February 21, 2017

The Snowbird Lifestyle: Healthy Anti-Aging Solution or Horrifying Misadventure?

photo: wikimedia

By Crabby McSlacker

So what's a snowbird? (Besides, apparently, a ski resort in Utah?)

I'll offer one definition of a snowbird: a species of silver-crested North American, usually of advancing years, that migrates annually for the winter from colder northern climates to warmer southern ones. Best known for upsetting local ecosystems and annoying year-round inhabitants.

Regular readers may be aware that my wife (aka "The Lobster") and I are a couple of those dreaded snowbirds. Yet: we are not all that old. Nor, we hope, are we all that annoying.

And it's not just us: Snowbirds seem to be getting younger. Maybe it's because more jobs are going virtual and it's not just for retirement anymore? Or it might be because new options that didn't exist 10 or 20 years ago can make it way more affordable and practical than it used to be.

(Note: I'm talking about "snowbirding" because that's what people google the most common sort of seasonal migration. But this applies to other extended getaways too, like fleeing a torrid climate during summers, or spending months abroad every year in a country that's cheap and culturally enriching, or whatever.)

So if you're curious about the Snowbird lifestyle, either because it sounds vaguely appealing, or alternatively, because it sounds so hideously disruptive that reveling in the details will make you smugly grateful that you live only in one place like a normal person--some thoughts below.

Our Snowbirding experience? We flee wintertime in Provincetown Massachusetts every year, and have had a blast living part time in San Diego for seven years. But now we're selling our condo this spring, because we want to mix it up a little more. We did a trial run last winter, renting out our SD digs and spending it Austin Texas instead. Way fun!

(And hell, since I have some left-over photos from then that I never blogged about, I'm going to go ahead and use 'em to break up the text so I don't have to write a whole ridiculously belated "healthy travels in Austin" post.)

Next winter, we're renting a place in St. Petersburg Florida. And the year after that... hmm. Mexico? Hawaii? New Zealand? Costa Rica? Who knows? Can you see how that sort of decision might be kinda fun to make?

But let's deal with the bad news first.

Hassles and Painful Realities: Not Everyone Can or Should be a Snowbird.

For one thing, plenty of people are quite happy where they are whatever the season! And so why mess with a good thing?

Other folks who might enjoy snowbirding eventually can't even think about it now because of work, family obligations or financial constraints. I'm guessing, for example, most second grade teachers wouldn't take kindly to a parental note saying: "please excuse Tiffany's absence during December, January, February and March. She was busy learning to boogie-board in Daytona Beach." Nor for that matter would many bosses.

But even those who are ready, willing and able to migrate will have to deal with quite a few costs, chores, and hassles:

  • Finding a place to rent or buy and Making Arrangements. (Extra difficult if you have pets, peculiarities, or Strong Opinions).
  • The cost of said place, whether rented or owned.
  • If it's not an easy driving destination, then transportation to and fro and a means to get around once there.
  • Enlisting someone to rent (if you're lucky) or housesit or check on your home while you're away.
  • Winterizing if it freezes where you live.
  • Packing Angst, plus shipping costs if you send boxes back and forth.
  • Mail forwarding (which, btw, the post office sucks at) and bill paying and possibly tax season, which becomes more complicated when things keep getting lost in the mail.
  • Schlepping or rebuying Things You Can Not Live Without.
  • If you own, then duplicate utilities, taxes, insurance, association fees plus a twin set of "what happens while we're gone" questions.
However, it all gets way easier as you get the hang of it. 

So, anyone still game or did I scare y'all off?

Winter? What winter?

Different Approaches to Snowbirding

A "second home" doesn't have to mean a huge new mortgage payment or a boring gated community full of eighty year olds riding around in golf carts. You can choose any sort of neighborhood that appeals!

In our Austin 'hood

Here are a few possibilities to think about, not all mutually exclusive:

  • Downsize your primary residence to something more economical to extract some extra cash to flee for part of the year.
  • Rent seasonally through VRBO or AirBnb or similar.
  • Buy a used RV and find a cheap warm place to park it.
  • If you live in a desirable urban area or an all-season destination (say, for example, you hail from NYC, San Diego, Boulder, DC, SF etc), consider renting out your own place while you're gone for a few months, or doing a house swap for free rent elsewhere. 
  • Travel to countries where rents or second homes are cheaper.
  • Get together with friends or relatives and split a second home.
  • Buy a second place in a year-round rental area and rent it out monthly or weekly when you're not using it.
It helps to start fantasizing about what you might do years ahead of time, and making vacation visits and collecting data about neighborhoods, prices, cost of living, etc. A cross country road trip, if you can squeeze in the vacation time, is a great way to check out a bunch of options all at once.

