It’s no secret that Southern Florida (SoFl) is a popular travel destination, especially for snow birds looking to escape the frigid, brutal winters in search for some warmth and sunshine. SoFl provides JUST that… along with its abundance of sandy beaches, turquoise waters, wildlife aplenty, endless mangroves, countless islands, everlasting everglades and a whole lot of theme parks. It’s no wonder so many people flock here each year -it’s popular for good reason. However, with such popularity arises some obstacles during the planning process. You’re also going to be inundated with ads and brochures claiming to “Be the best in Key West” etc, whether it be true or not. It is essential to know how to best enjoy SoFl .. I mean, who doesn’t want to enjoy their trip to the fullest!? If you’d like to learn some of the secrets I’ve discovered and what I’ve found that led me to a successful vacation, then I happily present to you my personal list of tips and tricks for the BEST SoFl trip. I’ve got you covered! (Especially if your love for nature and adventure equals mine AND you love to save money).
- How to get there
- Where to stay
- What to do
How to get there
To begin with, you have to get yourself to SoFl (duh!). I highly recommend JetBlue airlines. They offer the cheapest flight deals (along with Spirit and Frontier). However, unlike Spirit and Frontier, JetBlue does not nickel and dime you – you do not have to pay for a carry on or a personal item or pay to choose your own seats. JetBlue, in my experience, also seems to be more reliable and much more spacious. My husband and I paid $77 each for our ROUNDTRIP flights from Pittsburgh > Fort Lauderdale via JetBlue. That’s right, $77! So, sooooo cheap! I suggest begin looking in November and book your trip for January (after the holidays). Again, we both got FREE carry-ons and FREE personal items (such as a tote bag/backpack/laptop case etc). We only checked 1 bag (cost $25) for our camping supplies (I totally recommend camping when there – you’ll see why further down).
Once at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport, RENT a CAR to get around during your trip. Driving yourself is, by far, the best way to explore SoFl. Book your car rental at least a month in advance at Dollar Rent A Car. They are the cheapest! Doug and I paid a total of $204.45 for 9 days – that is the TOTAL, including taxes and fees. Can’t beat it! And believe me, you want to save money wherever you can because places to stay are NOT so cheap.
*Also, a TIP I’ve briefed over: Do not wait until last minute to book your car – SoFl is not a place you can get away with this. The price will only increase as they become more booked. And they WILL book up quickly.
Where to Stay
Suggested Route: Fort Lauderdale > Everglades National Park > Florida Keys/Key West > Orlando > back to Fort Lauderdale (considering you have at least 9 days like we did).
We headed straight to Everglades National Park upon our arrival in Fort Lauderdale. For the first night, we stayed at one of the COOLEST Air BnB’s in the area (by far!). We stayed in a 1977 Avion Camper/RV hosted by “Natalie” in Homestead, FL just minutes from the entrance of Everglades National Park. It was the perfect location for a.) us to stock up on supplies such as camp food, mini propane can, bug spray, sunscreen etc in town and b.) for us to go exploring in Everglades NP with minimal driving.
*TIP: Bring a mini propane camping stove (single burner) found at REI and the likes. This way, you can cook your own food using the groceries you just purchased at the nearby store. This is a BIG money saver and it is fun – I love camp food and eating under the open sky. 🙂
Continuing on with the Camper/RV Air BnB… it includes an outdoor (hot) shower, toilet and sink. The RV itself contains 2 Queen beds and 2 couches/futons (can technically sleep up to 6) and a big deck with a mini fridge and chairs. On top of all this, it is on the dopest property full of many other campers, airstreams, teepees, rooms and more. The property is like a giant, free-spirited, come as you are type of resort set among a farming field. There is a common outdoor area complete with a salt water swimming pool, a hot tub, couches and tables for social gathering and even onsite wine, beer and meals (for a little extra fee). Even more, there are super friendly pets running amok like the host’s two cute pups – Bullet and Bruster. The whole scene vibe’d perfectly with my hippie spirit and I would stay again in a heartbeat.
