Blue skies, swaying palm trees, emerald waters, and more than a thousand miles of shimmering sandy beaches. That’s Florida, for most visitors. Or if you’re traveling with young children, the magic of our theme parks, especially Walt Disney World, is foremost on your mind. But if that’s all you explore, you’re missing out.
Spanning two time zones, this is an enormous state with natural features you won’t find anywhere else in America. Traveling Florida, you’ll be amazed at the diversity of landscapes in a place where there are no mountains. Here, water rules. We have 2,000 miles of coastline, with dozens of well-known barrier islands. More than 4,000 lakes, including the second-largest lake entirely within the United States, Lake Okeechobee. More than 600 major springs invite swimmers to dive in. Over 12,000 miles of rivers slip through forests, wetlands, and major cities. And the world’s only Everglades, a wetland of immense proportion, blankets the tip of the peninsula.
After fifty years of roaming the state, I haven’t seen it all, and neither will you. There are trips for every taste and length of stay. There’s so much more to Florida than you expect. Delight yourself with new discoveries on your next visit by diving deeper into these destinations. On a time-limited trip, you’ll probably land in kid-friendly Orlando, coastal Tampa, or cosmopolitan Miami and expand your explorations from there.
In the heart of Central Florida, Orlando is the epicenter of theme parks. Leave your cares behind to be pampered like a princess at Walt Disney World or swept into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Ramble east of Orlando to nearby Space Coast to immerse in nature along the St. Johns River and the Indian River Lagoon, and to see America’s spaceport at Kennedy Space Center. Southwest and north of Orlando, Central Florida’s rolling hills provide perspective on thousands of natural lakes, where boating and fishing are favored pastimes around Clermont, Leesburg, Lakeland, and Lake Wales.
Stretching from Crystal River to Venice, this portion of Central Florida hugs the Gulf Coast. Flying into Tampa, it’s easy to hop over to Clearwater Beach, with its mix of oceanfront resorts and retro Mom and pop motels on the bay. Art lovers will appreciate the museums of St. Petersburg, especially the Dali, and a visit to the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota.
Miami is much more than its well-known city vibe, its international cuisine, its fashion and arts districts. Go orchid hunting in the Redland or people-watching in Coconut Grove, and join the throngs along Miami Beach to soak in the sun. This tropical city is the jumping-off point for excursions into the nearby wilds of the Everglades and into the Florida Keys.
The Keys and Key West are a slice of the Caribbean you can drive to, a long chain of islands connected by the many bridges of US 1. Coral reefs and shipwrecks beckon divers, but so do the old-time fish shacks, the aquamarine waters, and the persistent pull of Key West.
As two of Florida’s major luxury destinations, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach offer high-end accommodations, upscale shopping districts, and a pleasant blend of arts and gardens along their coastlines. Cross the Intracoastal Waterway, and beyond the vast residential communities, you’ll find the northern edge of the Everglades, fed by vast Lake Okeechobee.
Fort Myers is one of the older coastal communities, where Thomas Edison built a laboratory and his friend Henry Ford moved in next door. Some of the tropical plants that Edison brought to the area to test became mainstays in this region, particularly the immensive banyan and ficus trees. Tropical trees and gardens thrive on these temperate shores, which is how the Sanibel and Captiva Islands came to have beaches with coconut palms. Nearby Pine Island still has commercial tropical fruit groves. Most barrier islands run north-south along the coastline. Because of its east-west orientation, Sanibel Island is one of the world’s best places for shelling.
Founded in 1886, Naples is named for its Italian counterpart. Cradled by beaches and bay, the historic downtown district is both upscale and welcoming. It is easily traversed on foot and has accommodations at all price points. Mangrove-lined shores wrap east into the Ten Thousand Islands, a puzzle of wilderness that is part of Everglades National Park. Bounding Naples to the east is the Big Cypress Swamp, a rain-fed ecosystem spanning more than a million acres. Also called the Western Everglades, it is truly a tropical forest. The endangered Florida panther calls it home, as do 47 species of orchids, more than are found anywhere else in North America.
