Retiring…to a cruise ship

Sounds too good to be true: no house or car payments, no cleaning, grocery-shopping, cooking, garbage removal, repair or yard-maintenance chores. All your meals are prepared, your home has frequent entertainment, a pool, spa and medical care, you love to travel and meet new people constantly. What’s not to like?

Running the numbers

Living aboard a ship or being a very frequent cruiser can cost not all that much more than a retirement home, depending on where you live, your taste for economy vs. luxury and your health. The annual median cost for an assisted living facility in the U.S. was $48,000 (or $132 per day) in 2018, according to the Genworth Cost of Care Survey; a nursing home private room was over $100,000 if you didn’t have long-term care insurance. But it varied greatly by region: in the New York City area, the assisted living median was $70,989, compared to $155,125 for a nursing home private room. In the San Francisco area, assisted living was $66,000, vs. $139,795. 

Life aboard ship

But some cruises start at under $100 a day. Some folks adore cruising as a lifestyle, like Mario Salcedo, 69, who’s lived aboard cruise ships for 20 years, almost entirely on Royal Caribbean Cruises mega-ships, packed with thousands of passengers and activities from rock-climbing walls to skating rinks. He isn’t even retired: he runs his investment management business from his laptop on the pool deck, and works daily. The ex-international finance director for a multi-national company once spent most of his time on planes, but 2019 marked his 8,000th night on a cruise. A short film interviewed the never-married Salcedo, who spends about $70,000 a year on back-to-back cruises, which he books up to two years ahead, and has traveled everywhere from Asia, Europe to Latin America. Nowadays, he mostly cruises the Caribbean and Bahamas, but flies to Spain annually for a Europe cruise. He visits his Miami condo less than two weeks a year.

Lee Wachtstetter, now 90, wrote a memoir about living on luxury line Crystal Cruises for nine years after her husband died. Crew members built extra storage shelves and gave her a wall hanger for her jewelry. Recently, a couple lived aboard Crystal for over five months, combining a world cruise with two other sea voyages plus a European river cruise.

A private luxury residential ship, The World, sells condos of up to three bedrooms that start at $1.5 million for studios. Owners spend three to six months aboard on average, and have a vote in its year-long itinerary, which features deep-dive explorations of remote locations, Michelin-starred guest chefs and a 1,100-label wine list. In 2019, its 91-port cruise began in South Africa, with visits to Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, India, Mediterranean, Greenland, Japan and Southeast Asia, and ends in Hong Kong New Year’s Eve. Its 2020 voyage covers Australia (two months), Chile, Antarctica and northern Europe, including St. Petersburg, Russia. 

Tips for would-be full-time cruisers:

  • If you have a chronic health issue requiring close medical attention, this isn’t for you.
  • Can you downsize? In essence, you’re renting a furnished room in a very, very big house with hundreds or thousands of other roommates and multiple living rooms. If you enjoy the variety of hotels, you’ll miss that. Your new pared-down lifestyle means you either keep your furniture and most possessions at home if you still own it, pay for monthly storage, sell or donate it if not, or rent out your home.
  • Are you good with details?  You need precise time and logistics planning (or ask a travel agent cruise specialist). You’ll be booking many short cruises back-to-back (or two, if you do two around-the-world six-month voyages a year), so you need to figure out where you’ll stay in the few days between cruise arrivals and departures, and hotel, Airbnb and/or flight costs involved (unless you stay with family or friends). It’s unlikely all your voyages will depart/arrive the same day in the same port. On Crystal , there’s a 5% discount for same- or next-day back-to-backs.
  • Uncover hidden cruise costs. Rock-bottom rates are often advertised, but drinks (from alcohol, sodas, specialty coffees to bottled water), meals (specialty restaurants have surcharges), port tours (from $50 to hundreds) and the Internet ($10 per day and up) cost extra, tips are automatically added and the single-occupancy charge is steep. You can save by buying beverage or specialty dining packages in advance; eating in the free restaurants only; booking your own port excursions (often with the same local operators cruise lines use, minus the mark-up) – or taking few or none;  going to Internet cafes/WiFi hot spots in ports; staying in interior cabins (no-view is always cheapest) and adjusting your tip. Luxury cruise lines include far more in the price. Always check the fine print. 
  • Figure out your social needs. Will you miss seeing family and friends for long periods? Will they join you on voyages or in ports? Will you feel lonesome constantly being among strangers (most of whom are in couples) or will you welcome meeting fellow passengers and crew? 
  • Pets: For many for whom a beloved pet is part of the family, not taking Fluffy or Whiskers is a deal-breaker.

Photos: Crystal Cruises


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