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Permanently Live on a Cruise Ship or a RV in Early Retirement?

What do they do with the ice sculptures when they melt?
–A random first-time cruiser (Hat Tip)

I’ve been a closet early retirement article and website stalker for years. Part of the draw was trying to figure out what life was going to be like on the other side once we retired. Part of the draw was trying to get ideas for what to do. While my friend Doug Nordman swears that there’s always something to do when you’re retired, I wasn’t exactly sure that we would be able to fill our days with fulfilling, meaningful activities. Since we didn’t want to get a case of senioritis and not give it my all with our companies until we actually (semi-?)retired, my outlet for wanting to plan something but not wanting to plan something was reading blogs and articles about the lives of others. Vicariously do we live!

Two of the most common ideas bandied about by the early retirement community for how to actively pass one’s days in retirement are to live on a cruise ship and to live in an RV.

Most of the drive behind these two ideas stem from a couple of concepts:

  • Wanting to stretch retirement dollars. If you had the net worth of Bill Gates, then you’d own the yacht and the private jet and go wherever you wanted, whenever you wanted. However, most people who want to retire early are trying to achieve a balancing act of retiring right at the point that the numbers say that they have a reasonable chance of not running out of money. So, especially during the first ten years of retirement, when, as research shows, the sequence of returns risk is highest, meaning that the risk of hitting a bad stretch of returns in the stock market is the highest, these early retirees are particularly concerned about drawing down the nest egg to the point where long-term retirement is unsustainable, and they have to go back into the workforce.
  • A desire to go see the world. Early retirees are, by definition, younger than the bog standard retire-at-65 crowd. They tend to be more mobile and active, as the younger ages would dictate. They also, anecdotally, tend to value travel and experiences. particularly since, as research from the University of Colorado’s Leaf von Boven shows, experiences give you more happiness than possessions.

Both cruises and the RV life can check both of those boxes for early (and not-so-early) retirees.

I understand the draw. We love camping, hiking, wilderness, parks, mountains, forests, and the like. We’ve been on several cruises and enjoyed them as well.

We don’t want to sit around in the apartment all day, every day, watching Netflix and Amazon Prime (#aff). While board duties and the dog will keep us from being completely out of touch for a while yet, it’s an interesting and fun thought exercise to try to figure out what we want to do in future years. It’s also a practical exercise in that prudence dictates that we do figure out backup plans for outkicking our coverage in terms of financial wherewithal if we don’t want to pursue meaningful post-retirement employment.

Live on a Cruise Ship

While we’d been on cruises before and even contemplated repositioning cruises as a cheap alternative to go to a different continent compared to flying, I hadn’t thought about longer-term cruising until reading about the Widmers (kinda) cruise around the world. They did research and found a 119 night round-the-world cruise on Costa Luminosa would cost around $40,000 for a couple, meaning, if there were, somehow, miraculously, back-to-back-to-back world cruises at that price, a couple could cruise, on the cheap, for a year for about $125,000, since they’d have to get lodging in the non-cruising days and probably pick up some other, random expenses along the way. The Widmers, through a lot of work and through being flexible with transportation, were able to travel around the world in 300 days (3.75 times longer than Jules Verne (#aff)…slowpokes!) for $37,984.

So, with a lot of work and a lot of flexibility, I estimate they could cover their costs and do a once-a-year round-the-world sorta-cruising (I can’t think of any more made-up hyphenations to throw in) for about $50,000 per year.

Or, you could take a lazier route and pay $113,990 per person for a 245 day Viking Sun cruise and then fly to Singapore from London and pay $12,999 per person for a 60 night Windstar cruise. The flight to Singapore would cost ~$1,550 for two people. Factor in visas, other lodging and meals, and the trip back to do it all over again, and it would cost about $275,000 for a couple to be on cruise ships that were consistently sailing around the world.

