Not known as a budget-friendly travel destination, Key West can surprise you. It all depends on where you want to place those hard-earned dollars during your stay.
Lodging is the number one expense on any trip to the Florida Keys, and there’s no getting around it – the days of sleeping on the beach or in your car are long past. Cut the price down below $99 on AirBNB for the Florida Keys and what do you find? Not much.
That said, if you plan ahead and reserve it, you can grab a bunk at the Seashell Motel and Key West Hostel for less than that, and a room for slightly more. It’s your best bargain in Key West for cheap sleep. Your number two bargain is a stay on Stock Island at one of the two campgrounds there — Stan’s Campground or Boyd’s Campground — with your trailer or car camping tent. Both are pricey as campgrounds go, but cheap by Key West standards. The caveat is that it’s a few miles from these campgrounds into the heart of the action, so having your own bicycle is handy.
Tip: the cheapest hotel rates are in early December during the week, so bargain-shop and you might find a nice room you can split with a friend for under $150.
Cheap eats? Fast food. I don’t like chains, but you can’t beat Denny’s on Duval for keeping the cost of your meals down. But if you’re coming to Key West, you need a little local flavor. Ana’s Cuban Cafe usually has a line out the door by sunrise because of their inexpensive breakfasts and awesome coffee. Plus, there’s a deli in the building. Stock up and have picnic lunches while you’re here. You can also grab picnic supplies at Fausto’s Market as well as the big Publix on US 1 outside of downtown. Splurge a night or two on dining out. Appetizers, salads, and pasta tend to be less expensive than most entrees. Abbondanza offers such big pasta portions it’s money well spent, and the atmosphere is nice and mellow. You can get tasty bar eats at Sloppy Joe’s for reasonable prices. B.O.’s Fish Wagon, down by the Bight, is a food truck with fresh fish. Sit outside and savor.
Here’s where you score big. There’s no need to lay down big bucks when there are free and cheap things to see and do across the island.
As free entertainment goes, sunset at Mallory Square can’t be beat. A drink can be your ticket in to see a band at places like Captain Tony’s. A stroll along the Key West Bight is pretty nice late in the day. Walking Duval Street is a blast, just for people-watching. During the day, you can pop in to the Oldest House Museum on Duval for a free tour and some chill time in their garden. Doing the selfie thing at Mile Marker 0 and the Southernmost Point? Free, and priceless.
On the east side of the island, relaxing on Smathers Beach, Higgs Beach, or South Beach is free and pretty sweet. Higgs Beach has some free parking – best snagged early in the day – plus restrooms and a bevy of free attractions within walking distance. A stroll through the Key West Wildlife Center into Indigenous Park will net you plenty of bird sightings and herds of iguanas. A picnic at C.B. Harvey Rest Beach Park or a walk down the Overseas Heritage Trail to the Key West Nature Preserve is bound to turn up ibises, herons, and maybe a feral Key West rooster or two. Walk out to the end of the White Street Pier and you might see dolphins. And you can chill off from the heat inside the cool brick walls of the West Martello Gardens, a funky free attraction that’s a tropical paradise in a ruin of an old fort, with ice-cold water near the restrooms. If you have a car or a bike, you can head to a little-known preserve called Little Hamica Park for more birding and a stroll down a nature trail. It’s free, too.
On the flip side, if you budget for one major attraction a day, most can be seen for under $20. Pick what interests you. For $10, you can pop into one of the historic attractions: the Key West Lighthouse, the East Martello Museum, and the Customs House Museum. For under $10, you can spend a couple hours roaming the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Gardens, or the echoing walls of the enormous fortress at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. The park has a great beach, too.
So, a cheap visit to Key West is very doable. Plan ahead, keep your lodging costs low, and watch where you spend your bucks. Just keep in mind: when you’re hitting the free museums and free performances, it’s always good karma to drop a couple bucks into the donation jar. Free is nice, but everyone else has bills to pay, too.