Mario Salcedo may be the only passenger you’ll meet onboard a cruise ship who isn’t the least bit wistful that a voyage is coming to an end. Why? Because “Super Mario,” as he’s fondly known, is Royal Caribbean’s most loyal passenger: He’s been cruising nearly full-time since 1997 for about 50 weeks a year — for a total of about 640 cruises to more than 100 countries. And the 60-year-old shows no signs of slowing down: Come April 30, he’ll be embarking on his 500th Royal Caribbean cruise.
We caught up with him on Allure of the Seas, where he shared five lessons for anyone considering a life at sea.
Book early, not late. Do you save more money by booking a cruise early, or by waiting to score last-minute deals? “The earlier you can make the commitment to cruise, the better,” recommended Mario, who keeps detailed spreadsheets of cruises he’s taken for the past several years. The stats cover a period of the worst global economic meltdown in decades, when one might have assumed slashed pricing would be the rule. It wasn’t.
In fact, 65 percent of Mario’s cruises from 2008 to 2010 rose in price after he booked; 20 percent stayed even; and 15 percent became cheaper (those were mostly off-season sailings). He stayed in junior suites on every cruise, 80 percent of which traveled to the Caribbean.
Crown & Anchor loyalty program members pay a $100 deposit to lock in a fare, ship, sail date and choice of cabin. Mario books two to three years before the sail date — or as soon as a cruise is open for booking – so that if the fare dips, he can re-price his cruise before making a final payment 75 days prior to the sail date.
Have a plan. Mario, who moved from Cuba to Miami as a boy, exited the corporate world to go cruising. He’d spent years travelling throughout the Caribbean and Latin America as a senior finance executive for a multinational firm, and the “dream became stronger as the years went by.” So he formulated and followed through on a step-by-step plan.
He quit his job at age 48. He tested the waters with six back-to-back sailings on different lines. He drew up an annual budget for fares, port excursions and expenses (amounting to $125,000, net of loyalty program freebies). And he lined up a flexible source of income to provide continued cash flow (he now manages clients’ trading portfolios from the pool deck).
In sum, says Mario: “You have to focus and really say, ‘this is what I want to do: I’m going to cruise for the rest of my life.’”
Discover your cruising style. Mario first tried Princess, Norwegian, Carnival, Holland America, Celebrity, Silverseas, Seabourn, Cunard and Costa Cruises. But he became a Royal Caribbean devoté after Voyager of the Seas debuted in 1999: It was the largest ship of its time, featuring cruising’s first skating rink and a massive horizontal atrium (today known as the Royal Promenade).
By last fall, Mario had cruised with Royal Caribbean 475 times. He took Navigator of the Seas every other week until the ship was relocated to Europe in 2007 and had sailed 100 times aboard his favorite ship, Liberty of the Seas.
The takeaway: Shop around and don’t settle until you find the winning formula for you. “I’d sampled everything, with no loyalty to anybody,” Mario explained. “But the crew of Liberty told me ‘We’d like to adopt you’: I became adoptable, and since then, I’ve lived my most memorable moments onboard.”
Travel agent vs. DIY. The veteran recommends booking onto newer ships, but he doesn’t always follow this advice. When we spoke to Mario, he was hours from embarking on one of the oldest ships in Royal Caribbean’s fleet, Majesty of the Seas. A ship-hopper, he needs to be opportunistic: “I have a little hole in my schedule next week, and it just fits,” he said.
Mario has 120 open bookings through 2013 and delegates their management to his longtime travel agent at a small, independent agency in Cincinnati (thousands of miles from Miami, where he keeps a condo to use as a between-cruise crash pad and storehouse for treasured cruise memorabilia).
It would be next to impossible to juggle the complex logistics of his weekly cruising alone — and having a great agent means he doesn’t have to. Nor does it hurt to be his agency’s largest customer. “They need to take good care of me; otherwise, they’re not going to stay in business,” he said.
Answering the big question: Should you retire at sea? Mario said those craving stability, or the comfort of neighbors, friends, even grandchildren, may have trouble adapting. And retiring on land is cheaper than cruising — he figures that a decent retirement home in Miami would cost around $8,000 monthly. But his average seven-day expenditure is $2,500 — or $10,000 monthly.
“This isn’t for everybody, even though it’s everybody’s dream,” Mario told us. “When people say, ‘It’s cheaper to live on a cruise ship,’ I show them the answer is no. Is it more pleasurable? It depends on the person. You have to be liberated and totally independent from any commitments to do what I do. And as long as I’m having fun, and I’m in good health, I’m just getting started.”
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