When People Bid for Upgrades

Cruise lines are businesses, so of course, they’re happy to have guests offer money for nice rooms, where they then get to pick if they accept that money.  That, however, is just one step in the process for the cruise line.  Let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, that there is one guest in an inside room who bid for an ocean view, one in an ocean view who bid for a verandah, and one in a verandah who bid for a suite.  Should a suite become available, the verandah guest moves up, and now, a verandah is available.  That means they can then award the ocean view guest their bid to a verandah, and award the inside room guest their upgrade to the ocean view.  That’s pretty great for the cruise line - but it goes even further.

In the scenario above, there is now an empty inside room - and if you’re a cruise line trying to fill a ship with only a couple weeks or even days to go, you want a good lead price.  A lead price is the lowest price you can advertise for a cruise and that the cruise line is willing to accept at the time an ad runs. “Cruise the Caribbean for just $399!”  That’s a lead price.  If they can move guests up (while charging them money for it), and end up with a lower lead price (since the inside rooms would generally be the most affordable), that helps fill those final spaces on the ship.


Tips for Winning a Bid for Your Cruise

Let me start by telling you that none of these tips guarantee you’ll get upgraded - because as I mentioned previously, above all else, there has to be a room to be awarded.  If there is space, however, these tips may help you, as they’ve helped me.

Bid Early

Cruise lines can decide to award a bid at any time.  While often, they wait until the last minute, this isn’t always the case.  You can’t win if you don’t bid, so if the option is worth it to you, don’t delay.  Someone else may be the top bidder today and win a bid, simply because you hadn’t taken the two minutes to offer a bid yet.  So, as soon as you get an email telling you that you can bid, go for it.  In fact, some lines don't even make you wait, and there may be upgrade links available when you log into the website.  In the case of Virgin Voyages, you can go right to their upgrade page.


You’re Most Likely to Win Bids for Balcony Rooms

On most modern cruise ships, 70-90% of rooms have verandahs, or balconies.  Because they’re by far the most abundant type of room, they’re also the most likely to free up - either because the cruise line didn’t sell them all as quickly as expected, or because someone cancels.  Think about it this way, if 850 out of 1000 cabins are balconies, and someone cancels, which type of room most likely just freed up?

Bid on Multiple Room Types You Like

This tip is especially true for suites, and relates to our tip above.  Let’s say I’m in a standard room on Scarlet Lady, and I’d like to stay in a suite.  Those Cheeky Corner Suites look cool (seriously, watch this tour!), so I’m going to bid on one, and I see the option to bid on a “Cheeky Corner Suite - Even Bigger Terrace”.  Well, there are only two of those - so while possible, it’s not likely I’ll get one of them.  Keep looking and you might see you can bid on a “Cheeky Corner Suite- Biggest Terrace”, at the same time.  If those are neat, but just having any suite is really what’d be neat, then bid on a Seriously Suite, too - there are dozens of those, and thus, a better chance one may become available.  Bidding on all three of those types, if you’d be happy with them, greatly increases your chances of success.


Don’t Bid a Round Number

This one is purely conjecture on my part, I’ll admit, but it’s easy, and seems logical.  Most of us have a budget, and I’m not saying to pay more than what it’s worth to you - but, well, maybe $5 or $10 more.  If two people bid on a suite, and they both paid $3000 for their current room, and they see the minimum bid for a suite is $750, maybe they’ll both bid that, or maybe they’ll think, “I’ll bid just more than the minimum - $800.”  A lot of people will stop at big round numbers like that.  Me, if I’m comfortable with $800, then I’ll be fine with $805 or $810, in hopes I might beat out someone with a similar budget, even though I’m not spending materially more.  


The Most Important Tip When Bidding

Remember, you paid a price for your cruise that was worth it to you.  Don’t let the hype of bidding, or the gamification make you lose sight of that.  I hate seeing folks upset they didn’t get an upgrade when, before they knew it was an option, they were perfectly happy with the room they initially booked!  

You chose your vacation, and odds are, you’re going to have a pretty great time.  If you don’t win an upgrade bid, you’ll have a pretty great time for even less money than you were willing to part with.