The Best of Florida on a Budget
Florida is a popular destination for sunny weather and the magic of Disney, but it has far more to offer frugal travelers than beaches and theme parks. From the Panhandle in the north to the Keys in the south, the Sunshine State boasts national parks, retreats and resorts, camping, great food and drink, and vacation destinations of all kinds. Here are more than 30 of the best things in Florida to experience and explore on a budget.
Related: 20 Free and Cheap Things to Do in Miami
Along the central Gulf Coast of Florida sits the resort town of Clearwater, which lives up to its name. This affordable beach destination consistently ranks among Florida's top beaches, and it's easy to see why: well-maintained facilities, lifeguards during the day, excellent weather year-round, powdery sands, and clear, blue waters. The beach can get very busy year-round, so be prepared to share the pristine sand, and bring change for the metered parking.
For $25 a vehicle, a family can spend up to seven days exploring the Everglades, the third-largest national park in the continental United States. The mangrove swamps and cypress forests are home to a dazzling array of wildlife, ranging from crocodiles, manatees, and panthers to more than 350 species of birds and 300 species of fish.
Warm weather and favorable tax laws make Florida a go-to state for retirement, and Cape Coral has appeared high on many lists of best places to retire in recent years. The cost of living and median home price are slightly below the national averages, and close proximity to Fort Myers and Sanibel Island provides plenty to do. Cape Coral features miles of waterways, along with beaches, parks, and golf courses.
The "World's Luckiest Fishing Village" lies on a stretch of the Florida Panhandle known as the Emerald Coast. It's often cited by travel experts as one of the best budget beaches in the country. The waters are a brilliant emerald green, and the bright white sand resembles sugar. Three regional airports (Destin-Fort Walton Beach, Pensacola, and Panama City Beach) make Destin easily accessible, and cheap travel packages frequently surface. The local seafood is top-notch -- catch your own and cook it to save cash -- and inexpensive chain restaurants abound.
All-inclusive resorts can be a good value for a tropical vacation, considering all they have to offer -- and this one is right on Florida's east coast. More than 3,500 reviewers on TripAdvisor give it an average of 4 out of 5 stars, praising the food and attentive staff. Programs in tennis, sailing, and golf are included, as is a flying trapeze academy. Meals, including alcohol, are available at a variety of restaurants. A four-night stay starts at less than $500 a person.
Naturalists will find their bliss at Curry Hammock State Park in the Florida Keys. The site envelops a mangrove swamp, seagrass beds, and tropical hardwood trees. Birding, fishing, hiking, canoeing, and kayaking are just some of the available activities. The small beachfront campground is open to RVs year-round and is especially busy in winter. Each site is equipped with an electric hookup, and the common area provides composting toilets and solar-powered showers. The nightly fee is $36; reservations are recommended.
Visitors have to take a ferry or private boat to get to Cayo Costa State Park ($20 a night) off the southwestern coast of Florida, but that's part of the adventure and beauty of the place. With secluded camping near the beach, reviewers on Yelp say it feels like you're on your own private island. Be forewarned: The bugs can be vicious, and the air can get uncomfortably hot during the summer.
Located on the north side of Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach is one of South Florida's most serene beaches, featuring a fishing pier and historic lighthouse. Less than two blocks away is the Cottages by the Ocean resort, a romantic spot with charming, perfectly maintained homes reminiscent of dollhouses. Find rates starting at $109 a night in summer and fall. The cottages have full kitchens and private barbecue grills (for curbing dining costs) and are located within an easy walk of restaurants and shops.
The twin cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg were both among WalletHub's top choices for finding a job in 2016, and there is much more to like about this thriving, temperate, ethnically diverse, and affordable metropolis on Florida's west coast. Tampa houses the University of South Florida, as well as several performing arts centers, theaters, and museums. There's a famed historic Cuban district, Ybor City, and lots of great Cuban cuisine and popular nightlife nearby. Tampa features several theme parks, including Busch Gardens and Adventure Island. A one-bedroom apartment averages about $1,100.
Want a tropical beach wedding without the high price of international travel? Head for the Florida Keys. The high season for weddings (summer) is the low season here. In this popular spot for destination weddings, several local businesses offer packages that take care of everything from the ceremony and a catered reception to guest accommodations and photography. For the honeymoon, a drive down the Overseas Highway is spectacular. Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, and Key West are the most popular destinations. Best of all, the beaches are free.
This destination just off the coast from Fort Myers is known for white sand, abundant seashells, and crystal blue water. Sanibel Island has several dog-friendly beaches, including Algiers Beach (aka Gulfside Beach, where a parking fee applies) and Bowman Beach, which features hiking trails. Another popular spot is J.N. "Ding" Darling Wildlife Refuge ($5 for vehicles, $1 for hikers and bikers), which has more than 6,400 acres of mangrove forest and 245 bird species. Dogs must be leashed.
This 172,000-acre national park is 95 percent covered in water. It boasts the world's third-largest coral reef and some of the country's best snorkeling and scuba diving. Not to be missed is the Maritime Heritage Trail, a ranger-guided snorkeling tour of six sunken shipwrecks. The park has 72 shipwrecks in all to explore, and visitors can keep an eye out for manatees, crocodiles, and more than 200 species of fish. There are also ample opportunities for canoeing and kayaking around 30 islets and a mangrove forest, with no entrance fee. Boca Chita Key offers tent camping.