Florida began here. Carbon-dating of artifacts found southeast of Tallahassee, proving that Paleoindians once hunted mammoths along the Aucilla River, make this the oldest known area of human settlement in the Southeast. Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Amelia Island were home to the original French and Spanish colonies in Florida well before statehood, with St. Augustine the oldest continually occupied European-founded city in North America.
The British came here, too, both as pirates raiding Spanish settlements and to set up their own plantations and sugar mills. Just before the Revolutionary War, botanist William Bartram returned to Florida on a grand adventure of specimen collecting for a patron. He wrote of the “amazing crystal fountain” of Salt Springs, one of numerous first-magnitude springs pouring from the earth throughout Gainesville, Ocala and Natural North Florida. Ocala is also the center of Florida’s thoroughbred horse industry, set among the rolling hills.
Florida’s biggest secret is the beauty and quiet of Florida’s Panhandle, also known as Northwest Florida. Most visitors drive there, and many of those are headed for the big beach towns of Pensacola Beach, Panama City Beach, and Destin-Fort Walton. Step away from the shoreline to discover hidden treasures, from charming rural communities to waterfalls to pitcher plant bogs. The wild sweep of the Big Bend, the vast forests – Apalachicola, Eglin, and Blackwater – and lesser-known springs and creeks will stir the heart of every nature lover.
Florida is truly a year-round destination, for a variety of reasons. First, it rarely ever snows here, and when it does, it barely sticks around long enough to make a snowball. Second, temperatures are temperate during the winter months, compared to most of the United States. Finally, different sets of visitors come to Florida for different reasons. Some spend part of the year here, and the rest of it elsewhere. Others are bringing their families on vacation and must wait until school is out of session in order to travel. If you don’t have those constraints on your trip planning, remember: our winters are usually dry and temperate, our summers are usually wet and hot. The spring and fall shoulder seasons (Apr-May, Sep-Oct) are often pleasant, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll have sunshine every day.
A lifetime? Seriously, there is so much to see and do in Florida – let alone the opportunity to just plunk down on a beach and chill – that it’s hard to judge how long you should stay. Before my family made the transition from visitors to residents, we started out spending a week in Florida, and a decade later, would spend a full month, usually during the winter. Many Europeans have purchased “holiday homes” in Central Florida where they spend several months in Florida during the dreariest of weather back home. And of course, we have the flocks of “snowbirds,” who live somewhere “up north” (almost everyone lives north of Florida, as the highways go) and come to Florida during the worst weather where they live, typically between Thanksgiving or Christmas and Easter.
A weekend isn’t enough. A week will give you an introduction. A couple weeks will let you sightsee a particular region of the state without feeling rushed. Even taking the fastest highways, it takes more than fifteen hours to drive from Pensacola to Key West, so don’t expect to do a big loop in a week. You can’t see easily both Orlando and the Everglades in a one week trip, it’s six hours by car between them. So concentrate your travel on a single region at a time. If you want to roam Florida from one end to the other – which my husband and I do at least once a year – it takes at least a month to do it justice.
It’s funny how the seasons are so flip-flopped around our state. We’re dragging in 95°F heat during the first week of July, and yet being told by the locals that this is the high season in their area. Meanwhile, we’re looking at December rates for a return visit, and they’re rock bottom. So, here’s a rough guide to how high and low seasons run around Florida.
When the snowbirds are here in the Florida Peninsula, it’s high season. Traffic is terrible and it’s hard to get around. Figure anywhere from Jacksonville south through the Florida Keys to be busy, busy, busy, especially in urban areas and resort areas along the southwest coast from Tampa to Naples. But at the same time, the Florida Panhandle is blissfully quiet, as are the rural areas along the Suwannee River. It’s their low season.
