Snowbird Survival Guide

Fall 1999 CSANews Issue 33  |  Posted date : Mar 03, 2007.Back to list

In another time, the Canadian dollar was worth a lot of money . . . $1.05 U.S. We loved it; Canadians would head off to the U.S. border to enjoy weekend shopping sprees. Mitchell Sharp, then future Minister of Finance, declared the Canadian dollar to be "one of the strongest currencies in the world" . . . and then it all changed.

Just prior to the 1962 federal election, Prime Minister Diefenbaker devalued the dollar to 92½ cents to stimulate the Canadian economy, a move designed to return him to power with another majority government. Instead, he was returned with a loss of 43 seats, and our dollar, which became known as the "Diefendollar," never recovered.

With today's value hovering between 65 and 68 cents U.S., the 1962 "Diefendollar" doesn't seem so bad. So let's look at ways to maximize the value of the Canadian dollar so your winter south of the border (or in parts of Mexico and the Caribbean where the U.S. dollar reigns) will be less costly.

If going for just a few months, shop around by phone for the lowest exchange rates. Many places, not just banks, will sell you American dollars. For comparative purposes, ask the same question as you shop - "how much will it cost me if I come in today and buy $2,000. U.S. across the counter in cash (or traveller's cheques)?" Then select the company with the lowest rate and go and buy your money before it changes.

Where to shop? Any bank or trust company (you don't have to be a customer of the institution), foreign exchange services (see the yellow pages), CAA travel offices, money marts . . . you'll be surprised at the range of exchange rates available on a given day.

If you are going south for a longer period and want regular transfers to your U.S. account, the best exchange rate by far is that offered to CSA members through the association's bulk U.S. money-buying program. You just won't beat these rates anywhere else. Phone 1-800-265-3200 for further details.

Now let's save on your transportation costs. If you normally fly south and rent a car at your destination, consider driving your own car instead. You will find the overall costs are much lower and, as a bonus, you'll have a far more enjoyable journey without the stress of modern air travel with its new security issues and luggage restrictions.

Here's a real money-saver. But first I must let you in on a travel industry secret - the CVB. Most "snowbird" destinations have agencies that help local businesses attract visitors to their services. Sometimes connected with the local Chamber of Commerce, these tourism offices are known in the travel business as CVBs, or Convention and Visitors' Bureaus. These people want you to visit their area (that's what they are in business for) and will do everything in their power to attract you.

Canadians are a particular target for money-saving schemes this year, since Canadian visitor numbers were generally down last year . . . and they need you! For example, Texas is offering many visitor services exclusively to Canadians, at par, or discounted up to 50% through their special "Buckaroo Buck$" coupon book (see sidebar).

You can find the CVB contact information for your southern destination by getting a copy of the state's official tourism guide (see sidebar for information on obtaining these); each state in the sunbelt has such a guide and each contains information to help you contact your CVB. So, before leaving, phone for a copy of your destination state's tourism guide, identify the CVB at your southern "home," phone the CVB and ask about any special programs for Canadians - many of the CVBs have toll-free numbers. You will probably be pleasantly surprised with the savings.

A word of caution though, because many of these programs are designed to encourage Canadians to return to southern destinations. You must do all of this before you leave home. Many of the savings programs will only be mailed to a Canadian address.

Right away, you'll find that gas costs are lower than at home. For instance, regular gas is currently selling for US$1.09 per gallon in Florida (equivalent to CDN$ 44 cents/litre). Compare that to your local gas station!

Another savings area to consider is that virtually all modern cars are designed to use regular gas (87 octane), and yet many travellers unnecessarily use premium grades. The AAA suggests you check your car owner's manual and switch to the regular grade, if appropriate. Savings can be as high as US$.05 cents/gallon.

Food while on your journey is another area for potential savings. We look for motels that include a continental breakfast in the room rate. A bowl of cereal, toast, juice and coffee is often more than adequate to get us going in the morning. We also save valuable U.S. dollars and maximize our travel time by eating lunches at fast-food outlets; most now have "light" or "healthy heart" offerings for those with dietary restrictions.

This winter, you'll also find great savings in motel rates on some of the older interstate routes. For instance, a number of new motels have appeared along Interstate-75 (Ontario to Florida) this past summer but, because the exits have been built up over the years, these new motels have been built on land along parallel service roads. Since they are new and unknown, they are hurting for business. I suggest you find one of these mid-range motels (drive around the back to see how many cars are parked in the rear before going to the check-in desk), ask the desk clerk for the "rack rate" of a standard room, mentally deduct about 30% and tell the clerk that you were looking for a room in that price range. You will probably get it!

RVers can save valuable dollars by staying overnight in a Wal-Mart parking lot; the superstore company is actively encouraging this free service. Truck stops - Flying-J and Travel America (TATS) - are also encouraging RVers to use their parking areas overnight.

Once again, save valuable dollars with an economical meal strategy. We always eat breakfast (and often lunch) at home; food costs are very reasonable in most southern locations. For dinner, we head out to take advantage of the "early bird" or "sunset" specials at area restaurants. These usually end by six o'clock, so you need to be seated (or on the "wait" list) by then. Some restaurants offer a special limited menu for this reduced-cost service, but we have found that many use their regular menus and offer the "early bird" a substantial discount on menu price.

Finally, there are many free or cheap entertainments and activities to help pass your time in the sun. Eager readers might enjoy local books at area libraries or browsing the many southern used-book shops. One of my favourite free activities is a visit to the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, at Indian Shores near St. Petersburg in Florida. Here, you can surround yourself with hundreds of pelicans, which gather on the beach to visit their sick friends or feed on handouts from the Sanctuary's staff.

And don't forget the best winter entertainment bargain of all, the Snowbird Extravaganzas which start in Tampa at the end of January, and move around the south visiting other popular "snowbird" destinations throughout February. The performers are top-notch, drawn from world-famous entertainment capitals such as Branson, Missouri . . . and it's all free. Now there's a way to save U.S. dollars and enjoy the day!

Let's end on another piece of good news - if you survived going south last year when the exchange rate was 65.38 cents U.S. (Sept. 29, 1998), you'll positively revel in this year's September 29th exchange rate of 68.37. Each U.S. dollar you buy will cost you seven cents less!

Dave Hunter is the award-winning author of "Along the I-75", the quintessential guide for driving to Florida.

RESOURCES (all 800/888 toll-free numbers are accessible from Canada)

Phone toll-free 1-888-520-3444 for the Arizona Vacation Guide.
Also available through the Arizona tourism Web site -

Order the Official State Visitor's Guide through 1-800-862-2543, or the Web site

Los Angeles
The following travel information can be obtained only through the.
Web site: (

Phone 1-888-735-2872 to order your FLAUSA Visit Florida guide. It may also be ordered through

New Mexico
Phone 1-800-733-6396 for the NM Vacation Guide, or order at on the Web.

1-800-888-8839 Phone toll-free to order your Texas State Travel Guide and Buckaroo Buck$ travel coupons. Also available through the Texas Web site at, but discount booklet must be mailed to a Canadian address.