Ralph Bias loves cruise ships — has since he was a child and watched the disaster movie “The Poseidon Adventure.” The South Florida resident sells cruises, takes six to eight a year himself and plans to spend even more time at sea after retirement.
“We’re not going to build a second home,” said Bias, who will keep Miami Beach as a base. “We plan on just staying on board the ship. We will probably do about three to four months every year on one specific ship.”
Who better to spend long days at sea or leisurely nights at the buffet than retirees who don’t have to be at work on Monday? According to the Cruise Lines International Association, a third of the 28.5 million people who took a cruise in 2018 were 60 or older. But what everyone may not know is that people can turn their retirement into a constant voyage.
There are no statistics from the industry trade group about people who live full-time on cruise ships; the figure appears to be the smallest fraction of the cruising public. But a handful of avid cruisers have made headlines for their seafaring ways.
There was Lee Wachtstetter, who wrote a memoir about living on cruise ships for 12 years after her husband died. Mario Salcedo earned the nickname “The Happiest Guy in the World” from the New York Times for spending the bulk of two decades on ships — while still running a business. And 94-year-old Morton Jablin told Forbes in late 2018 that his life was “very routine but comfortable” after living on a luxury ship for 13 years.
Most cruise operators contacted by The Washington Post said they did not have any current full-time residents. But one line stands apart because it was built for long-term cruisers: The World — Residences at Sea, which bills itself as “the largest privately owned, residential yacht on earth” with 165 units and an average resident age of 66. Several other plans to create similar floating communities for full-time residences, including one by Crystal Cruises, have been axed or repeatedly delayed.
In a 2016 report, Wachtstetter said her average daily costs on the luxury Crystal Serenity were about $450. That’s for a high-end, more inclusive trip. Budget-friendlier cruises cost much less — as little as $50 a day for a small windowless room, not including taxes, fees, gratuities and extras like soda or alcohol.
“It runs the gamut,” said Jennifer Crivelli, an assistant manager of product training at the Cruise Web, a travel agency that organizes extended retirement-at-sea trips. “There’s a cruise line that fits almost everybody’s budget.”
A 2004 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society compared cruise ships and assisted-living facilities as options for seniors, noting room size, facility amenities, medical care, the potential for visits and cost. The study estimated the cost of staying on a Royal Caribbean ship at the time to be about $33,260 a year, compared with the national average of $28,689 annually for an assisted-living facility.
“Cruise ship care is a legitimate alternative option for seniors unwilling to settle for traditional assisted living or [nursing home] care,” the study said. It added: “If this option succeeds, seniors could have a much more enjoyable experience and, for a change, look forward to the time when they become less independent.”
Although cruise lines aren’t exactly marketing themselves as alternatives to assisted living, many do offer extra-long sailings without repeating ports to appeal to those with plenty of time and money and an acute case of wanderlust. In other words, something that might appeal to retirees.
On the Viking Sun, 54 people are sailing on a full 245-day world cruise that visits 111 stops on six continents. Nearly 100 people are taking an entire 146-day voyage around the world on the Seabourn Sojourn.
Oceania Cruises introduced what it called a “groundbreaking new concept” in 2016 called Snowbirds in Residence, offering a “tropical ultimate vacation home” on two of its ships for 58 or 72 days. Prices started at $15,999 for the shorter trip and $19,999 for the longer one. Although the line no longer offers the specific program, executives still want to appeal to vacationers with the flexibility for lengthy getaways.
“For many of our regular repeat guests, they consider Oceania ships an untraditional vacation home,” James Rodriguez, executive vice president of sales and marketing, said in an email. “The food is plentiful, fresh and accommodating of every diet, medical and wellness facilities are at the ready, and the freedom to travel safely around the entire world makes it incredibly attractive to retirees.”
Although Holland America Line doesn’t solicit full-time residents, the operator encourages “Collectors’ Voyages,” or back-to-back cruises that have minimal repeating ports. Passengers who book those trips typically see a discount of 10 to 15 percent, depending on the itinerary, spokesman Erik Elvejord said.
He points out, however, that the ships are “not really set up as a retirement community” with the same kind of medical facilities, banking options or other long-term amenities residents might need.
Financial planner Rick Kahler, 64, a South Dakota resident and frequent cruiser, has written about the possibility of cruise retirement. He cautioned that such a move would require “careful research and consideration.”
“While it’s not cheap, a person can probably spend $4,000 to $10,000 a month, and everything is included,” Kahler said. “And there’s so much support for older people on ships that it’s an attractive option.”
Kahler said those who spend long stretches at sea should have health that is stable, but he thought the option could also be good for those who might have more challenges with other kinds of travel.
“If you do have some limited mobility and are older, I can see the advantage of getting on to the ship and unpacking once and the world comes to your door,” he said.
The Cruise Web started advertising its Senior Living at Sea program in 2018 and is working with clients who are interested in extended, multi-month trips in the coming years. One client, Crivelli said, is planning to fill an eight-month gap between selling their house and building a new one in a senior living community with a long voyage.
“They are already budgeting for it and preparing for this type of retirement,” Cruise Web vice president Karolina Shenton said. Considerations include making sure passengers are in the same suite or stateroom week after week, have their dining arrangements set in advance and have the flexibility to take breaks to visit family — or bring them on board.
Dave Hughes, a retirement lifestyle expert and founder of the site Retire Fabulously, isn’t convinced. Although he enjoys cruising, Hughes wrote in U.S. News & World Report in 2016 12 reasons people shouldn’t retire on a ship. He warned about the level and cost of medical care available on ships, the lack of long-term friendships, charges for Internet access and drinks and eventual boredom.
“When you go on this vacation, it’s an escape,” he said in a recent interview. Nice meals, entertainment and amenities tend to offset the typically small room. “All that is okay for a week or so, but once that becomes your new reality, there are a lot of drawbacks.”
But Lee Lindquist, chief of geriatrics at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and lead author of the study that compared cruises and assisted living, took to Twitter to highlight for whom the experience could be best-suited. She said candidates should have at least some mobility, be able to manage their own medications and should not be experiencing cognitive issues. Lindquist said many who sail long-term have physicians in a port they visit frequently who can do routine exams; those stops are perfect for picking up 90-day supplies of medication as well.
“You can always quit cruising, you can always choose to move back to where you used to live,” she said, urging people to try a long cruise before committing to an even longer one. “It’s overall a fun vacation, which you could actually make into a lifelong vacation.”