Next up, camp at Flamingo Campground in Everglades National Park. Flamingo Point is about an hour drive from the entrance, so it gives you the chance to explore more parts of the park that are further away from the entrance – and trust me, there’s A LOT to explore. Flamingo Campground is also the cheapest staying option when vacationing in SoFl – it cost $20 a night for basic tent site or $30 a night for an electric site. There are public bathrooms (warning, the hot water is not the greatest). Flamingo Campground is, however, gorgeously situated at the very southern tip of Florida, right along the coast yet still smack dab in the Everglades. You can watch the sunset over the ocean and fall asleep to the sound of waves and seabirds. If you’re a nature lover / adventurer such as myself, it is the PERFECT place to rest your head. We stayed here for two nights. Bonus: the stars look phenomenal clear out there.
*TIP: BOOK AHEAD. Like a month ahead, at minimum. We booked almost two months in advance.
*Another TIP: Get firewood at “Robert is Here” – it is the cutest roadside farmer’s market with the most delicious real fruit smoothies. So, not only can you purchase your firewood for your nightly campfires, you can grab a delicious treat as well. I tried the Strawberry Key Lime smoothie and Doug had the coconut – both were divine! Oh, and to top off this place’s amazingness, there are exotic birds, tortoises, ostriches and more in the back yard. LOVED THIS PLACE!
*Yet another TIP: visiting the Everglades in the winter season equals FAR LESS BUGS! YAY! However, the one night (out of the 3 nights we stayed there) we had a bit of a sand flea/gnat problem, so I would still have some bug spray handy! All in all though, the bugs were surprisingly NOT a problem (which was contrary to what I had been previously told).
Once in the Southern Keys/Key West, opt the Air BnB route once more – you won’t regret it! There’s no shortage of fishing boats, house boats, yachts and more that you can stay on for the night(s). Goodness, Air BnB is a game changer! Surprisingly, some of these are also the CHEAPEST options (not the yachts, of course). We stayed on an economy fishing boat in a safe marina on Stock Island (attached to Key West) and hosted by Linda. The boat is securely docked and the rocking is minimal to none (great for people who get seasick). Also, the marina is a short uber ride from Duval Street (aka, the place to party). To top it off, you can’t beat waking up in the morning to coffee and breakfast on the boat deck, watching the fish swim beneath the turquoise waters and the fisherman begin their day. It’s such a wonderful experience. The economy boat had a toilet and sink, a small kitchen sink and cupboards, a couch, a table and booth and a queen size bed tucked away in the cabin. To shower, however, one must journey to the marina’s locker rooms – which are actually very clean and their showers boast very hot water (a welcome change from the not-so-hot Flamingo campground showers).
Other places to stay in or near Key West:
Boyd’s Campground. This IS the CHEAPEST option (yet still cost $70 per night without taxes and fees!). However, it is ocean front camping – so, in a way, I guess its worth the extra money for the first-rate view. It is pretty spectacular to unzip your tent to a front row view of the sun rising over the ocean. AND the sand is super comfy to sleep on in comparison to the typical hard ground. Not to mention, there is a tiki bar onsite!
Now, if camping isn’t your style OR you wish to not camp the entire time OR bad weather forces you indoors for a night (like it did to us), stay at the Gates Hotel. It is very new and very modern – the decor was super chic and it did NOT feel like we were staying at one of the cheapest hotels on the island (which we were). The Gates Hotel costs roughly $150 per night (which is cheap for Key West). However, if you book on Priceline, you can always find better deals like we did – we managed to only pay $100 for the night (before taxes and fees). This hotel is so clean and so convenient – I honestly don’t know why it’s one of the cheapest.. such a steal!
Now for Orlando..
