Cruise ships offer many of the essential elements older Americans need to thrive: organized activities, a decent level of medical care and, most crucially, a built-in community of like-minded travelers. Upgraded connectivity has also allowed semi-retired cruisers to make a cruise ship their new retirement home.
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For nearly two decades, Jeff Farschman, 72, has enjoyed leisure cruises to exotic ports of call, much like many other adventurous retirees.
Farschman, on the other hand, lives at sea, unlike many of his fellow cruise passengers. He spends half of the year, if not more, traveling the world’s oceans and rivers. Farschman is part of a rising population of elderly people who are physically “retiring” on cruise ships, despite having a real home near where he grew up in Delaware.
“Pandemic aside, I’ve been cruising for seven to eight months a year,” Farschman said. “I am a world traveler and explorer type and cruising has literally allowed me to see the entire planet.”
When Farschman initially started cruising, he had no intention of living on a ship. When Hurricane Ivan slammed the Caribbean in 2004, the former vice president of Lockheed Martin was stuck on a traditional cruise.
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“I just kept on extending and extending my time on board because the hurricane ruined my original winter plans,” he explained. “Ultimately I ended up completing six voyages in a row.”
After nearly two decades at sea, Farschman now plans his life around his time at sea, limiting his time ashore to as little as possible. However, “retirees-at-sea,” like every other cruiser, were forced to return to shore during the coronavirus pandemic, when the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shut down all cruises from US ports.
Farschman went without cruising for 19 months, including the winter, his longest break from cruising in nearly two decades. Serial cruisers were the first to return once major lines developed clear Covid health policies. While Covid outbreaks have been documented since then, including in San Francisco and Seattle, passengers like Farschman maintain they are safe while cruising.
Cruising’s clarion call to retirees
Despite the industry turmoil created by the coronavirus pandemic, there are no firm data, but retiring on a cruise ship is becoming increasingly popular.
After her husband died, serial cruiser and novelist Lee Wachtstetter penned a well-read memoir about life on cruise ships for 12 years. Meanwhile, Farschman keeps a blog on his maritime voyages, which is made possible by on-board WiFi, which has “become so much more reliable, though sadly not necessarily more affordable,” he said.
Improved connectivity has also enabled semi-retired cruisers to work while based at sea. “The WiFi on most vessels is now strong enough for Zooms,” said Tara Bruce, a consultant and creative brand manager at Goodwin Investment Advisory Services in Woodstock, Georgia, which helps people retire at sea.
With cruising, you cover all of your living expenses — food, housing, entertainment — in one place.Tara Bruce
CREATIVE BRAND MANAGER AT GOODWIN INVESTMENT ADVISORY SERVICES
Retirement on a cruise ship makes a lot of sense in many ways. Cruises have long attracted to elder passengers, despite stereotypes. According to the Cruise Lines International Association ( pdf below), one-third of the 28.5 million individuals who cruised in 2018 were over 60 years old, with more than half of them being over 50.
Furthermore, cruise ships provide many of the fundamental features that seniors require to thrive: planned activities, adequate medical care, and, most importantly, a built-in community of like-minded passengers.
Retiring on a cruise ship might also be cost effective.
Cheaper than assisted living
“With cruising, you cover all of your living expenses — food, housing, entertainment — in one place,” said Bruce. Although pricing on luxury liners can inch towards $250 per day, “we’ve seen folks get costs down to $89 per day, which is far cheaper than assisted care or other kinds of senior living.”
Repeat cruisers, such as Farschman, are also eligible for on-board credits toward luxury meals, drinks, spas, and other activities, which may add up to “hundreds of dollars per voyage,” according to Farschman.
A recent turn toward longer, more elaborate “world cruises” or “grand cruises” that can last 50 days or more has supported the emergence of the “retire-at-sea” movement.
For example, Holland America offers a 71-day Grand Africa Voyage that visits 25 ports in 21 countries, as well as a 127-day Grand World Voyage that visits 61 ports in 30 countries.
Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruisecritic.com, noted, “They’re typically comprised of several segments with extensive times in each port.” “Grand” itineraries can keep travelers at sea practically indefinitely with careful planning — sometimes bookended by shorter “connector” voyages.
According to Eric Elvejord, Holland America’s director of public relations, back-to-back so-called Collectors Voyages not only let retirees avoid recurring port calls, but they also offer discounts of 10% to 15%.
A lucrative demographic
Although few cruise companies actively target retirees — Oceania, for example, had a Snowbird in Residence program that was later abandoned – speciality brokers are becoming more aware of this profitable market.
CruiseWeb, based in Tysons, Virginia, has introduced a Senior Living at Sea program that creates retiree-specific itineraries while also assisting clients with their daily lives on land. CruiseWeb handles concerns including shore transfers, ship switches, visas, and insurance in addition to cabin bookings.
Michael Jones, CruiseWeb’s senior marketing and operations coordinator, said, “We have clients that have been on board for over a year.” He continued, “Usually they’ve downsized their permanent residence back home with many even renting it out while on-board” to help fund the cost of cruising.
The emergence of fully residential ships from Storylines, such as the 20-year-old The World and the soon-to-debut MV Narrative, is perhaps the most significant aspect of the retiring at sea movement. The former has 165 privately owned on-board residences, while the MV Narrative, which is scheduled to sail in 2024, has 547 one- to four-bedroom suites.
Owning at sea isn’t cheap: The MV Narrative apartments range in price from $1 million to $8 million, with a limited number of one- to two-year leases starting at $400,000.
“There are also monthly or annual costs to cover things like fuel, port fees, taxes and house-keeping,” McDaniel explained. “It’s kind of like living in a condo – that just happens to be at sea.”
Read the report below: