Robert and Nancy Houchens desired an unconventional retirement lifestyle.
The couple, from North Garden, Virginia, outside of Charlottesville, had worked at an RV campground and spent decades hearing people’s stories about traveling around the country in their recreational vehicles. They dreamed of doing something similar.
Rather than driving, they chose cruising on the high seas. Even before retiring, it was their favorite way to spend time off work, vacationing on a Carnival cruise. So the part-time South Floridians thought why not live most of retired life exploring the world on cruise ships?
“You can cruise for a long time for the price of a $300,000 rig,” said Robert Houchens of the expense to buy the RV, “or whatever you’d spend on a nice rig” to hit the road.
Since 2015, the Houchens — he’s 64 and she’s 71 — have spent 30 to 40 weeks a year cruising. They did have a long stretch on land from spring of 2020 until last summer when cruise ships temporarily stopped because of the pandemic. Overall, the adventurous retired couple has cruised 1,000 days on Carnival ships, nearly three years of life together.
In the world of pandemic cruising, the Houchens aren’t alone indefinitely wandering the seas, from one cruise to the next. More retirees have come aboard, calling cruise ships their homes. And they are being joined by younger “digital nomads” taking advantage of remote work via Wi-Fi.
From the millennials untethered to an office to retirees, these cruisers are quick to point out their lifestyle choices come with daily maid service, plenty of swimming pools and daily meals prepared for and served to them — all for less than the price of a South Florida condominium or a home in a retirement community.
“We know for a fact that die-hard cruise fans absolutely love to cruise. So, it makes sense that once they reach retirement age, there is nowhere else some of them would rather be than to wake up every morning either at sea or another destination,” said Sarah Beth Reno, vice president of guest operations for Carnival Cruise Line. “In combination with value of cruising and the many dining, entertainment and activity options, cruising full time is a perfect fit for some.”
While the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench in the Houchens’ cruising plans, it became a catalyst for Jared Dailey, 32, and Jordan Taylor, 33, a married couple from the Chicago area. They both worked grueling hours in corporate jobs and used limited vacation time to do their favorite thing — cruise. When the pandemic emerged, it made them rethink their lifestyle.
“Life is short. We spent so many days and weeks working away in our offices in Chicago and then the pandemic took this idea of a travel lifestyle and made it more realistic,” Dailey said. “Everyone went remote, including our jobs. At some point we decided to change our lifestyle. We sold everything in Chicago, downsized and moved to South Bend, Indiana, and decided that if the world was going remote, we’d take this remote life across the world.”
“Traditionally people who do longer cruises are retired because they have the time, but we’ve seen more people working from cruise ships; they skew younger,” said Chris Gray-Faust, the managing editor of Cruise Critic, an online forum and cruise booking site run by TripAdvisor.
“The mainstream cruise lines have invested in the technology for better internet connection and people who are working age are finding out that they can work from cruise ships. Whether it’s for a couple weeks or the majority of the year. As long as you have a connection you can count on, why not?”
Remote-working regimen at sea
Dailey and Taylor now spend nearly half the year on cruise ships, working Monday through Friday, 35 to 40 hours a week on the water. They most frequently sail on Celebrity and Royal Caribbean, but they cruise on a variety of brands. They logged 100 days sailing last year and intend to reach 167 days by the end of 2022. They work together as travel agents, specializing in selling cruises and run a cruise vlog on YouTube. Taylor also works part time for a wedding magazine.
The couple’s transition to working from a cruise ship hasn’t been all smooth sailing. After six months doing a corporate sales job while cruising, Dailey’s bosses said they’d no longer allow him to work from a ship. Despite his “top notch” performance, they insisted he work from land.
Dailey opted to keep cruising.
“There’s a perception that there’s no way you can work to the best of your ability while working from cruise ships versus at home,” he said, noting the couple use the travel experiences and their YouTube channel to fight the stigma that comes with working while cruising.
“We treat our work like serious jobs, we’re not drinking at the pool in the middle of the day. People have a stigma and don’t understand that it is possible to sit on a cruise ship at a desk like you would at home,” Taylor said.
The pair switch between working in their cabins and outside in the ship’s common areas. They’re sometimes scolded by fellow passengers for working on vacation, until they explain that they live and work remotely on the ship.
They pay extra for premium Wi-Fi and said that cruise ship internet reliability is improving quickly. They recently cruised on a Royal Caribbean ship with Starlink Wi-Fi technology onboard, which they called a “game changer” for an internet connection at sea.
Royal Caribbean officials said SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet will be installed on the entire fleet.
“We really think this is a new frontier in the workplace, especially for millennials, and it makes us really excited,” Taylor said. “At night, I turn off my laptop and someone makes my meal for me. I go see a show, get a drink at the bar and it’s all paid for.”
Royal Caribbean said it welcomes long-term cruisers and aims to offer an environment that enables people to get whatever they’re looking for at sea.
How much does it cost?
As regular cruisers, both couples have “loyalty status” with cruise lines and they maintain flexible schedules allowing them to get the cheapest rates and often discounted cruises booked at the last minute.
The Houchens spend an average of $1,200 a week to cruise usually on Carnival but occasionally sail on other lines when they find a good deal. Similarly, Dailey and Taylor spend $1,100 week, plus an added $300 to $400 for premium Wi-Fi service.
The remote-working Chicago couple earn enough from the travel agent jobs and revenue from their YouTube channel to pay for a cruising life.
