Snowbirds: Searching for Shangri-la

Following the winter sun is nothing new in this country. When snow started to fly in the
early days of the last century, wealthy families who resided along the Eastern Seaboard
packed up their children and their servants, leaving behind a few to care for their
northern mansions, and headed to their estates in Florida. They usually traveled by train,
often in their own private rail cars, and the social scene just changed location from
season to season.

No longer is wintering in the Sun Belt the exclusive domain of the rich
and famous. While a lot has changed since the heady days so aptly recorded by authors such
as F. Scott Fitzgerald, the migration from North to South in the fall and back to cooler
climates in the spring appears to be increasingly popular.

 

The Recreation Vehicle Industry
Association estimates that of the 30 million RV enthusiasts in the nation, one in 10 is a
snowbird.

It doesn’t take a bulging bank account to live the good life these snowbirds are
pursuing. There are so many options available for today’s winter visitors that they
actually can design their own lifestyles to suit their financial and social preferences.

Like their feathered namesakes who take to the skies to fly south for the winter, the
snowbird population encompasses an enormous variety. The rigs in which they travel and
reside are just as varied. Most snowbird retirees used their vehicles for family vacations
and weekending when they were still among the working population, and the vast majority
don’t need any prompting to hit the road when retirement comes their way.

To join the ranks
of the snowbirds, who prefer to be called winter visitors these days, is to join a
classless society. They are bonded together by the love of RV travel and a desire to escape
colder climates. Beyond that, it is almost impossible to put snowbirds into any one
category.

While there are plenty of RV resorts that live up to the well-manicured lawns and
sparkling pools promoted in advertising brochures, these enclaves represent only a small
percentage of the snowbird scene. A visit to the other end of the spectrum finds
half-million-dollar rigs cozied up to modest minis and truck-mounted campers, all enjoying
the freedom of casual camping on government land in the deserts of California and Arizona.
In between these two extremes, anyone seeking a winter home will have no trouble finding a
suitable location. Most are situated in the southern regions of Arizona, California, New
Mexico and Texas and throughout Florida.

If you already are among the ranks of those who
have found a winter Shangri-la, maybe you’ll pick up some pointers from this article. If
you are contemplating such a life, we hope that our report will answer some of your
questions about how to go about becoming a bona-fide snowbird.

Getting Started

Another birthday has rolled
by, and you are counting the days until you can say those magic words: “I’m retired!” You
start making plans for your new freedom. No longer will you be confined to the annual two-
or three-week vacation. You have visions of relaxing by a sparkling pool, playing golf as
often as you desire and fishing until you snag that perfect catch. If you live where
winters are severe, you have dreams of abandoning your snow shovel. You are about to enter
a new chapter in life, but one that takes considerable planning. Before you get behind the
wheel of your motorhome and drive off, you need to make some decisions about how to manage
this new lifestyle.

One major concern is leaving your home for long periods of time. Many
retirees sell the family abode and move into smaller quarters, sometimes in a retirement
community that provides security.

But before making any drastic changes, take a look around
your home. If you are like the average person, you have accumulated a monumental assortment
of “stuff.” There are the boxes upon boxes of mementos, like the drawing that little Debbie
did in the second grade and the trophies you won on the bowling team. Every family has its
own collection of treasures, but making a major move calls for some difficult decisions. If
you are lucky, you have offspring nearby who are willing to keep the family archives, but
without that option, you may want to find suitable storage for the items that you aren’t
ready to give away. Chances are that in a year or two, you will find it easier to part with
some of the trappings of a lifetime. Such decisions are quite personal and should not be
made in haste.

If you are not ready to give up your current home, you won’t have as many
decisions to make, but you need to do some planning before you lock up and hit the road. It
goes without saying that newspaper delivery will be canceled and mail forwarding requested
at the post office, but when a home appears to be closed up for several weeks or months, it
is more likely to be a target for theft. Your best defense is keeping your home occupied.
There are people who make a career of taking care of homes for absentee owners. Check with
your church or local service organizations for someone you can trust. Without that option,
make arrangements with someone to walk through your home on a regular basis. This person
can change the timers on your lights to coincide with the longer or shorter days and, if in
a cold climate, check for frozen pipes and arrange to have the snow cleared from your
driveway. A driveway with piles of snow is a sure sign that nobody is occupying the house.

