Ah, vacation. Sand between your toes, a frosty beverage in your hand and (cue the record scratching) … a room the size of a shoebox?
If you’re going on a cruise or resort vacation but trying to stick to a budget, chances are you’ve booked yourself into the cheapest cabin or room available. And those tiny spaces are generally low on luxury.
But not to worry. Even budget travelers can luck out occasionally and score free upgrades — while paying a fraction of the price that the big spenders do for their spacious suites.
Here are a few tried-and-true strategies for scoring complimentary upgrades on cruise ships and at resorts. Be patient and see what happens — when you’re a budget traveler, getting an upgrade is a sweet bonus on top of an already great trip.
How to Get a Free Cruise Cabin Upgrade
True story: I once started out a transatlantic cruise in a tiny, dark room in what I lovingly referred to as the “bowels of the ship” — only to be upgraded two days into our journey to a spacious two-bedroom suite with a beautiful window view.
It was a true “rags to riches” kind of experience. How did I do it? Here are my favorite tactics.
Book a Guaranteed Cabin
When you book your cruise, whether on your own or through a travel agent, consider booking a “guaranteed cabin.” This means you’re not assigned a stateroom immediately, but it guarantees that you’ll be placed in a room in the same category or better.
If the cruise ship sells out of rooms in your chosen category, you might be bumped up to a room in a better category. Note that this trick is unlikely to score you a suite while you pay for an interior stateroom, but it could give you a slightly better view or deck location.
Join the Loyalty Club
The more frequently you cruise, the more likely you are to enjoy cabin upgrades — both Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruise lines state that they occasionally offer complimentary upgrades to their highest level members, and Cruise Critic members report that they’ve been offered upgrades at lower levels, too.
Plus, after just one or two cruises, you’ll enjoy other perks, like free drinks, Internet minutes and discounts on specialty restaurants on board. Just like earning frequent flyer miles when you travel by plane, you might as well collect points and perks for your cruising time.
Get in Line at Guest Relations
Some people will tell you to ask about available upgrades immediately after boarding the ship. This is why you’ll see long lines of people waiting at the purser’s or guest relations desk, though there’s usually a sign explaining that “no upgrades are available.”
It’s true — by the time you board the ship, most of the cabins will have already been assigned. But I have had luck with an upgrade using this method, so it’s worth a try.
I politely waited in line at guest relations and made my case for a more spacious room. I wasn’t upgraded immediately, but the attendant advised me to return and check back several times. At the end of the second day, I was given the key to a beautiful, oversized stateroom.
Patience, persistence and politeness were key. Above all else, be polite. No one wants to help a jerk!
How to Upgrade Your Resort Suite
Though resort rooms aren’t typically as tiny as cruise cabins, you will definitely notice a difference among the different categories — private bedrooms, balconies, views of the ocean instead of the parking lot … and even butler service.
And like we saw with cruise ship cabins, it’s possible to enjoy some of these upgraded amenities without paying for them.
Travel During the Low Season
Upgrades are usually based on occupancy, so if you’re traveling during a low season (as opposed to a time when the resort is fully booked), you may have a better chance at an upgrade.
“Low season” depends on the location where you’re traveling, but in the Caribbean, for example, it’s April through December, just before the holidays.
I received an upgrade without even asking for one at a Florida resort. It had just undergone major renovations, and luckily I was there just prior to the crowds. My two-room suite included complimentary bottled water, a stroller for my son and a relaxing balcony.
Don’t Be a Jerk
Yes, this is a crucial point. Friendliness goes a long way! Smile, be polite, inquire about possible upgrades, but never make demands while checking in.
Some travelers even sweeten the request with a $20 bill. If you can do it in a non-aggressive way, it might work, though your mileage may vary — and you risk losing $20 in the attempt.
Are you traveling as part of a celebration or important event?
Resorts tend to look favorably on guests who are celebrating special occasions. A former employee at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa says he would go through comments on room reservations “with a yellow highlighter in hand,” zeroing in on guests celebrating birthdays, honeymoons, military deployments and other special occasions.
If upgraded rooms are available, these guests are often the first treated to them. Make sure to indicate any celebrations while you are making your reservation, and politely bring it up as you are checking in.
Receiving an upgrade can be a pleasant surprise. But don’t get too wrapped up in your quest for a bump if it doesn’t come to fruition. No matter where your cabin or room might be, relax and enjoy your trip — after all, that’s what your vacation is all about.
Cynthia J. Drake is the author of the book Budget Travel for the Genius.