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Cruise lines overbook sailings sometimes. Here's what happens when your trip is oversold

10 Jun 2024
Matt Hochberg

An oversold cruise ship isn't unheard of in the cruise industry.

Oversold cruise

Travelers may be used to hearing about oversold flights or hotels, but cruise lines do sometimes overbook their ships anticipating last-minute cancellations. It's much less likely for an oversold cruise ship to result in someone being booted off the ship, but it does rarely occur.

Unlike a flight, being out of a cruise vacation means a multi-day plan change and it's not like there are as many cruise ships as airplanes in service to pick up the slack.

In case you're wondering, here's how Royal Caribbean handles overbooked cruises so you know what to expect.

Looking for volunteers

Symphony of the Seas docked

In the weeks leading up to the cruise, Royal Caribbean monitors its bookings as part of its inventory management process.  If it sees a potential issue, the cruise line reaches out proactively to remedy the situation.

Guests sailing on Symphony of the Seas June 14, 2024 cruise received an email last week to ask select cruisers if they would consider rebooking.

Royal Caribbean did not come out and use words like "oversold" or "overbooked", but the email appears to be a way to free up cabins so the ship will not be oversold.

Email with oversold options

"Ahead of your Symphony of the Seas June 14, 2024, sailing, we are looking to see if you and your travel party have flexible travel plans," the email to booked passengers said.

The cruise line was quick to add that if you are committed to sail, to disregard the email.  The idea is to ideally find people booked on the cruise that might cruise a lot and can change their plans because this isn't their one and only major cruise they have booked.  Or, they are looking to find an opportunistic deal hunter that wouldn't mind deferring their trip in exchange for a good reason.

The exact compensation offered will depend on the situation, so don't take this example to be the most likely scenario you could expect.

Symphony of the Seas

In the case of Symphony of the Seas, guests had two choices:

1. Change to another Symphony of the Seas cruise departing from Cape Liberty, New Jersey in the same room category originally booked, plus get a full refund.

2. Cancel and get a 100% refund, plus 100% value of the cruise fare in the form a Future Cruise Credit.

With both scenarios, you'll get all your money back and a free cruise (or at least the value of a free cruise).

Usually forecasts work out

Royal Promenade on Oasis of the Seas

Why do cruise lines oversell cruises to begin with? It's because it's a practical approach to their business, Billy Hirsch, author of CruiseHabit, told Royal Caribbean Blog.

The reality is based on historical data there are usually people that either cancel at the last-minute or don't show up to the cruise.

"Even if a sailing is totally booked weeks out, there will almost always be some number of guests who cancel at the last minute or fail to show up. Trying to fill cabins at the last minute is risky and can harm price integrity," Hirsch said.

What cruise lines do is make a prediction, based on history, of how many empty staterooms they'll likely have ahead of sailing and sell that many extra rooms ahead of time.

"To cruise lines, cabins on a cruise are perishable commodities - if they aren't sold by sailing, they're worthless."

Read more: Royal Caribbean cabin and suites

Overhead view of Oasis Class ship

As was the case with Symphony of the Seas, if those predictions are off, a lucrative offer can balance things back out, "If just before sailing it appears some guests will be turned away, lines tend to make, 'too good to refuse' offers, like a full refund, a 100% future cruise credit, and sometimes even additional credits or cash. 

"Usually forecasts work out, but when they don't, if those offers are so good that people are happy to accept them, then everyone leaves the port feeling good - whether on the ship or in a cab."

Can you be booted off a cruise?

It's extremely rare for a cruise to be oversold and not enough volunteers to make enough room, but it has happened.

In December 2023, guests on Quantum of the Seas sailing from Australia ran into a situation where a few passengers were left behind when the ship ran out of cabins.

Avoid guarantee cabins if you're worried about oversold cruises

Guarantee cabin choice

In all my years of covering Royal Caribbean, the amount of oversold cruises occurring resulting in someone being kicked off a cruise can likely be counted on my hand. Nonetheless, there's one simple step to take to avoid the situation.

Guaranteed cabins (known as "GTY") are rooms sold without a specific assignment at a lower rate.  The idea is Royal Caribbean will assign you a room later from one of the unsold cabins.

Read more: What are the different types of cabins on a cruise ship?

While not an official policy that has been announced by Royal Caribbean, it stands to reason those with an unassigned room would be at a higher risk in this hypothetical situation.

Hump balcony room

If you're concerned about booking a guarantee cabin in the future, I would personally recommend you not worry about it. 

I've booked plenty of guaranteed cabins over the years, and will continue to do so. I believe the risk of an oversold cruise is so remote that it's not worth worrying about. Plus, the additional savings of a guarantee cabin are hard to overlook.

Matt started Royal Caribbean Blog in 2010 as a place to share his passion for all things Royal Caribbean with readers. He oversees all the writers at Royal Caribbean Blog, and writes a great deal of content on a daily basis.  He has become one of the foremost expert on a Royal Caribbean cruise.

Over the years, he has reached Pinnacle Club status with Royal Caribbean's customer loyalty program.

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