February and March are crazy in Daytona Beach, bracketed by the Daytona 500 and Bike Week. Daytona Beach and many other beach communities, especially in Florida’s Panhandle, get busy during Spring Break, which stretches from March through April, depending on where the students are coming from. March and April are always busy months for festivals, with something going on somewhere in the state every weekend.
High season for the Florida Panhandle is during the summer months of June, July, and August. It’s a drive destination for residents of Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas, and they’re headed for the beaches. This is also the busy season for Orlando and Central Florida – the kids are now out of school – as well as for all family-friendly beach destinations, including the Florida Keys.
A nice lull hits statewide in September. It’s still summer and blazing hot, but once school starts again, the hordes evaporate. You’ll always need to check ahead on September bookings since some businesses, especially in the Keys, take this month off. October used to be a lull month as well until promoters filled it with festivals, and now events like Biketoberfest and Fantasy Fest have the visitors streaming in. The first few weeks of November are jam-packed with festivals as well, as the temperatures cool down.
One more lull: Thanksgiving to Christmas. Especially during the first week or two of December, you’ll find reasonable rates at most destinations statewide.
Florida has a temperate climate in the winter months, and a tropical climate in the summer months. Much like the tropics to the south, Florida experiences a dry season (November to April) and a wet season (May to October). Expect daily rains during the wet season, usually afternoon thundershowers that can be torrential downpours. Take thunderstorms seriously – you should not be outdoors during a thunderstorm. Strong thunderstorms can spawn tornadoes. Storm fronts usually move in a westerly pattern across the state, picking up precipitation off the Gulf of Mexico and dropping it as they move across the peninsula.
Florida’s coastal areas tend to be cooler than the interior. The year-around average temperature is 70.7F (21.5C), but expect temperatures in the peninsula to be moderate to cool in the winter (below 75F) and blazing hot in the summer (over 85F). Temperatures in Florida’s Panhandle are generally cooler, especially during the winter months. As cold fronts dip into the Southeastern United States, Florida can have temperatures plunge straight down to freezing. January is the state’s coldest month. The good news is that freezing weather in Florida rarely lasts more than a few days, and it’s not uncommon to have a crazy oscillation of hot and cold temperatures throughout the winter.
Speaking of oscillations, our normal weather patterns go haywire when El Niño and La Niña – the warm and cool phases of the Southern Oscillation across the Pacific Ocean – affect the climate of the Southern Hemisphere. For Florida, the appearance of either means a lot of rain during the dry season. This happens every 2 to 7 years, and often for multiple years in a row.
June through November is hurricane season in Florida, which brings its own set of challenges. It’s important for travelers to be aware of tropical weather forecasts during these months, and to follow any advisories to vacate a particular area in advance of a possible landfall of a storm. The National Hurricane Center provides in-depth forecasts and a variety of methods for you to get alerts while you travel.
For current weather conditions and detailed area forecasts, visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration online.
Florida has thousands of events annually around the state, with some events a half century or more old. These are some of the most notable events, but there are many, many more. Check the Events Calendar at VISITFLORIDA.com to find out what’s going on this month.