Prefer a Second Home, or a Seasonal Adventure?

We know many people whose "second homes" are as every bit as integral to their lives as their primary residences. They build friendships and community over the years, and they establish routines and traditions that result in a sense of feeling truly "home" all year long, even as the settings change.

Alternatively, it's a big world! Keeping it flexible and mixing it up every year, exploring different cities or countries, gives an incredible sense of freedom and adventure.

Whether your intention is to settle somewhere for the long haul or not, you may want to consider renting a season before buying. Though hell, if you really know what you want, and see a screaming deal, then a quick decision can work too. But caution is advised.

Is Snowbirding Good for Your Health?

This is at least theoretically a health blog, so let's take a look at the healthy lifestyle angle.

Did you know research proves that people who shift their primary residence between two or more places become physically and psychologically healthier as they age, and live much longer lives than their stationary peers?

Really? Because I just made that up.

I don't think there is any such research. (Though I did find an abstract for one Nordic study on second homes and health that basically seemed to say: we should study this).

I don't actually think we should throw precious research money at this one. Not unless you have a ginormous grant that could randomly put people in groups and subsidize half of them, forcing them to move somewhere far away from bad weather whether they want to or not. Otherwise, how would you ever control for the probable fact that people drawn to snowbirding are a different sort of species of human to start with? People who might be more risk-tolerant, adventurous, financially secure, and in better health or they wouldn't consider taking it on?

But common sense (and a little research) points to a few very likely health benefits for snowbirds.

Physical:  It's easier for most people to and get outdoors and exercise in a mild climate. Or, to get outdoors at all for that matter.

(But stay tuned, we have a guest post coming up soon on winter exercise!)

A research review appears to confirm this: physical activity tends to decline in winter. And the same goes for hot humid summers. An excerpt (citations omitted, boldface mine):
The data show that both men and women are more physically active during leisure time in the summer than in the winter. Moreover, it provides an analysis of the types of activities adopted by season. A 2–3-fold greater volume of walking for pleasure, the most prevalent type of activity for both men and women, was reported in spring-summer-fall seasons, compared with winter. In addition, outdoor activities such as gardening and lawn-mowing tended to replace indoor pastimes such as home exercise and bowling. Data from the Canadian Community Health Survey, Cycle 2.2 of more than 20,000 Canadians collected in 2004 revealed that the number of inactive respondents increased from 49% in summer to 64% in winter. Smaller studies, as well as those from other countries, and those concentrating on adolescents or children, tend to replicate these findings, with some exceptions. In areas of the United States with hot, humid summer weather, physical activity of children was in fact lower in summer than winter; a small study in the United Arab Emirates also suggested that extremely hot weather would decrease physical activity.
Dietary: I'm thinking warmer climates are more likely to have fresher, locally grown produce. At least that's been our experience. Also, it's a chance to get out of any dietary ruts you may have fallen into, shopping in different stores, trying new kinds of foods, exploring new takeout and restaurant options, which could in turn lead to new recipes. Many things I eat routinely now I sampled first Somewhere Else.

Psychological: Here is where I think there are the most benefits, at least for my strange little brain:

Growth Mindset: There are a couple different ways to handle the aging process. Have you noticed that some people seem to get more open and adventurous as the decades pass? They become more broad-minded and adaptable, gain confidence, and become more willing to challenge themselves and less stressed when encountering the unexpected.

The alternative approach? Retreat more and more to the familiar, the comfortable. Allow your world to keep getting smaller, you habits and opinions more entrenched. Find ways to avoid change whenever possible.

I argue that as strategies for happiness, meaning, and life satisfaction the first approach rocks, and the second approach sucks. But "growing" instead of "shrinking" is not necessarily natural, at least for some of us anxious types. We have to actively work to stay in category One rather than get sucked into category Two.

There are a multitude of ways to challenge yourself that are far less of a pain in the ass than packing up your life twice a year. Taking classes, volunteering, doing meet-ups, signing up for marathons, etc. But... having different worlds with different neighborhoods, resources, routines, possibilities, and adventures throws a whole lot of novelty in one package. And it's a package wrapped up with a pretty bow of lovely anti-depressing sunny weather!

Snowbirding also requires some scheming and troubleshooting, which while not always fun, keeps those brain cells firing and beats the pants off sudoku or solitaire.

Simplifying: As discussed above, snowbirding adds some complications to life. Yet counter-intuitively, it can lead to a Zen sort of reckoning about what's truly important to you, and how much less you need in your life than you thought you did. Most people we know who migrate like we do have, just like us, downsized in all sorts of ways. Not only in terms of real estate, but also personal possessions, financial entanglements, even relationships that no longer feel right, and other various commitments that seemed to be "costing" more than they were worth.

