Most of the time when people book cruises they choose a specific cabin for their cruise. Choosing a cabin lets passengers find a cabin that meets their needs, whether it is a quiet location, close to an elevator, or in a specific area of the ship. When you choose your own cabin you have the type of cabin you picked in the exact location you wanted it.
There is another way to book cruises though. Sometimes bookings are offered by category guarantee rather than choosing a specific room. When you book by category guarantee you get at least the category you booked in, and sometimes a free upgrade to a higher category. Besides the likelihood of free upgrades, booking by category guarantee is cheaper than picking your own cabin in the category you booked. You will never get a lower category than you paid for, but higher is quite likely. Just remember a higher category to the cruise line may just mean closer to the center of the ship or on a higher deck. For instance if you chose the lowest possible inside cabin category and ended up in an inside room on deck 9 instead of deck 1 you may not consider that an upgrade because it is still an inside room, but the cruise line will have that deck 9 room listed in a higher category of inside rooms and for a higher price than the deck 1 cabin so to them it is an upgrade.
Booking porthole or above can easily lead to an ocean view cabin. Most ships have very few porthole cabins so if they all get booked the line has to move you up to ocean view because they can’t move you down to inside.
You are much more likely to get an upgrade when booking category guarantee than if you book a specific room, but you have no choice about where on the ship that room is located. You might get a great location or you might end up under the galley or somewhere equally noisy.
On most cruises we choose our cabin, but sometimes we have gone with category guarantee when it is offered. I took my very first cruise with my daughter on a ship named Ocean Breeze belonging to a one-ship line called Imperial Majesty, long since out of business. We had a category guarantee booking that assured we would at least get the very worst cabin the ship had to offer – and so we did. This cabin was shaped like a wide hallway with a twin bed at either end. It did have the biggest bathroom we’ve ever had on a cruise ship, but it was very plain and basic with a cement floor, small sink, toilet, a showerhead with a curtain to pull around it, and nothing else but empty space. The steward had to clear all his spare towels and other supplies out of the room. It was normally never booked so he used it as a storage closet. It was very noisy being located under the stage and freezing because it had no controls for the overhead air conditioner vent. The steward only lessened the blasting artic air by covering it up with cardboard and towels so he left us a pile of extra blankets. I didn’t book by category guarantee again for years after that, but so far we have had much better luck with our category guarantee cabins on other cruise lines. None of the ships we’ve sailed on since even have a room like that one. It didn’t scare me off from cruising though. We still had fun.
On the MSC Divina we got a cruise for next to nothing (11 days for $149) at Sky Auction. It was initially an inside room, but when they offer an upgrade to a balcony for an additional $50 it is definitely a deal worth taking. The cabin they assigned us was a nearly unique style in that the ship had only 4 like it. While most cabins sit short end toward the outside of the ship, this one was set with the long side of the room along the outside of the ship. The balcony ran the whole length of the room so it was double the size of the average cruise ship balcony. The room itself was arranged nearly as 2 rooms. The entry came between the closet and bathroom as normal, then the rest of that side of the room had a couch and TV with an opening into a second area nearly a room into itself with the bed and another TV. Best balcony room we ever had, almost like having a mini-suite and we got in on a category guarantee.
On a cruise out of Boston on Holland America Veendam my aunt and I booked porthole or above and ended up with an ocean view room on the lowest deck with cabins. This was a great room with a window straight to the sea. My other aunt and uncle booked ocean view or above and got an ocean view room on the promenade deck. To the cruise line this is a higher category because the deck is higher, but they would have preferred the lower deck where nobody walks past your window. Their room was also under the galley and very loud at night so they asked if they could be moved to a different room and ended up down the hall in a lanai cabin, which has a door out onto the promenade deck. It books for a significantly larger amount of money, so a big upgrade there. They could still hear people out swabbing the promenade deck at night, but were at least out from under the galley.
I booked category guarantee on Holland America again on the Oosterdam, this time with my husband. We booked at the lowest inside category or above and were placed in an inside cabin on deck 7 rather than deck 1. This cabin just happened to be directly across the hall from friends we were sailing on this cruise with who had chosen their own balcony cabin. Probably not coincidence that they put us in that specific room when they could have put us anywhere.
We also booked category guarantee inside or above on Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas and were assigned to a deck 2 ocean view cabin. This was a 23 day Pacific crossing so we were quite grateful for the view. Deck 2 is their lowest category of ocean view cabins. Ours was near the bow, third cabin from the end of a dead-end hallway with only 15 cabins in it so hardly anyone ever walked past our room. There were no inside rooms across the hall since they had a conference center there, but it didn’t have many activities and none at night so the room was usually quiet.
Overall we’ve had good luck with category guarantee bookings. They can be a significant savings over choosing your own room even without an upgrade. If you do get an upgrade then it’s an even bigger bonus. You have to be OK with not knowing where your room will be nearly until the ship sails because you don’t often get the room assignment very far ahead of the departure date. They wait until the end to see which specific rooms didn’t sell.
Once years ago we booked an inside cabin on Norwegian Pearl and ended up with a balcony room. We really got lucky that time. A jump in categories that big without paying something extra for the upgrade rarely ever happens.
Not every booking will have the category guarantee option, but when they do it can help to make the cruise more affordable. With category guarantee bookings you are also more likely to get a call from the upgrade fairy to move to a higher category for a fee. They do this when your chosen category is getting full and they’d rather make a little more money to move someone up than move anyone up for free. You do of course have the option of saying no and just seeing where you end up. Sometimes they offer a deal too good to pass up and sometimes they don’t.
My husband and I recently had a category guarantee through Vacations to Go on the Veendam on a Caribbean cruise for ocean view or above. We’d have been perfectly happy with a lower deck ocean view room, but of course would have no control over getting moved up to the promenade deck. We wouldn’t have liked the ocean view cabin being where people walk past your room, especially if we ended up under the galley like my aunt and uncle had on that very same ship. I have mixed feelings on whether I’d like a lanai cabin or not, assuming they ran out of ocean view cabins and gave us a free upgrade to lanai. While the direct promenade access and reserved deck chairs would be nice, there is still the issue of people walking past your room all day and noisy nighttime deck swabbers. Then the upgrade fairy called offering a vista suite where the added charge for the upgrade plus what we had already paid was about half the going rate for that room on Holland America’s website. Being generally budget cruisers we’d never stayed in a suite before. We may never get one offered at that big of a bargain again so we accepted even though it’s their lowest class of suites and pretty much just a slightly bigger than average balcony room with an oversized balcony. It did come with some of the same perks their bigger suites get, but not all. Because of the low price we did not get the double days suite bonus applied to their loyalty program even though that room would qualify for people who paid full price.
If you like to save money and you’re adventurous and not particularly picky about your cabin, booking by category guarantee is a great way to go. If you won’t be happy unless your cabin is exactly what and where you want then it’s not the ideal way for you to book.