January (last week): Zora! Festival, Eatonville
January (last week): Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival, Titusville
January (last weekend): Gasparilla Pirate Festival, Tampa
February (last three weeks): Florida State Fair, Tampa
February (first weekend): Mount Dora Arts Festival, Mount Dora
February (third Sunday): Daytona 500, Daytona Beach
February (third weekend): Miami International Boat Show, Miami
March (first two weeks): Florida Strawberry Festival, Plant City
March (second week): Bike Week, Daytona Beach
March (second week): Amelia Concours D’Elegance, Amelia Island
March (second week): Arnold Palmer Invitational, Orlando
March (third week): Twelve Hours of Sebring, Sebring
March (third week): Gatornationals, Gainesville Raceway
April (first week): Sun-N-Fun Fly-In, Lakeland
April (middle weeks): Florida Film Festival, Orlando
May (second week): The Players Championship, Ponte Vedra
May (Memorial Day Weekend): Florida Folk Festival, White Springs
July (mid-month): Pensacola Beach Air Show
July (last week): Goombay Festival, Coconut Grove
September (last weekend): Destin Seafood Festival, Destin
October (second week): Biketoberfest, Daytona Beach
October (third weekend): Florida International Airshow, Punta Gorda
October (last week): Fantasy Fest, Key West
November (first weekend): Florida Seafood Festival, Apalachicola
November (first weekend): Swamp Buggy Fall Classic Races, Naples
November (third week): American Sand Sculpting Championships, Fort Myers Beach
January 1: New Year’s Day
January (third Monday): Martin Luther King Jr. Day
February (third Monday): Presidents Day
March/April: Good Friday (two days before Easter Sunday)
May (last Monday): Memorial Day
July 4: Independence Day
September (first Monday): Labor Day
October (second Monday): Columbus Day
November 11: Veterans Day
November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
December 25: Christmas
Florida straddles two time zones – Eastern and Central – with the dividing line being the Apalachicola River, roughly. Franklin County (Apalachicola) straddles the river’s mouth but elects to be in the Eastern Time Zone.
If you are staying in a community near the time zone divide, your cell phone may pick up towers on the wrong side of the river and mess up your morning alarm for that fishing trip. Set your time zone manually until you’re at least an hour away from the Apalachicola River in either direction.
To check the local time in Florida now, see the World Time Server.
Daylight Savings Time (DST) begins in spring on the second Sunday in March, when clocks are advanced one hour. In the fall on the first Sunday of November, clocks shift back one hour to standard time. With few exceptions, the entire country (including Florida) participates in this ritual of “springing forward” and “falling back.”
Florida is extremely casual, and in general, quite warm. Shorts and lightweight tops are perfect for the ladies, and the fellows will always look sharp and stay dry in lightweight fishing shirts paired with nylon pants. Polo shirts work nicely too. Much of the state is perpetually in t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops, but when you plan to head into a metropolitan area or resort-dominated island, it’s best to bring resort casual wear. And don’t forget your swimsuit! It’s also always smart to stash an extra layer – a sweater or overshirt – in your luggage to combat the perpetual chill of air conditioning found in the common areas of most resort hotels and restaurants.
You’ll feel more comfortable dressed up a notch from resort casual in Miami and its surrounding neighborhoods, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, downtown Orlando, downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg, downtown Naples and Sarasota, downtown Jacksonville, and downtown Tallahassee.
Planning any outdoor adventures? Bring quick-dry nylon pants and shorts and lightweight tops. Wear Crocs or sandals for water sports, and use trail runners for hiking, as they dry most quickly.
During the winter months – December through March – temperatures are entirely unpredictable, and can even drop to freezing in South Florida one day, only to hit the 80s the next day. So for a winter trip, be sure you have layers with you to add and subtract as the temperature shifts.
There’s a Florida vacation for everyone’s budget, although your money may not stretch as far as you like in certain parts of the state and at certain times of year. Your travel style will determine the cost of your trip. Do you prefer oceanfront resorts or quiet campgrounds? Nightlife or romantic walks on the beach? Guided tours or personal exploration of the outdoors? Theme parks or state parks?
In general, the coastal areas of Southeast Florida – from Palm Beach south through Fort Lauderdale and Miami – are quite pricey, as are the Florida Keys. You’ll find pockets of upscale pricing between Clearwater Beach and Naples, too, but a nice balance of less expensive accommodations as well.
As a state where tourism is a primary industry, there is no lack of hotel rooms at the most popular destinations, like Orlando and Daytona Beach. In the quieter parts of the state, like North Florida and Florida’s Panhandle, hotel availability is thinner, but you’ll find less expensive options: campgrounds and cabins, fish camps, and accommodations for divers at some of the popular springs.
