What Does it Cost to Go Cruising?

Why is it that everyone seems to give such vague answers to this seemingly simple question? Maybe they have a fortune stashed away in some offshore bank account to fund their trip and don’t want the IRS to catch wind of it, or they’ve discovered some get-rich-quick scheme that actually works and aren’t interested in letting you in on the secret. While this could be true for some of the mega-yachts out there, it’s not likely the case for your average cruiser.

So what does it cost to go cruising? Well, it really depends. People who are otherwise so willing to share their cruising experiences with anyone interested are not suddenly tight-lipped about the costs because it’s none of your business, but rather because it varies so widely depending on how you do it. Let me first explain a little about why it is so hard to give a concrete figure and then I will share some averages for the costs of our 2 year trip down the Atlantic Coast then through the Eastern Caribbean and back.

Some Thoughts on the Limitations of Budgeting
Ashley and I did initially have a monthly budget in mind for our trip but this figure was based mostly on how much money we had in the bank, how long we wanted to be out cruising, and how much money we hoped might still be in our bank account when we returned. The budget wasn’t based on the hard to predict realities of the cruising life. An unexpected mechanical breakdown is the most obvious example of something that could quickly wipe out a couple months of your allocated funds, but there are a lot of other reasons that sticking to a budget while cruising is difficult. After several months of not coming close to staying within our arbitrary budget, we realized it wasn’t working for us and mostly stopped keeping track.

One of the reasons working within a monthly budget is so difficult while cruising is we tend to spend money in large lump sums while provisioning in certain locations. On our way through Puerto Rico for example, we wanted to rent a car to do some sightseeing and also to do a large provisioning trip before heading back to the Bahamas where groceries are far more expensive. So within a few days we had spent $200 for a rental car, close to $500 on groceries, $75 on diesel, $70 for some random odds and ends at Home Depot, $30 to fill our water tanks, and $12 to fill our propane tank. Also while out exploring with the rental car, it’s hard not to stop for a meal out, and if there happens to be a marine supply store nearby, certainly there will be something we need from there as well. After a massive spending spree like this we try to go someplace where we can swim, hike and lounge on the beach for a while to try to balance things out. We found the easiest way to avoid spending too much money is to go someplace where there is nothing to buy.

 

While there are plenty of cruisers who have gone a lot further than us with less, I would say we are at the lower end of the spectrum budget-wise. If your idea of cruising is pulling into the marina at the end of the day, passing your lines and some generous tips to the dock hands, then heading for the bar to start up a healthy tab, your trip is going to cost a lot more than ours did.

If you’re thinking about cruising on a small boat with a small budget, the first step is to take a serious look at your current lifestyle. Right now it’s easy to imagine permanently trading in your 9 to 5 days for palm trees and white sand beaches; if living on a diet of rice, beans and the occasional fish while entertaining yourself reading, hiking, and snorkeling is what it takes to make it happen, well that doesn’t sound too bad. But the reality is that after a while even paradise is going to get a little monotonous and a hamburger, cold drink and real shower at that marina are going to sound irresistible – budget be damned. It’s also going to be really hard to tell the new friends you just met that you would love to join them for a cold beer at the bar, but rum and warm Tang on the boat are all you have allotted for yourself this month. (Yes, we used to drink these on Baby Blue, but Tang got to be too expensive.)

In the beginning of our trip we fell into this trap, determined to do everything as cheaply as possible. Pretty soon we felt like we were missing out on too much by not springing for the occasional rental car, guided tour, or dinner out. Rowing the dinghy might be the simplest and cheapest option but we found that without an outboard, we couldn’t get to some of the best snorkeling spots and sometimes stayed on the boat because I wasn’t feeling up to battling the wind and current.