President Harry S. Truman returned to Key West year after year, enjoying the laid-back vibe of the small island, relaxing in the sun, fishing, and swimming. In a place that oozes history and dates back hundreds of years, visiting on a budget can be challenging. Try visiting off-season, which is June through November. To secure a cheaper room, consider giving up some amenities when searching for accommodations. Angelina Guest House and Key West Bed and Breakfast, for instance, can be less costly. The trade-off at these less expensive properties is no private bathroom.
Yes, Florida has Mickey and Minnie, but it also has astronauts. At the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Cape Canaveral, young and old can live out their space travel dreams at a hefty price ($50 for adults; $40 for children) but still spend less than the cost of a Disney vacation. Stand under the largest rocket ever flown, touch a moon rock, explore the space-themed playground, and strap into a custom-designed crew cabin to experience a virtual takeoff at this popular attraction.
Fantasia Gardens is designed for all ages with adjacent courses at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. One course features whimsical scenes and music from the classic movie "Fantasia," and the other is a scaled-down version of a regular golf course with water hazards, sand traps, and sloping greens. Smithsonian magazine calls this miniature golf course one of the most difficult in America. Pricing is $12 for children and $14 for adults.
For a cheap meal, head to the Barracuda Deli Cafe in St. Pete Beach, which wins over patrons with flavor-packed Cuban sandwiches and salads starting at $8.25. Dubbed a "hidden gem" by a reviewer on Yelp, it's a family-run shop where the owners are often the ones cooking and serving the food and most customers leave 5-star reviews.
Aptly named, Monkey Island in Homosassa is inhabited by five monkeys: Ralph, Sassy, Ebony, Eve, and Emily. Homosassa Riverside Resort, which owns the island and takes care of the animals, offers boat tours and dinner cruises that promise an up-close look at the monkeys at this unique attraction.
On top of the Birchwood Inn, the Canopy Rooftop Lounge offers nearly 360-degree views of the harbor, bay, and city. Covered sofas and patio tables are available, but weekends are busy, especially at sunset. Happy hour brings $3 drinks from 3 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Some of the best low-cost cruises leave from Florida ports, and Caribbean cruises are among the most plentiful. A four-day Carnival trip from Miami includes visits to the ever-popular Cozumel, Mexico, and Key West, the southernmost point in the United States, famous for sunsets, kayaking, and landmarks such as Ernest Hemingway's home and Harry Truman's Little White House. The Dec. 11, 2017, departure starts at an average of $179, or $45 a day, for an interior cabin.
Forget the Caribbean. Head to the Discovery Yoga Center in the old town of St. Augustine for a cheap and warm yoga retreat on the beach. Discovery Yoga is affiliated with Kripalu and offers a variety of daily yoga classes, from meditation to vinyasa flow to beginners' basic training. For a retreat from yoga, there are water activities on the beach and free bicycles guests can take to Tolomato River or Anastasia State Park for hiking and scenery, and the center is convenient to shops and restaurants, as well (meals are not included). Shared room rates start at $35 a night and private rooms with a bath start at $85 a night.
The Palm Beach County system has 17 libraries, including the Main Library in West Palm Beach. Patrons can access not just a collection with more than 1.4 million items but a business resource center, the Palm Beach County Genealogical Society Library, and a digital media lab for creating videos and podcasts. A bookmobile travels to more than 40 stops every month.
For $1.25, you can walk to the end of the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier -- one of the longest on the Gulf of Mexico, at 1,471 feet -- for a sunset photo opportunity. Peer out over crystal-blue water at schools of colorful fish, stingrays, sea turtles, and dolphins.
"The Truman Show" put the small beach community of Seaside solidly on the tourist map in 1998 as home to the movie's main character, played by Jim Carrey. A pristine, almost bizarrely perfect place, Seaside was designed to look like an old-fashioned beach town complete with traditional wood-framed cottages characteristic of the Florida Panhandle. Those who'd like to spend some time exploring this movie location can rent cottages by the day or week.
Along with formal gardens, a demonstration garden, and displays of tropical plants, this botanical garden contains an aquatic habitat and natural area that showcases the diversity of plant and animal life unique to this landscape. Native fruits, butterflies, succulents, and palms are among the highlights. The garden features a children's trail and annual events such as a holiday lights show and a Valentine's Day group wedding.
The red Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse is the state's tallest and a National Historic Landmark. A steep climb up to the top provides beautiful views of the ocean and surrounding land, not to mention a nice breeze. Access to the lighthouse and museum, which provides a comprehensive history of the site, costs $7 for adults and $2 for children 2 to 11.
A stop on ghost tours in St. Augustine, the Huguenot Cemetery near the Old City Gates was in use in the 19th century. Several ghosts supposedly haunt this spooky cemetery, including the ghost of Judge John B. Stickney, whose oddly well-preserved body was exhumed for a move to Washington, D.C., when two drunken men stole his gold teeth, prompting the judge's spirit to stick around searching for them.
Be sure to bring a waterproof camera or case to document a Florida vacation -- some of the best spots for photos are underwater. One is Molasses Reef in the Florida Keys, a magnet for diving and snorkeling. No need to fine-tune your expression while wearing a mask.
Pack a picnic and head to this pristine swimming hole on the west bank of the Withlacoochee River. The spring-fed pool isn't huge -- about 72 feet by 82 feet -- so go early to avoid the afternoon masses.
Dry Tortugas is a must-see for any theme-park-weary visitors to Florida. This island group near the Florida Keys can be accessed only by boat or plane and is home to Fort Jefferson, the largest all-brick fort in the nation, and Loggerhead Key Lighthouse, which dates to 1858. Camping trips departing from Key West include a narrated tour of the fort and allow visitors time to snorkel, birdwatch, stargaze, and explore remote beaches.