If you really wanted to, you could budget around $65,000 per year like “Super Mario” Salcedo and just go back and forth from Miami to the Caribbean. That sounds like my living version of Groundhog Day (#aff). Horses for courses…

Naturally, there are pros and cons to living on a cruise ship in early retirement.

Pros of Living in a Cruise Ship in Early Retirement

  • Housing, generally, is taken care of. For months at a time, you are living in a floating shoebox apartment. Hang your clothes up in the closet, put your toiletries in the bathroom, and your living quarters move with you from destination to destination. No need to worry about packing and repacking as if you lived the itinerant, gap year, backpacker lifestyle.
  • You get to see a lot of different destinations. Your floating hotel provides the motive power to see all sorts of places that you might not otherwise see. Were you planning on seeing Papeete, Tahiti anytime soon? Don’t want to be in a flying germ tube cramped in 21 square inches of comfortable leg room for 20 hours to get there? No worries! Pick the right itinerary, and the cruise ship will take you there.
  • Food and entertainment is included in the price. You will have three hots and a cot, not to mention entertainment ranging from lounging by the pool to Broadway-esque shows every day. Mix and mingle with hundreds or thousands of other people or find an unoccupied nook and read to your heart’s content. Gorge on the buffet every day and eat in the dining hall or stick to a strict Leangains (#aff) diet without ever having to prepare your own mise en place or do the cleanup. Go to the gym as much as you need to burn off whatever you consume during the day.
  • Basic medical needs are taken care of. If you have a sickness, the ship will have medical staff and medical facilities to take care of you. Naturally, you’ll want to have travel insurance (I recommend World Nomads (#aff)) in case something particualrly nasty afflicts you and you need to be evacuated, but, for the minor scrapes, bruises, and seasickness, your medical staff is not far away.

But, it’s not all Shangri La aboard a cruise ship!

Cons of Living in a Cruise Ship in Early Retirement

  • Unless you buy a condo on a permanent ship, you’re dependent on timing your cruises. As described above, if you wanted to be on a round-the-world trip, you’d need to either fly to different destinations, or piece together repositioning cruises, trains, and buses, so you can’t be on the same ship all of the time. While the packing and unpacking wouldn’t be as onerous as what you’d have if you were to truly travel around the world, you do need to plan ahead of time.
  • Washing clothes and wifi will cost you. Most cruise lines offer laundry service, and the ones that specialize in around the world trips like Princess have coin-op washers and dryers. Still, you’ll have to pay for it, one way or the other. It’s not like being able to throw your clothes in your own washing machine. You could do like I used to do at West Point and wash your clothes in the shower with a bunch of shampoo, but that might not be optimal! Also, wifi on cruises tends to be slow and expensive. If you’re going to have a side hustle that requires you to be connected, even periodically, to higher speed Internet, then you’re going to struggle while on the cruise ship, or you’ll have to take some precious port time to find a wifi location that can handle your needs. Don’t even think about trying to Skype or Facetime. I remember my property manager having to do a Facetime call with her daughter while we were all on a cruise ship together, and the connection was spotty at best.
  • Cabin fever. You have to be comfortable being confined to ship’s quarters for days, and potentially more than a week, at a time. It won’t take long to know every single nook and cranny on the ship, so if you are not good at finding your own entertainment, you could find yourself bored out of your skull.
  • Temptation island ship. This is the flip side of what I covered earlier. Because the dessert bar is open all of the time and the dining room stewards will be happy to bring you a second, a third, a fourth (you get the point) main course, you could eat yourself into oblivion. This would certainly shorten your life, causing you not to need to abide by the safe withdrawal rate due to your pending demise.
  • A cruise ship is not a replacement for long-term care. While you might find some similarities between a cruise ship and a continuing care retirement community, ship staff are not the same as skilled care staff when you get to the point where you should be in a retirement community. They do not have skilled nurses who understand mental health care for elderly, much less staff who are able to help you with the activities of daily living.

