OK… to set the record straight… in my experience, there is no ugly.
My husband and I have been snowbirds for nine years.
“Snowbird” is the term used to describe people who reside in their home country during the warm pleasant months and then get out of Dodge for the nasty winter months, relocating somewhere sunny and tropical.
Our home country is Canada, and our haven of choice is Panama. We adore our adopted country, but, as in all things, this lifestyle is not for everyone.
When you have made your decision and are knee-deep in preparations and anticipation of your new life in a new country, it can be difficult to focus on the downsides.
But there will be some.
My advice is to proceed slowly and carefully. Do not let your eagerness and excitement get ahead of your common sense. Consider all the facets of this giant step.
What challenges will you face as a snowbird? These three stand out for me:
#1. Travel Costs
It is expensive to travel back and forth between your home country and your adopted country each year, especially if the two places are a long distance apart.
Over the past eight years that my husband and I have been enjoying our back-and-forth Panama/Canada adventures, our travel expenses have escalated. Flights, hotel rooms, taxis, and restaurant meals have become more costly, not to mention most airlines now charge for everything from extra or overweight bags to their in-flight cardboard meals. These price increases must be taken into consideration. If you are on a fixed pension income will it stretch far enough down the road?
To offset these expenses a bit I have discovered a few helpful hints in this regard. The optimum time to book flights to and from Central America is 80 days prior to flight date. Also try to obtain departure dates for Tuesday when possible. This does not provide a huge difference but every little bit helps. Of course, once you obtain your residency in Panama your pensionado discounts will come into effect. This will enable you to fly with any airline, as long as your flight leaves from Panama, with a discount of 25%. Discounts on hotel stays will also then be forthcoming.
#2: Packing… And Unpacking
Uprooting to another country for six months differs greatly from setting off on a two-week vacation. It can be stressful and time consuming until it becomes a regular routine.
I have discovered that keeping clothes, footwear, toiletries, and other personal necessities such as medications at both destinations allows you to pack only the articles necessary for the journey itself. (And allows you to purchase a few new items, guilt-free.)
#3: Coordinating Health Insurance
There are definite rules regarding the length of time we are allowed to travel if we want to keep our Canadian health care benefits. Specifically, we must be in Canada at least six months each year.
Panama has excellent and affordable health care and insurance, but the insurance is a bit more expensive for those with pre-existing conditions, which is the case with us. This is why it is of utmost importance that we retain our Canadian medical coverage.
We couldn’t afford to pay for health insurance in both countries year-round. However, we have found a Panamanian insurance company offering a combination medical/travel insurance package intended for snowbirds. It covers us the six months we are in Panama and while we are traveling between the two countries. To qualify, you must have medical coverage in your home country for the months you are there.
Now the good stuff.
In my case, the pros outweigh the cons tenfold…
#1: No More Winter
This is the most important benefit of choosing this lifestyle.
No more boots, coats, gloves, or scarves. No more shoveling snow. No more block heaters or outrageous heating bills.
We now enjoy a life of perpetual summer, and it is heavenly.
#2: Reduced Cost Of Living
The cost of living is so much less in Panama that it more than makes up for the travel costs. Delicious fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, and most other grocery items are considerably cheaper than in Canada, as are gasoline, alcoholic beverages, household help, and repairmen.
Add in the pensionado discounts on medicines, doctor and dentist visits, restaurant meals, and entertainment, and you have a very affordable lifestyle.
#3: The Residents Line At Immigration
This perk may seem petty and unimportant, but to us it is a godsend.
Once you have obtained resident status, there is no more arriving from your native country hot, sleep-deprived, and fed up with lineups only to be forced to endure hordes of tourists being processed through customs and immigration. You sail on through the virtually empty residents’ line with passport and residency card in hand.
#4: Everything Is New
This is something else I appreciate hugely about our snowbird lifestyle. We have the chance to immerse ourselves in an entirely new and different culture. We have learned a new language, visited exciting new places, met new people, and had great adventures… and there’s always more new to come next year.
#5: Family Visits
Our family sees us more now than when we lived in Canada full-time.
My husband and I find the Snowbird lifestyle ideal for us and imagine continuing in this way indefinitely.
However, this alternative living arrangement can also be a terrific way to try different countries on for size before committing to full retirement somewhere.
Or maybe you find that you love the travel and decide to become a nomad on an eternal vacation.
After much trial and error we now have our transitions down to a fine art. Here are some tips that might help you if you decide to give snowbirding a try:
- Most telephone, television, and internet companies have what is referred to as a “vacation mode” option. This allows users to retain their monthly plans while absent. This costs us CA$20 per month in Canada but only CA$4 per month in Panama. This is a huge saving from paying full plan costs in two countries year-round.
- Make copies of the all-important papers, such as insurance policies, powers of attorney, wills, and financial information, to keep with you at all times.
- Unhook your car battery while away. Arriving back in Canada after being away six months prepared to do the big grocery shop and other necessary errands only to find your car battery is stone dead is extremely frustrating.
- Purchase only six months of vehicle insurance at a time to prevent the cost of insurance on two vehicles in two separate countries year-round.
- Carrying around double sets of keys, credit cards, driver’s licenses, and currencies is a hassle. That’s why, upon arrival at either end of our back-and-forth journeys, I do a quick exchange and return the “other home” sets to the suitcase or tote bag for safekeeping.
- Finally, my most important piece of advice would be to remember that the country where you decide to spend half of each year is their country. Do not attempt to change them or their rituals, habits, language, or customs to conform to yours from “back home.”
As lecturer Mr. Darrell Eash puts it, when relocating to a new country, especially in Central America, you have to make a choice between behaving like a camel or behaving like a chameleon.
A camel prepares for his long journey by eating and drinking excessively and storing it as baggage, enabling him to endure his new environment without leaving his comfort zone.
A chameleon, conversely, travels light and blends in to his new environment. He learns to thrive in the new surroundings.
Panamanians are kind, cheerful, and helpful. Follow their example. Be kind and respectful rather than abrasive and demanding. Go with their flow.
Become a chameleon rather than a camel.
As Mr. Eash goes on to explain, “More often than not, camels pack up and return home angry and disillusioned.
“Meantime, chameleons are on their way to an exciting, challenging, stress-free new life.”
Snowbirding is not for everyone, but I can tell you unequivocally that my husband and I have never been happier.
This article was originally published in January 2019 and has been recently updated.