Personal Finance

Cruise ships are the new snowbirding paradise

Retiring at sea is sometimes cheaper than just staying home
Retiring at sea is sometimes cheaper than just staying home

Lavell Mayo cruised more than 100 days last year, opting to leave his single-family home behind for life at sea where, for a small premium, household chores and amenities are all handled.

"I looked into moving into a garden home connected with a nursing home and found that the average rental is about $2,000 a month," said Mayo, who had just returned from a trip on Norwegian Cruise Line. "And of course, then you have to cook your own food, where on a ship everything is done for you."

Meanwhile, 70-somethings Jack and Willi Ross swapped their Vancouver, B.C., single-family home for a smaller apartment so they could travel more, including an upcoming month-long cruise and periodic 180-day voyages with Oceania Cruises.

"The cost of living was, in some ways, cheaper," compared to home, said Jack Ross, 73, citing medical care, meals, laundry and the internet that were all included. (Rates for Oceania's around-the-world cruise that began Jan. 6 were about $40,000, but that was a two-for-one fare with first class, roundtrip airfare.)

New itineraries

The Rosses and Mayo aren't alone.

More people are cruising now than ever before, with 25 million passengers expected to set sail this year compared with 15 million in 2006, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.

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.

Willi and Jack Ross on their Oceania cruise ship during a 180-day voyage.
Source: Willi and Jack Ross

"Snowbirding" aboard ship is becoming popular enough that Oceania Cruises has created two new itineraries geared specifically at this population next winter, particularly to a wealthy client with an average household income of about $250,000 or more. A 74-day "Snowbird in Residence" sailing to the Caribbean costs about $240 per day per person, and includes airfare and either a $6,800 shipboard credit, 68 free shore excursions or a free beverage package, along with laundry service.

"Some of the comments we've seen were, 'Wow, you can't stay home for this price,'" said James Rodriguez, Oceania's executive vice president of marketing. He said many of the well-heeled guests on long-term cruises are in their 60s and think seeing the world by boat is a better opportunity than spending the winter in a Florida condo.

"We intentionally design these ships to feel like [home]," he said.

When considered over a 20-year span, "cruises were priced similarly to assisted living centers and were more efficacious," according to a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, though land-based assisted living can vary greatly by facility, location and needs.

It's like living at home, but I don't have to worry about renewing my driver's license.
Jack Ross

Karin and Bill Pollak have taken more than 100 cruises since retiring in 2000, some years spending as many as 240 days at sea. Last year, the couple, 62 and 76 respectively, were at their Arizona home base for less than six months.

The range of amenities and experiences available on cruise ships for various budgets is vast, Karin Pollak said, noting she and her husband could live aboard a cruise ship for half of what they do if they compromised their balcony state rooms and other comfort add-ons.

These include packages with housekeeping services, entertainment and educational programs. There's 24-hour meal service and inclusive amenities like fitness centers and pools.

More marketing coming

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, CEO of Expedia CruiseShipCenters, 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.

By comparison, 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

More adults retire on a cruise ship
More adults retire on a cruise ship

"There's a huge value add," said Ken Moraif, a certified financial planner and radio host of "Money Matters," but "you need to be able to afford it."

Cruise lines may be marketing to more well-to-do customers.

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

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.

The Pollaks said they prefer to use several ships as their temporary summer homes rather than purchase a land-based one that binds them financially and geographically, as it has with many of their friends.

On a cruise ship where the officers know you, they just treat you very well.
Donna  De Florio

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

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

Oceania Cruises' Regatta
Source: Oceania Cruises

"The crew adopts them," Ree said.

That's a big part of the reason retirees Al and Donna De Florio of Plymouth, Massachusetts, were enjoying 41 days on two Azamara Club Cruises this year.

"On a cruise ship where the officers know you, they just treat you very well," said Donna De Florio, noting cruise staff remembered them from two years ago. The couple has taken 50 cruises together since 2001.

Consider your health

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 De Florio, who sees doctors regularly for a health issue.

Lavell Mayo aboard ship.

The Pollaks purchase a separate travel insurance policy that covers medical services and air transportation from anywhere in the world, since their Medicare plans do not cover expenses on their long-term trips outside of the United States. One of the reasons the couple was enticed on a 180-day Oceania cruise recently was that the company offered complimentary medical care as part of the package.

"When people are past a particular age … it's important and critical because things do happen," Karin Pollak said.

Mayo has used medical services on a ship three times, and said his wife fell on a ship while cruising to Hawaii and had to be evacuated, the cost of which was covered by their medical travel insurance policy.

Use an agent

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 to take care of while they were gone, disconnected their television cable and telephone services, and reduced their collision auto insurance to third party liability. Mayo turns off the water at his home before departing on a long cruise, turns the heat or AC up or down low, and puts the mail on hold at the post office.

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.