Travel and cruise expert Gary Bembridge is warning cruisers that travellers are being bumped off overbooked cruises with increased frequency.

And the problem is only set to get worse.

National headlines were made towards the end of last year when cruisers arrived at the terminal for their Royal Caribbean cruise out of Brisbane, just to be told they couldn’t be allocated.

“Something I’ve seen happening that is going to be increasingly common this year is people being bumped off cruises due to overbooking.

“On investigating, I found this is happening way more than I realised. But these stories weren’t making the news like this one [The Royal Caribbean incident], because cruisers were being bumped off their cruises in the run-up to their trips. Not once they actually got to the port.”

Bembridge says this is happening as major cruise lines are selling at above their occupancy. Similarly, to airlines, cruise lines often overbook their cruises. They operate under the assumption that a certain number of passengers will drop out. 

Why is this happening?

“All three major cruising groups, the Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Group have told their investors that sales in 2024 are way above any previous year. Occupancy of their ships is already running at 109 per cent and increasing,” he said.

The Wall Street Journal reported these statistics in May 2023. Royal Caribbean Group’s bookings were up over 52 per cent year over year. Norwegian Cruise Line was up five up per cent in the same period.

“Now because demand is high, they are overselling using guaranteed fares, which just guarantees a cabin grade, not a specific cabin. They then assume that people will drop out when the final balance payment is due, and then they will be able to take everyone.

“However, many affected cruises are being bumped off, creating an issue.”

According to cruise agent and expert Sharon Summerhayes from Deluxe Travel & Cruise, another factor is the rise in younger cruisers. As younger cruisers with less health issues are much less likely to drop out of their cruise.

” I believe the actual reason that bumping could rise is the lowering age of the average cruiser, with fewer last-minute cancellations due to the better health of younger cruisers. The cruise lines will mitigate this risk by less overselling certain ships and itineraries with a younger demographic.”

What cruisers have said

On the Cruise Critic Forum in December, one member said they had heard of overbooking stories in America.

“Yesterday our friends were in LAX preparing to fly to Miami and they ran into a couple that related their recent experience with HAL and the Oosterdam. The couple was offered a 50% credit if they would move their reservation from December 2nd to the 16th,” said the user Jakers.

“It was followed with a 100% credit offer shortly before the cruise. They declined. I am on the December 16th cruise on the Oosterdam. While it is good that ships are getting back to full capacity, I haven’t heard about this happening before.”

But others have said that this is not an uncommon occurrence and has been happening for years.

“We were booked on a seven-night cruise on Carnival’s Sensation to the Eastern Caribbean for January 1998.  We had two outside cabins. One for us and our eight-year-old daughter, and one next door for our teenage sons,” said Taters. 

“About two weeks before the cruise they called and explained that the Sensation was overbooked, and would we mind changing to the Imagination. It was leaving the same day, but on a Western Caribbean itinerary. 

“I told them, “No, thank you”. We had taken that exact same Imagination cruise in 1996 when the ship was brand new. We wanted to try something different. Then they offered us two Grand Suites if we traded! I told them yes without hesitation. My oldest turned 16 on that trip, and those boys had the best time in their suite. We all had an amazing time. I’ve never been offered anything like that since.”

Overbooked Quantum leaves passengers stranded at quayside

How to reduce your risk of an overbooked cruise

While it is still uncommon for guests to be bumped from their cruise, Bembridge offers a few ways that you can minimise the risk.

  • Pay a slightly higher fare to book a specific cabin, this will guarantee your spot on the ship. Alternatively, if you have booked a guaranteed fare, check-in online as early as possible. This may affect your cabin allocation process.
  • The booking sweet spot for a last-minute cruise is 60 to 90 days from your cruise. Bembridge says “that’s the point when cruise lines know who has dropped out and what capacity they must fill. I’ve noticed a lot of activity around that time, particularly with short flash sales. But if you go this route, you need to move fast. I’ve had several people contact me and say they’ve missed deals simply by thinking about it overnight.” 
  • Book a cruise in a less popular region. To find lower prices and reduce or eliminate the risk, finding cruises that aren’t likely to sell out will of course take away any risk of getting bumped off your cruise.
  • Use travel insurance. While cruise lines will refund you and give you cruise credit if you’re bumped off a cruise, you might have difficulties recovering other associated costs. For example, if you’ve paid for flights, hotels, or any other activities, the cruise line generally will not refund these costs. However, if you have travel insurance with cancellation coverage, depending on your insurance provider, you should be able to recover these costs if you are bumped off your cruise.