- 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 be based at sea while still working.
For nearly two decades, Jeff Farschman, 72, has spent his golden years like many other adventurous retirees — enjoying leisure cruises to exotic ports of call.
But unlike many of his fellow cruise passengers, Farschman basically lives at sea. He spends months traveling the world's oceans and waterways — half of the year, if not more. Although he still keeps a physical home near where he grew up in Delaware, Farschman is now part of a growing cohort of older folks who are literally "retiring" on cruise ships.
"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."
Living on a ship was not exactly what Farschman had in mind when he first began cruising. But the former vice president at Lockheed Martin found himself stuck on a conventional Caribbean cruise when Hurricane Ivan hit back in 2004.
"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."
Almost 20 years later, Farschman now organizes his life around his time at sea — keeping his periods ashore as brief as possible. That said, like every other cruiser, "retirees-at-sea" found themselves back on dry land during much of the coronavirus pandemic, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shut down all cruises from U.S. ports.
For Farschman, that meant 19 months — including winter — without cruising, his longest period ashore in nearly two decades. But once major lines established clear Covid health protocols, serial cruisers were the first back on board. While Covid outbreaks have since been reported — including notable instances in San Francisco and Seattle — folks like Farschman say they feel safe while cruising.
Cruising's clarion call to retirees
Although there are no hard numbers, retiring on a cruise ship is gaining an increasingly higher profile — despite the industry tumult caused by the coronavirus crisis.
Serial cruiser and author Lee Wachtstetter, for instance, wrote a much-read memoir about living on cruise ships for 12 years after her husband died. Farschman, meanwhile, chronicles his sea-faring ventures on his blog — facilitated by on-board WiFi that's "become so much more reliable, though sadly not necessarily more affordable," he said.
Upgraded connectivity has also allowed semi-retired cruisers to be based at sea while still working. "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, a Woodstock, Georgia-based financial advisory firm that helps folks retiring at sea.
In many ways, retiring on a cruise ship makes a lot of sense. Stereotypes aside, cruising has always appealed to older travelers. In fact, according to the Cruise Lines International Association, one-third of the 28.5 million people who took a cruise in 2018 were over 60 years old — and more than 50% were over 50 years old.
What's more, cruise ships offer many of the essential elements seniors need to thrive: organized activities, a decent level of medical care and, most crucially, a built-in community of like-minded travelers.
Retiring on a cruise ship can also prove economically sound.
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 like Farschman are also eligible for on-board credits towards premium meals, drinks, spas and other activities that can easily reach "hundreds of dollars per voyage," Farschman said.
The rise of the "retire-at-sea" movement has been aided by a recent shift toward longer, more elaborate "world cruises" or "grand cruises" that can last 50 days or more at a time.
Holland America, for instance, offers a 71-day Grand Africa Voyage itinerary stopping in 25 ports in 21 countries along with a Grand World Voyage visiting 61 ports in 30 countries, totaling 127 days at sea.
"They're typically comprised of several segments with extensive times in each port," explained Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruisecritic.com. With careful planning — often bookended by shorter "connector" cruises — "grand" itineraries can keep cruisers at sea almost indefinitely.
Holland America's back-to-back so-called Collectors Voyages not only help retirees avoid repeating port calls, they also include discounts of 10% and 15%, according to Eric Elvejord, Holland America's director of public relations.
A lucrative demographic
Although few cruise lines specifically target retirees — Oceania, for its part, had a Snowbird in Residence program, which has since been canceled — specialty agents are waking up to this lucrative demographic.
The Cruise Web, Inc., based in Tysons, Virginia, launched a Senior Living at Sea program that both builds out retiree-specific itineraries and helps clients manage their their lives back on shore. Beyond booking cabins, The Cruise Web handles issues such as shore transfers, ship-switches, visas and insurance.
"We have clients that have been on board for over a year," said The Cruise Web's senior marketing and operations coordinator Michael Harris. "Usually they've downsized their permanent residence back home with many even renting it out while on-board" to help cover the cost of cruising, he added.
Perhaps the most notable component of the retiring at sea movement is the arrival of fully residential ships, like the 20-year-old The World and the soon-to-debut MV Narrative, from Storylines. The former includes 165 individually-owned on-board residences, while the far larger MV Narrative – set to hit the high seas in 2024 – offers 547 one- to four-bedroom apartments.
Owning at sea isn't cheap: MV Narrative units run between $1 million and $8 million, while a limited number of 12- and 24-year leases start at $500,000.
"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."
— By David Kaufman. Kaufman is a freelance writer.
(Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the term of a lease and misstated the name of a Cruise Web employee.)