Ahoy matey, more folks retiring on a cruise ship

Jack and Willi Ross swapped their Vancouver, British Columbia, single-family home for a smaller apartment so they could travel most of the year. Their most recent journey? A 180-day trip with Oceania Cruises.

"The cost of living was, in some ways, cheaper," compared with home, said Jack Ross. The 78-year-old Ross said medical care, fine dining, laundry and internet service were included in his cruise fare. (Rates for Oceania's 2017 around-the-world cruise start at about $40,000, but it's now 2-for-1, including first-class roundtrip airfare.)

Prices similar to land living

The Rosses aren't alone. More people are cruising now than ever before, with 24 million passengers expected to set sail this year, compared with 15 million 10 years ago, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. About a quarter of those are 60- to 74 years old, and another quarter are 50 to 59.

Depending on their home city and income level, retirees may find living aboard a cruise ship makes financial sense when compared to other retirement living options, especially in expensive locales.

A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that when considered over a 20-year span, "cruises were comparably priced to assisted living centers and offered a better quality of life, "though land-based assisted living can vary greatly by facility, location and needs."

A reservation on Princess Cruises, for example, averages $135 per day with long-term and senior discounts, not including medical care or excursions, said Geraldine Ree, a senior vice president of Expedia Cruise Ship Centers, a travel agency specializing in cruises. About 2 percent of the company's cruise bookings are for 180 days or more, the majority of which are retirees.

Willi and Jack Ross on their Oceania cruise ship during a 180-day voyage.
Source: Willi and Jack Ross
Willi and Jack Ross on their Oceania cruise ship during a 180-day voyage.
"You just bring your suitcases and unpack them. It's like living at home." -Jack Ross, Frequent cruiser

On the other hand, it costs about $229 daily for a private room in a nursing home and $3,293 per month for a one-bedroom in an assisted living facility, according to LongtermCare.Gov.

Independent living or retirement communities range from $1,500 to $3,500 a month, according to HelpGuide.org.

Then there's the comfort factor on cruise ships. In addition to your stateroom, retirees receive housekeeping services, entertainment and often educational programs. There's often 24-hour meal service and there are inclusive amenities like fitness centers and pools.

The crew as family

"There's a huge value-add," said Ken Moraif, a certified financial planner and radio host of Money Matters.

Many guests also value the relationships they develop with crew, who remember their names and offer personalized attention.

"The crew adopts them," Ree said.

That's a big part of the reason retirees Al and Donna DeFlorio of Plymouth, Massachusetts, were enjoying a 60-day cruise on Azamara Cruises earlier this year.

"On a cruise ship where the officers know you, they just treat you very well," said Donna DeFlorio. She said that cruise staff remembered them from two years ago. The couple has taken 45 cruises together since 2001.

There's always room for negotiation when it comes to a very lengthy cruise.

It's possible for long-term guests to persuade a cruise line to let them bring their own furniture or decorate their cabin at their own expense, said Jo Kling, owner of cruise travel agency Landry & Kling. And guests who book early, particularly through an experienced travel agent, can negotiate better prices.

Those considering life at sea need to make sure their budget fits.

"You need to be able to afford it," Moraif said.

The cruise lines may be marketing to more well-to-do customers.

Last year, Crystal Cruises announced plans for "Residences at Sea," 48 suites across three new ships that will be put into operation by 2018. Those who buy in early can customize their floating apartments, which range from 600 to 4,000 square feet.

Is your health up to it?

Though Crystal would not reveal the cost of a unit, CEO Edie Rodriguez said it's targeting an affluent customer looking for a "new kind of second, third or even fourth luxury home." Ree said there's likely more demand and resale potential in China or London than in North America, however.

"Cruises can be dirt cheap and if you are willing to move from ship to ship, you can live fairly cheaply," said Allan Roth, principal at Wealth Logic, a Colorado-based financial planning firm. He said a permanent residence on a ship can be quite expensive.

"You're not going to do this because it's economical. It's because it's a lifestyle you want," Roth said, noting the average cost of one can be several million dollars and several hundred thousand dollars in annual fees. Since a ship is a depreciating asset requiring maintenance, it's also unlikely to recover a return on its resale.

Older people should also consider their health before long-term travel on a cruise ship, despite some lines offering well-equipped medical centers with nurses, doctors, X-ray machines, ICU units and pacemakers, Ree said.

"While I would love to [truly live aboard a cruise ship all year], it wouldn't make sense given my situation," said Al DiFlorio, who sees doctors regularly for a health issue.

Ree recommends working with an experienced travel agent to find the most suitable option based on price, amenities and feasibility, while Moraif suggests "practicing" the cruising lifestyle before diving in full time.

The Rosses said they arranged for their accountant to intercept mail and bills while they were gone, disconnected their television cable and telephone services, and reduced their collision auto insurance to third-party liability. Friends visited their home to flush the toilets and watch the property.

When asked whether he and his wife would sail for good, Jack Ross said it was a real possibility as he heads into his 80s and 90s.

"You just bring your suitcases and unpack them. It's like living at home, but I don't have to worry about renewing my driver's license," he said.