Let’s face it, winter in Canada is just not a lot of fun. No wonder so many people like to escape for a few months (or longer). If you’re thinking of heading south with the rest of the snowbirds, here are some tips to help ensure a sunny time.
Finding a place to stay
What’s your preferred accommodation? Are you looking for an apartment, house or villa? Travelling with pets? Whatever your specific needs, your search will probably start online. You can also ask friends and family for recommendations. First-hand accounts from a trusted source can save you hours of effort.
The following guidelines may help you find your perfect long-term getaway faster.
Set a budget. Unless you have unlimited funds (and not many of us do), the first step to narrow down your choices is to decide how much you can afford to spend. Rental rates in the southern U.S. can run anywhere from US$1,000 to US$6,000 a month in peak snowbird season (January through March). If your budget is tight, November, December and April may be less expensive.
Set your priorities. Sometimes it’s just not possible to find the perfect spot. Think about what tradeoffs you’d be willing to make. For example, would you be willing to walk a few blocks to the beach if the place had a pool? Or if it was way cheaper?
Negotiate for longer stay discounts. The rates you see posted are not carved in stone, so feel free to bargain. Maybe you can get a discount if you’re staying longer than three months or if you pay in full in advance.
Think outside the ordinary. Apartments and condos are the most common types of accommodation offered for rent, but there are all kinds of other options, including mobile-home parks and RVs.
Venture off the beaten path. Florida is the most popular US snowbird destination, but Texas, Nevada and New Mexico also offer winter warmth. And if you live in Vancouver, the swaying palm trees of Hawaii are only about six hours away. Don’t forget about the rest of the world, too. Mexico, Central America and Southern Europe offer beautiful weather and surroundings.
Get it in writing. Regardless of what you choose, get a rental agreement and read it carefully. It should specify the dates you’ve agreed to, the price, the deposit and what happens if you need to cancel. If anything seems out of the ordinary, consult a lawyer before you sign.
Beware of scams. Fraudsters have been known to post misleading photos online or even offer properties for rent that they don’t own. Always ask for references (and follow up on them) and check online reviews. Never provide your personal banking or credit card information in an email and never send cash.
Make sure you’re covered. If your flight is delayed, or your hotel is over booked and can’t honour your booking, it will be very stressful and expensive to find another accommodation last minute. So it might make sense to look into adding Trip Interruption to your extended stay travel insurance when travelling outside Canada. Some long stay travel insurance can protect you up to 365 days a year when travelling outside of Canada so make sure to do your research and select the best travel medical insurance to suit your needs.
Many Canadians drive their own car to their U.S. destination. This can be more economical than flying, plus you get the freedom to stop and explore along the way. To avoid delays at the border, make sure all your documents are in order:
- Driver’s license and vehicle registration. Make sure these won’t expire before your scheduled return home.
- Insurance. Call your insurance provider to make sure you’re covered while driving in the U.S. and for how long.
- Passport and NEXUS Cards. Check expiry dates and renew if they’ll run out while you’re out of the country. This applies to everyone travelling in the car.
Don’t want the long drive but still want your own wheels down south? You can ship your car by transport truck while you hop on a plane. It’s not cheap — average cost is about $1,400 to $1,500 one-way — but it saves the mileage and wear and tear on your vehicle. Or, for $1,000 to $1,200, you can hire a driveaway service. Check with your insurer beforehand to make sure that the driver will be covered under your policy.
If you prefer to leave your car at home, you may want to rent one for the duration of your stay. Some used car dealerships in popular snowbird destinations offer long-term rentals that can be very affordable. Shop around and compare prices and vehicles to find what meets your needs best.
If you’re thinking of buying a car while you’re away, the process is a bit complicated. Just like in Canada, the car will need to be registered in your name. To register it, you’ll need to show proof of insurance. In addition, the car may need to pass a state safety and/or emissions inspection before you can drive it. The registration and insurance requirements differ by state, so check with a local car dealer or automobile club in your vacation destination if you’re interested in going this route.
While U.S. dollars are accepted at many places in Canada, the opposite isn’t true, so you’ll want easy access to local currency for your expenses while you’re away, especially for an extended stay. If you’re headed to the U.S., you have several options.
Open a U.S. dollar account at your bank in Canada. If you are visiting long-term, it might be worthwhile for you to transfer money from your CAD account to the USD one. Some banks also offer U.S. dollar accounts at their U.S. affiliates, making cross-border banking virtually seamless. You’ll get a U.S. debit card you can use to make purchases or withdraw cash from ATMs and pay your U.S. bills online.
Use your credit card. Major Canadian credit cards are accepted at businesses around the world. You simply pay for your purchase with your card and the cost in foreign funds is converted to Canadian dollars at the current exchange rate. Some cards charge a foreign transaction fee, but others don’t, so shop around for the right card. Having a U.S. dollar credit card eliminates any foreign transaction fee for purchases in the U.S., but you’ll still need U.S. funds to pay your bill when it arrives.
Withdraw local currency from a bank machine with your debit card. While this is convenient, there may be a hefty service fee per transaction, and the exchange rate may not be the most favourable.
Take cash. It’s convenient to have some U.S. cash with you, but use your common sense. While you’re allowed to take up to $10,000 US with you before you have to notify customs, large sums just aren’t practical. Cash can easily be lost or stolen.
Taking care of your health when you’re away for an extended time means managing any pre-existing conditions and being prepared for the unexpected.
Take prescription meds with you. Pack your prescriptions in your carry-on baggage in their original containers. It’s a good idea to have a copy of the original prescription and/or a note from your doctor as well.
Get medical travel insurance. The cost of emergency medical treatment outside of Canada can be staggering. Especially if you’re retired and thinking of staying in the U.S for an extended stay, it is best that you shop around to find the right travel medical insurance for seniors — one that will cover you for the length of your stay and cover any pre-existing conditions.
If you spend too much time in the U.S. year after year, you may be considered a U.S. resident and be required to file a U.S. tax return. Here’s how it works:
- Calculate all the days you are in the U.S. in the current year.
- Add 1/3 of the days spent in the U.S. the previous year.
- Add 1/6 of the days spent in the U.S. the year before that.
If the total is 183 days or more, you may be considered a U.S. resident for tax purposes. However, if you’ve been present in the U.S. for less than 183 days in the current year you may qualify for a Closer Connection Exemption. This means filing IRS Form 8840, which shows you have closer economic and personal ties to Canada.
Current year: 90 days
Previous year: 90 days
90/3 = 30
Year before that: 90 days
90/6 = 15
Total: 135 days
It is not mandatory to have travel insurance to visit the U.S. However, if something goes wrong before and during your trip, you will have to bear the financial burden of having to cancel your trip without any refunds or paying staggering amounts of medical bills.