Again, using Priceline, Doug and I found an AWESOME deal less than a mile from the entrance to Universal Theme Park. We stayed at Extended Stay America on Major Blvd. for $49 per night. And no, the hotel was not gross in any way. Basic? Yes. But who cares?? You’re spending your days and evenings at the theme parks and city walk, aren’t ya? It was 100% suitable for us – loved the proximity and price. Unbeatable.
*TIP: For Priceline, it is not necessary to book ahead like with Air BnB and the Campgrounds. The hotel deals seem to get cheaper the more last minute. Food for thought.
What to Do
Let’s start with the first destination…
Everglades National Park:
To my shock, I found this to be the most adventurous/fulfilling part of my trip. Before departing to SoFl, I had been looking forward to Key West the most. Boy, was I mistaken to think this! Everglades National Park provided me with the chance to meet so much wildlife, my heart was full! Every trail, every mangrove held more beautifully wild and free creatures – dangerous and friendly, big and small!
Anhinga Trail: Not far from the Homestead Entrance of Everglades National Park, you can find Anhinga Trail – HIKE THIS! It is an easy hike around alluring ponds FULL of wildlife – you’re guaranteed to see LOTS of gators, turtles, and many fish and bird species. You can get VERY close to the gators, so close that there is a sign warning hikers to stay 15 feet away from them when encountered (that doesn’t seem very far, does it?). We saw about 8 gators – one even swam out of the water and walked onto the path directly in front of us. Then, she proceeded to sunbathe not giving a care in the world that we were observing her. We also spotted the cutest turtle family – a mama, a papa and a little baby – all chilling on some rocks alongside the first pond. I could’ve watched these gators and turtles all day! (I mean, I did for like 3 hours).
*TIP: At the start of the trail is a little gift shop – buy a frozen, chocolate covered banana there. They are to die for!
Go on an airboat tour with Everglade Nature Tours. Our captain, Dave, was fantastic and highly knowledgeable – we saw and learned a ton! Like, did you know there are Black Bear in the glades? WHAT? I never realized this. Also, Everglades got its name because, well, they are “forever glades”… the glades go on and on for what seems forever. Hah! Makes sense. Most intriguing, we learned that the water is actually flowing in the Everglades but super slowly. It flows 1/2 a mile an hour. Since it is flowing, it does not stink (no stagnant waters here) and is very clean and clear. Anyways (enough of the lesson)…the airboat tour was also one THRILL of a ride, zipping fast through water trails and doing donuts in openings (even going directly over the glades in places). The tour was an hour and a half long and only cost $45 per person. We saw about 5 gators up close and saw countless, stunning bird species such as Bittering and Blue Herron. This is the best way to actually explore where the paths do not lead. This was when I became fully aware of the Everglades’ immense beauty. It was the perfect morning (and perfect way to kick-off my birthday, heck yeah!).
*TIP: You have the option to book a private or semi-private tour. However, the private tour is considerably more costly. The semi-private tour (which we opted for) was only $45 AND..guess what? We happened to be the ONLY people on the tour – we ended up getting the private tour for the semi-private price. Thus, save some money and book a semi-private airboat tour instead. Even if you don’t happen to luck out like we did, the boats are still small and can only fit about 6 guests anyway.
Watch the manatee and spot the 10 foot American Crocodile at Flamingo Point. Even hop in a kayak. I can’t even describe how ecstatic I was to FINALLY see manatee in the wild…and we saw at least 4 of them. To make this moment even cooler, they were SO CLOSE to the docks down at Flamingo Point – their massive bodies gliding right past us. GO HERE and search for these gentle giants, especially during the warm afternoons when they surface for some sun. One guy even surfaced so close that I could pet him. Did you know that manatee are extremely docile creatures and have zero natural predators? They’re literally the sweetest. THEN, on the opposite spectrum, there is a 10 – 12 foot American Croc that calls Flamingo Point home too – he is a must see as well! Furthermore, you can rent a kayak here and hop right in the waters with these creatures, if you dare ;-).