Fresh eyes, with no need for an optometrist: A lesser known snowbird bonus: When you go back to your old home and neighborhood, one where you may have lived for decades, you see and appreciate all sorts of things you never noticed. It's like falling in love all over again!

And speaking of which:

Relationship Enhancer:  If you have a cherished spouse or life partner, sharing adventures adds a whole new dimension of bonding. Different settings bring out all kinds of new ways to appreciate their awesomeness!

The always awesome Lobster

On the other hand, if you accidentally married a whiner, a loser, a blowhard, a creep, a psycho, or a dickhead, and divorce isn't practical, you'll appreciate not being trapped in the same house with them during winter months. You can head outside and take up a new sport or simply walk as far, far away from them as you possibly can.

Health Challenges

OK, to be fair, there are some of these as well.

Moving is considered a major stressor. And even if you're not starting from scratch every year, or are renting furnished places, there are still tons of little details and things that can go wrong. Along with the excitement of change comes uncertainty and a need for flexibility.  Exposing yourself to this can either be a "growth opportunity" or a pain-in-the-ass source of stress, depending on your circumstances and mindset. (But consider: I'm more than a bit of a worrywart, and I cope just fine, and find it well worth the tradeoffs.) I'll repeat too: it gets way easier over time.

Another consideration: if you have chronic health conditions that require doctors visits and prescription refills, you have to make sure you are going somewhere you can take care of these things, particularly if you are considering international destinations. Wishful thinking and denial are not good replacements for regular medical care.

 (But snowbirding, unlike snowboarding, is far less likely to send you to the emergency room.)

photo: yashima

Snowbirding Resources

Perhaps someday, if there is any interest I can get more into the nitty gritty with concrete suggestions for how to make this happen in your future, or if you're already going to make the leap, how to make it far more pleasant and less painful. I'm not sure if any regular visitors are game, but, lurkers? Googlers? If you want to know more, please let me know in the comments and I'll consider a future post.

In the meantime, here are some links that are probably more informative than I am anyway:

Tips on snowbird lifestyle from U.S. News

Retirement Guide to Achieving Snowbird Lifestyle (Canadian, yay!)

Economical Snowbirding (Also Canadian)

30 Things you probably didn't know about snowbirds

Joan Lunden on Joys of Snowbirding

HuffPo on Life as a Snowbird

Best Places for Snowbirds to Retire

How about you guys, any of you think you  might someday be interested? Or, No Way in Hell?


  1. Crabby, it seems like too much work for me. I am glad this works for you and the Lobster and it makes you happy. That is the most important thing.
    As for me, right now, I love the changing seasons and the experience of winter to want to get away from it for an extended period of time.

    1. You seem so happy where you are Leah I'm not sure it would be worth the hassle! But thanks for reading.

  2. Snowbirding is the shizzle! I did it this year for the first time when I went to Chiang Mai. That has inspired me to now work remotely. More snowbirding = more sunshine = more vitamin D = longer life!

    1. Yay Hanro, another crazy person who's got the vagabond spirit! And wow, Chiang Mai, sounds like an adventure! Thailand is on our bucket list too, a bucket that keeps getting bigger and bigger...

  3. I work from home and am lucky enough to travel more than the average person. I’ve never heard of a snowbird, but now that I know what it means, I’ve decided it’s my goal for 2018. I like San Deigo but I hear Austin Texas is pretty rocking :) Your tips give me a huge dose of reality, I love it. I’m still interested but maybe I should shoot for 2020 to get all my ducks/birds in a row :)

    1. Excellent Mary, I hope you make it work for you! Sounds like you are the plan-ahead type as well as the adventurous type so I suspect you will rock the snowbird thing.

  4. I'd like to go on extended trips, but I'm more of a sunbird (is that a thing??) - I want to get the heck out of hell...er, I mean Texas...in the worst of the summer heat. Good thing I have a best friend who lives in Santa Cruz, and parents who live in Oregon. :)

    1. I don't know if "sunbird" is a thing but if not, it should be Shelley! And Oregon and Santa Cruz are two excellent summer destinations, you have good taste in friends and parents!

  5. Well then why don't you come and SNOWBIRD over here in SoCal! ;) The weather kicks ass even when it's "crappy"!

    1. I wish I had your glamorous "LA" personality Gigi, but I don't think I'd fit in very well up there, plus I hate to drive on freeways. My little gay San Diego 'hood (Hillcrest) was a great CA getaway though, and I'm sure we'll be back and maybe hop up your way while we're at it!

