Canadian Snowbirds: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Photos courtesy of Getty Images

Riots, terrorism and Zika! Ian MacNeill asks Canadian snowbirds if they will still head south this winter.

Judging by the lurid headlines, it would be easy to assume on some darker days that the apocalypse has come to America and that the four horsemen are just now riding their bony nags down Pennsylvania Avenue with a tequila bottle in one hand and a pistol in the other.

Hardly a week goes by that a dumbfounded populace isn’t treated to another shocking tale of race riots, mass shootings, terrorist incidents or “police-involved shootings” that carry more the imprimatur of summary executions than judicious exercises in law enforcement. During the writing of this story alone, al-Qaida-inspired bombings rocked New York and New Jersey.

The dust had hardly settled there before Charlotte, N.C., burst into flames as rioters reacted to the latest killing of a black man by the police, four days after another black man, with his hands up, had been killed, in Tulsa, Okla.

Fanning the flames of fear and loathing, presidential candidate Donald Trump is cheerfully attracting votes by advocating mass deportations predicated on religious affiliation and the building of a wall along America’s southern border to keep neighbouring Mexicans out. Be afraid, it all seems to say, be very afraid!

When you add to this toxic brew, the fact that the Canadian dollar continues its slump—meaning snowbirds are paying more for real estate, gas and groceries—and the fact that the Zika virus has made its way to Florida, it would be surprising if some vacationers weren’t rethinking the wisdom of venturing across the border.

To find out, we posted this question on our Facebook page: “Has the low value of the Canadian dollar and the violent headlines about events in the United States—everything from race riots to Donald Trump—got you rethinking the wisdom of snowbirding south of the border?”

“Definitely think long and hard about going there,” says Tilbury, Ont.’s Peggy Roe. “If I get there, it will be for a few days only,” adds Regina’s Nadine Smigiel. “I winter in Mexico; fly right over the U.S.,” chimes in Jennifer Wilkins of White Rock, B.C.

As for the stumbling loonie: “We sold our home in Florida for health reasons but we were glad because it would have been too expensive to maintain with the Canadian dollar going so low,” says Ontario resident Della Sacco.

However, despite all the bad press and the discouraging exchange rates, other keep-calm-and-carry-on snowbirds remain optimistic.

“We enjoyed Orlando for the first time last February and intend to do so again, no matter which of the current horrible candidates ends up as president,” says Haligonian Dave Cunningham. Westerner Ron Champagne is equally undeterred.

“Halfway through our cross-Canada RV tour,” he reported from the road. “Heading for NYC after the Maritimes, then to Palm Springs for the winter. Life is good if you don’t follow the government’s advice!”

Alarming headlines aren’t going to keep Ottawa’s Catherine Blatchford Mercer and her husband, John, from travelling to the U.S. either. They started visiting Miami at the beginning of the new millennium for a few weeks at a time but, after winning a small trailer and then upgrading to “a nice fifth wheel,” they decided to get serious about it.

Since 2008, they’ve been spending three months a year at the Miami Everglades Resort in South Miami where they now have good friends from all over Canada and the northern U.S. “It’s like having another family,” says Catherine, “and we maintain those friendships throughout the year.”

Next: A good real estate market can also help identify safe neighbourhood

hr-gettyimages-77146356-copy

It isn’t something they’re willing to give up easily, but they understand that to remain safe they have to keep their wits about them. “Anywhere you go in the world, you have to be aware of your surroundings and what kind of people are around you, and America is no exception,” she says. “There’s no crime in the campground where we are, but you can get yourself into trouble when you leave, so we try to be careful. There are some pretty rundown neighbourhoods you can go through if you’re going downtown or to old Miami—the kinds of places where there are a lot of people sitting around—and you have to learn to avoid them.”

Of course, telling snowbirds to find a cosy nest in a safe area is like telling an investor to buy good-value stocks. Yes, you say, but what are the good neighbourhoods? Fortunately, there are Internet-based tools that can help crack the code.

CrimeReports.com has frequently updated crime data for many cities in the U.S. and Canada. Incidents—theft, break and enter, assault—are presented on detailed maps by date and exact location. Dial up Phoenix and you can quickly see that while Scottsdale—a popular snowbird destination—is relatively crime-free, you only have to cross over the Red Mountain Freeway and you enter neighbourhoods where the crime-incident buttons pretty much blot out the map. Zoom over the California desert and you’ll discover that Palm Desert has less crime than Palm Springs, and Rancho Mirage is a virtual Garden of Eden. Most cities in Florida are covered, including favourites like St. Petersburg, where you can quickly see that Largo is good and Pinellas Park a no-go. Data for Miami is noticeable for its absence, but that’s because the Miami PD reports to a competitor, CrimeMapping.com. Using its website, you can see that Coral Gables is relatively safe, Cutler Bay, not so much. Cross-referencing sources like this can give you a pretty good indication of where you do and don’t want to land for the winter.

A good real estate market can also help identify safe neighbourhoods but, as ex-Winnipeg police officer and current Phoenix-based agent Diane Olson explains, “Price dictates location, and location dictates price.” She helps clients decide by providing them with a “buyer’s advisory” that includes websites and links they can use to “complete their due diligence.” You can also contact local police departments directly.

It’s highly recommended to spend a season as a renter in any city where you think you might want to purchase a home. Real estate deals, like marriages, are a lot easier to get into than they are to get out of, especially if you unwittingly bought a home next to the Los Desperados clubhouse.

Without descending into paranoia, it’s possible to remain vigilant about surroundings and react accordingly. America is a big country and while it has problems, big problems, it also has a lot to offer and oases of calm. Individually and, as almost any open-minded and experienced traveller will tell you, Americans are some of the friendliest and most outgoing people you’re ever going to encounter, and it would be a shame to miss meeting them and enjoying their country because of unjustified fears instilled by a sensationalist media.

“Just go and be careful,” says Catherine Mercer. “Don’t not go because of ‘what if?’ Enjoy your life, especially at this age. We see a lot of things because we travel, and I’m not going to sit back in a rocking chair while everyone else goes on cruises or visits family and friends in the States.”

You go, girl!

Next: And what about Zika?

Zika on the Map

Declared a public health emergency by the WHO, the Zika virus has infected people in more than 72 countries and territories since 2015, from South America to Singapore. It was a worry for travellers heading to Rio for the Summer Olympics and, more recently, Zika struck a city beloved to many a snowbird’s heart – Miami Beach and the city’s popular arts neighbourhood of Wynwood.

Health officials worry the Sunshine State is just the beginning and that local outbreaks could spread along the U.S. coast, including other popular destinations for Canadian snowbirds, like Louisiana, Texas and Arizona.

If you do travel to a Zika-affected area, prevention is key. Pack your bug spray (DEET, IR3535 or icaridan) along with sunscreen, and cover up with long-sleeved shirts and pants. Stay protected all day long, not just at night, since the mosquito responsible for Zika bites primarily during the day. Before you travel, visit the CDC website for updates.  —Cynthia Cravit

A version of this article appeared in the November 2016 issue with the headline, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”, p. 72-74.