Travel

I Became a Florida Snowbird in My 30s-And Absolutely Loved It

Early-bird specials aren't the only perk of a cheap Florida workation.

Image by Grace Han for Thrillist
Image by Grace Han for Thrillist
Image by Grace Han for Thrillist

I don’t own a pair of Bermuda shorts, and I certainly don’t wear socks with sandals. I don’t know how to play shuffleboard, and I’m under the age of 65, but that didn’t stop me from relocating to the Sunshine State for three months last winter. Yep, I became a legit Florida snowbird, and it was fantastic.

Thanks to the rise of remote work and flexible housing, heading south for the winter is no longer just for seniors living out their golden years. While America’s retiree capital might not be top of mind when you picture your dream workation scenario, Florida’s cheap cost of living and affordable short-term housing options make it the ideal destination for a change of scenery.

I lived my best snowbird life in the small town of Palm Coast, in northeast Florida. Vacation rentals here start around $60-80 per night-cheaper than the average monthly rent in my hometown of Washington, DC. I took advantage of Monday night bingo, early-bird specials, and access to a ton of outdoor activities-not just golf and pickleball, but also kayaking, surfing, and bumming out on some of the most incredible beaches in the country.

I wasn’t the only millennial getting in on the perks of retirement. I know several people who sublet out their place and went south for a snowbird residency, relocating their home office to a condo in Kissimmee, a modern apartment in Hollywood, or a split-level house with waterfront views in Fort Myers.

Intrigued? Here’s how to become a Florida snowbird on the cheap.

Bring your own set of wheels

It was an 800-mile drive from DC to Florida, but the long-haul was well worth the savings otherwise spent on a pricey rental car and far too many Ubers. Plus, it allows you to pack all the essentials you’ll need for a longer-term stay.

Day trips and weekend adventures are big draws for any extended workation. And when you’re on a budget, the most affordable short-term rentals are typically found in smaller satellite communities within driving distance to more happening locales. Your own car lets you take full advantage of everything the area has to offer.

Save big in Florida’s retiree communities

You know you’re in a snowbird city if you walk around the local Publix and everyone in there is 70+. Alternatively, you can scan Zillow and Redfin to see what the houses look like and sell for; snowbird cities have a ton of tract housing sold at a super affordable price. They may not be glamorous, it’s not uncommon to find short-term rentals in cities like these for $60-100 per night.

Of course, there are snowbird cities like this all over Florida; you’re not going to find value-driven stays in ritzy retirement communities such as Palm Beach, Naples, or Boca Raton. Instead, look for deals in destinations like Melbourne, Crystal River, or DeLand.

Getty
Getty
Getty

We let go of a lot of norms in 2020: like shaking hands, wearing pants, and (most importantly) working in an office. You’re no longer tied to a commute – so why should you be tied to one place? Enter: Landing, the startup that’s reinventing apartment living. Thanks to its network of fully furnished (and unfurnished) apartments across the country, you can have the freedom to live (and work) practically anywhere. With perks like a 24/7 online member support, fast and easy lease transfers, and waived security deposits, you’ll have more flexibility than ever before, too. 

Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

I chose to settle down in Palm Coast. Within an hour’s drive of Orlando and Jacksonville, it sits adjacent to St. Augustine, a top-notch food city, and twenty minutes from Flagler Beach, a laid-back surfer town. It was also bike accessible and had off-street parking.

Did I bring the average age of my neighborhood down by a few decades? You betcha. But I also got into the simple pleasures of retirement living. It was buy-one, get-one beers and a $20 surf-and-turf dinner platter at the Green Lion Cafe, a Cheers-esque pub at the public golf course where everyone does in fact know your name. I also befriended the 70-year-old couple next door, who let me borrow their kayaks. And I spent many a day puzzling or birdwatching from the screened-in-porch-or the lanai, as they call it here.

Book direct for the lowest possible rate

You can use Airbnb to crowdsource housing options, but pay attention to who is listing the property. If it’s a property manager listing, you’re likely to find a better rate if you book directly through their website. For example this house in Sanford, just outside Orlando, is listed by the property manager for $105 per night-lower than the third-party rate listed on Airbnb, at $128 per night.

In Florida, there are several different short-term management sites like Florida Snowbird, Turnkey, Vacasa, and Sonder. These companies offer multi-week discounts and fewer administrative fees; plus, they provide some convenient amenities for longer-term rentals, such as kitchen and laundry supplies, reliable cable and Wi-Fi, and bikes to get around during your snowbird stay.

Resort hop like a local

The perks of snowbird life aren’t limited to early-bird specials. During my stay, I took advantage of ResortPass, which grants discounted access to some of the swankiest resorts in Florida, including The Four Seasons, The Ritz-Carlton, and Kimpton Epic hotels. For a fraction of the cost of what you might pay at check-in, guests can access resort amenities like pools, bars, restaurants, gyms, and spas for prices that range from about $25-50 per person.

Take advantage of Florida’s tax breaks, if you can

You can save a crapload in taxes if you’re willing to fully commit to the snowbird lifestyle and live in Florida for at least six months out of the year-what’s commonly known as the 183-rule for residency. The tax savings are huge, but establishing Florida residency isn’t always easy. You’ll need proof to back it up, like a driver’s license and mailing address.

Even if you can’t get past Uncle Sam, you might still be able to save some money at the House of Mouse. Disney World gives ticket discounts to Florida residents; you qualify if you can show a bill listing your Florida mailing address.

Get out and about in the Sunshine State

During my snowbird stay, I snorkeled with manatees, sampled some of the best Cuban cuisine in Miami, watched multiple rockets launch from Cape Canaveral, and stargazed on a riverboat in Vero Beach. Aside from the slower pace and cheap cost of living, my favorite thing about this state are all the roads less traveled. They may lead you to some extremely bizarre roadside attractions-like Swampy, the world’s longest fake gator; to tiny towns that are unlike any other place on earth; and to some amazingly beautiful stretches of coastline. There’s an endless parade of natural beauty and weirdness to explore-more than enough to entice you back for another season of snowbird life.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Tim Ebner is a travel writer in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter for more road trip tips @TimEbner.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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