If you’re camping out or staying at the cheapest accommodations, sticking to a particular region, eating cheap take-out or grocery store meals, and spending most of your time on free or cheap activities like hiking, kayaking, bicycling, sunning on the beach, or swimming in our beautiful springs, you can get by on $75-100 a day.
If you’re a couple staying in brand name hotels, renting a car, taking tours, and seeing the major attractions while enjoying meals at restaurants, expect to spend $300-400 per day.
If the luxe life is your norm, you can easily drop $500-750 per day on top-notch hotels and restaurants, entertainment and nightlife, guided tours, and private transportation.
The time of year makes a difference on pricing. See our When to Go section to figure out the least expensive times in different parts of Florida; they vary. Weekday hotel rates are almost always cheaper than weekend rates. At times when room occupancy is very low (the beginning of December in the Florida Keys, the beginning of January in Pensacola Beach and Panama City Beach), prices may be less than half of peak rates, and negotiating better rates for a multi-day stay is possible. Just ask.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
$ => Rooms less than $150 for a double
$$ => Rooms $150–$300 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $16-22 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $23 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11–25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.
Have Car, Will Travel
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.
There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.
Zipcar is another choice for rentals. Available in many major cities and college towns in the U.S., Zipcar is a great alternative for super-short term rentals. Picture this scenario: you are in a big city with terrific public transportation, so you don’t need a car. But then you hear about an amazing restaurant 20 miles away in the suburbs. You can’t go home without trying it. A taxi would cost a fortune. You’d have to wait a long time to get a return taxi. Open the Zipcar app; search for a nearby Zipcar locale. You need to apply for membership and download the app in advance. Memberships cost about $7 a month; rentals are about $8 to10 per hour; gas and insurance are included. Foreign drivers can apply and you don’t need to pay a monthly fee if you’re an occasional driver (from $25 per year for a membership).
Ride-sharing companies, Uber and Lyft, are also ubiquitous in major cities. Through a smart phone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.
Money Saving Tips:
Costco, because of its behemoth size and price negotiating power, offers great low prices for most major car rental companies. Yes, you need to purchase an annual Costco membership first, but it more than pays for itself with what you’ll save with a typical week’s car rental (i.e. searches turn up a mid-size car through Costco for $225 and a comparable car through another aggregator for $325.) Similarly, being a member of an association like AAA or AARP, or a professional association, may swing some significant discounts your way, as will paying for your rental up front.
Did You Know:
Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day.
Hopefully, your trip to (or within) the U.S. goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation: About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical: Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.
Trip Interruption: For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay: Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage: Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case” … no matter what.
Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework; check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregator sites like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions: Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance: If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans have an understandably tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.
Coins in wide circulation include the penny (one cent), nickel (five cents), dime (ten cents) and quarter (25 cents). The 50-cent and one-dollar coins are seen occasionally.
Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so have twenties or smaller bills in hand. ATMs usually dispense $20 bills.
Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any U.S. travel experience, whether urban or rural. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but other costs should also be taken in to consideration. General guidelines include:
For excellent service, plan to tip 20% on the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In many states, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.
To complicate matters, some restaurants in major metropolitan areas, like Miami, are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.
Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included, usually for groups of six or more people. But at least it will be itemized in plain sight on the bill, if you look closely for it.
Most bell staff receive $1 to $2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $5 to $10.
Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2 to $3 per day and about $5 per day in higher-end properties.
At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets around $10 to $20 per day. Concierge staff do not normally expect a tip for simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Car valet staff expect $2 when returning your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually see 20% tips on their services, whether performed at the spa or in your room.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.
Sales Taxes, Lodging Taxes & Resort Fees
In Florida, the combined total for state and local taxes on all retail goods and services varies from 6% to 7.5%, depending on where you are. In general, cities have higher taxes than rural areas do. Taxes are not usually included in display prices, unless otherwise stated.
