Sunday, February 2, 2014

Cruising Budget - How Much Does it Cost?

There has always been a great interest in knowing how much to budget for the cruising life. The answer is always "it depends." I too was frustrated by the "it depends." In an effort to shed some light on the subject here is my take on the parameters of "it depends." I own a 42' sailboat and have done some cruising in North and Central American, Portugal, Spain and the Canaries, and in the Caribbean. My personal take is that one can cruise and tour comfortably in a 40 to 45 foot boat for about $2,500 to $3,000 per month. One can "live aboard" for much less. I am assuming that you are on a sailboat to see the world, not stay in a relatively small area.

The Big Issues

There are four factors that have an overall influence on both initial and operating costs. They are:

What risks you are willing to take,
How much comfort you desire,
What you consider to be a prudent insurance profile,
Where you cruise


There are various pieces of equipment that reduce the risk of sailing: life raft, GPS/Chart Plotter, radar, marine/ham radio, and AIS. In general these are expensive one time costs with the exception of a life raft (5 year expensive service cycle) and Chart Plotters (electronic charts are expensive, so are paper charts, but it is easier to get used paper charts.)


Perhaps the largest cost associated with comfort is the size and type of boat. The larger the boat the more everything will cost. If you choose a catamaran expect dockage to be 1 1/2 to 2 times the cost of a monohull. Most marinas charge by the length of the boat with a surcharge for catamarans since they are much wider. Do you want heat? Air conditioning? Do they need to work while underway and at anchor (rather than just in a marina?) The ability to make water rather than filling up (for a fee in most places) at the dock? Do you want to plug in your 110V (or 220V) appliances while away from a dock? Do you want to motor from place to place to stay on schedule? Fuel is quite expensive. Are you willing to row your dingy to shore or do you need an outboard motor?

Prudent Insurance Profile

In general there are three options for the boat: no insurance, liability only, and full coverage for loss. For those who choose it full coverage insurance is a significant part of the overall annual cost. That said can you recover financially from a total loss of your boat and possessions? Boats do sink on a regular basis. Most marinas will not let you in without liability insurance. Or you can go without and hope for the best.

Medical insurance is another issue. If you are from the US like me you will discover that most insurance policies do not cover you if you are out of the US. This is also true for Medicare. Some countries with "universal government coverage" will treat you for free. Some will require you to pay. Costs can be a lot lower then in the US or quite similiar. The only guidance I can give is that you need to research coverage country by country.

Where you cruise

Where you cruise will have a great impact on your overall costs. I stopped at about 12 islands in the Caribbean over the course of four months. (Why is a story for another day, see my blog.) Prices in Guadeloupe rivaled those in Paris. $50 per day for groceries. $12 per pack smokes. Prices in Sint Maarten were so low that Wal-Mart would go out of business. European and American prices are high the minute you hit shore.

Times have changed - particularly with Schengen in Europe. The need for many cruisers to get out of Europe for an extended period has made the marina costs in typical wintering over places like Turkey much more expensive. (an aside - if you are planning to cruise to Europe and don't know what Schengen is make sure you find out before you leave the United States.)

Budget Considerations

Initial Capital Costs

I own my boat. It went through three phases: family cruiser, racer, and finally full time cruising. Each transition resulted in a major capital outlay. My racing outlay was almost completely for safety equipment: life raft, jacklines, harnesses, excellent life jackets, throwing lines, etc. Moving to cruising I had a new set of expenditures: dinghy, outboard motor, solar panels, water maker, SSB radio, email modem, satphone, mast steps, tricolor, AIS and so forth. Not to mention little things that cropped up: boom preventers, dingy hoist, etc. I strongly suggest that you make these expenditures before you retire and are living on a fixed income.

Ongoing Maintenance

Hard to quantify as it is very dependent on your cruising style. I have traveled about 4 to 5 thousand nautical miles per year since I was cruising. I have had to replace sails, paint the bottom regularly, and do a lot of small things that add up to a lot of money - I dragged in a fierce thunderstorm and had to replace the rudder, sails wear out or at least need to be restitched, shackles break, blocks pop, the wear and tear of salt water on little things like cotter pins creates a constant stream of maintenance expenses. I now set aside 20% of my annual budget for ongoing maintenance. This takes into account that I do almost all of my own work.

Cyclical Maintenance

Again this depends on your cruising style but I think is often overlooked when planning a budget. These are the things that wear out and you need to replace that are "big ticket" items." This are also things that if you are planning to head out into the world typically are much easier to source and much cheaper before you go if you live in the U.S,, Europe, Oz, etc. Examples and costs for Reboot over the past few years:

  • New (heavy duty cruising) jib: 5 years - $ 3,500
  • New (heavy duty cruising) main: 5 years - $ 4,500
  • House batteries (3 - 4D AGM): 3 years - $1,200
  • Standing rigging (with some assistance from a rigger for the caps and forestay:) 7 years - $ 5,000
  • Life raft overhaul: 5 years max - $ 2,000
  • Running rigging: 3 years $ 2,500
  • Bottom Paint: annual - $ 1,500
  • Dinghy: 3 years - $ 2,000

Clearance Costs

Where you cruise can have a major impact on your budget. I went from Key West to Guatemala. Checking into Mexico was about $400, Belize about $350, Guatemala another $350. After Guatemala I chose to return to the United States. I sailed past Belize and Mexico as just stopping in either for one night would have cost me the $350 to $400 clearance fees again. The Belize authorities came and looked for me (they apparently were tracking me on AIS) until they determined that I was just going to sail past them. Some islands in the Caribbean cost me $10 and some cost $400.