If you are in a community that has a private security service, it might be worth paying
them to check on your home. If all else fails, notify local law-enforcement authorities
that you are going to be away and for how long.

Now that you know your home will be in good
hands, take a look at your current coach. Will it be large enough to take care of your
needs for several months of living on the road? Is it a little weary from years of use? Can
your budget handle an updated vehicle? Fortunately, this is a decision that does not need
to be made before you start traveling, and you might be better off making it after you can
assess your needs. With a face lift and some creative storage, your present motorhome may
be just fine. Again, this is a personal decision, but one that should not be made without
considerable study. You don’t want to make a major investment that proves to be something
you find uncomfortable. Take your time. You have plenty to spare, now that you are retired.

Picking a Park

At last you are ready to roll. The house is secure and your motorhome is packed with
everything you think you might need for the next few months and probably a lot that you
won’t need. Where to from here?

Many retirees spend their first year of freedom on the
road. They are eager to indulge the urge to travel that the constraints of employment once
made impossible. They visit relatives across the country and seek out new horizons to
explore. During this time, they also look for a place to spend their winters.

Finding the
park that is just right for you should not be too difficult. There are so many from which
to choose that your problem might be in narrowing down the field. What you will want is a
park that caters to long-term visitors rather than overnight and short-term guests. Most
have planned activities designed for retirees rather than families. Some have a minimum age
limit of 50 or older. While a few sites might be reserved for overnighters, most of the
park is occupied by people who return year after year, usually parking in the same familiar
site. This creates a sense of community. You can get to know your neighbors because they
won’t be packing up and leaving every day or two.

To locate the right RV community for you,
first determine what it is you want in your winter home. If golf is your bag, study your
Trailer Life Directory and mark those places that have golf facilities on the premises or
nearby. Has living near the ocean been your dream? Then make a list of the areas that you
might find suitable, such as the Gulf Coast of Texas or either coast of Florida. Maybe you
like the dry climate of the Arizona desert, or a place that offers plenty of entertainment,
such as Southern California or central Florida. If you have a boat in tow, head for a
locale near a river or a lake, such as the Colorado River communities of Lake Havasu City
and Parker, Arizona.

Once you have narrowed this down, begin your search by spending a
week, a month or even more in a park that seems to suit your needs. If you like plenty of
action and lots of planned events, look for a park that has an activities director who
keeps everyone going from morning until night. Then you can take your pick of everything
from aerobic workouts to arts-and-crafts classes. One park we surveyed has as many as 15
events in a single day, including aquanastics, crafts, shuffleboard, dancing and a variety
of card games.

If you are inclined to do your own thing, you might be happier in a park
with only a few low-key activities, such as a weekly potluck and a regular bingo session.

The size of your chosen park also is important. Some snowbird parks are huge, actually
having a population of 2,000 to 3,000 winter residents. Streets are named, and there is
even a post office on the premises.

With a well-stocked convenience store and a restaurant,
it’s a complete community. Some RVers find this too much like the trappings of life as they
knew it before retirement. They seek a smaller park where they can become acquainted with
virtually everyone on site.

When choosing a park, take into consideration the proximity of
shopping areas and medical facilities. Some parks schedule a weekly visit from a medical
professional to take care of nonemergency needs. Fortunately, there is a park to fulfill
the needs of every RVer. It might take some research to find the one that is just right for
you, but once you do, you probably will return year after year.

Most dedicated snowbirds
don’t fly north in the spring until their nest has been secured for the following season.
They want to return to the same site and renew their acquaintance with their neighbors.
Some even arrange to get together during the summer months, especially if they hail from
the same region. Many lasting friendships are made in snowbird parks.

Another consideration
is finding a park that is within your budget, but this should not be difficult either. By
taking advantage of monthly, seasonal or annual rates, you will be pleasantly surprised by
how far your retirement income goes. If you want all of the bells and whistles of an
upscale park, complete with a golf course, a half-dozen swimming pools, tennis courts and
lush landscaping, you can expect to pay as much as $1,150 per month. But with more modest
parks offering comfortable surroundings for as little as $250 per month, everyone can enjoy
pleasant winters on even a modest budget. Annual rates also are available, ranging from
$1,450 to $2,800. (You will have to add metered electricity fees to virtually all of these
rates.)