In the end, our living expenses while out cruising weren’t that different from what they had been onshore. Though we made a lot of sacrifices while saving for our trip, we still went out to dinner once in a while, went to the movies, bought some new clothes and enjoyed other luxuries; so we shouldn’t have expected to suddenly be happy going without while living on the boat. Living and cruising aboard a small boat is hard work and sometimes allowing for a few of the comforts you were used to at home will go a long way towards keeping the trip fun and the crew content. You and your crew might be setting yourselves up for disappointment if you are planning on making a major departure from your current lifestyle in order to afford your cruising dream.
There is a lot that can be said on the topic of budgeting for cruising. So, at the end of this post I have listed some books we found very helpful in the planning stage of our adventure.

Living Expenses
To give you some actual numbers we have gone over our bank balances and come up with a monthly average of our expenses over the last 2 years. The math was pretty easy as money has only been flowing from our savings account in one direction. For almost 2 years of cruising, 16 months of which were outside of the US, we have averaged $1000 a month for living expenses. This includes all the day-to-day necessities of living on the boat: food, water (which you generally have to pay for in the Caribbean), fuel, laundry, regular maintenance on the boat (oil and filters, varnish, small fittings, etc.), entertainment (tours, car rentals, dinners, drinks, movies), customs fees for clearing into various ports, occasional mooring fees, the very rare stay at a marina, wifi access, Delorme inReach subscription, and prepaid phone plans.

*This does not include the purchase price or initial outfitting of the boat (such as a life raft, foul weather gear, EPIRB etc.), insurance, and major repairs or refits (luckily we have not had to make any during the trip). When we are back in the US we will have to spend some money on a haul-out, bottom paint, and lots of other small maintenance and repair projects.

**We also did not include the cost of our flights home from Grenada. If you are planning on being out cruising for more than a year you are likely going to want/need to fly home at some point, so you might as well set aside funds for this purpose.

Groceries: This is our primary expense. We definitely pay more attention to prices while shopping than we did at home, but our costs for food are not much different than they used to be. Some Islands including Puerto Rico and Martinique have large chains with prices very similar to the US, while in other places such as the Bahamas the selection is pretty limited and prices are high. In Grenada, Dominica and the Dominican Republic, locally grown, fresh produce was very affordable from roadside stands. The French islands are a great place to stock up on wine. If you talk to other cruisers who have been where you are heading you will figure out what to buy where. If you are determined to eat exactly the same way you did at home, you are likely to be disappointed with the selection and prices. As far as dining out we have had some excellent, inexpensive local fare from food trucks and street vendors as well as restaurants you would likely steer clear of going by US standards of appearance. Be adventurous.

Fuel: Yes, you may be on a sailboat but don’t underestimate the amount of fuel you will use. We do our best to sail whenever possible, but our fuel expenditures were still significant. Our trip down the ICW presented few opportunities to hoist the sails and took a considerable amount of motoring. On some small out-islands in the Bahamas diesel may cost 3 times the US price. When we find a good price we fill the tank and all of our jerry cans. Where it’s expensive, we only get what we need and a little reserve. It’s worth checking the gas station prices against purchasing fuel at the marina. We’ve saved as much as half the price at the marina by hauling jerry cans from the gas station instead of pulling up to the fuel dock. We did not keep a log of fuel prices and gallons taken on, but based on our engine hours, average fuel consumption, and an average of $4 for a gallon of diesel we spent around $2000 for fuel during our 2 year cruise. We did occasionally run the engine to charge the batteries, but most of the engine hours were while under way.
Customs fees: The Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, and the Dominican Republic are some of the more expensive countries we visited, ranging from $100 to $400 depending on the length of your stay and length of your boat. In the rest of the Eastern Caribbean, the price is much less at around $30 or even free, as is the case for clearing into some French islands.

Moorings / Marinas: We anchor as much as possible but have spent some time on moorings when anchoring isn’t an option or when use of the marina’s amenities seems to justify the cost. In some places a mooring also includes use of the pool, showers, and laundry, making it well worth the price for a couple days. We’ve never paid more than $30 per night for a mooring – with the average cost typically $20 from Maine to Grenada. We also chose to put the boat on a mooring during our trip back to the US rather than leaving it at anchor or hauling it out. (Be wary of where you pick up moorings. I’ve seen many while snorkeling that I wouldn’t trust to hold our dinghy.) We’ve stayed in a slip at a marina exactly three times and paid around $1 per foot per day, and $180 for a week at a marina in Grenada.

