It’s not unusual that those of us from colder climates (I’m looking at you, Minnesota) want to take a break from sub-zero temperatures (we won’t even mention the wind chill) and get out of winter for a while. If the world is your proverbial snowbird oyster, where do you begin?
Some have always known they’d snowbird in Florida. Their parents snowbirded in Florida, now they snowbird in Florida, perhaps even their friends snowbird in Florida. We are not among those people. For others, only Palm Desert, Sun City, or Corpus Christi will do. However, that’s not us, either.
While we didn’t mastermind the process in advance, I can share what I see in the rear-view mirror as I look back over our last four years of snowbirding. If you are new to the topic, I’m hoping these things will spur ideas and help you get to the right destination for you. This level of planning and conversation might give you the hives, 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 takes an honest conversation. These tips about “surviving retirement with your spouse” zero in on healthy communication, which is key.
- What’s your goal? (It’s okay to have several!) Is it all about getting to warmer weather? Are there other factors like kids, grandkids, budget, etc.?
- How will you get there? (Fly, drive, pull an RV?)
- How long will you be gone?
We wanted to get out of winter for a bit, make sure we had exercise options (ideally, good cycling, since we love it), and eventually find a place or two to snowbird as regulars. Dean likes to drive, so our road trip also meant we’d have a car when we wanted to explore. We decided to take a month, plus several days of drive time on either end. We’d spend at least five nights at each location since we didn’t know where we wanted to go. That 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:
- Do you want to stay in a hotel? High-rise? On the beach? Just off the beach? Nowhere near the beach, but with other features? Rent a condo? Single-family home?
- What features are important? Full kitchen? Swimming pool? Keyless entry?
- How much room do you need or want? Will you have visitors during your stay?
- Do you want a built-in community (think pickleball, cycling groups, craft nights, etc.) or do you like your privacy?
We weren’t sure about the kind of lodging we wanted, so we agreed to experiment. For health and financial reasons, plus the fact that I love to cook, a kitchen was a must. We love a beachfront, but we were open to other water views. A one-bedroom would mostly meet our needs, but two-bedroom units were not off-limits. We knew we wanted activity options but didn’t necessarily need a built-in group.
3. Research Possibilities
Talk to friends, relatives, and neighbors — if they snowbird, where do they go? Do they like it? Read travel blogs like the snowbird articles on TravelAwaits. Do web searches 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 get to northern Arkansas in one long driving day. Dean’s parents used to snowbird in Gulf Shores, Alabama, but we’d never been there. We were also curious about the coastal states of Georgia and the Carolinas. We weren’t opposed to going to Florida, but we weren’t sure we needed that much heat or exposure to crowds.
4. Take Your Pick And Dig In
Plan some destinations and try them. Maybe you’ve been to some of these states before, but not with an eye toward potential snowbird destinations, so it’s a different lens.
Pro-Tip: If you are driving, watch weather apps and stay in touch with snow and ice conditions on the route you’re taking, even if it means you leave a day or two early.
Here’s our snowbird history:
- 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 side) and South Carolina
Spoiler alert: Can you see one state rising to the top?
5. While There, Expand Your Borders
When you select lodging in a certain area, check out the surrounding areas, too. Take a drive and check neighborhoods, views of the oceans and inlets, etc. Make notes, if you are so inclined, or trust your memory if it’s better than mine.
When we stayed on St. Simon Island, Georgia, we drove over to Jekyll Island, too. In Orange Beach, Alabama, we checked out Gulf Shores and all along the Florida panhandle. In Nags Head, North Carolina, we explored the Outer Banks as far north as Duck island and south past Bodie Island Lighthouse, all the way to Ocracoke.
6. Narrow It Down
Evaluate what worked and what didn’t. You can start this while you’re on the trip and expand when you get home. What was a good fit? What would you do differently?
When you’ve been to a few locations, and especially after a few years of snowbirding, conversations get easier because you have something to compare. Of course, you’ll never exhaust all the possibilities, but at some point, you’ll know when you’ve looked enough.
We learned so much by trying new things.
We learned that if you go to northern Arkansas in early February, you just might have a fluke ice storm, which makes for a spectacular icy landscape, but is not much fun as a winter getaway (of course, you just roll with the weather). We learned that we don’t care for big high-rise buildings.
7. Snowbird Sweet Snowbird
Sooner or later, you will land on a location(s) that just seem to fit you. These are the places you’ll go back to. As you repeat locations, is the timing still right? Do you want to extend your snowbird trip (or shorten it)?
Our snowbird trip planned for 2023 is “something old, something new.” We like Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, with its more than 80 miles of paved bike trails. The treehouse lodging we stayed in the first time we visited was unique and extraordinary. However, when we go back, we’ll stay on the Yacht Basin in nearby Harbour Town to see if we like that better.
A 50-degree, damp, 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 for us to find out. We’re also going to try Amelia Island because we haven’t done anything with Florida’s Atlantic coast.
We’ve historically been gone a month, plus drive time. In 2023, we’ll extend our stay another week. Week by week, inch by inch, we are getting out of the foot-by-foot snow of Minnesota!
8. Stay Flexible
Life is dynamic and snowbirding can be, too. Over the years, maybe your goals change, or new factors come into play. You can always adjust.
This is how we define our ideal snowbird locations today: warmer weather (55 degrees or more), off-road cycling opportunities, easy access to a water 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 high-rise buildings 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 cycling there, and the signs confirm it).
What matters is that you and your spouse are aligned, you pack a sense of adventure, and you love each other through the process. You’ll end up with a decision that’s right for you. So, when you fly south for the winter, enjoy the journey along the way, and build some great memories in this season of life.
For more tips on snowbirding, check out these articles: