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Every November, retired school principal Bob Slack and his wife Lois load up their car and drive south from Athens, Ont., to Winter Haven, Fla., where they spend five-and-a-half months in the golf community southwest of Orlando, joining the estimated one million snowbirds who make the annual pilgrimage to the U.S. each year.Handout

The news that the United States is reopening its land borders to fully vaccinated Canadians arrived too late for Bob Slack.

Every November, the retired school principal and his wife Lois load up their car and drive from their home in Athens, Ont., to Winter Haven, Fla., where they spend 5½ months in a golf community southwest of Orlando, joining the estimated one million snowbirds who make the annual pilgrimage to the U.S. each year.

They made the same trip for 23 years – until 2020, when the pandemic arrived, the U.S.-Canada border closed and they decided the health risks were far too great. “We didn’t go because we were anxious,” says Mr. Slack, who is 79. “The reports coming out of Florida were not good.”

Many snowbirds shared the Slacks’ concerns, which explains why 70 per cent cancelled their travel plans last year.

This year, the Slacks are going to return, but because they made their plans weeks ago – long before this week’s announcement that vaccinated Canadians will be able to enter the U.S. by land (and ferry) some time in November – they’ll be boarding a plane to get there and shipping their car south.

“There are still too many unknowns,” Mr. Slack says. “We don’t know if we could get refunds on our plane tickets or for the shipment of the car so we’re going to stick with the original plan. I must say, though, that we’re thrilled with the double-vaccine mandate. It raises our comfort level that much more.”

The reopening of the border is expected to mean more snowbirds will be spending winter in the U.S. South this year. Both the Canadian Snowbird Association and Snowbird Advisor – two Toronto-based research and advocacy organizations – predict the loosening of travel restrictions means an estimated 90 per cent of snowbirds will travel to their homes or rental properties this year. (Proof of vaccination will be required to cross.) Not quite prepandemic levels but very close.

“This is very good news for snowbirds, especially the 70 per cent of them who travel to the U.S. each year in their own vehicles,” says Evan Rachkovsky, director of research and communications at the Canadian Snowbird Association. “The border is likely going to be a very busy place in the coming months. “Every month since March, 2020, they’ve effectively extended the border closure, leaving thousands of people in limbo. At least now Canadian snowbirds can start making plans.”

Wendy Caban, 73, is one snowbird who was in a holding pattern, waiting for a green light at the border so she and her husband could drive to their vacation home in Mesa, Ariz. She was elated with this week’s news but said they are still not making definitive plans until a firm border opening has been set.

“We’re expecting huge lineups at the border,” says Mrs. Caban, who lives in Lake Country, B.C. “Once they tell us when we can go, we’re going to wait a few more weeks just to let any potential chaos subside. We’ve waited this long, what’s a few more weeks?”

For those who are making the trek south this year, Mr. Rachkovsky strongly advises every snowbird make sure their travel health insurance covers all COVID-related health care expenses. “Last year, many insurance companies placed caps on anything COVID-related. So an insurance policy itself might have had overall health benefits of $1-million to $5-million, but COVID-19 claims were limited to $100,000 to $200,000.

“We are telling our members to make sure those kind of caps don’t exist. You should be travelling with a minimum of $1-million in emergency benefits, including COVID-19-related claims.”

There are also deals to be had for people who are double vaccinated. This past summer, Medipac Travel Insurance, one of the few companies that provided COVID-19 health-insurance coverage for Canadians outside the country from the outset of the pandemic, also offered a 5-per-cent discount for those who are double vaccinated.

When it comes to emergency travel medical-insurance policies Christopher Davidge, vice-president of marketing at Medipac, tells snowbirds to read the fine print. Many policies contain an exclusion removing coverage for any medical emergency that occurs in any city, region or country where the government of Canada has issued an advisory to avoid all non-essential travel.

“Under Medipac’s policy, this exclusion does not apply to travel advisories related to COVID-19, Mr. Davidge says. “Now, other insurers have jumped on the bandwagon, but many still offer limited coverage, ranging from $50,000 to $100,000 [to cover COVID-related health expenses] with an additional premium if they wanted to bump that up.”

In contrast, Medipac’s travel emergency medical insurance policy has a basic limit of $2-million for illnesses caused by COVID-19.

Pandemic protocols mean there are many more hoops to jump through before Canadians can enter the United States.

The Biden administration recently announced that all foreign nationals entering the U.S. by air will have to be fully vaccinated, likely by early November. Stephen Fine, president of Snowbird Advisor, expects Canadians will be included in that new regulation, which means unvaccinated snowbirds will not be able to fly or drive to the United States.

He is also concerned that entry to the U.S. may depend on the type of vaccination you have. “The questions surrounding the AstraZeneca vaccine have been cleared up and Canadians with that dose will now be allowed to enter the U.S.,” Mr. Fine says. “However, it still remains unclear whether those with mixed vaccinations will be granted entry. As with everything COVID-19, the situation is fluid.”

Mr. Fine is also hearing reports that accommodations (for the 40 per cent of snowbirds who don’t own a property south of the border) may also have difficulty finding a condo or house to rent. “There aren’t as many rentals available as one might expect.”

Chelsea Felts, managing broker of Premier Sotheby’s International Realty’s rental division in Naples, Fla., says inventory is tight and there are no deals to be had. “March and April is when we typically do the majority of our bookings for the next winter and, since the middle of May, we’ve been almost completely booked up for next winter.

“With no inventory, prices are going up and they have much less to choose from,” says Ms. Felts, whose company manages 900 properties from Marco Island (in the Gulf of Mexico off southwest Florida) up through Sarasota.

Typically in the past, people could pick 10 properties that suited their criteria, now they’re getting one or two, adds Ms. Felts. Hotels and resorts, which were offering discounts last winter, have also jacked their prices. “Summer rates were much higher than they typically are, which means it’s back to business as usual.”

As a property owner, Mr. Slack is grateful he does not have the added worry of trying to find suitable accommodation, however it took some time – and a lot of calling around – to find a company that would ship his car south at a reasonable price. He looked into renting a vehicle but with prices now double or triple the average daily rate (if you can even find a vehicle available), he nixed that idea, bought two plane tickets and paid $1,775 to ship his car.

“God willing, we’ll get there, but we’re going to be cautious. We are going to do pretty much what we’ve done before: stay at home and see people we know – and only the ones who are double-vaccinated.”

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