  6. St. Pete is a great place! I love the Dali Museum.

    1. You're a great example of a fit Floridian Dr. J! Though how you handle summer is a total mystery, egads I'd DIE. Or at least get extremely slothful and grumpy.

    2. We go to the many Florida springs where the water temp is 72 degrees :-)

  7. My goal is to have this house simply be my home base, and have an RV or tiny home that is mobile and travel a lot. It's going to take a long time to get there, but i'm going to keep working steadily toward it, there are people all over the country i want to be able to go visit whenever i wish!

    1. What a great plan Messymimi! And an inspiring goal to work towards, I bet you'll get there! And if your rv ever takes you to cape cod, be sure to give me a holler!

  8. I have enjoyed travel, but I always hated leaving winter for a couple of weeks in warmer weather (i.e., going to spend Christmas with my grandmother) and then coming back to the cold. Skipping the entire season might work, but I think I'd be too worried about what was happening in the "other" place.
    The two directions of change in growing older are both expressions of "I'm too old to put up with this shit" but in one case change is stimulating and in the other it's exhausting. I tend to feel both ways, depending on the case at hand. (I've always wondered about that "Baby Boomers are getting more conservative as they age" thing. Those of my generation that I've known since we were young started out radical and got more so.)

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

    1. Mary Anne, I like your theory about both "growth" and "shrink" as variations on "getting too old to put up with this shit!" In one case the "shit" is self-imposed limitations or raised eyebrows, in the other, it's anything that seems scary or unappealing or too much work. And actually, some people can be quite happy in an ever-shrinking world, but I've seen enough grumpy seniors trapped in small scared lives to want to avoid that. I think so many things naturally decline as we age that if we don't open up to new experiences, change becomes synonymous with loss. But again, plenty of ways to open up with out packing up!

    2. As the "rest of my life" gets ever shorter, I am more unwilling to waste time on things I don't enjoy. Even on things I might enjoy, since there are so many I know I enjoy. Of course, most people don't enjoy wrestling large hairy dogs in tubs, but there.

      Mary Anne in Kentucky

  9. If I didn't have kids...I still wouldn't be a snowbird. But that's mostly because winter is my favorite. Anything over 75 and I'm a grumpy, where's the AC, is it fall yet gal. I've heard many say people become less tolerant of cold weather as they age, but I seem to be the opposite. The older I get, the more I hate hot weather. I tend to exercise HARDER in the winter (more strength training, more HIIT runs on the treadmill) and do more play in the summer (long leisurely hikes or bike rides with the kids). That said...I travel a lot for work (mostly to National Parks, woe is me) so my wanderlust is often over satiated and I want to stay home and enjoy our slice of heaven. We still camp quite often and take at least one family trip each year (NYC and Chicago in 2016, South Africa and maybe Mexico in 2017, Columbia in 2018, etc etc). So perhaps I am a "snowbird"...just one that does it in short week long spurts rather than long 3-6 month treks?

    1. Sounds like you don't need to snowbird bdaiss, you've got such a great situation already, especially since you travel so much! Sounds like lots of great adventures ahead.

  10. Honestly, I wish I could afford to buy just 1 home and pay my bills! :0 But I think it is great that you can do this & enjoy it!!!! I appreciate all the info shared as well Jan!!!

    And now is only your posts would show up in my inbox! :)

    1. My sympathies Jody, Southern California is a tough place to buy! And sorry about the email subscription not working, wish I knew how to fix it!

  11. But ... What if my friends are doing all sorts of cool things back home without me!! This really is the dilemma one of my friends is having. She loves her place in Florida but her friends back in Toronto keep organizing events without her.

    1. Yeah Cindy, it's a little hard to see friends getting along just fine without us and having fun, but fortunately they welcome us back every spring. (And some of our friends migrate as well). I think the trick is having so much fun during winter exploring new places that we don't spend too much time worrying about it. Plus it makes spring reunions all the more fun.

  12. It's really like a dream for many but very inspiring.

  13. There is a HUGE conglomerate of folks who do the RV full time. We've even considered it. Can't speak to the younger set but the older I get the less I want to deal with extreme heat or cold/snow!
    Funny you should bring up that you're selling your place in SD (San Diego). Right this very minute, we are considering a move TOO SD! Maybe we should keep in touch, eh? lol
    One last thought on snow birding...health-wise anyway, if you live where you can walk and go outside more, that should make it easier to stay healthy! Which brings another thought, if I do go to SD, I am so looking forward to a decent farmer's market again. lol
    Good luck to you and Lobster. It sounds so adventuresome! :D

  14. I loved the blog and enjoyed reading it. its sounds adventure and i loved adventures. i will surely join this.

  15. It's really like a dream for many but very inspiring.


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