Snowbirds are people who spend some or all of the cold winter months living in warmer locations. In this article I talk about some of the advantages and disadvantages of of snowbirding.
We rented an apartment in Puerto Vallarta for the Christmas holiday several years ago. Most of the people staying in our building seemed to be Canadians who came regularly to the same condo every year to escape the cold and snow of their country for a month or more. A few were staying the entire winter. Having lived through very cold winters in Montana as a kid, I could definitely see the attraction of lounging by a pool vs shoveling snow from the driveway every day. The woman who picked us up at the airport and gave us our keys to our place was also a Canadian who had come as a snowbird at first and eventually became a fulltime resident. That may account for the percentage of Canadians staying at this particular condo, although I’ve read since that Puerto Vallarta is something of a haven for Canadians seeking warmth.
I know an older couple in Portland, Oregon (where we live) who have a big RV which they drive south to Arizona every winter for a similar reason. They were the first people I can recall using the word “snowbird” to describe this lifestyle. I love the word. It implies a sort of special human species that migrates south every winter like birds do. They fly or drive south and collect, usually at locations where other snowbirds typically congregate, and eventually return north when the weather warms. Of course with birds the northern destination is usually referred to as the summer “breeding grounds” with the southern destination being the “non-breeding grounds”. I suspect that human snowbirds may be breeding more heavily in the warmer southern locations, but I can’t be sure.
We are starting out as snowbirds
When we considered our initial plans for our mobile semi-retirement lifestyle, we decided we’d start out by dipping our toes in the water by travelling for half the year at first, rather than uprooting completely and travelling full-time. Naturally, we chose the cold winter months as our travel months, for the same reason that snowbirds do. So, I guess we are technically snowbirds, at least while we are travelling during the cold part of the year. I’m not sure what the term is for those people who choose to travel to a colder destination during the summer months, heading to Patagonia in June, for example. I guess since snowbirds are avoiding snow, we’ll have to refer to them as “sunbirds”. Eventually we will probably be doing some of our trips to Europe and other Northern hemisphere countries which are more pleasant to visit in the summer. That requires another appellation because we are technically leaving during the nice weather months at home to travel somewhere else during their nice weather months. I guess we are just “travelers” in that instance.
When we decided to travel during the winter, it hadn’t dawned on me that there are a number of reasons why winter travel can be a huge plus, particularly if you are going to be gone for several months. So, I thought I’d mention some of the advantages and a few of the disadvantages to being a snowbird, aside from the obvious advantage of having much better weather.
Advantage #1: Nothing grows
Well, at least in our area it doesn’t. If you are in the upper half of the U.S. in the winter you probably aren’t going to have to worry much about mowing the lawn, pruning the shrubs, or any gardening activities while you are gone. If we travel during the warm months we have to arrange for someone to maintain our lawns and landscaping for us. Also, if we leave after the leaves have fallen, we can clean the gutters and they will pretty much stay clear until we return in the Spring.
Disadvantage #1: Dealing with snow and ice
This doesn’t really apply to us, but if we were living in an area of the country which receives significant snow or ice buildup on roofs and gutters, we’d need to have someone deal with that while we are gone. In our area, not an issue.
Advantage #2: Heating Savings
Our largest utility bills are heat in the winter. In Portland, air conditioning is the much smaller expense of the two. In fact, many people don’t use AC at all. Dialing our heat down to just enough to keep the mold and mildew in check while we are gone saves us a lot of money on electricity. If you have gas or oil heat, ditto. If we were travelling during the warm months, we wouldn’t save much.
Advantage #3: Water Cost Savings
Our monthly baseline water bill is determined by averaging our water usage during the winter months, the period when the water company assumes we are not watering our lawns and bushes. Since we are using virtually no water when we are gone — in fact, we turn off the water supply to our house while we are away – our baseline water bill is about as low as you can get for the whole year.
Advantage #4: Health and Fitness improvements
During the winter there is a natural tendency to eat more and exercise less. The holiday season is particularly bad. No one wants to go out for a walk or run in the rain in Oregon, which is about 60% of all winter days. It’s not surprising that when we are traveling to warmer climates, particularly since we are not driving and must walk more, we tend not to put on winter weight, even though we may be eating out more. Also, without the usual holiday festivities and food triggers, the normal Thanksgiving and Christmas overeating rituals are easier to avoid.
Advantage #5: No Mall Traffic Madness
We live near a large shopping mall. During the Christmas shopping season, which now starts before Thanksgiving, the traffic in our area increases dramatically, and the drivers are the worst, infected with the shopping-stress virus that makes them unusually hazardous to other drivers. We actually change our normal driving routes during this time of the year to avoid the congestion caused by mall shoppers. And, unfortunately, the madness doesn’t just occur near our house, the combination of bad weather and more stressed shoppers citywide make driving in general much more unpleasant for at least a month near Christmas. Better to be somewhere else. I should mention that the Christmas season has always been my least favorite time of the year in general, so I may be somewhat biased in my comments here.
Advantage #6: No Snow or Freezing Rain Driving
We don’t get a lot of snow in Portland, but when we do it’s a mess because no one here knows how to drive in it and road crews are generally not equipped to deal with much more than an inch or two. In Montana, if we got 6” of new snow it was no big deal….a normal occurrence. In Portland, 6” of snow would paralyze the city for at least two days. During cold weather what we often get in Portland is freezing rain, the stuff that turns the roads so slick you can hardly stand up on them, and almost impossible to drive on. If you are in Mexico without a car, no snow or freezing rain driving.
Disadvantage #2: No Traditional Thanksgiving or Christmas
Some people can really get tweaked about this one. I admit I love that the girls usually make it home for Christmas but for us we have very little sense of holiday nostalgia. We put up a tree every year, but, if the girls weren’t coming home, we wouldn’t bother. The Christmas lights on the house and shrubbery were nixed many years ago in the name of saving the salmon runs on the Columbia. Honestly, the Christmas we spent in Mexico was just as fun, if not more so, than any Christmas we’ve spent in Portland. After all, how many kids go jungle zip-lining during Christmas? Both the girls love to travel, so I assume if we are somewhere else in the world during Christmas we’ll either go to their cities, which are now far away from us, or they can travel to whatever country we are in. More fun for all. But I know people for whom maintaining certain holiday traditions is sacrosanct, so for those people I’m including this as a disadvantage.
Advantage #7: You Are A Snowbird
This isn’t really an advantage. But I love that we’ll be able to say we are “snowbirds”, at least for a while. Did I mention that I really like this word? There should be a Lynard Skynard song…