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Travel

August 05, 2016

6 snowbird travel tips

Planning to be a snowbird this winter? Whether you’re a newbie or a veteran, here’s some helpful daughterly advice.

My dad has worked hard his entire life, so it's both exciting and scary to think of him setting out for a new retirement adventure as a snowbird in the U.S. Because he's also always been full of advice for me when I've been travelling and trying new things, I thought it might be nice to do some research and return the favour for him —and for other soon-to-be Canadian snowbirds.

1. Don't overstay your welcome

Dad always told me to make sure not to overstay my welcome when visiting friends; the same rule applies when visiting the U.S. Generally, Canadians can stay in the U.S. for up to six months within a 12-month period. However, the length of stay you're allowed is actually determined by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer at the port of entry, and is based on your stated purpose of travel at that time. Make sure to track your days closely and check in with the government!

Another reason to not overstay your welcome in the United States is provincial health insurance. The rules vary from province to province, but every province has a residence requirement — stay too long outside the province and you could lose your provincial health insurance.

  • Daughterly tip: I've heard horror stories about people being turned away at the U.S. border, so I would take extra precautions and ask my dad to carry some documents in a safe place that prove he lives in Canada and is not trying to stay in the U.S. forever, such as a recent bank statement, a copy of a recent mortgage payment or rent receipt, a tax return and a recent utility bill. (Or a picture of his favourite daughter — that's me — although this won't help at the border.)

2. Only pay your taxes once

I missed an income tax deadline once, and since then I've never heard the end of the reminders to file on time. So I have some more advice for Dad — only pay Canadian taxes.

That six-month limit I told Dad about is an immigration rule only. There's another limit that applies to income taxes: substantial presence. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) uses a special formula to calculate how long you can stay in the U.S. before having to file a U.S. tax return. It considers the amount of time you will spend in the U.S. this year, and how much you spent last year and the year before. It works out to about 120 days (four months) per year on a year-over-year basis.

If Dad stays longer than that, but still less than six months in the year, he can avoid having to file a U.S. tax return if he can prove to the IRS that he has a closer connection to Canada. The IRS even has a form he can fill out: the Closer Connection Exception Statement for Aliens.

But if my dad stays in the U.S. past six months, he could be deported and would have to file a U.S. tax return. He might even lose his provincial health insurance. Talk about adding insult to injury.

Every few years there's talk about creating a special "snowbird" visa to let people like Dad spend more time (and money) in the United States. None of those proposals have ever become law, and none of them dealt with the substantial presence or provincial health care issues.

Even as an experienced Googler, I found this area a bit fuzzy; here is a link that can help you find out more: Government of Canada > Travel > Destination > United States. Click Entry/exit requirements for Canada.

Here's a link to the U.S. State Department website for information from the American side: Substantial presence test. This site helps you calculate substantial presence, and discusses a few exceptions to the rule, including the closer connection test.

About provincial health insurance residence requirements: Dad lives in Ontario, so he needs to read about short absences and longer absences. To Google other provincial and territorial sites, just type in the province or territory and the words, "health insurance residency requirements."

3. White lies are sometimes acceptable, but not when it comes to travel insurance

My dad has said there are certain times when it may be okay to tell a tiny white lie. So I'll admit it, I've told one or two back in the day, to get out of doing chores. But when it comes to getting travel insurance (a must for travel in the U.S.), I'll ask him to provide full disclosure to his travel insurance company. Tell them about his high blood pressure and how he got a hernia from shoveling snow years ago – really get into the details.

Why? If, for example, my dad was newly diagnosed with a health problem and didn't tell the insurance company about it, he could still get a travel insurance policy. However, if he became ill or was injured while out of the province (knock on wood) and his omission was discovered, his policy would be null and void!

While I do have plans to make millions of dollars in the future, I cannot currently afford to pay for my dad's health care in the U.S. — who can? So, I will make sure to remind him to tell all when applying for travel insurance.

4. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth

My dad has always told me to be grateful when I'm given something, and say "thank you" — don't ask why you got it. If someone offers him a senior's discount while he's in the U.S., he should take it. I say this because my dad doesn't look 60, but he is (and don't ever tell him I told you) and he is never thrilled about being offered a senior's discount.

I see it this way: When I was a kid, I got a children's discount; as a student, I got student discounts; and one day when I'm a senior, I really hope I'll get seniors' discounts! There are discounts that start as low as age 50. From The Senior List blog, here are some restaurants in the U.S where my dad can proudly ask for a senior's discount: 2016 Senior Discounts: Restaurants

5. Pack a back-up

  • Medication. Always pack more than you need. My dad takes vitamins and some medications, so I'll advise him to pack extra. None of this counting out exactly how many pills you'll need for the trip! What if one drops down the sink by accident? You may also want to find out if you will be able to buy your medication near where you are going to be staying in the U.S. As well, make a list of your medications and prescriptions and leave a copy at home and in your suitcase. To be super-secure, ask your doctor for a signed letter outlining the medication you're taking. If you're taking a controlled medication, such as a narcotic painkiller, a doctor's letter could help you get it across the border. (In this case, although it's good to bring extra, you shouldn't bring more than you could reasonably use yourself.) Check out the Canadian government's website, Travelling with medication.
  • Eyeglasses. Always pack an extra pair of reading glasses in a hard-shell case. How many pairs have you sat on to date? I'll tell my dad: "Put one pair in your man purse and one in your carry-on."
  • Cellphone. Back up your mobile, especially your contacts, in case you lose your phone. (Or ask your favourite daughter to do it for you.) Also, write down key contacts and keep a copy in your suitcase and one in your carry-on. If you do lose your phone, you'll have the paper copies of phone numbers, and when you return home and get a new phone, you can use the back-up to get all of your contacts back!

6. Back yourself up, too

You need to arrange with someone to check in on your home (that would be me). To keep your home insurance in force, find out whether your policy requires you to have someone check on your home if you're away for long periods. For suggestions for securing your home before you leave, as well as what the person checking your house should look for, check out: Is your home safe when you go on vacation?

Giving someone you trust access to your home will also make it easy for you to get something if you forget it! This is why it's also important to keep a photocopy of important documents like your passport, your driver's licence, your birth certificate, etc., at home.

And a final daughterly tip: Make some new friends, bring back cool souvenirs for your favourite daughter, and enjoy the sun… wearing lots of sunscreen, of course!

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