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Calling a Cruise Ship Home: See the World, See It Again

The round-the-world cruise has long been one of those brass rings of retirement: the ultimate reward for a life well-lived (and planned).

Now, some are choosing to embark on such long-haul cruises permanently.

''I decided I had enough of the corporate world, and I wanted to spend the rest of my life traveling the world,'' said Mario Salcedo. He was speaking by cellphone from Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas in the port of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., during a regularly scheduled ''turnaround day,'' when one set of cruise passengers disembarks and, later in the day, the next set embarks.

Mr. Salcedo, 67, has been living aboard cruise ships for the past 20 years. Known as Super Mario by crew members, he not only lives on board, but also runs an online investment management business as he cruises the coastal waters of southern Florida and the Caribbean.

Mr. Salcedo estimates he has been on 950 cruises and logged 7,000 ''cruise days'' at sea. His standard regimen involves five hours of work in the morning, followed by activities such as dancing, seeing shows and scuba diving. While he still maintains a condominium in Miami, he spends very little time there: perhaps a few hours each week when his ship is in port, to check up on his property and enjoy breakfast at McDonald's.

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In total he spends almost all 52 weeks of the year at sea, at a cost of about $70,000 per year.

''I live life in reverse,'' he said with a chuckle. ''I have one week that I call my week off, or my vacation week if you want to call it that,'' he said.

Though Mr. Salcedo's lifestyle is unusual, it is not unique. Beatrice Muller, a native of New Jersey, lived aboard cruise ships from 2000 to 2009, including the Cunard Lines' Queen Elizabeth 2, before she died in 2013 at age 94.

Lee Wachtstetter, a Floridian honoring her husband's dying wish that she continue cruising after he died in 1997, has lived ever since aboard Crystal Cruises' Crystal Serenity luxury cruise ship. The 88-year-old, known to passengers and crew as Mama Lee, lives in a private stateroom for which she pays an annual fee of $164,000. This includes all meals, gratuities, cleaning, nightly ballroom dancing and Broadway-style shows.

What these and other like-minded, somewhat adventurous older people have discovered is that for little more than the cost of retiring to an assisted-living facility, they can enjoy many of the same amenities -- comfortable quarters; meals, social events and educational programs; and round-the-clock access to medical care -- while exploring the exotic waters of the Caribbean, Asia, Central America and beyond.

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Statistical analysis has backed up their strategies.

A 2004 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society concluded that 20 years in a retirement home for someone entering at age 65 would cost an average of $228,075, as opposed to $230,497 for the same amount of time aboard a cruise ship.

Naturally, the costs of assisted-living facilities and cruising have risen since 2004, yet cruising may still be affordable for some. Depending on the location, annual fees for assisted living can range from $36,000 to $72,000, according to 2013 data compiled at LongTermCare.gov. For about a hundred dollars a day more than the top end of that range, seniors can spend their retirement years in pampered comfort while visiting ports of call across the globe.

''You can go on a world cruise for under $300 a day, per person, double-occupancy,'' said Mara Hargarther, a travel agent and cruise vacation specialist at Dream Vacations in Ponte Vedra, Fla. That fare, she said, isn't a huge premium over the costs of some high-end assisted living facilities.

And, much like frequent-flier programs, most cruise ship companies feature loyalty programs.

''The upper tiers of these loyalty programs would afford passengers special rates, special upgrades and the opportunity to access concierge-type services on board,'' said Jeff Smith, a senior vice president at World Travel Holdings, a cruise agency based in Virginia Beach, Va.

This creative approach to retirement comes at a time when the popularity of cruising among older people is on the rise. Cruise Lines International Association, an industry group, reports that 25.3 million passengers are projected in 2017, up from nearly 18 million in 2009. Historically, nearly half of those passengers have been between the ages of 50 and 74.

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None of this is lost on the cruise lines, which are responding with products targeting retirees. Last November, Oceania Cruises introduced ''Snowbird in Residence'' Caribbean voyages of up to 116 days, scheduled for December 2017 and January 2018.

