As an international couple (Singapore and United States citizens), we always planned on being international snowbirds when we retired. We started snowbirding in Singapore in 2018. We are delighted to have the opportunity to do so and have learned a lot over the past four years.
Being an international snowbird means living in another, typically warmer, country during winter. It’s a different relationship to your destination. This means packing and thinking differently.
Here are the things we’ve learned.
1. How Did We Choose Singapore?
We knew that Singapore was the place that we wanted to be in the winter since we have many relatives and friends there. We also explored living in Europe, South America, and elsewhere. We looked at countries that had good healthcare, lengthy visas, stable political situations, and that were LGBTQ+ friendly. Singapore fit the bill. You may have other criteria to add to this list.
You can try out several cities and countries before deciding on one or just continuously try new places every winter.
2. Rent Or Buy?
We planned to stay with a relative for our first snowbird stay. This went awry at the last minute, so we found alternative accommodations in a shared apartment. We were told we could cook but found out we couldn’t. The Wi-Fi was terrible, and the apartment was uncomfortable. It turned out to be one of our worst living experiences.
There are different ways to snowbird — some people buy houses or condos, others rent them, and some do long-term AirBNBs, stay in service apartments, or rent a room in someone’s house. Renting, in the beginning, enables you to try out different possibilities, especially if your goal is to buy a property. Being able to cook, do laundry, access strong and secure Wi-Fi, and be close to mass transit are must-haves for us.
3. You Can’t Take Everything
How do we pack for a 3-month stay overseas? It is easy to overpack and hard to anticipate everything that we need.
We’ve found it useful to have a running packing list — a list that we adjust as we prepare for our trip. We also made notes during our previous visits and have refined our list every year. It also helps that we’ve been to Singapore many times and know what we can buy locally.
We leave from a cold location and land in a hot one. We also usually travel to other countries from Singapore. We bring layers for cold weather travels. Lightweight wicking clothes work best for us (and dry quickly after washing).
4. Learn About Visa And Entry Restrictions
Overstaying your visa in your destination country causes major problems. Make sure you know the rules. While you’re at it, research medical visa extension procedures beforehand (in case of illness near the end of your stay), especially in the age of COVID.
5. Should I Bring …Or Shop?
Singapore is a shopping haven, so we can buy almost anything. For a 3-month trip, we packed five shirts each. We knew we would be shopping in our favorite stores.
As far as medicine and toiletries, it’s best to have a sense of the market in your destination country. There are comparable local brands for everything in Singapore. Imported brands, however, are much more expensive than in the States.
We have special needs (allergies to fragrance), so we bring the products that we normally use.
Note: If you are going to a less developed country, there may be more challenges buying some things. Research in advance.
6. Purchasing Travel Insurance
We always purchase travel insurance, especially as international snowbirds. It helps to know that we have medical coverage if we need it.
Editor’s Note: We recommend TravelInsurance.com. They help you pick the best option for your trip by comparing coverages from multiple top insurance providers.
7. What To Do About The Mail
What do you do with your mail while you are gone for several months? It is very expensive (and takes a long time) to forward your mail internationally.
There are mail forwarding services. Your mail is forwarded to a U.S. post box, then the envelopes are scanned and emailed to you. You then decide which are opened, scanned, and emailed to you. The actual mail is discarded after one month — you only get electronic copies.
We have neighbors that we trust to pick up our mail and permit to open as needed. They then take pictures to send us and leave the contents in our home.
8. Paying Our Bills
Making sure your finances are in order is critical. As with mail, we have learned the best way to handle our bills is to set up autopay for all expenses. Make sure you check your statements for accuracy. You’ll also need to know your passwords and deal with the issue of two-factor authentication, which usually relies on your permanent phone number. This creates a problem if you change your SIM card to a local number.
9. Filling Prescriptions
We fill our prescriptions for the entire trip (plus 2 weeks). You may need to get permission from your health insurance to do so.
We made the mistake of not packing enough baby aspirin on our recent trip. It turns out that aspirin does not come in the same dosage in Singapore. Some trip insurance may help with renewing prescriptions overseas, but you still need to get a prescription from your doctor.
10. What About Our U.S. Home?
Worrying about the possibility of burst pipes or animal infestations in your home while abroad is no fun. Plus it’s not easy to come back for emergencies when you are far away. And it can be equally problematic to come back and make unpleasant discoveries.
When we started, we sought the advice of other snowbirds. Should we keep the heat on throughout the winter (can be expensive) or drain the pipes and completely shut down (can be bad for the appliances)? We’ve tried both. Should you ask someone to check on the house (we always do)? There are many possibilities.
There is no one way to do this, and you’ll have to figure out the most cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and least worrisome way for you. At the end of the day, make your decision and realize that the rest is not in your control.
11. Maintaining Cars While Abroad
We keep our car in an underground garage. To ensure that the battery doesn’t go dead, we have friends occasionally drive it. We have other friends that either take the battery out of their car or buy a gadget that plugs in to keep the battery charged. Others simply accept the fact that the battery will be dead when they return. We are also mindful of the fact that small rodents like to chew on car wires (one reason we have our car driven while we are away).
12. Cell Phone Plans
International data roaming charges can add up quickly. Getting a local SIM card is much more economical and better for local contacts. If you are planning to return to the same country every year, explore options that will allow you to keep your local number.
Before you travel, make sure your cell phone is unlocked (i.e., not tied to your carrier’s service). Alternatively, purchase a phone in your destination country.
Once you change the SIM card to a local one, your phone number and messaging number will change. You’ll need to let your friends and family know the new number. We use WhatsApp, which is tied to our U.S. number no matter where we are.
13. Setting Up Computers And Wi-Fi
Today we are all tethered to our electronic devices, even when we travel. We travel with laptops, phones, and iPads. That means reliable and safe Wi-Fi is important. We have done different things — accessed public Wi-Fi, used a portable Wi-Fi device, and even went to the library. In our current apartment, we had broadband Wi-Fi installed since we will be staying there every year.
Make sure to pack some surge protectors. That way, you only need one converter. If you buy a local surge protector, you’ll need converters for every socket.
14. We Love Home Cooked Meals
We don’t like eating out all the time. After the first few weeks, we long for home-cooked meals. We’ve learned to cook a lot of local dishes. At the same time, we’ve also cooked some Jewish specialties in Singapore (with adaptations, since not all the ingredients are easily available).
Pack some of your favorite spices if you are not able to buy them locally. This also works when returning to the U.S. — we bring spices from Singapore. Check the import restrictions for spices, as each country has different rules.
15. When In Singapore, Be A Singaporean
We love being international snowbirds. The major lesson we learned is that we are living in another country — not visiting, not traveling.
When in Singapore, we are Singaporeans. We pack and set up our home base with that in mind. Discovery and curiosity have helped us enjoy this adventure.