When Nancy and Robert Houchens retired, they downsized, selling their house and most of their belongings.
"We had a 3,000-square-foot home full of furniture ... and everything we own now would fit in the back of a pickup truck," Robert, 64, told USA TODAY.
But the Virginia couple has another preferred means of transportation: cruise ships. They spend as much time as they can at sea, and sailed for about nine months during the first year of their retirement. Nancy, 71, also reached a milestone in early July, sailing 1,000 days with Carnival Cruise Line since the 1980s. Robert hit the 1,000-day mark later in the month.
The avid cruisers spoke with USA TODAY about how they plan their voyages, how to pack for an extra-long trip, and the ways a vacation is different from living at sea. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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What made you decide to spend 1,000 days at sea?
Nancy: That was not a goal, the amount of days that we were cruising, but we cruised when the children were young, and it was probably the best deal. And when it came time, we always thought when we retired, we'd buy a big rig and be full-timers – sell the house, the cars, you know, not have any other worries.
And we'd already been cruising and we'd been cruising on Carnival the most, and Carnival has great perks for those that are loyal. They do our laundry and, of course, they cook your meals, clean your cabin, and we kind of put the pencil to the paper and I thought for the amount of money that we could spend, why do we need to drive somewhere? I still have to cook, still have to clean, still have to do laundry, so let's spend our retirement as much as we can on cruise ships.
Did you end up selling your house and cars?
Nancy: We sold all of our estates except for a little condominium we have in Florida, so when we get too old to cruise, we have somewhere to live. And we did keep two vehicles, and what we kept is in half of (Robert's mother's storage unit) which is, I don't know, 10x10 or something. We just walked away from everything.
When you go home for the holidays, for instance, do you go to Florida or Virginia?
Robert: That's in Virginia. My mother is still alive and so we actually reside with her. That's our mailing address, that's where our vehicles are titled and tagged, within that state, and so we actually live there when we go back home.
When you take a long trip and you get off the ship between cruises, do you stay in a hotel for a night and get back on? How does that work?
Nancy: Well, I guess it depends. The first year, (Robert) planned that out for us, and I think we actually got off of the ship. And he planned it, so we left Florida and when we got to New Orleans, then we got off of that ship and walked down the pier and got on the next ship. And I think in that long time that we were gone, I don't think we spent but two nights (onshore). I think we had side by sides a lot of the times. So, we try very hard just to get from one ship to the other without having to spend the night, and it can be done very easily if you plan it.
When picking your trips, do you have favorite itineraries you like to sail, or do you like to try new places?
Nancy: At first, we wanted to go all over the place. And then, we've been to the Caribbean enough that, like, if we go to St. Thomas, we'll run to Kmart or something instead of doing something else. It's like living on a ship.
Our whole attitude was, "If I'm on the ship for more than a week" – and we try to do a minimum of 14 days – "I don't have to go to the restaurant and eat all the lobster, 10 lobster tails because I'll be there next week." It's like your stateroom is your bedroom and the ship is your house. ... Now, we're looking (to see) different places, but we still follow the crew because they're our family. You kind of figure out who's going to be on what ship and, "Oh, let's see where they're going, and can we stay with them?"
How do you think about packing for a long trip like the ones you take?
Nancy: You don't have to pack a whole lot of clothes if you've got a bathing suit, a pair of flip flops, a couple pairs of underclothes, nightgown, and maybe a pair of shorts or something. ... Just make sure you bring scotch tape and baggies, paper clips (for papers and cash), and your medicine, and you're in good shape.
Robert: For somebody that has cruised not much at all, their first-time cruise maybe, they will tend to pack a whole lot more than someone who's had 100 cruises. ... If you're going to the Caribbean where it's warm, you just don't need a whole lot of stuff, cause you're in your bathing suit more than you think.
Nancy: And if people see you in the same twice, what difference does it make? You don't know them anyway, they're never going to see you again. Don't worry about it.
When you decided to spend most of your time on ships, were there things in your daily life that you had to put on pause? How did you prepare to be spending that much time at sea?
Nancy: Learn how to pay bills online, number one. Obviously, you don't have as many bills, either, and you don't have to worry about getting junk mail. That's for sure. I don't know I think our thing was we always vacationed on a cruise ship.
I think the biggest thing was the mindset in doing this, and this is not going to be the same for someone who's doing a vacation. But for us, the mindset was, when we were vacationing, we had to have a balcony or we had to have a suite because you're on vacation, and you're going to spend $4,000 or $5,000 or $6,000 or $7,000 on a week or two weeks, whatever you're taking because that's a once a year thing. ... Our mindset had to switch to where the ship is now our home.
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It sounds like you love it, but does being at sea so much ever get monotonous?
Nancy: (Robert's) mom, my mother-in-law, said, "Don't you get bored going to the same ports all the time?" And I said, "Well, you've been going to the same Walmart for 50 years." So, I mean, it can't be any more monotonous than it is at home. Don't you think that life is what you make of it no matter where you are? And at sea, we meet lots of different people, right? At home, you see the same people all the time, but on a ship, you see lots of different people from all walks of life. There's so much to do, and so many people to meet and talk to.
Robert: I don't think I've ever gotten bored being on a ship for any amount of days. I will say on some of the longer cruises, like coming across the Atlantic Ocean on a transatlantic cruise, you'll have four, five, six sea days in a row sometimes. And so when you get to the next port, sometimes I'm ready to get off the ship just to put my feet on the land.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 1,000 days at sea: What it's like to make a cruise ship your home