The Houchens, meanwhile, saved money for decades while working at the RV resort, plus use profit from the sale of their Virginia home to fund their retirement mainly at sea. His mom still lives in the Charlottesville area, so they visit her and that’s somewhat of a home base when they take a break from living on the water.
“You have to get used to remembering that it’s not a vacation. On vacations, you spend $6,000 or $7,000 on a balcony room or a suite, you gamble in the casino and you do a bunch of shore excursions. If you do that, your money is going to go fast,” Nancy Houchens said.
When you retire and reside on a cruise ship, she said, “the mind-set is that the cabin is your bedroom and the ship is your living room. When I had long hair, I would walk around the ship in my curlers and slippers like it was my living room because it is. People would laugh, but it doesn’t matter because next week, they’re gone.”
She and her husband have visited so many places over the months and years in their cruising travels, they often don’t get off the ship anymore when it docks in a port.
“I even don’t pay attention to where we go. I honestly can’t tell you where we’re going next. It’s more about the journey,” Robert Houchens said, explaining they love having the ship to themselves when the vacationers get off during days in different ports.
They also spend a lot of time with crew members, which they regard as part of the family. Often they pick cruises based on which crew members they know will be aboard.
Over their 1,000 nights on Carnival ships, the Houchens have been to Europe, Australia and around the Caribbean more times than they can count. Their favorite port of call? Aruba, they said. Although there are countless memories, their most memorable trips have been to Europe, notably celebrating the 1,000th night on Carnival ships while cruising through the Norwegian Fjords.
Just in case they ever get weary of cruising or can no longer do so due to health issues, they have prepared for potentially the next stage of retired life — on shore. They used some of the money from selling their Virginia home to buy a condo in a Coconut Creek retirement community in Broward County. They rent the place, but it’s their backup if they decide to live there.
Although spending months on end cruising can be affordable, it’s not sustainable for the masses or friendly to the environment. For example, according to a Financial Times “carbon counter,” an individual’s carbon footprint on a cruise in the Mediterranean is five times that of flying there from London, the home of the publication, and renting a vacation residence. And that carbon footprint on the Mediterranean cruise would be 25 times greater than driving about 200 miles from London to Wales for a camping trip.
Option to buy a ‘floating’ home
The future of cruise ship living may be less about the turnovers on mega ships operated by Carnival or Royal Caribbean and more about buying a home at sea — for those who can afford it.
Storylines, a company founded six years ago with a home office in Miami, is building a residential cruise ship. Passengers are signing long-term leases for 24 to 60 years for a variety of home styles, ranging from $650,000 to $8 million. The company’s 547-residences ship is under construction and expected to debut in early 2025. Half of the floating homes are sold, and Storylines’ officials hope to sell the remainder by next year.
The company’s plan is a Utopian vision: Those who can afford it can float on a luxurious oasis around the globe every 31/2 years.
“We wanted to create a community and this community happens to be floating and traveling around the world,” said Katie Drew-Jensen, Storylines vice president of sales and marketing. “We have a vision of like-minded people who want to live an adventurous life. It’s so much deeper than people realize.”
The ship community, the MV Narrative, will have room for about 1,000 residents and 450 crew members. Unlike vacation-oriented cruise ships, it will have a medical center, equipped with an emergency room, MRI machines and specialty doctors, therapists and a pharmacy.
The ship also will include an array of amenities, from a library, space for enrichment classes and a hydroponic garden, to a brewery, a bowling alley, an arcade and 20 bars and restaurants. Most of the food and drinks would be paid for as part of the cost to live on the ship.
Once it sets sail, the ship will become the corporate headquarters of Storylines, with its CEO and many top executives living onboard. They’ll have office spaces for the firm’s workers, as well as for residents working remotely from the ship.
Drew-Jensen said due to the price tags, most of the people who have bought leases for homes on the ship are in their 50s and 60s, and planning for retirement. So far, there is one pending resident in their 30s who plans to work remotely from the MV Narrative.
Storylines’ marketing purposely veers away from the image of a cruise ship filled with buffets, bars, casinos and nightclubs, instead focusing on “wellness” and the enticement of slowly circumnavigating the world.
“You think about a cruise ship and you think party, vacation and that you have to come back and detox from your big trip. We’re the opposite; our whole focus is health and wellness because you want to get off the ship and hike and explore,” Drew-Jensen said. “That’s a huge part of what we’re creating — live a healthier, happier and younger life with Storylines.”
Storylines’ officials claim the ship of permanent residents, complete with all the essential medical equipment and physicians, will be able to contend with another possible pandemic. When asked if they worry about launching a residential cruise ship after a devastating global coronavirus pandemic — which halted cruise ships for a year and caused several outbreaks of the highly contagious infectious disease among passengers and crew members on cruise ships — Drew-Jensen said the company isn’t concerned.
Last week, the Houchens were at a familiar spot: PortMiami, to board the Carnival Conquest. They had four nights to kill between a memorial service they attended in Cape Coral and boarding their next multiweek voyage. Naturally, they jumped on a quick four-night Carnival cruise.
“It’s cheaper than a hotel,” Nancy Houchens said. Their plans for the short Caribbean sail to Key West and Cozumel, Mexico? Get medicine and go to the Walmart in Cozumel.
“It’s just like a normal life where you have to run errands sometimes,” she said before boarding. “Then back to relaxing.”
Anna Jean Kaiser: 305-376-2239, @annajkaiser