Eyeing a wealthy portion within that demographic, Crystal Cruises will introduce the first of three planned vessels in 2022 that will include 48 privately-leased ''Crystal Residence'' apartments, including a 10,000-square-foot, upper-deck luxury accommodation with a 270 degree view, the largest ''interior living area for a luxury vessel on the high seas,'' according to the cruise line.

The new residences, said Edie Rodriguez, the chief executive officer of Crystal Cruises, will be sold under a 40-year lease and will be aimed at people who want to live in quarters similar to those on the residential floors of some hotels.

The units can be passed along to heirs, Ms. Rodriguez said, or sold via Crystal sales agents. Though she declined to reveal the costs of the units, she compared their prices to multi-million-dollar luxury condos in Miami Beach and elsewhere.

While not every retiree can afford a multi-million-dollar condominium, many do own or rent vacation homes. For some, investing in the cruising lifestyle adds up to much the same experience.

''We consider Oceania's cruise ships our holiday home,'' said Karin Pollak, 62, speaking from her residence in Phoenix. Since 2004, she and her 76-year-old husband, Bill, who are both retired, have enjoyed cruises of up to six months on Oceania cruise ships.

As for being separated from friends and family during long stretches at sea, the Pollaks have found that cruising actually provides an opportunity to enjoy company on board practically stress-free.

"You can go on a world cruise for under $300 a day, per person, double-occupancy." -Mara Hargarther, cruise vacation specialist at Dream Vacations

''When we did our six-month cruise, it was as if that were our summer home, and a lot of visitors came to see us,'' said Mr. Pollak, remembering the experience of having friends join them on overlapping cruises.

''They'd be on board for two weeks or four weeks, and we didn't have to do the cleanup or the cooking,'' he said.

As tempting as it all may sound, retiring to a cruise ship is not for everyone, especially those with health concerns. Passengers on long-haul cruises who are on prescription drugs need to plan ahead and pack enough of their medication or have it shipped ahead.

While ships typically have excellent medical facilities -- with a doctor on board, nurses, defibrillators, X-ray machines and the ability to provide routine medical care, such as intravenous fluids and antibiotics -- people with long-term health or mobility issues should carefully consider whether life on board a cruise ship is right for them.

''If you need specialized medical care, if you have a chronic condition that needs ongoing medical attention, you are probably not going to be able get those services onboard a ship,'' said Sally Hurme, a lawyer and the author of ''Get the Most Out of Retirement,'' jointly published this year by AARP and the American Bar Association.

Ms. Hurme also pointed out that for tax purposes, it is important to maintain an address on land. Homeowners should check their insurance policies to confirm that their properties are covered if left unoccupied for extended periods.

She recommends trying shorter trips first, to see if retirement on board a cruise ship is right for you. ''You can do it as long as you wish,'' Ms. Hurme said. '' If next year you decide this is not the lifestyle you want, you can easily decide not to continue,'' she said.

Cruising can also have hidden costs. Alcoholic beverages are usually not included in fares, and internet access -- a critical way to stay in touch with family -- is typically limited to one free hour of Wi-Fi per passenger per day. After that, internet packages are available for a fee, though loyalty-program members may get unlimited Wi-Fi. Cellphone roaming charges can also add up quickly, and single-occupancy cabins are usually subject to hefty surcharges.

Mr. Salcedo, for example, has amassed enough reward points after 20 years to have the single supplement reduced from Royal Caribbean's usual rate -- 200 percent per person for single use of a cabin -- to 150 percent.

And if there is one more unforeseen consequence to retirement aboard a cruise ship, Mr. Salcedo said, it is getting used to being on land again.

''I've lost my land legs,'' he said. ''The week that I spend on land, I don't like sleeping in my bed. I miss the rocking of the ship.''

(February 26, 2017, Sunday Late Edition - Final

Section: BU Page: 5 Column: 0 Desk: Money and Business/Financial Desk Length: 1484 words)