It’s not uncommon for those of us from colder climates (I’m looking at you, Minnesota) to want to take a break from sub-zero temperatures (we’re not even mentioning the wind chill) and want to get out of winter for a while. If the world is your proverbial snowbird oyster, where do you start?
Some have always known they would do Snowbird in Florida. Your parents snowbirded in Florida, now they are snowbirding in Florida, maybe even their friends are snowbirding in Florida. We are not among those people. For others, only Palm Desert, Sun City or Corpus Christi will suffice. However, neither are we.
While we didn’t plan the process in advance, I can share with you what I see in the rearview mirror as I look back on our last four years of snowbirding. If you’re new to this topic, I hope these things inspire ideas and help you reach the goal that’s right for you. This level of planning and conversation might leave you mulling, but here’s what my husband Dean and I learned, along with our specific take on each one.
1. Know what you want
Start with the big picture. If you have a spouse, this requires an honest conversation. These “surviving retirement with your spouse” tips focus on healthy communication, which is key.
- What is your goal? (It’s okay to have several!) Is it just about getting warmer weather? Are there other factors such as children, grandchildren, budget, etc.?
- How are you going to get there? (Flying, driving, towing an RV?)
- How long will you be away?
We wanted to get out of the winter a bit, make sure we have sports facilities (ideally good cycling as we love it) and finally find a place or two where we, as regulars, can ride Snowbird. Dean enjoys driving, so our road trip also meant we had a car if we wanted to explore the area. We decided on a month plus several days of driving time at both ends. We stayed at least five nights in each place as we didn’t know where we were going. This decision meant more luggage juggling, loading and unloading the car. For us it was worth it.
2. Discuss the details
Drill down to get more specific, and that means more questions:
- Would you like to stay in a hotel? Skyscraper? At the beach? Right on the beach? Nowhere near the beach but with other features? Rent a condo? Detached house?
- Which functions are important? full kitchen? Swimming pool? Keyless entry?
- How much space do you need or want? Will you have visitors during your stay?
- Do you want a built-in community (think pickleball, bike groups, craft nights, etc.) or do you like your privacy?
We weren’t sure what type of accommodation we wanted, so we agreed to experiment. For health and financial reasons and because I love to cook, a kitchen was a must. We love a beach, but we were open to other waterfront views. One bedroom would mostly meet our needs, but two-bedroom units weren’t off-limits. We knew we wanted activity options but didn’t necessarily need a built-in group.
3. Research Opportunities
Talk to friends, family and neighbors – if it snows, where are they going? Do you like it? Check out travel blogs like the Snowbird articles travel waiting. Search the web and look at a map to see what’s connected, what’s nearby, and what’s of interest.
We thought the states of Arkansas (ok, so much for water views) and Alabama looked interesting. We were surprised that we could reach northern Arkansas in one long day of driving. Dean’s parents used to do Snowbird in Gulf Shores, Alabama, but we had never been there. We were also curious about the coastal states of Georgia and Carolina. We didn’t mind going to Florida, but we weren’t sure if we needed that much heat or crowds.
4. Make your choice and dig in
Plan some travel destinations and try them out. Maybe you’ve been to some of these states before, but not with an eye toward potential Snowbird targets, so it’s a different lens.
Pro tip: When you’re out, check weather apps and stay up to date with snow and ice conditions along the route, even if it means leaving a day or two early.
Here is our Snowbird story:
- 2019: Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina
- 2020: Okinawa, Japan (we visited our military son, not a typical option)
- 2021: Arkansas, Alabama and Florida (Central and Gulf side)
- 2022: South Carolina and North Carolina
- 2023 (planned): Florida (Central and Atlantic sides) and South Carolina
Spoiler alert: can you see a state rising to the top?
5. Push your limits there
If you decide to stay in a certain area, also look at the area. Take a drive and check out the neighborhoods, ocean and bay views, etc. Take notes if you’re inclined, or trust your memory if it’s better than mine.
While staying on St. Simon Island, Georgia, we also went to Jekyll Island. In Orange Beach, Alabama, we looked at the Gulf Shores and the entire Florida Panhandle. In Nags Head, North Carolina, we explored the Outer Banks north to Duck Island and south past the Bodie Island Lighthouse to Ocracoke.
6. Narrow it down
Evaluate what worked and what didn’t. You can start this while traveling and expand upon it when you get home. What went well? What would you do differently?
When you’ve been to a few places, and especially after a few years of snowbirding, conversations become easier because you have something to compare. Of course, you’ll never exhaust all possibilities, but eventually you’ll know when you’ve searched enough.
We learned so much by trying new things.
We’ve learned that if you travel to northern Arkansas in early February, you might have a random ice storm that makes for some spectacular ice scenery, but isn’t much fun as a winter vacation (just roll with the weather, of course). . We have learned that we are not interested in tall skyscrapers.
7. Snowbird Cute snowbird
Sooner or later you end up in one or more places that just seem to suit you. These are the places you will return to. When you repeat locations, is the timing still right? Looking to extend (or shorten) your Snowbird trip?
Our planned 2023 Snowbird voyage is “Something Old, Something New”. We love Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, with more than 80 miles of paved bike trails. The tree house accommodation we stayed in on our first visit was unique and exceptional. However, when we return we’ll stay on the yacht basin in the nearby port town to see if we like that better.
A wet 50 degree bike ride on Hilton Head Island made us realize we need to start further south and work our way north to Hilton Head. We don’t know if we’ll like The Villages in Florida, but it’s worth a week to find out. We’ll also try Amelia Island because we haven’t done anything with Florida’s Atlantic coast.
We have been away for a month plus travel time in the past. In 2023 we will extend our stay by another week. Week after week, inch by inch, foot by foot we’re getting out of the Minnesota snow!
8. Stay flexible
Life is dynamic and snowbirding can be too. As the years pass, your goals may change or new factors may come into play. You can always adapt.
Here’s how we define our ideal Snowbird locations today: warmer weather (55 degrees or more), off-road biking opportunities, easy access to a waterfront view, and a condo in a freestanding building with fewer than 20 units. But that could change.
Most importantly: make it yours It doesn’t matter if the whole world goes to Florida. It doesn’t matter if everyone prefers big skyscrapers with lots of organized activities. It doesn’t matter if your neighbors think everyone should love Gulf Shores as much as they do (we chose South Carolina because we love biking there, and the signs back it up).
What matters is that you and your spouse are aligned, you bring a sense of adventure, and you love each other throughout the process. You will end up making a decision that is right for you. So if you fly south for the winter, enjoy the journey along the way and build some great memories of this season of life.
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