So, if you’re a consummate travel hacker, a couple could theoretically travel around the world for $50,000 a year. A well-to-do couple could buy a condo on a permanent ship like Utopia for $36 million and ~$1 million in annual fees. Choose your poison.

Living in a RV in Early Retirement

One if by land, two if by sea!

Let’s say that the constant quaffing of Bonine (#aff) for hundreds and thousands of days at sea makes you queasy and quake at the knees. Can you take your housing with you and wander about the United States, or even througout the Western Hemisphere?

You could buy an RV and then head out into the vast expanse of connected land between Barrow, Alaska and Ushuaia, Argentina.

My aunt and uncle sort of took this route when they bought a fifth wheel and traveled from sea to shining sea. They did not sell their house, so they were not permanently in a RV, but they did spend a month or so at a time in their camper before returning back to Georgia to reconnect with home base. They have grandchildren and family in Georgia, so it was unlikely that they were going to sell everything and live permanently in a RV. However, their wanderings got me and my wife contemplating that type of lifestyle.

Living in a RV does have its benefits:

  • You can bring a lot more of your personal belongings with you. If you go in a cruise ship, you’re probably, practically speaking, going to be restricted to 2 approximately 45 pound pieces of luggage and a couple of day packs. If you’ve ever been at an airline ticket counter trying to play three card monte with your suitcase contents to get them under the weight restrictions, then you know what a challenge this is. Living in a RV means that, while you can’t have everything that you have in your permanent residence, you can have a lot more than you could if you were carrying all of your worldly possessions on your back or on a rolling piece of luggage.
  • You can visit places more than 30 minutes away from a deep water port. How many cruise ships go to Yellowstone National Park? To Las Vegas? To Cleveland? Your cruise ship won’t pull into port and spit out thousands of cruisers into some landlocked attraction that you’ve been dying to see. With an RV, you can reach any of those places, and you can also reach the places that the cruise ships go, with the added benefit of being able to visit at times when the cruise ships aren’t swarming over the attractions like a plague of locusts.
  • You can dictate your own schedule. Don’t want to be in Miami, Florida on March 6? That’s fine. As long as there’s an open campsite, or even a Walmart parking lot, then you’re good to go and can visit whatever destination that you want whenever you want.
  • You aren’t stuck with thousands of your closest friends. In a cruise ship, you’ll be stuck with hundreds or thousands of other tourists, some of whom are travelers, not tourists, and some of whom live up to all of the ugly American. The only time that you’re guaranteed privacy is when you’re in your cabin. Otherwise, you’re probably bumping into lots of people. If you’re 100% extroverted, then that’s great. Otherwise, eventually, that lack of solitude and solace can become annoying. If you’re in a RV, then you can seek out, find, and enjoy solitude whenever the mood strikes you.
  • Better connection to the greater world. Most campsites do have some form of WiFi or cellular access, and if they don’t, you’re probably not far from a town with a public library or cafe that does.

However, as we like to think of all sides of an argument, let’s look at some of the potential downsides of full-time living in a RV:

