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Tips for Living on a Cruise Ship Year-Round

Jill Rachel Jacobs

Last updated
Jan 30, 2020

Morton Jablin lives a simple life. He wakes early, enjoys tea in the afternoon and fish for his evening meal. He's not much different from you and me, with one exception: Morton Jablin lives on a cruise ship.

For the past 15 years, the 95-year-old retiree has called Regent's Seven Seas Navigator home.

Jablin joins a host of others who live full time on cruise ships. Mama Lee Wachstetter, 91, has lived on the luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity for the past 10 years. Mario Salcedo, aka "Super Mario," has taken 1,000 cruises, spending 50 weeks a year on Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas.

If this lifestyle sounds like it's for you, here's what you need to know about how to live on a cruise ship full time.

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Test It Out First

Try a few cruises with different cruise lines. Not only will you get an idea whether this is a desirable lifestyle for you, you can compare different lines and get a feel for which lines would work best as a new home.

Try a longer-than-a-month "grand voyage" or world cruise, or simply book a few back to back, to test the waters and see if full-time cruising is for you. Oceania Cruises even offers a 116-day Snowbirds in Residence package where passengers spend the winter cruising and then return to their land life for the spring/summer months.

Meet With a Financial Planner

The first step is determining whether living on a cruise ship permanently is within your budget. Meet with a financial planner to discuss what you can afford.

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." However, the cost to live on a cruise ship and buy into a senior living facility will vary widely based on room type and location (which ship or which facility), so you'll need to price out specific examples to see where the value proposition works in your favor.

You'll also want to talk about how you can successfully navigate finances while you're living at sea. You will be required to pay taxes while living on a cruise ship, so it's essential to educate yourself before embarking. What additional costs do you need to consider?

How will you pay any monthly bills? People living at sea can pay bills automatically from a credit card or checking account. Many U.S. property tax jurisdictions allow you to pay bills online to avoid mailing payments from overseas or remote locations. Organizing bill payments and planning ahead will assist in keeping financials current and not falling behind on bills.

Also, in order to qualify for government and health benefits, permanent sea dwellers are required to have a land address. You'll have to decide if you wish to sell your house and acquire a smaller apartment, or rent out your home while you travel. You'll need to figure out what to do with your car and possessions before taking up permanent residence at sea. Can you afford to pay cruise fares and keep a home and/or storage unit?

Talk to an Agent

If you've done the math, and think the finances will work out, you'll want to reach out to your favorite cruise line or a travel agent who specializes in extended cruise travel. Travel agency The Cruise Web has launched a Senior Living at Sea program to assist travelers who want to retire at sea, or at least spend months of each year onboard.

"Senior Living at Sea offers … assistance in booking lengthy travel cruise arrangements through a personalized, tailored experience that allows the client to dictate how they will spend a significant lengthy time at sea," says Brandon Biss, senior travel consultant at The Cruise Web. "It's an alternative to that second home in Florida, or someone who would like to live at sea full time, as a lifestyle."

Travel agents can also help you look for deals and suggest the best ships for your budget, travel preferences and living style.

Buy a Cruise Residence

If you've got the funds, The World is a private residential ship that offers studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom residences, ranging in price from $2 million to $16 million. Annual ship fees are not included which can run into the thousands.

Other condo ships are scheduled to debut in the next few years, such as Storylines, with at-sea residences starting at $352,000 plus $55,000 yearly maintenance fees, and Utopia, with apartments ranging in size from 1,439 to 6,500 square feet, priced from $4 to $36 million. (However, you assume the risk of buying into a condo ship that is not yet built.)

Leverage Your Long-Term Status

According to cruise travel agency owner Jo Kling, "Long-term cruise guests may have a bit of negotiating power with cruise lines. Bringing your own furniture and decorating your cabin to match your personal taste can make your cruise feel like home." Ask what options you have for putting your own touch on your new at-sea digs.

Most cruise lines offer rewards programs so the more you cruise, the cheaper it'll be to stay onboard. According to Joseph Chabus, public relations director at Regent Seven Seas Cruises, "Once a guest reaches 2,000 nights sailed, they reach the Commodore tier of our Seven Seas Society loyalty club and receive 10 percent off their cruise fare for life. Also, the fares on our website include airfare, which presumably a guest wouldn't need if they remain on the ship from voyage to voyage, so we provide credits for guests who turn down airfare."

Frequent cruisers receive other perks, such as free Wi-Fi or laundry, complimentary specialty dining and onboard credit to use toward higher priced expenditures on the ship.

