When Angelyn Burk, a recently retired accountant, decided to crunch some numbers one evening last year, she made a stunning discovery: It would be cheaper for her and her husband to spend their retirement perpetually aboard cruise ships than to continue living on land.
She turned to her husband, Richard Burk, and said: “We can do this. Let’s make cruise ships our home.”
To her delight, he was onboard. The couple had thoroughly enjoyed the nearly 10 cruises they had been on together in the past, and they have a mutual love for travel as well as a shared disdain for airports.
They looked online and determined that, on average, they could string together voyages on various cruise ships for markedly less money than their collective cost of living on land. All they had to do was hop from ship to ship with some small breaks in between.
“We calculated that we can probably live reasonably well with about $100 a day together, with what we’ve saved up,” said Richard, 51, who retired as a computer programmer last month.
“It became a no-brainer,” said Angelyn, who resigned from her accounting job in 2019, and briefly bartended before the pandemic.
The Burks have grown frustrated by the mounting costs of living on land, they said. Between the mortgage, Internet, electricity, property taxes, insurance, and other costs associated with owning their home in Seattle, the couple was spending more than $3,500 per month. That doesn’t include food, transportation, entertainment and other expenses of everyday life.
On a cruise ship, however, “there is no extra. The price is the price,” Angelyn said. Spending their retirement at sea, she concluded, would be “so much cheaper.”
“By living on a cruise ship, you gain your room, you gain board, you’ve got entertainment that’s built in, you’re going to different locations,” her husband echoed. “It’s hard to beat that.”
Their next cruise is set for July, at which point they plan to embark on back-to-back cruises for about nine months, with a few brief land breaks. Between cruises, they will be nomads of sorts, visiting family and friends, as well as staying in Airbnbs and hotels, which they will mostly pay for with credit card points.
They’ve tested the waters of their retirement plan over the past year, taking a nine-day Carnival cruise from Miami to the Bahamas in November, a seven-day Carnival cruise from Long Beach, Calif., to the Mexican Riviera in March, and a 21-day Holland America cruise from Fort Lauderdale through the Panama Canal, ending in Vancouver in mid-May. The couple is now staying with family in Seattle, awaiting their fourth grandchild’s birth, as well as their son’s graduation from the University of Washington in June.
Although they have not yet sold their home or car, they plan to soon. Three of their five children — ages 21 to 28 — are living in their home and covering the mortgage and other expenses.
Although rare, the concept of spending long stretches at sea — particularly as a retiree — is not unheard of. A handful of so-called “cult cruisers” have even earned fame for it, and some lines have started offering extended vacations for snowbirds.
“It’s definitely caught fire lately in terms of people considering this as a prospect,” said Collen McDaniel, the editor in chief of Cruise Critic, a cruise ship review site. “We’ve heard of a number of people doing it over the years, and we’re hearing more and more [of it].
While the pandemic temporarily disrupted the cruising industry, it is making a comeback, and recently Cruise Critic posted a poll on Twitter, asking, “Would you retire at sea?” Of the 141 respondents, 43 percent voted, “Yes, sign me up!” and 33 percent voted, “Maybe, if it’s feasible.”
McDaniel said the financial savings are a major draw to the long-term cruise lifestyle, adding that the Burks’ budget of $100 per day “is absolutely doable.”
The cost of cruises vary widely, depending on amenities. Budget-friendly voyages can cost as little as $50 a day — not including taxes, fees, and gratuities — and luxury lines, which tend to have more inclusive prices, can go for $500 per person per day, McDaniel said.
Many mainstream cruise lines have loyalty programs, meaning “the more you stay, the better perks you get,” she said. “By building up that loyalty and staying on the same line, you’re really going to be saving yourself some money.”
Beyond the financial benefits, there is a simplicity to cruising, she said, as well as a built-in social life.
The Burks said they aren’t concerned about some of the potential drawbacks of living on a ship — such as sea sickness, which they said they’re immune to. They’re also unfazed by living in a tiny cabin.
In fact, on their last few cruises, they each only brought one backpack. On their most recent 21-day cruise through the Panama Canal this month, neither of them brought a suitcase.
“For us, it’s more freeing if we just have a backpack, so we don’t have to lug around much,” Angelyn said.
Many ships offer paid laundry services, which they sometimes use, though they often opt to wash their clothes by hand in the sink.
The couple has long sought to maintain a minimalist lifestyle. It began in 2013, when they relocated from Portland, Tex., to Seattle, and their moving truck crashed along the way.
“Everything inside burned,” Richard recalled. “We really ended up decluttering our lives. That’s when we started off just having a minimum amount of stuff.”
Living mostly on ships, the couple said, will help them further their goal of amassing fewer items and spending less money. Additionally, coordinating their days on land, Angelyn said, “is part of the planning” and will be factored into their carefully calculated budget.
“I’m not going to say that this is an easy way of life,” she said, explaining that finding good deals and scheduling cruises can sometimes feel like a full-time job.
“We’re constantly going online and looking at the different cruise lines to see what cruises they have available, and what is the least-expensive way to travel someplace,” said Richard. He added that he and his wife prefer to book Holland America cruises because of the music and entertainment offerings. “We don’t really care where we’re traveling.”
They said constantly cruising is worth the time it takes to plan.
“It’s like you’re at home,” Angelyn said. “We have a magnificent living room, an absolutely gorgeous dining room and a hot tub that never needs maintenance.”
Living on water means you don’t hear “ambulances, sirens, screaming and yelling. It’s just a calmer existence,” she added.
The Burks enjoy various activities offered onboard, including movie screenings, comedy performances and arts and crafts classes. They usually disembark to explore whenever the vessel stops at ports, though they sometimes choose to stay on the ship and relax.
Their next voyage is a 50-day European cruise in the summer, followed by a 108-day Australian cruise in the fall.
As long as it remains financially feasible, the Burks intend to continue cruising — forever.
“That would be our dream,” Richard said.