Marina prices are all over the map. The winner, the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island at $6.50 per foot per night - use of the resort was extra. Prices of $1.50 per foot were common. Mooring balls ranged from free to $20 per night. In most places it was possible to hang on the hook for free. Fuel and Water prices were pretty consistent wherever I went.


I am almost always cruising solo. The only person I need to please is myself. I know many cruising couples where the need to agree results in higher costs. Not infrequently the rub is anchoring out vs going into a marina. Not to mention the need to return home to visit family. When I am out of the United States I don't fly home to visit my children. From most places outside the US that is a $1500 or more per person expenditure. It is just not in my budget. I know a not insignificant number of couples where one spouse needs to "visit family" while the other spouse sails the boat to the new destination.

The home fires

What will you leave behind? Many cruisers maintain a residence in the US. Many more have storage lockers full of stuff that doesn't fit on the boat. I have shed it all - no home, no car, no storage locker (OK my son does have a couple of boxes of memorabilia.)


Paying someone else to repair your boat is very expensive. What is worse is that a large number of the people are totally unqualified or take the easy fix. For example I was having trouble with my refrigerator. I was told I need to spend $2000 on a new unit. A friend who knew what he was doing purchased a $150 part. That solved the problem.

Boat Parts

As bad as West Marine's reputation for high prices they are bargain basement compared to the cost of parts outside the United States. Budget Marine in the Caribbean had prices that were 135% to 150% of West Marine prices. Some countries charge import duties that can be very high (e.g. $ 300 per shipment in French Polynesia.) A very typical strategy is to invite friends to come visit and have them bring the parts with them to a duty free port such as Sint Maarten. Unfortunately now that the airlines are charging for extra baggage this is not the bargain it once was. Costs to ship packages outside the United States are extraordinary high by US standards. A couple of hundred dollars and a couple of weeks to get a package is not unusual.

Budget Breakers

By far for me the biggest budget breaker is meals ashore. You meet some fellow cruisers. You agree to go ashore for a couple of drinks and a meal. Goodbye budget if you do this very often


I am the proud staff to "XO the Wonder Cat." Please see his Facebook page or watch him on Cats 101 on Animal Planet. (Note that dogs have owners and cats have "staff.") He has kept me sane more than once on long trips offshore. But having an animal on board raises another set of issues, some financial. It cost me more to clear XO into English Harbor ($50) then it did Reboot and crew ($22.) It is difficult to find someone to watch your companion for free if you want to take a multi-day shore excursion. I have not investigated putting him into paid care but rather have altered my own travel plans on his behalf.

Part 2
Part 2 is here:

Fair winds and following seas :)


  1. I had a question in regards to your statement that living aboard is much less expensive. Is that opposed to cruising somewhere and then staying the nights in hotels? The reason I ask is that my wife and I are researching buying a 45 foot cruiser (Catalina Morgan 45, Brewer 44 or similar center cockpit vessel). We would keep this boat in the Great Lakes as we are still of working age while we pay it off, and hone our sailing skills. We then would like to use it as our primary residence while in retirement to cruise the east coast, carribean, bahamas and central america. We would spend most of our nights and meals on the boat. Just trying to get a ballpark on monthly expenses for live aboard.

  2. I think that my "less expensive" comment was in the context of living aboard vs living on shore. Again, we are in the world of "it depends." Presume for a moment that you live identical lifestyles on your boat and in a rental unit on shore. My guess is that the cost of a monthly marina slip is going to be considerably less than that of shore based rent. In most U.S. marinas you are not going to have a water bill, an electrical bill, or an Internet bill. If you restrict your cruising to the U.S. East Coast your property and casualty bill can be very modest.

    What makes a big difference is lifestyle. I don't rent space on shore. I don't own a car. I can choose to anchor out for a month or more, essentially living rent free. I can rent a car a couple of times a month to do the heavy lifting (big shopping trips, etc.) for much less than the cost of owning a car.

    This is also true (as noted above) in how you cruise. Lets take a bi-annual trip from the Chesapeake to Florida. You can leave Hampton Roads and sail direct Miami and then motor the Passage to Key West for the winter. Total cost - three days of fuel. Or you can motor the ICW and spend every night in a marina after going out for dinner and drinks. Total cost is quite a bit more. Or you could sail some of the way and motor some of the way. So the actual cost is pretty much what you choose it to be.

    I hope this helps.

    Fair winds and following seas :)

  3. So let me get this straight. Your boat cost half what my house costs and you live for on third of what I live for... Wondering why I live in a house. I bet you have more fun, too.

  4. I would like to know the cheap /free moorings in safe harbors around Colombia & panama. I want to go to Caribbean but usvi cost of docking is to expensive & Colombia & Panama prices online were still $50+ a night for my 38'

  5. I suggest you change your perspective. I spent weeks in the USVI for free by staying at anchor. Mooring balls and dockage are expensive everywhere in the Caribbean. Anchoring out is the only cheap alternative.

    1. thank you... I will try to find where best places are to anchor that have cheap dinghy docks close by..