Understand Your Medical Care Options at Sea

Ships are required to maintain medical staff on call 24/7, including at least one physician and two nurses. Similar in model to assisted living facilities, cruise ships are equipped to handle most medical emergencies in the short term. Onboard medical facilities will typically include X-ray machines, defibrillators, basic emergency medical equipment and an array of medication. By planning ahead, you can have your medications filled before you board.

However, if you fall ill while the ship is at sea, a full-service hospital might be hours or days away -- problematic if you need immediate care the limited onboard facility can't provide. Also, depending on where in the world you're sailing, medical care in port might not be as good as what you're used to at home.

Morton Jablin, Regent Seven Seas full-time resident, who is also legally blind, has been satisfied with the medical care he's received while onboard Seven Seas Navigator. "If I need a doctor, there is one in my cabin in five minutes. When I need more specialized care, I visit specialists when in port."

Note that Medicare typically does not cover health care expenses when you're outside the U.S. or onboard, so investing in a private health insurance plan or a travel insurance plan while cruising is advisable. This will be an extra cost for you to consider.

Rehome Your Pets

Cruise ships do not allow pets onboard. If you truly plan to retire at sea, you'll need to rehome your animal friends. If you can't live without a furry companion, a permanent residence at sea might not be for you.

Make Plans to Stay in Touch

Living permanently at sea can present challenges when trying to stay in touch with family and friends. Different times zones and the expense of calling from sea or a foreign port might prevent you from staying current with family and friends. While cruise ships offer Wi-Fi, the ship's internet connectivity is not always as reliable or as fast as internet speeds on land. Look into cellphone plans and options before you sail away, and budget for expensive ship Wi-Fi (though, depending on the line, once you've sailed enough, you might get internet for free).

Those living on a cruise ship can stay connected electronically through social media and email. Also, private companies such as Mail Boxes Etc. or UPS offer mail forwarding services for a fee. Most private mail boxes will hold/forward your mail for up to a year.

Invite Your Family Onboard

Families of full-time cruise residents may visit onboard for a day (with prior authorization) and often opt to sail with full-time cruise residents. Morton Jablin's family sails with him one month per year onboard Seven Seas Navigator.

Make Time to Socialize

It can be lonely living on a cruise ship, away from friends and family, so be sure to make time to socialize. Invite someone to share a meal, engage another passenger in chitchat at the bar or ask a new acquaintance to join you for a stroll in port. Most cruisers and cruise staff tend to be friendly and social.

Another plus for extroverts is that you'll interact with a more diverse age group on a cruise ship than you would at a retirement community.

Create a Schedule

While some full-time cruise ship passengers prefer a go-with-the-flow approach to life onboard, others prefer to follow a structured schedule while living at sea. Routines can help ground people and give them a sense of purpose, whether they're retired or trying to do their job from an at-sea base.

While Jablin doesn't go off the ship when it docks in ports anymore due to macular degeneration, he likes structure. "I like to maintain a schedule: I have breakfast in my cabin, I go to high tea in the afternoon and sit at the same corner table in the dining room for lunch and dinner, where I eat dover sole each meal."

World Cruise passengers and other long-term cruisers report scheduling daily walks or gym time, card or trivia games, time for reading or needlepoint and even evening activities such as a set meal time or nightly dancing.

Eat Smart

The days of grocery shopping, meal planning, prep and cleanup are over. Cruise ships offer a variety of dining options and cuisines for all dietary needs. Special diets are accommodated, and staff typically go out of their way to make sure passengers are satisfied.

However, rich cuisine and desserts are plentiful when cruising, so full-time cruisers need to make nutrition and health a priority. Mama Lee Wachstetter, a full-time Princess Cruises resident, modified her diet by ordering only half portions at each meal. Ask for steamed vegetables or a plain salad, or request sauces on the side.

Bottom Line: It's a Wonderful Life at Sea

If you're in relatively good health and can afford the lifestyle, living full time at sea could be a great lifestyle choice.

Morton Jablin has no regrets and offers advice to those who wish to follow in his unique retirement footsteps.

"I would advise them to do it 1,000 percent if they have the financial ability to do so. This is a much better life than in any senior citizens home anywhere in the United States or in the world. They take marvelous care of you. If you need something, you have it in 10 minutes. This cruise line, Regent Seven Seas, is a wonderful company. The people that work here are kind, considerate, gracious. They treat me like family. It's a wonderful life."

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