  • Your spending can be variable. With a cruise ship, you know what your itinerary is and what the cost is to be on the ship. Discretionary spending is up to you, and the excursions can be booked ahead of time, giving you a good idea of what it’s going to cost. If you don’t want to spend anything else, you don’t have to spend anything else. In a RV, the story is different. You never know when the timing belt is going to break. The extreme value campsite you’re eyeing for the next stop might be booked for the next 6 years. Someone may do something unfriendly in the Middle East, or a hurricane may hit the Gulf Coast, causing gas prices to spike. Generally speaking, you can estimate your costs, but the variability will likely be higher.
  • You should be handy to handle routine maintenance on your RV. In a sense, a RV is a rolling house, replete with all of the parts that go in your house. Not only do you have the maintenance of the vehicle itself, but you have to maintain your home. Have a clog in your gray water hose? Have fun with the hose snake to fix it. Additionally, although this isn’t exactly maintenance, getting set in a campsite isn’t an out-of-the-box event, either. Depending on what your rig is and where your site is, it can sometimes take a half an hour to get everything set.
  • You don’t have as much room as you think. Once you pack a miniature kitchen, living room, bedroom, and bathroom into a couple of hundred square feet, it becomes much more like living in a tiny house than you would have initially imagined. It can quickly get cluttered, and requires much more effort to maintain and keep clean. If you go hiking on some muddy trail, you have to deal with the mud before you get into your RV, or you’ll be finding caked up mud for months. If you do the same on a cruise ship, there’s an army of cabin crew whose job it is to keep your place spic and span.
  • Driving a RV is difficult and takes some getting used to. My wife’s mother and stepfather bought an RV a few years ago, and her stepfather is still telling stories about the difficulties of driving in a strong wind or up a mountain road. If you’re used to city living in your sedan or crossover, then it’s going to be quite an adjustment to get used to driving something as big as a school bus with even less handling.

Let’s say that, for you, the RV life is much more appealing to satisfy your wanderlust than a cruise ship is. How much will it cost to live in a RV full-time?

First off, in order to travel around in an RV, you need to acquire said RV.

Depending on how fancy you want to get, your rolling motel can cost somewhere between $10,000 and $300,000. Even a higher end fifth wheel requires a big truck to pull it, so, let’s assume you’re not rolling in either cousin Eddy’s RV (#aff) or in an EleMMent Palazzo, but, rather, something middle of the road (no pun intended). Let’s budget $125,000 for your purchase.

GoRollick has an excellent summation of the total cost of ownership of a RV. The categories include:

  • Insurance: They suggest $500-1,000 per year, so let’s assume $750/year.
  • Gas: They say that the average RV is driven 5,000 miles per year and that manufacturers claim mileage of 10-20 mpg per year. My in-laws’ experience is on the low end, so let’s assume 12 mpg. The average gas price at the time I wrote this article was $2.55 per gallon. This means we should budget $1,062.50 per year for the 416.7 gallons of gas we’d expect to buy.
  • Maintenance. Our rolling motel won’t fix itself, so they recommend $100/month, equating to $1,200 per year.
  • RV park costs. The averages range between $35-100 per night, so let’s budget $1,500 per month, or $18,000 per year.
  • RV utilities. Given that you’ll be in a campsite most of the time, your utility cost will be electricity for hookups. GoRollick says the rates are $100-300 a month, so let’s assume $2,400 per year in utilities.
  • Storage. They state storage costs between $30-100 a month. However, if the goal is to live full-time in your RV, then that cost should be zero. Chase summer all year round!
  • Other costs. Unlike on a cruise ship, you do need to feed yourself. You’ll need health insurance. You’ll need other supplies. Let’s assume $750/month for food and $800/month for healthcare, for a total of $18,600 per year.
  • Total: $42,012.50 per year. Naturally, your costs may vary depending on the quality of facilities you’re looking for, how often you go to restaurants rather than cooking in your tiny kitchen, etc. Maybe throw in some fluff for the unexpected and say $50,000 per year.

If you’re an awesome travel hacker like the Widmers are, then the comparison of the two costs is a push. If you want to live like Super Mario and go back and forth from Miami to the Bahamas and back, then you’re valuing having everything taken care of for you at about $15,000 per year.

Otherwise, if you want to have the full experience of what either option has to offer, then a couple living full-time on a cruise ship should expect to pay 5.5 times as much as they would if they lived full-time in a RV.

Put in terms of the 4% safe withdrawal rate rule, the couple would need to have $6,875,000 to retire full-time on a cruise ship, and would need $1,400,000 ($125,000 to buy the rig and $1,250,000 to fund the lifestyle) to retire and live full-time in a RV.

Given those costs, it seems like many more people would choose to live life on the edge…of the patio.

By

Jason Hull, CFP®, was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business.

You can read more about him in the About Page.

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