15 Important Things We Learned As International Snowbirds
As an international couple (Singapore and US citizens), we always planned to be international snowbirds when we retired. We started snowbirding in Singapore in 2018. We are delighted to have the opportunity to do this and have learned a lot over the past four years.
Being an international snowbird means living in another, usually warmer, country during the winter. It’s a different relationship to your destination. It means packing and thinking differently.
Here are the things we learned.
1. How did we choose Singapore?
We knew Singapore was where we wanted to be in the winter because we have lots of relatives and friends there. We also explored life in Europe, South America and elsewhere. We looked at countries that had good healthcare, long visas, stable political situations, and were LGBTQ+ friendly. Singapore was fine. You may have other criteria to add to this list.
You can try out several cities and countries before settling on one, or just continually try new places each winter.
2. Rent or buy?
We had planned to stay with a relative for our first snowbird vacation. It went wrong at the last minute, so we found alternative accommodation in a shared flat. We were told we could cook but found out we couldn’t. The WiFi was terrible and the apartment was uncomfortable. It turned out to be one of our worst life experiences.
There are different ways to snowbird – some people buy houses or condos, some rent them out, and some do long-term AirBNBs, stay in serviced apartments, or rent a room in someone’s house. Renting, at the start, allows you to experiment with different possibilities, especially if your objective is to buy a property. Being able to cook, do laundry, have access to strong and secure Wi-Fi and be close to public transport are essential for us.
3. You can’t take everything
How to prepare your suitcases for a 3 month stay abroad? It’s easy to overload and hard to anticipate everything we need.
We’ve found it helpful to have a to-do list — a list that we adjust as we prepare for our trip. We also took notes from our previous visits and refined our list each year. It also helps that we have been to Singapore many times and know what we can buy locally.
We start from a cold place and land in a warm place. We also usually travel to other countries from Singapore. We bring layers for cold weather trips. Lightweight clothes that wick away the wick work best for us (and dry quickly after washing).
4. Learn about visas and entry restrictions
Exceeding the validity period of your visa in your destination country causes major problems. Make sure you know the rules. While you’re there, find out beforehand about medical visa extension procedures (in case of illness towards the end of your stay), especially in the age of COVID.
5. Should I bring… Or shop?
Singapore is a shopper’s paradise, so we can buy almost anything. For a 3 month trip, we packed five shirts each. We knew we would shop at our favorite stores.
When it comes to medicines and toiletries, it’s best to have an idea of the market in your destination country. There are comparable local brands for everything in Singapore. Imported brands, however, are much more expensive than in the United States.
We have special needs (perfume allergies), so we bring the products we usually use.
Since we live in Singapore, we brought our pickleball paddles, the Mah Jongg set, and made new friends through these activities.
Note: If you are going to a less developed country, it may be more difficult to buy certain things. Research in advance.
6. Buy travel insurance
We always take out travel insurance, especially as international snowbirds. It is useful to know that we have medical coverage if we need it.
Editor’s Note: We Recommend AssuranceVoyage.com. They help you choose the best option for your trip by comparing coverage from several major insurers.
7. What to do with mail
What do you do with your mail during several months of absence? It is very expensive (and time-consuming) to forward your mail internationally.
There are mail forwarding services. Your mail is routed to a US mailbox, then the envelopes are scanned and emailed to you. You then decide which ones are opened, scanned and emailed. Actual mail is discarded after a month – you only get electronic copies.
We have neighbors we trust to pick up our mail and allow us to open when needed. They then take photos to send to us and leave the contents in our house.
8. Pay our bills
Making sure your finances are in order is essential. As with mail, we’ve learned that the best way to manage our bills is to set up automatic payment for all expenses. Be sure to verify the accuracy of your statements. You’ll also need to know your passwords and troubleshoot two-factor authentication, which usually relies on your permanent phone number. This creates a problem if you change your SIM card to a local number.
9. Fill prescriptions
We fill our prescriptions for the whole trip (plus 2 weeks). You may need to get permission from your health insurance to do this.
We made the mistake of not packing enough baby aspirin on our recent trip. It turns out that aspirin is not available in the same dosage in Singapore. Some travel insurance can help refill prescriptions overseas, but you still need to get a prescription from your doctor.
10. What about our home in the United States?
Worrying about the possibility of burst pipes or animal infestations in your home abroad is no fun. Also, it is not easy to come back for emergencies when you are far away. And it can be just as problematic to come back and make unpleasant discoveries.
When we started, we asked other snowbirds for advice. Should we keep the heating on all winter (can be expensive) or drain the pipes and shut them off completely (can be bad for appliances)? We have tried both. Should you have someone check the house (we always do)? There are many possibilities.
There’s no one way to do it, and you’ll have to find the most cost-effective, greenest and least worrisome way for you. At the end of the day, make your decision and realize that the rest is out of your control.
11. Overseas car maintenance
We keep our car in an underground garage. To make sure the battery doesn’t run out, we have friends who drive it from time to time. We have other friends who remove their car battery or buy a gadget that plugs in to keep the battery charged. Others simply accept the fact that the battery will be dead when they return. We are also aware that small rodents like to chew on car wires (one of the reasons we have our car driven while we are away).
12. Cellular plans
International data roaming charges can add up quickly. Getting a local SIM card is much cheaper and better for local contacts. If you plan to return to the same country every year, explore options that will allow you to keep your local number.
Before you travel, make sure your cell phone is unlocked (i.e. not linked to your carrier’s service). You can also buy a phone in your destination country.
Once you replace the SIM card with a local one, your phone number and voicemail number will change. You will need to tell your friends and family about the new number. We use WhatsApp, which is linked to our US number, wherever we are.
13. Configuring Computers and Wi-Fi
Today, we are all attached to our electronic devices, even when we travel. We travel with laptops, phones and iPads. This means that reliable and secure Wi-Fi is important. We did different things: access public Wi-Fi, use a portable Wi-Fi device and even go to the library. In our current apartment, we have had high-speed Wi-Fi installed since we will be staying there every year.
Be sure to pack surge protectors. This way you only need one converter. If you buy a local surge protector, you will need converters for each outlet.
14. We love home-cooked meals.
We don’t like to eat out all the time. After the first few weeks, we crave home-cooked meals. We learned to cook a lot of local dishes. At the same time, we also cooked some Jewish specialties in Singapore (with adaptations, as not all the ingredients are readily available).
Pack some of your favorite spices if you can’t buy them locally. It also works when returning to the US – we bring spices from Singapore. Check import restrictions for spices, as each country has different rules.
15. When in Singapore, be a Singaporean
We love being international snowbirds. The main lesson we learned is that we live in another country, not visiting or traveling.
When in Singapore, we are Singaporeans. We pack and install our home base with this in mind. Discovery and curiosity allowed us to enjoy this adventure.