Communications: We bought SIM cards with data and voice plans for our unlocked smartphone in the countries where we stayed for long stretches. A SIM card normally costs between $10-20 and data plans were around $20 for one gigabyte. On average we spent $30 for each month we were out of the country for cell phone plans, but our cost for communications was much higher in reality. We went out for drinks and coffee more often than we otherwise would have in hopes of taking advantage of free wifi – with mixed results. A few times we stumbled upon restaurants or cyber cafes with truly fast internet, but that was certainly not the norm. We also had a satellite subscription for our Delorme inReach that allowed us to send text messages when out of cell range for $12/month.

 

Insurance: Being relatively young and in good health we decided to take the risk of going without health insurance for the trip. For most minor injuries or visits to the doctor medical costs in the islands are quite low and would have likely been under our deductible anyway. A serious injury or illness could have ended our trip and left us with some very large bills so this was not an easy decision to make. Some kind of catastrophic coverage in case of a serious injury or illness requiring treatment back in the US may be a wise choice.

Carrying insurance on your boat is required for any stays in a marina or haul-outs at a yard. Going without any insurance could easily end your trip and leave you with some very large bills if you were to drag anchor and damage someone else’s boat. A liability only policy may be an option to save some money if you are cruising on an older boat and willing to take the risk. 

We also had affordable coverage for search and rescue expenses through our Delorme plan.

Costs back at home: Having sold our house, car, and most of our possessions before leaving, we do not have expenses such as a mortgage, car payments, or storage unit fees to worry about. Though we thought about hanging onto our ties back home, letting everything go simplified our lives immensely and was the quickest way to get us out cruising, but this approach is definitely not for everyone. It also meant we needed money set aside for re-entry or emergencies. We didn’t want to come back penniless and with no place to live at the end of our cruise.

Buying a Boat
The seemingly most obvious factor in determining what cruising will cost is the price of the boat. While most people probably focus far too much on saving for the right boat for their dream cruise without putting much thought into the other costs, the boat does set the tone of your cruise. The range of what different people consider to be an appropriate boat for cruising is vast. We have seen just about every type of boat imaginable out cruising; from home built plywood creations to 40-year-old pocket cruisers to multimillion dollar multi-hulls.

There are a lot of books out there about small, older cruising boats that are seaworthy and affordable and I have listed some in the recommended reading section. I am definitely not an expert on boat design so my opinions on this probably aren’t worth sharing here. Based on what I’ve seen, the condition of the boat and competence of the crew are far more important than any certain design aspect. It is worth noting that our trip down the US East Coast and island hopping through the Caribbean has been closer to coastal cruising than blue-water sailing. The longest passage we made took three nights and four days. But it’s possible to make the same trip down through the Caribbean all the way to Grenada or Trinidad with only two or three overnight sails. Most of our trip has consisted of day-hops within 50 miles of land. Deciding what kind of passages you’re comfortable undertaking will go a long way in narrowing down your choices for a suitable vessel. 

We set out to find a seaworthy boat that was as small and simple as we could feel comfortable (or at least, be able to tolerate) living aboard. We only looked at boats listed for $35,000 or less. This approach worked out well for us and led us to a 33 foot, 45-year-old boat with no refrigeration. For most cruisers, living aboard our boat would feel too much like camping and not come close to their idea of comfort on the water. If you are planning on doing a shorter trip – down the ICW and one season in the Bahamas – going small is a great idea. You can spend the money you saved on outfitting the boat and treating yourself to an occasional stay in a hotel, marina slip, or a flight home. If you are planning a longer trip, comfort will be more crucial and going a little bigger is probably a good idea. Baby Blue worked out very well for our trip but I think we would get a larger boat if we ever do any cruising beyond the East Coast and the Caribbean.

