October 5, 2010 / 9:44 PM / 8 years ago

Portrait of a Serial Cruiser

photo: courtesy Bill Filomena
Bill Filomena at Glacier Bay during a cruise on the Carnival Spirit.

Bill Filomena has a Washington State driver’s license. He is registered to vote in Washington. But Filomena does not actually own a residence there—or anywhere, for that matter.

Filomena isn’t homeless; he is just constantly in transit, traveling the world sometimes on foot, but usually by sea. The 77-year-old former General Mills executive has taken 54 cruises since June 2008 and is currently spending his retirement aboard cruise ships, a lifestyle many people fantasize about but few actually experience.

“To me, this is not a vacation—this is my life,” Filomena says during an interview from Dallas, where he recently visited his daughter after trips to New Zealand, Argentina, Alaska and Antarctica.

Cruise ship operators say that Filomena is among a rare breed of traveler who books back-to-back excursions all year long. Even the most avid of cruisers are only aboard about five months a year, according to officials with HollandAmerica and Princess Cruises. HollandAmerica, for example, has about 50 people who cruise more than 150 days each year.

Then there’s Beatrice Muller, who lived on Cunard Cruise Line’s Queen Elizabeth II ship for much of the past decade. She had her own private cabin aboard the QE2 and roamed the world.

Muller, now 90, has been traveling most of her life, voyaging to India, Hawaii, England, Europe and countless other locations. In 1995, she first set sail on the QE2 with her architect husband, Bill. They sailed five world cruises until 1999, when Bill Muller passed away aboard the QE2 just after leaving India. After spending a few months at home in New Jersey with her family, Beatrice Muller returned to cruising on her own.

“It is very addictive to live on a cruise,” says Muller, who is back home in New Jersey and working on a book about her life on the QE2. “The food is some of the finest in the world, and the staff spoils you and takes care of your every need.”

One reason there are so few permanent residents on cruise ships is the cost of being perpetually on vacation. Muller estimates her “rent” was less than $100,000 a year on the QE2 and says that she, like other serial passengers, kept costs down by racking up the cruise equivalent of “frequent flier miles.”

Cruise costs vary greatly, depending on the destination, season and length of trip. At Princess Cruises, for example, vacationers booking online can expect to pay at least $150 a night. Meals are included, but excursions, tips and cocktails are usually extra. Filomena qualifies for discounts because he books so many cruises in a row. He said he once spent five weeks on back-to-back Carnival cruises for $3,000, translating to about $85 per night.

Some companies, such as The World, Four Seasons Ocean Residences and Utopia, offer passengers the option of purchasing resident cabins aboard their ships, almost like a traveling condo. Other cruise lines—among them Princess, Cunard and HollandAmerica— maintain that while they appreciate their loyal clients, living aboard is not something they promote.

“We don’t really even call it living on board,” says Princess spokeswoman Susanne Ferrull. “Our passengers still have to get on and off the ship to go through customs. It is also something that is extremely rare. I can only think of two people ever who have ‘lived’ on a cruise.”

Erik Elvejord, media relations director for HollandAmerica, says that “serial cruisers” usually take one of the company’s three-month cruises around the world and do a pre- and post-cruise to accompany it.

“There aren’t certain ships that accept live-aboards,” Elvejord says, “but there are certain ships that would be more conducive to that. You wouldn’t want to go on a trip to Alaska 20 times a year. You would want to go visit the world.”

Bill Filomena, however, doesn’t mind visiting the same place over and over again. In the summer of 2009, he booked a seven-day Mexican Riviera cruise—five times in a row. Unlike Muller, Filomena does not have a reserved cabin. He is kind of a Jack Kerouac of the ocean liners, hopping from ship to ship whenever he pleases. He says he has sailed on every Carnival ship, taken three cruises with Princess and traveled eight times with HollandAmerica.

A typical day for Filomena involves waking up early, taking a long walk around the ship, selecting the healthy “spa option” for meals, taking an off-shore excursion if he has never been to the current port of call, reading, talking to other passengers and watching the on-board entertainment when it interests him (or going to bed early when it doesn’t).

Before retirement, Filomena was on the road about 80 percent of the time for his job with General Mills. After his wife died in 2007, Filomena decided to sell his house and throw out the “$50,000 worth of stuff” inside. He booked his first cruise in June 2008.

Filomena says many of his friends ask him how long he plans to continue his cruise lifestyle of sleeping in small cabins, living out of a suitcase at sea and being constantly surrounded by hundreds of strangers. As of right now, he is booked up until December 2011.

“I have tried to reach the right depth of what I’m doing,” he says, “and right now cruising seems to be the answer. I’m econ-driven, I have a number that I keep in mind and if I want to do something or go somewhere and the cost is equal or less than that number, I’ll do it. After I leave the ship in December, I might go to a country and stay for a month or two. “

Filomena says exploring the world by sea makes him happy. When he wants to do something else, he will.

“Wherever I am today is my favorite place,” he says, “You know, a canal is a canal; a glacier is a glacier. I enjoy life, everything that I see and the people I meet. At the end of the day, most people can’t handle what I’m doing, like when I booked five straight weeks on the Carnival Splendor and was going to go between the same ports for five weeks in a row. But I love it; I am meeting new and interesting people every week. Life is fantastic.”

Read more: Control Your Cruise Costs  and The 10 Best Travel Books for Your Second Act.


Stephanie Vatz is a SecondAct writer.

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