If you have pets on board, be sure the park you select has suitable facilities,
such as a dog-walking area not far from your site. If you expect to have visitors,
including grandchildren, be sure they are welcome, too. After all, this is going to be your
home for several months at a time. You don’t want to isolate yourself from your loved ones.
And always bear in mind that you are free to pick up and change your location should you
become dissatisfied with your first selection.

Staying in Touch

Modern technology has made staying in touch
for personal and business purposes much easier than it was even a decade ago. With the
proliferation of cellular telephones and e-mail, it is possible to keep up daily
communication no matter where you may be traveling. Recognizing this need, many RV parks
are updating their facilities. Some parks, especially newer ones, are offering telephone
service to most sites, and one park even has two lines to every site for those who like to
surf the Internet.

If you are a regular visitor to a particular park, for a modest fee you
probably can maintain the same telephone number to be activated on demand. Be sure someone
near your home has your number to contact you in case of an emergency.

With so many RVers
carrying computers on board, e-mail accessibility is almost essential. To meet this need,
some parks that do not have the capacity to offer telephone service to every site are
taking another approach by providing well-equipped computer rooms with online service. A
few are taking that a step further by offering computer classes.

As for mail, there are a
number of ways to handle prompt delivery. Again, if you have an offspring or a close friend
who is willing to take the time to pick up your mail on a regular basis, sort through it
for essential communication and mail it to you, that is one way of keeping up with bills
and personal mail without having to file a change of address every time you change your
location. There are services that will forward your mail weekly to whatever address you
provide for them, but if you are going to be in a single location for the entire winter
season, you might as well have your mail forwarded directly to your site. Most parks that
cater to snowbirds provide private mailboxes where you can collect your mail on a daily
basis.

As for making telephone calls en route to your destination, you can use a calling
card provided by your long-distance company or any of the myriad cards now available. You
probably will find that using a card from your long-distance provider is the most
economical way of making these calls. If there is one person with whom you need frequent
contact, consider a personal 800 number. For instance, if your daughter is taking care of
your personal affairs and you want to talk to her frequently, provide her with a number
that can be accessed only by you. The rate should be comparable with long-distance
telephone cards. Carrying a cellular telephone is strongly advised, but since this is the
most costly way of making calls, you might want to use it only for emergency situations.

Minding Your Money

Again, it is modern technology that has made maintaining a cash flow away from home much
easier than it once was. While some RVers still rely on traveler’s checks, which are safer
than carrying cash, the advent of the ATM system has made maintaining a cash flow when on
the road far easier. However, charges can add up to a pretty hefty sum. With the current
trend toward bank mergers, it’s a good idea to ask your bank if it has affiliates where you
can write checks or use an ATM without paying a fee.

If you plan to return to the same area
every year, you can open a bank account at your winter location. You’ll even find bank
branches at some of the large snowbird parks. Although credit cards are accepted almost
everywhere and are the most convenient way of making most purchases, keeping some cash on
hand for daily needs is advisable.

Arrange for direct deposits of your Social Security,
pension or other income when possible. For regular monthly bills, inquire if your bank has
a bill-paying service or if these bills can be applied on your credit card. Reducing the
number of incoming bills makes life on the road much simpler. If possible, reduce your
monthly obligation to a single credit card.

If you plan to travel across the border into
Mexico, be forewarned that your U.S. credit cards will not be honored by many businesses.
Carrying small amounts of the local currency is your best bet, but be careful where you
exchange your currency. Some agencies charge premium fees. If you are staying at a park
near the border, the park manager or local bank probably can assist you.

Whatever you do,
don’t carry any more cash than you can afford to lose. Thieves are finding new ways every
day to separate you from your money.

Your Health

We all like to think that we will not be needing
medical service when on the road, but, in reality, it is a subject that cannot be ignored.
Complicating the situation is the popularity of HMO services. Before you leave home, make
sure what your options are for medical care elsewhere.

