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Could You Live On a Cruise Ship?

Retirement on the high seas sounds like a dream. Or maybe not.

By Laura Hill on December 16, 2015

A cruise ship floats in blue water between a beach and an island.
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When it comes to retirement options, the idea of living out your golden years on a cruise ship could sound too good to be true. You may have seen stories about how retiring at sea could be practical and affordable. Sounds idyllic, right? 

There you'd be, floating around the tropics, Antarctica or Europe, peering out at glaciers, palm-lined beaches or the Hong Kong skyline from your private stateroom. Daily maid service. Gourmet dining. Nightly entertainment. Your own concierge. And all for about what it costs to live on land, whether it’s in your own home or a senior living community.
But if this all sounds too good to be true, it may be. There are a verifiable few who have pulled up onshore stakes and settled permanently or semi-permanently on a cruise ship, and more who spend part of their time ensconced in shipboard digs, but they are few and far between, probably for good reason.

More Than a Myth

Meryl Press of Cunard Cruise Line recalls a “one-off” resident passenger, Bea Mueller, who lived aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 for years until the ship was taken out of service in 2008, but who has since passed away. Legendary traveler Lee Wachtstetter at age 86 was living on the Crystal Serenity, having shared a passion for cruising with her late husband. So popular with other passengers and crew was she that she became known in cruising circles as “Mama Lee.”

"The day before my husband died of cancer in 1997, he told me, 'Don't stop cruising.' So here I am today living a stress-free, fairy-tale life," Wachtstetter told USA Today in January 2015.

"The crew members bend over backwards to keep me happy. Some are almost like family now. If they don't have what I want, they get it, even if they have to buy it off the ship or make it to my specific needs."

Wachtstetter has spent more than seven years on the Crystal Serenity, and previously lived on a Holland America ship. She estimated that she spent $164,000 yearly for her shipboard accommodations.

Amenities and More

Cruising message boards and forums abound in dreamy posts about the allure of living on a cruise ship, and the idea remains popular in imagination if not reality. In 2004, an often-quoted academic study by Dr. Lee Lindquist, a geriatric medicine specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, even proposed cruise ship life as an economically viable alternative to land-based assisted living arrangements, calculating that the sea-born option was only about $2,000 more costly over the course of 20 years than traditional assisted living. 

“Offering many amenities, such as three meals a day with escorts to meals, physicians on site and housekeeping/laundry services, a cruise ship could be considered a floating assisted living facility,” Lindquist wrote in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society.

Today, the comparison is more difficult to make, given the wide variability in senior housing costs and assisted living fees from location to location, and the similarly varied costs of shipboard accommodations. But conceivably, if you could cruise for, say, $150 a day (double that if you go it alone) – which would typically include your room, a personal steward, all meals, room cleaning and linens, all utilities, professional entertainment as well as films, lectures and social events, and the chance to see the world – you could end up paying less than living a less glamorous life at home.

Now the Downsides…

Keep in mind that there are major downsides to life as a seafaring adventurer. You’ll be far from friends and family, maybe for months at a time. While undoubtedly you will make new friends as you travel, you will not be part of a stable community. Think hard about whether you could really comfortably live in a 250-foot cabin for months on end, with no place to put all those souvenirs you pick up in exotic places, not to mention clothes and other daily necessities. And consider your health needs. Lindquist estimated that cruise ship life worked best for those who were in at least fairly good health. Medical care on most cruise ships, while good, is expensive and not able to offer specialty medical care. 

“Cruising is a great option for many retirees, and Princess does offer amazing itineraries all over the world that are appealing for cruisers who have more time to travel,” says Karen Candy, manager of public relations for Princess Cruises, who says the line has many passengers who cruise for extended periods of time, though no permanent residents. “There are many considerations to live full-time on a cruise ship. It's not something we actively promote, and we don't offer the type of health care that may be needed for retirees.”

Still not convinced? Well, one ship could be your dream come true – if you can afford it. The World, which bills itself as the world’s largest private yacht, offers shipboard homes for sale in its luxurious 664-foot, 165-stateroom ship that cruises the world, stopping at destinations voted on by the ship’s residents. The World offers deluxe accommodations, a 7,000-square-foot spa, two pools, a full-size tennis court, four restaurants, half a dozen bars, private chef services and more. Prices reportedly range from several hundred thousand dollars for a studio cabin to many millions for a three-bedroom suite.

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