Another thing to consider when deciding what percentage of your funds you will spend on purchasing the boat is depreciation. Cruising is tough on gear. Even if you make a lot of upgrades to your boat, you can’t count on being able to sell it for the same price when your trip is over.

If you are an aspiring cruiser of modest means here are some tips to help you get there. None of these are original ideas of mine but rather advice picked up along the way from wiser sailors.

-If you think you are going to make a dramatic lifestyle change to make your cruising dream a reality start simplifying right now to get a feel for what life aboard will be like. Living on a small boat and cruising with limited funds is certainly not easy. It is often uncomfortable, stressful, and hard work. So start getting rid of all that stuff you won’t be able to take with you and saving as much as you can right now.

-Don’t buy the boat too soon. While living aboard a boat is affordable compared to paying rent or a mortgage, just owning one is expensive. Instead of spending your savings on slip fees, haul-outs and maintenance, wait and buy the boat closer to the time you are ready to set out on your cruise.

-Don’t buy a project boat just because it is what you can afford right now. There are an awful lot of project boats sitting around boat yards or in backyards years after someone was planning to fix them up to go cruising. Focus on saving your money and worry about finding the boat later. Unless you have a lot of experience working on boats, a fixer-upper is probably not a good bet to get you out cruising anytime soon.

-Are you really going to sail around the world in the first boat you own? There are people who have done it and written some amazing books about their journeys, but if you set slightly more modest goals you can probably buy a much more affordable boat and go a lot sooner. There are a lot of beautiful places to cruise that don’t require buying that perfect blue-water boat of your dreams. Give the cruising thing a try sooner and then set some more long term goals. After cruising for a year or so you will probably find a different boat to put at the top of that list anyway.

-When you do buy the boat, get out and sail it! It’s tempting to head straight for the closest chandlery to buy a bunch of really expensive gadgets to add to your beautiful new boat. As long as the boat is seaworthy, resist the temptation to make a bunch of upgrades right away. Give some of that old beat up-looking gear that came with the boat a try to see what works and what truly needs to be replaced. There are marine supply stores everywhere. You can buy those shiny new gadgets along the way after the old ones wear out, or more likely realize that you didn’t really need them anyway. We found some old lists of “must do” upgrades from before we left for our cruise that we haven’t gotten around to 2 years later, so maybe they weren’t all that important in the first place. Gaining as much experience sailing your new boat as you can is probably a better use of your time than spending hours perusing the aisles of your local chandlery.  After you have some experience you will have a much better idea about what really is an improvement and what is just a waste of your cruising funds.

-Having ground tackle you can count on and knowing how to use it will save you money in the long run. Marina slips and mooring fees add up fast, so being comfortable anchoring out will help stretch your cruising funds. Not to mention what it could cost if you drag anchor and wreck your boat or someone else’s. Get equipment you can trust, learn how to use it, and sleep well.

Recommended Reading
The Cruising Life; A common sense guide for the would be voyager by Jim Trefethen
This is a great introduction if you are considering cruising and offers a lot of practical tips to help you get there. We modeled our escape from our 9-5 lives after these valuable ideas.

Voyaging on a Small Income by Annie Hill
For those interested in long term cruising, this book will give you an idea of how far you can go and just how thinly you can stretch an extremely small budget.

The Voyageurs Handbook; The essential guide to bluewater cruising by Beth A. Leonard
This book does an excellent job of breaking down the variability of cruising costs; comparing the cruising lifestyles of three categories of boats and their crew.

Cost Conscious Cruiser; Champagne cruising on a beer budget by Lin and Larry Pardey
I have read everything the Pardeys have written. Even if you are not planning to set off around the world on a home built, engineless, 24-foot-boat, their stories are entertaining and you’re sure to pick up some great advice on simple living.

Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere by John Vigor
This book and several similar titles can give you an idea of some boats that may work well for cruising without spending a fortune.