When Ilene Weiner began cruising in the late 1980s, she had no idea she would one day become Princess Cruise Line’s most traveled guest — and has spent about 7 years total at sea.
She boarded her first ship with her late husband Howard right after they got married, but the experience wasn’t a positive one. In fact, she got sea sick.
“I loved the cruise and loved the idea. I just didn’t love being sick,” Weiner tells PEOPLE. “I didn’t normally get car sick or sea sick, so I thought it was just the strange one-time thing, and that is exactly what it was. I realized I had to do this again.”
So she continued cruising every chance she got, embarking on a voyage once or twice a year.
“I was living in New York when we started cruising, and I guess like anybody who is working, when you have some time, you take a trip,” she says. “We were still doing land travel. I was younger and able to get on the bus and go all day and drag the suitcase.”
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However, when she retired from her job as a mortgage banker and moved to Florida, her cruise habit picked up steam as she was only around 45 minutes away from Port Everglades, a cruising hub. What began as a once or twice a year habit, turned into cruising, on average, 8 or 10 times a year and spending nearly half of each year on a ship.
In March, Weiner celebrated her 282nd cruise on Princess Cruise Lines, marking 2,500 days at sea.
“At the beginning, I was doing all the cruise lines and I had a lot of factors: itinerary, time of year, price,” Weiner says. “But 12 years ago, I went totally to Princess. It just worked out better for me.”
Weiner says she was drawn to the line because of their loyalty program and their ability to accommodate older passengers, especially because Howard required a motorized scooter during their travels.
“I can’t imagine what another cruise line would offer me that would make me want to go and not stay where I am most comfortable,” Weiner says. “It’s like a home at this point for me.”
After Howard passed away in 2014, Weiner had to board her first cruise without her travel partner. The solo trip she took was out of California about two months after Howard’s death.
“I chose a coastal cruise because two of the women I am friendly with were both on that ship and I knew I had some companionship to go and have a drink or go to lunch and dinner,” Weiner says. “I just kept going. I never had any problems, even if I was flying a great distance. I wasn’t afraid to go alone. I was comfortable on the ship. It was a change traveling alone but it wasn’t a change of what I was doing. I had been doing the same thing for years.”
So she continued taking trips by herself for years, meeting up with other elite members who had become friends and always being welcomed by the crew when she stepped on board.
But in August 2017, while she was on a trip with her daughter on board the Crown Princess through Scandinavia, Weiner met Carl Cutting, who was traveling with a group of friends, including one person Ilene had met on a previous voyage.
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At the time, Weiner was on a triple back-to-back cruise, and had planned to meet up with Cutting’s group on a later sailing. However, she ran into Cutting, 76, at the bar during the first leg of her journey.
“We started traveling together that October and we’ve been traveling together and living together ever since,” Weiner says.
For Cutting, it was the most memorable trip he’s ever taken.
“The one I met Ilene — that was certainly the highlight of my cruising,” he tells PEOPLE.
For Cutting, cruising became his saving grace after his wife of nearly 40 years passed away in 2010 following a four-year illness.
“I became a hermit for two years until my little sister came up and said you are becoming a hermit, and you are coming on a cruise with us,” he says. “My response was like, what the hell do I want to go on a cruise for?”
But he went anyway, taking a trip through the Panama Canal in 2012. When he got back, he had already started planning multiple cruises for the future.
“You can’t beat it for if you are retired and you are living alone in the woods like I was,” Cutting says. “There is nothing to do. It was always with your mate, your wife, husband. Once I started cruising, I found it easy to meet people.”
He also found he was surprisingly hooked on traveling. “When you cruise the world, it is always something different. Even if it is a return to some of the same places, you are always going to meet new people and see new things. You can’t do that living up in Oregon, it just isn’t possible,” he says. “I’ve always had wanderlust I guess, and didn’t know it. It is better than loneliness, that is for darn sure.”
Now, Cutting and Weiner split their time between Oregon and Florida, and spend nearly half the year cruising together.
For both of them, their favorite ship of all time is the Pacific Princess, a 670-passenger boat with only one dining room that does voyages to smaller ports like Sydney and the Panama Canal.
“Within a day you run into everybody three times,” Weiner says of the ship. “I just find it comfortable.”
Currently, the pair are gearing up for their longest journey ever — an 111-day world cruise setting sail in 2020 that will knock Weiner’s previous 73 consecutive days spent at sea out of the park. During the cruise on the Pacific Princess, the couple will visit ports in African and Asian countries Weiner has never been to, like Madagascar and Sri Lanka.
As for whether they’re nervous to be gone for so long? Absolutely not.
“When I first started cruising and you went for 30-40 days, you almost had no contact to home,” Weiner says. “If you got a phone call from somebody at home, you thought something happened and this was an emergency. People didn’t keep in contact. Now with texting and emails, there is no such thing as being out of touch.”
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Weiner would not say how much she spends each year on cruising, but did say she doesn’t create a budget specifically for her journeys.
“Some years I spend less, some more. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve gotten to do a lot of the things I wanted to do,” she says. “I guess when you reach this age, you don’t know how long you’re going to have to do this, so take advantage of it when you can.”
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