(In the first photo below, you can see the one manatee’s nose surfacing for some air in between dives. The second photo, you can find the croc. The third is a photo of the ocean, looking out from Flamingo Point (the southern tip of Florida)).
Hike all the trails you can – each is unique and worth it! Along our hike on Pine Lands Trail, we saw a bunch of knocked over brush and animal trails created by something large, either a bear or a boar. We also had the lovely experience of a coral snake crossing our path (this was, indeed, the most frightening moment along our trip). However, this trail is unlike the others and I suggest hiking it (with caution). Eat a picnic lunch at Paurotis Pond. Not only is this a serene little spot, but the birds will put on a show for you from across the pond as you eat (don’t worry, they won’t steal your food). They will, however, flap their huge wings making the LOUDEST noises – it truly sounded as if pterodactyls had been reincarnated and were communing in the treetops (they are, however, Wood Stork and there are a ton of these guys here). Such a primitive and prehistoric atmosphere. Utterly amazing. Finally, at sunset, hike the coastal trail along Flamingo Point (from the visitor center to the campground) and watch the sky turn all shades of pink over the sea.
*TIP: Bring along some wine for your hike along the coastal trail, it’s a pretty and peaceful spot for some romance 😉
Okay, now onto …
Florida Keys/ Key West:
The drive on ROUTE 1 to Key West is a “thing to do” in itself. It takes roughly 3 hours and you are surrounded by clear, turquoise waters as you cross the seven mile bridge. It is immediately noticeable how much bluer these waters are than in Northern Florida, such as Daytona etc.
Walk the streets of Key West and explore! You will find history, art, shops, food stands, ship ports and more. Some places to see include:
- Mallory Square
- Harry Truman’s Little White House
- Ernest Hemingway House
- Embracing Peace Statue
- Most Southern Point of the U.S. Marker (90 miles to Cuba!)
- One Human Family art tile (along the sidewalk near Most Southern Point Marker)
*TIP: Do not go to Mallory Square for sunset, the cruise ships WILL block the sun from your view. Rather, go to Fort Zachary Taylor.
Enjoy a night out on Duval Street. This place is crazy – like a smaller Nola. I mean that in the best way. Bars of all variety number this street and stay open until 4am. Even on a weekday, this street is booming. Definitely make a stop at my favorite bar – Whistle Bar – and whatever you do, be sure to venture up to the third floor also known as the”Garden of Eden”. I promise you, it’s a place like no other! I don’t even want to ruin the surprise, so go see for yourself. Also along Duval Street, you can find the “World’s Smallest Bar” and it is darling. There are bars for dancing, for live music, for strip clubs, for pool and darts, for chilling – you name it! Even my fave – rooftop bars. ALSO, to my surprise, the drinks are pretty dang cheap here (for it being such a touristy area). My Jameson and Ginger cost $6 (it’s $12 in LA!).
Go to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and Beach. This, in my opinion, is the prettiest beach on Key West. It is more secluded and more nature-y / less tourist-y than the others. The large rocks jetting out from its shore add to its picturesqueness. Not to mention, there’s a historic fort to explore and a picnic area to eat at – by far, the coolest beach there. Also, a perfect place to watch the sunset in Key West.
Eat at the Southernmost Beach Cafe. Not only is this restaurant the most southern in the US and right along the beach, but I also had the most delicious breakfast here! I highly recommend trying their Breakfast Scrambler.
Another great place to eat at – Pepe’s Cafe & Steakhouse. My husband had his favorite meal here and he swears that they serve the “most delicious bread he’s ever tasted in his life”.
Explore Bahia Honda State Park on Bahia Honda Key. This park boasts an award winning beach, a historic (and high) bridge that you can hike up to and walk out on, and some of the best snorkeling! Also, when we visited, there were still remnants of Hurricane Irma to be found all over. It served as a reminder to just how powerful nature is and it was the first real look I had at Irma’s damage (up close). Some of the park was still being renovated, but the main beach and historic bridge were still open to the public.
