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Advice & More June 2015

Dollar Sense

Living on the Love Boat: How Does It Compare to the Cost of Assisted Living?

By Teresa Ambord

For someone who is in good health, enjoys the shipboard life, and can live with a few disadvantages, it just might work (which actually describes someone who does not need the “assisted” aspect of assisted living).

Have you heard the rumors that it’s cheaper to live full time on a cruise ship or in a hotel than in an assisted living facility? Most people know, assisted living facilities are not cheap.  Depending on the city and state you live in, the cost can be brutal – up to $7,500 per month in some parts of Alaska, according to a 2014 survey by Genworth Financial.

But actually, it doesn’t make much sense to try to compare assisted living costs with the cost of full-time cruising. Because by definition, those who need assisted living generally require help – with medications, some mobility needs, dressing, etc. – that won’t be available on a ship. It makes more sense to assume the comparison is between the cost of cruise life and the cost of living in a retirement facility for reasonably independent folks. 

Why did this question even come up? Some people asserted they could live in a hotel or on a cruise ship more affordably than the high cost of assisted living facilities. So back in 2004 Lee Lindquist, M.D., instructor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine took a look at the difference.  She concluded that if spread over a 20-year period, life on a cruise ship would end up costing only about $2,000 more (it wasn’t clear if she meant per year or the total 20 year cost).  Is that still true?

Without a new study, it’s hard to say, but it is fun to think about cruise-living. Here are some details about what it’s like to live on a cruise ship, and the pros and cons.


Living Onboard

For someone who is in good health, enjoys the shipboard life, and can live with a few disadvantages, it just might work (which actually describes someone who does not need the “assisted” aspect of assisted living).  In early 2015, USA Today interviewed a woman who has been living on the same cruise ship for 7 years. And before that, she lived on another ship for 3 years. Eighty-six-year-old Lee Wachtstetter learned to love cruising before she was widowed. "My husband introduced me to cruising," she told USA Today. "Mason was a banker and real estate appraiser and taught me to love cruising. During our 50-year marriage we did 89 cruises.” Before he passed away he told her not to stop cruising, and so far, she hasn’t.  Since he’s been gone, she’s taken nearly 100 more cruises, 15 of which were world cruises.

For the past seven years, she has lived aboard the Crystal Serenity, part of the Crystal Cruise line.  Before that, she lived on a Holland America ship for three years.  Unlike most people who take a cruise, she doesn’t usually get off the ship when it docks, because she has been just about everywhere. Instead, she enjoys the quietness of the public parts of the ship when everyone else gets off.  Wachstetter estimates that for 2015, she’ll pay $164,000 to live this way. The cost of a cruise is generally all-inclusive, but she treats herself at times to some of the specialty restaurants and other voluntary expenses.  Whether or not the cost would be comparable to living in a retirement facility over a period of 20 years is unknown, but for 2015, shipboard life is definitely not cheaper. However, depending on what you like to do, it might be a lot more pleasant. 


What Are the Pros?

Wachstetter likes to dance.  Because the Crystal Serenity employs dance hosts, she is able to dance for two hours every evening after dinner.  Holland America ships also had dance hosts, but when they discontinued that policy, she moved on.

She enjoys meals in the restaurant. Generally ships offer buffets all day long, but the food doesn’t compare to the restaurant, and both are included in the cruise price (except specialty restaurants, like steakhouses).  Also by eating in one of the restaurants, she is able to be seated at large tables where she can meet and mingle with new people.

Wachstetter’s life onboard is pretty much what she makes it. Some days she wants to sit quietly and do needlepoint.  But when she wants to be active, there are cocktail parties, live shows which she describes as “Broadway caliber,” mock game shows she can watch or participate in, bingo, exhibits, lectures, classes and more.


What about the Cons?

The space is small, as anyone who has been on a cruise can attest. The lowest price cabins don’t have windows, which is a deal breaker for some.  (Of course, there are many options with varying costs, from windows that are small and high-up, ocean view windows, and balconies.)

You cannot take much more than a couple of suitcases onboard with you.  As USA Today points out, you can’t take your favorite cushy chair or hang your treasured painting on the cabin wall.

If a person has poor mobility, there may be a greater risk of falling on a ship.  No matter how big the ship, if the weather conditions turn bad, the decks can be a bit wobbly, particularly when going through narrow straits of water. There are plenty of elevators, but some might find the passages difficult to navigate for more than a week-long cruise. 

If you need more than routine healthcare the crew may not be able to administer that. If you’ve seen Love Boat (which is how many of us were first introduced to cruising, although it is nothing like that in reality), “Doc” was always available.  Certainly there is medical care onboard a ship but if you have a serious condition, this life is probably not for you. My uncle experienced some serious heart trouble on a south Caribbean cruise.  At the next port, my uncle and aunt were transported to a hospital and were told they would not be allowed back onboard.  The ship sailed on without them, which was quite an ordeal. Fortunately for Wachstetter, her health has been great. But she recognizes that the day may come when she will have to debark for the last time.

Perhaps the biggest point to consider is that when each cruise concludes, even residents like Wachstetter have to leave the ship and find other accommodations until the ship leaves again.  Usually that means staying in a hotel. Wachstetter’s family lives in Miami, so when the ship docks there – five times last year – she visits them.

Some industry observers say the day is coming when extended cruises will be available, so that getting off the ship will happen less often.  And with the rise of the baby boomer generation, some foresee ships that are retirement communities in themselves.  Till then, if your goal is to live more affordably than a retirement facility, a cruise ship is probably not the answer. But if you just love shipboard life and are still enjoying good health and mobility and you can afford it, living on the Love Boat may be a great thing. 


Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.

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