If you have Medicare, it is
universally accepted throughout the country, but most people feel the need for
supplementary coverage, which is where the HMO comes in. Unless you belong to an HMO with a
nationwide network of facilities, you may be in for a surprise. Your HMO may provide only
emergency coverage when not using one of its facilities. HMO coverage is not universal or
standardized. Check with your provider to see what steps should be taken if you need care
when away from home.

You could save yourself a lot of stress during an emergency situation
if you know what to expect.

The same goes for private insurance. While it is more
universally accepted, some insurance companies will furnish you with a list of preferred
providers. Since these physicians have been screened by your insurance company, this is a
valid list of medical services wherever you are. Again, check with your company before you
do any extensive traveling.

If you are a Canadian citizen, your insurance is not valid in
the United States. You would be wise to obtain medical insurance that would cover you
during your stay in this country.

The Changing Scene

Parks for winter visitors are increasing in numbers and
size to meet the demand for more sites. Statistics for the entire Sun Belt area are almost
impossible to obtain, but Arizona reports that during the 1996-97 season, the
winter-visitor population numbered some 350,000, including those in RVs as well as more
conventional but temporary homes, swelling the state’s economy by $1 billion. With a total
of 45,000 RV sites in the state enjoying an overall 92 percent occupancy rate that winter,
it can be said that RVers were substantial contributors to these statistics.

One of the
hottest spots in terms of growth is Yuma, Arizona. In the last 25 years, the number of
winter visitors to this community has grown from 10,000 to 87,000, including RVers as well
as other visitors; 1,000 RV sites are currently being developed to accommodate an ever
greater influx of snowbirds. Twenty percent of these visitors are from Canada, and 35
percent hail from Oregon, Washington and Northern California. Their favorite activities are
golfing, dancing and historic tours.

The Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas also has been
a magnet for snowbirds. Because they take part in community activities, these people prefer
to be called Winter Texans. One growing segment of the winter population is comprised of
bird-watchers, since the top three birding destinations in the country are in this area.
These visitors make a tremendous impact on the area’s economy, spending some $319 million
during the season. RVers outnumber those in more permanent dwellings. The five states most
represented by winter visitors are Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

One
of the hottest spots in terms of growth is Yuma, Arizona. In the last 25 years, the number
of winter visitors to this community has grown from 10,000 to 87,000, including RVers as
well as other visitors; 1,000 RV sites are currently being developed to accommodate an ever
greater influx of snowbirds. Twenty percent of these visitors are from Canada, and 35
percent hail from Oregon, Washington and Northern California. Their favorite activities are
golfing, dancing and historic tours.

Snowbirds are younger in both age and activity level.
They have traded in their hammocks for hiking boots. Aerobic classes and gyms with
state-of-the-art exercise equipment can be found at an increasing number of parks.
Volleyball and basketball facilities are no longer the domain for children; they are kept
in use by active adults. The small swimming pool for socializing is being augmented with
lap pools for workouts. Bicycles are used for exercise as well as for transportation in
large parks.

Organized events are changing to reflect the growing trend toward more
physical activities. While potlucks and bingo are still popular, especially with the
old-timers, planned activities include hiking and bicycle tours. Activity directors change
their agendas to reflect the needs of their visitors. However, there remains a demand for
parks with little to offer except occasional group events. In fact, one park that is
situated in Bullhead City, Arizona, has no planned activities and only a swimming pool for
recreation, yet it is full throughout the winter.

The primary attraction of the area is the
availability of gambling casinos that offer plenty of entertainment. In addition, most of
the parks along the Colorado River corridor cater to boaters, providing launch ramps and
marinas.

Also growing is the size of the vehicles arriving at snowbird resorts. Many have
slideouts, and the demand for 50-amp hookups is growing each year. Not every winter visitor
feels the need for a large coach, and those with smaller motorhomes will still find a
variety of parks offering suitable sites for their needs.

One thing is certain: No matter
what size his rig, there is a place in the Sun Belt for every person who wishes to escape
the chill of winter weather. From plush parks to spartan spaces for desert squatters, the
country sees an enormous population shift twice every year. They don’t fly in formation,
but with each passing year, RVing snowbirds are following the sun in greater flocks.

Maybe
it is time for you to stake your claim to a winter Shangri-la.

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