For the 50+ Traveler

Last year at this time I was dreaming of soft sand beaches, of walking down streets lined with palm trees, of waking up to birds singing in the warm sun, and of drinking great cafe con leche. That was when I decided to join the usual suspects from the blustery northeast coast of the U.S., the frigid Midwest, and any snowbound town in Canada to make the trek to snowbird country: southern Florida.

Snowbirds Have Long Escaped The Cold

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, snowbirds are people who escape the cold climes of the North for months in the sun, not only in Florida but also in the Southwest. The term “snowbirds” has largely been a pejorative one, with images of cadres of elderly folks swooping in, eating early bird dinners at 5 p.m., taking slow and circular walks in gated communities or on beach boulevards, and watching with great joy reports of blizzards “up north” on television.

My Mixed History With Florida

I have been going to Florida for a week or two in the winter for more than six decades. I remember being there with my parents and feeling trapped with their friends and entire armies of aunts and uncles -- all of whom we met for early dinners at restaurants or at their homes in gated communities.

We were often stuck on traffic-filled highways surrounded by cars driven by older folks inching ahead. And as Jerry Seinfeld noted, their directional signals frequently blinked nonstop. We were on a perennial search for “authentic” delis. We waited unhappily for bridges on A1A to lower.

Enjoying a coffee in Florida.
Barbara Winard

The Snowbird Finds A Nest In Fort Lauderdale

Now that I have reached prime snowbird age, I have had to overcome the fact that I always considered myself a world traveler and yet I was planning a month-long stay in Fort Lauderdale. I found our rental by going on several sites, and I ended up renting a bungalow about a mile and a half from Fort Lauderdale Beach in what seemed like a small community of bungalows within walking distance of stores, restaurants, the state park, and the ocean.

Our house turned out to be simple and charming: two bedrooms, a large living/dining room, a small kitchen with every kind of pot and pan I could imagine, and a lovely and tiny backyard surrounded by trees (and -- the only downside -- hungry mosquitoes).

I immediately loved the diversity of the houses in my residential neighborhood. Some were hidden behind dense foliage: palms, palmetto, cacti, and flowers. Others had distinctive signs for house numbers and designs on their fences. The homes were a rainbow of colors: sea blue, pink, mint green, white. They were built in different decades but all screamed 1950s. The only people I would see as I wandered the streets were teenagers on their way to the nearby school -- hiding deep within their hoodies and sweats -- and dog-walkers smiling and greeting other walkers.

Although we had everything we needed to cook, we did visit restaurants as well. We found that early birders were often parents with young children -- at least near where we were staying. I realized that the over-55 folks we came across were now mostly younger than I am. I smiled when it hit me that I fit in pretty well when we had an early dinner.

Also surprising to me was that I really enjoyed wandering, sitting, reading, and beach going: my own version of slow travel. I started to understand that as I age, I am able to appreciate some things more than I did when I was younger, perhaps because I no longer compare what I see and do to what I would be seeing and doing in the Greek isles or Southeast Asia. I began to see that I had been a terrible snob.

The writer's bungalow in Fort Lauderdale.
Barbara Winard

Learning To Appreciate Where You Are And What You Have

In my new and post-snob life, I find that I like sitting on the beach in the late afternoon and watching the cruise ships pass. I think about seeing heaven in a grain of sand, as I would on a pristine beach anywhere in the world. In a pinch, this will do nicely. I still read about what my older female travel cohort is doing on Facebook. Some are hiking the trail to Machu Picchu, some are driving the Amalfi Coast, some are exploring the Serengeti plains, alone or in small groups. I offer them a toast, but I don’t seem to feel the need to travel so far, at least not for now and at least not these days.

Seeing Heaven In A Grain Of Sand

I remember my mom sitting in a chair in her small garden apartment in New Jersey, staring out at a tree in the common yard. She loved watching that tree every day, drinking tea, and rocking. It was heaven to her. These days I find myself doing the same thing, largely because of our current circumstances.

Perhaps I am becoming my mother, but having the opportunity to be a snowbird sounds pretty, pretty good to me, especially now, when we are all daydreaming about simply going for a walk.

Some Tips For Budding Snowbirds

  1. Wait to see how travel fares: Don’t spend any money or make reservations until you know that it is safe.
  2. That said, try to book as early as possible. Book early, and you can find some great deals. Our bungalow in Fort Lauderdale cost less than $100 a night.
  3. Daydream about the future: It’s great to go online and just travel in your mind. Your body may be sequestered, but your mind is free.
  4. Join a Facebook group or friend some travel bloggers for advice. Lots of people are providing travel advice on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media sites. I’ve gotten great tips on several Zoom travel meetings and chat sites.
  5. Make sure to read reviews of rentals carefully on Airbnb, VRBO, TripAdvisor, or HomeAway. Keep away from those with just a few (usually excellent) reviews. There are enough that have scores of them.
  6. Check Google or Apple maps and look for public transportation and nearby stores: Rome2Rio is a great site for information about best ways to get from point A to point B wherever you decide to go.
  7. Don’t stereotype kinds of travel and those who do it (like I did): You may find that you are happy doing something you never thought you’d do in a place you had never considered going. Try someplace new!
  8. You don’t have to go to the famous and often crowded towns and cities on the east coast of south Florida. You could go someplace with no beaches, like New Mexico or Arizona. Or travel even farther, to Costa Rica or Mexico, to southern Spain or Portugal, or even to New Zealand -- all great escapes in the winter.
Birds on the beach in Fort Lauderdale.
Barbara Winard

For me, the most important thing to realize was that we don’t have to have the same mindset all of our lives. Getting older gives us the freedom to really consider what is most enjoyable to us and to not worry about external judgments (or even pesky inner judgments).

A boomer anthem was “Love the one you’re with.” Another piece of advice for full snowbird enjoyment: “Love the place you’re in.”