Is there anything that sounds better than retiring on a cruise ship? You get to see the world, be waited on hand and foot, eat lots of good food, and there’s always something to do. There are no dishes to wash, no lawn to mow, and you don’t even have to make your bed.
Of course, we all know that those benefits to living on a cruise ship don’t come free. In fact, we’ve run the numbers and even living aboard a modest cruise ship could come to a price of $175,000 for a couple sailing in a balcony cabin for a year.
With the average Social Security benefit being $1,543 in 2020 according to AARP, there’s no way you could afford to live on a cruise from just that money alone… or is there?
The good thing about cruising is that if you’re budget-conscious, there are plenty of ways you can cut costs. From sailing on older ships to staying in interior cabins to shopping for different itineraries and avoiding extras while on board, you can sail for surprisingly cheap.
But is it enough that a Social Security benefit would cover your costs, allowing you to live on the ship full-time if you wanted?
Let’s find out…
Comparing Social Security Benefits to Cruise Costs
As mentioned above, the average benefit paid to Social Security recipients is almost $1,550 a month, according to AARP. But those benefits vary from person to person. Amounts vary based on work, salary history, and even the age that you applied for benefits.
Meanwhile, according to the same source, the maximum benefit you can receive is $3,148 per month — significantly higher than the average check.
How does that compare to the cost of cruises?
When it comes to cruises, there isn’t any sort of “average” cruise fare. In fact, fares can vary widely based on a number of criteria:
Cruise Line: Different cruise lines focus on different price points. This doesn’t mean every cruise on one line will be cheaper than a similar trip on another, but in general some lines are less expensive than others. In particular, we’ve found MSC and Carnival to have the most affordable fares.
Sailing Date: If you want to live year-round on a ship, then you’ll have to deal with high summer and holiday prices. But if you want to live part-time, then you can find much cheaper trips by sailing when school is in session. Times like January-May (with the exception of Spring Break) and September-December (before Christmas) generally have lower fares.
Cabin Type: If you want to keep your sailing price low, then you should only look at interior cabins. These cabins are by far the least expensive on the ship. They can be hundreds and even thousands of dollars less than the same trip in a balcony room.
Other Expenses: In addition, you also have to consider the expenses beyond what is included in your cruise fare. Gratuities are typically around $15 per person, per day. For a couple sailing just a week, gratuities add hundreds to the cost of the trip and can’t be avoided.
Onboard spending is also a major factor in what you pay to live on a cruise ship. The average person on vacation will spend hundreds once on the ship. The good news is that onboard spending is entirely optional. If you avoid things like paid excursions, spa treatments, alcohol, and specialty restaurants, you can theoretically cruise without spending any extra.
All this shows that when it comes to cruising, there really is no “average” — it depends much on what you’re willing to spend.
Searching for Affordable Cruises
In order to see what’s possible, we hunted down a couple of affordable options to compare their pricing to what you might get in benefits.
In our search, we found that you can spend a surprising amount of time at sea, but benefits alone won’t cover sailing full-time. If you have other retirement funds, however, then being able to afford living on a cruise ship may be closer than you think.
(Note: Prices are accurate at the time of writing, but subject to change.)
Scenario #1 | Carnival Freedom | January 2022
Earlier, we mentioned that Carnival is one of the more affordable cruise lines. Searching their website, we found back-to-back cruises aboard Carnival Freedom in January 2022. These two trips are six days and eight days, for a total of two weeks combined at sea.
Sailing from Miami, you’ll visit ports like Grand Turk, Carnival’s private islands, Aruba, and Bonaire on trips throughout the Caribbean during the coldest month of the year in the United States.
Pricing out these two cruises with an interior cabin, as well as gratuities and port fees included, we found a cost of $1,147 and $1,673 for a couple sailing together. So for two weeks of sailing, you’d spend a total of $2,820 for a couple sailing together.
That’s $1,410 per person, or about $140 less than the average Social Security benefit. If you earn the maximum benefit of nearly $3,150, then you’d have plenty left over for additional cruises.
- Result: $1,410 per person for 14 days of sailing.
Scenario #2 | MSC Divina | September 2022
MSC Cruises doesn’t have a large presence in the United States compared to rivals like Carnival and Royal Caribbean, but it is making inroads. What’s amazing is that they can offer some of the least expensive cruises possible, while having a fantastic onboard experience.
In this case, we found several budget-friendly trips. First, departing the first day of September 2022 is a 10-night trip aboard MSC Divina from Port Canaveral to the Bahamas and Mexico. For two people, the price for an interior cabin comes out to $1,898 when you include in taxes, fees, and gratuities. You could follow that up with a four-day cruise for $690, and then another 10-day journey for $1,738.
All told, that comes out to 24 days of sailing for $4,326 for a couple — or $2,163 per person. That’s obviously higher than the average benefit, but well within the range of the maximum amount paid.
- Result: $2,163 per person for 24 days of sailing.
(Want more tips on finding inexpensive cruises? See our 10 rules for finding the best deal here.)
So Can Social Security Cover Cruising?
So can you live aboard a cruise ship using only Social Security benefits? Unless you happen to receive near the maximum payment and also pinch your pennies onboard, we’d say the answer is ‘not quite.’ The average person would spend more sailing full-time than they receive in benefits.
This scenario also doesn’t take into account any other expenses off the ship, such as healthcare, maintaining a home on land, or even time in port shopping or dining.
That said, if you are frugal, then you can get surprisingly far on your benefit alone. The examples above show that it is possible to sail multiple weeks for the amount of the average monthly government payment.
Keep in mind that if you want to stretch your dollars further, then you can’t expect to have the same sort of experience as someone who is having a once-a-year vacation. In this scenario there are no balcony cabins, lavish specialty dining, drink packages, or daily gambling. Keeping costs low means you don’t have the same experiences as you normally would on vacation.
Monthly Payments Could Help Budget
One other thing to consider if you’re interested in sailing on Social Security alone are monthly payment options. Cruise lines allow you to pay off trips in installments. That gives you the ability to pay off portions of sailings for less than the cost of your monthly benefit.
So while it might cost $3,000 for a person to sail on a cruise ship for a month, you could pay that off over the course of a year. So you could, in theory, book your cruises well in advance, pay off the trips over time with your benefit, and then enjoy living aboard the cruise ship for longer than if you had to make the payment all at once.
But unless you find some amazingly inexpensive cruises and have an outsized benefit, it seems doubtful you can sail on a cruise full-time on just Social Security alone.