Last, but not least, visit Dry Tortugas National Park. This is known as the country’s “most remote national park’, a small chain of islands sitting 70 miles off the coast from Key West. To get here, you must take the Yankee Freedom Ferry and it costs a hefty fee ($175 per person). HOWEVER, this cost does include: the only transportation to and from the park (2 1/2 hours each way), all meals, snorkel gear and snorkeling in some of the best reefs in the country, and a guided tour of the fort. To me, it is well worth the cost to see such remote beauty and to walk among such historic grounds.
*TIP: DO TAKE PRECAUTIONS FOR SEASICKNESS! I cannot stress this enough. Every one feels it, especially on rough sea days! I recommend “Dramamine Naturals”, it is non-drowsy and organic and it works. Also, purchase some SeaBands at the local drugstore while you’re at it – better safe than sorry.
Off to Orlando…
Theme Parks: Now here it gets tricky to tell you “what to do” because there are so many theme park options, it’s all a matter of preference. However, I opted to visit Universal Orlando Resort and did both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios because… The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, of course! I am OBSESSED with Harry Potter and was so completely smitten with this place (it was my first time visiting Harry Potter World). I had the greatest time geeking out all day long. I have many tips and suggestions while visiting Hogwarts, Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley for you fellow muggles:
- Buy tickets to BOTH parks (Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios) because this is the only way you can ride the Hogwarts Express AND, even more importantly, it’s the only way you can visit both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. Hogsmeade and Hogwarts are located in Islands of Adventure and Diagon Alley is located in Universal. I cannot, under any circumstance, pick one over the other (I’m sorry, I just can’t). Do both, it’s well worth it if you love Harry Potter even half as much as I do.
- Ride the Hogwarts Express BOTH ways – each way is a different experience.
- Try a butterbeer (or three). They are awesomely delicious and addicting! Personally, I enjoyed the cold butterbeer more than the frozen. It also felt more authentic.
- Buy a chocolate frog and pumpkin juice from Honeydukes – they, too, are extremely tasty. Also, you have to get the collectable wizard card from inside the chocolate frog packaging, duh!
- Eat lunch at the Three Broomsticks – don’t let the wait line deter you, it moves fast! Also, the food is a feast and very scrumptious. I ate the beef pasties with salad and my husband had the rotisserie chicken with corn on the cob and potatoes. Both were great and the atmosphere is SPOT ON!
- Be sure to ride both “Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts” in Diagon Alley and “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” located inside of Hogwarts (this was my personal favorite, but both are fantastic!).
- HUGE TIP: Forgo the normal line and hop right into the “single rider” line. This will save you a crazy amount of time – I promise! The wait for the Forbidden Journey was 85 minutes long so my husband and I decided to try the singles line and…to our relief… took us 15 minutes tops to board the ride! It legit saved us 70 minutes AND we still got to ride together.
- Shop in Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes – it’s all you hoped it would be.
- Unless you want to visit Buckbeak, skip riding “Flight of the Hippogriff” – it is a KID’S RIDE! We did not know this and we waited a good while in line to ride a thrill-less, 20 second kiddie coaster. Oops! But hey, we saw Buckbeak and Hagrid’s Hut.
- Have fun and let yourself be a little kid again – seeing the magic of make believe for a day.
Disney Springs. If you’re in Orlando visiting the many theme parks and it happens to be a rainy/stormy day (and you obviously don’t want to waste loads of money), a good option is to spend some time in Disney Springs. It’s a cheaper solution and a fun little way to pass the time during the crap weather (and even if it’s a nice day, it’s still a sweet little place to check out). There are a ton of restaurants, lots of shopping options, World of Disney, LEGOS and various shows/performances.
Well guys, I believe that wraps up my SoFl blog post – thank you so much for reading and I truly hope this helps you when planning your next SoFl trip (even if it varies from mine). If you have any further questions, feel free to ask away in the comments or reach out via social media. Take care and happy travels! xoxo