Brenda, 68, and her husband Mitch, 69, started leaving Canada for the winter months when they both retired five years ago.
(Global News has agreed to withhold their last name to protect their privacy.)
“As you get older, the winter is more difficult,” said Brenda. Most of her social circle leaves Canada for at least a portion of the winter season.
At first, the Toronto couple went south to Florida. The sunny state appealed to them because of its reputation as a hot-spot for Canadian retirees (roughly 3.5 million Canadians visited Florida in 2017), and it was an easy location for their kids to join them for a portion of their trip.
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“We also know (a few people) who also go west to Victoria, where the weather isn’t necessarily as bad,” she said.
“We don’t want to sit in the sun at our age, we just want to get away from the cold.”
But this year, the two decided they weren’t comfortable going to the U.S. because of “the current political climate.”
Instead, the couple will fly to the south of Spain for four weeks in March. Ultimately, Brenda says it doesn’t really matter where they go — they’re excited to get away from the stress of what’s sure to be a cold and snowy Canadian winter.
Brenda and Mitch aren’t alone — thousands of Canadians identify as “snowbirds,” leaving the country during colder months in search of warmer weather.
In fact, the Canadian Snowbird Association (CSA) — a not-for-profit group that advocates for the rights and privileges of Canadians travelling outside of Canada — has more than 110,000 members. The CSA also helps couples like Brenda and Mitch navigate the many rules they need to follow if they want to leave the country for a prolonged period of time, including property estate taxes, permitted length of travel, health care and more.
Things to think about before becoming a ‘snowbird’
Natalie Preddie is a Canadian travel expert and writer. Here, she breaks down the things you need to think about if you want to leave Canada for the winter months.
For starters, there are very specific rules about how long you can spend in another country as a guest, as well as how long you’re allowed to live outside of Canada as a Canadian.
“In the (United States), you can be there for 180 days over a 12-month period before you need a visa,” Preddie explains.
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That means you can stay in Florida or any other American state for six months before “heavy penalties” (like double taxation) kick in.
“You also need to check how long you can be out of province,” said Preddie. Leaving for longer than is allowed can result in unwanted interruptions to your health care.
The specific rules will vary across each province and territory, so you should check with your health-care provider before you leave.
“You probably also want to get a physical, just to make sure that you’re aware of any medical issues that may arise (while you’re gone), she said. “Then make sure you’ve got travel insurance that will cover (them).”
If you need to take daily medications, you can also discuss with your doctor the different ways to renew your prescription so you don’t run out while you’re away.
“Make sure things like your driver’s licence … and your passport aren’t going to expire while you’re gone,” Preddie said. “You probably want to let your bank know that you’re leaving as well, so they don’t think your cards have been stolen.”
How to protect your house while you’re gone
Preddie encourages all long-term travellers to have a friend or family member visit their house or apartment “every so often” to make sure everything is okay.
“Have someone you trust come in and check on the property,” she said. “Get your mail forwarded … and hire someone to clear the snow while you’re gone.”
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She recommends unplugging all electronics in your house, as well as shutting off the water and clearing your kitchen of any “perishable foods.”
“Have an emergency contact list that you can give the set person who’s going to check in on your home,” she said. “If anything happens, they have people to reach out to.”
While you’re gone, Preddie says updating your emergency contact list as to your whereabouts can be helpful, too — especially if the area you’re travelling to is experiencing extreme weather.
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“That way, everyone back home knows that you’re safe and sound,” she said.
Finally, prevent home break-ins by installing an alarm system and arming your property before you leave. (Make sure the person minding your property knows the code).
Ways to save money
Between flights, accommodations, eating out and activities, long vacations can quickly put a strain on your wallet.
According to money and travel expert Barry Choi, there are simple ways to save some money and still enjoy yourself.
To start, Choi’s rule of thumb is booking your trip at least “one season ahead.”
“If you’re thinking of travelling in January, February or March, you should be booking your ticket now,” he said.
Consider travelling to a destination with multiple airports so you have more airline options, too.
“Depending on where you’re staying, you could fly into one airport and drive (to your destination),” Choi told Global News.
“You might ask, ‘why am I doing all that?’ Well, consider if you have a family of four. If a different airline saves you $150 per ticket, it might be worth it.”
Choi also suggests renting spaces with a kitchen. That way, you can save money by grocery shopping and cooking for yourself, instead of going to restaurants.
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“The most obvious thing is to make sure you’ve got a credit card that doesn’t charge transaction fees,” he said.
If you’re travelling for a longer period of time, consider opening a bank account in the country you’re visiting.
“If you just want to exchange money, it may be beneficial to exchange a large sum of money in one go, as opposed to smaller amounts multiple times,” Choi said. This will help you avoid paying the exchange fee multiple times.
He also recommends researching various travel credit cards for saving opportunities. Several will offer deals on things like seat bookings, vacation packages and even checked baggage.