Lodging tax also varies by location in Florida, ranging from 7.5% to 14%. This is in addition to sales tax. This tax applies whether you are staying at a private vacation rental, a bed-and-breakfast, a campground, or a full-fledged hotel. Taxes are not usually stated up front in the advertised room rate. Neither are the mandatory nightly “resort fees” being charged by an increasing number of hotels. Sometimes this fee covers internet access, parking, and a few incidentals, while at other times it’s merely a surcharge for amenities that should be free. Beware that third-party booking agents, especially online, often don’t include resort fees in their reservation charges, so you may be unhappily surprised by the final bill when you check out.
Hotels in urban centers, including oceanfront hotels, often have a mandatory valet parking fee attached, separate from the resort fee. Inquire before arrival. These fees can run as high as $25 per day.
Drive or fly? It all depends on what you plan to see and do in Florida, how far away you’re coming from, and the relative costs. My family used to drive to Florida annually down the East Coast from New England, and we’d roam around the state. When I moved away for a decade, I’d often fly down and rent a car (or have family meet me) to minimize that extra travel time. Fortunately, every major air carrier has routes to Florida, and there are many airports statewide.
Getting around Florida takes a lot longer than you’d expect. This is a very large state, larger than many countries, including England, and straddles two time zones. With perfect weather and little traffic, it takes at least 15 hours to drive from Pensacola to Key West. Driving is the main way to get around the state, since public transportation is mainly limited to urban areas.
On a backpacker’s budget, getting here on foot or by bike is an option. The East Coast Greenway stretches up the Eastern Seaboard of America, and is a paved bicycle route (which can also be walked) that follows close to the coastline. It’s not complete, but enough of it exists to follow the route. The Florida Trail, one of eleven National Scenic Trails in America, provides a walking route for backpackers who follow a connection south through Alabama to reach – and traverse – Florida on foot.
Most visitors fly into Florida and rent a car to get around. If you’re staying in one particular place – say the Walt Disney World Resort – the resort may have its own airport shuttle and luggage transfer, plus its own bus system, so there’s no need for you to have a car. Some hotels offer shuttle services (some free, some fee) to get you from the airport to their oceanfront accomodations, and if all you plan to do is kick back and relax for the week, you can avoid that car rental, too. Public transportation is an option from some airports, with Miami having the best connecting network.
Miami International Airport (MIA) is one of the largest and busiest airports in the United States; most East Coast transfers to Central and South American destinations occur there. Plan double the time you would at most airports for getting through customs if you’re coming in from a non-U.S. destination. Orlando International Airport (MCO) has a continual flow of flights in and out from across the country and around the world, with dozens of major airlines bringing visitors to Central Florida. Tampa International Airport (TPA) also connects with Europe and all points around the United States.
Other major airports in Florida with smaller rosters of major carriers include Jacksonville (JAX), Palm Beach (PBI), Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Southwest Florida (RSW), Northwest Florida Beaches (ECP), Daytona Beach (DAB), Tallahassee (TLH), and Pensacola (PNS). Smaller airports with direct flights or connector service include Gainesville (GNV), Key West (EYW), Melbourne (MLB), Northeast Florida Regional (SGJ), Orlando-Sanford (SFB), Punta Gorda (PGD), Sarasota-Bradenton (SRQ), St. Pete-Clearwater (PIE), and Valparaiso (VPS).
Driving into Florida? If you’re coming in via one of the major interstate highways – I-10, I-75, or I-95 – you’ll want to stop at the Florida Welcome Center just past the Florida state line. It’s a great place to ask questions about current conditions in the area you’re planning to visit, and to pick up maps and brochures for things to see and do around the state. You’ll get a free taste of fresh Florida orange or grapefruit juice, too.
Florida still has agricultural inspection stations at both the border (on major highways) and on both sides of every crossing of the Suwannee River (thank a very old law that hasn’t yet been repealed for this one). The good news is despite the signs that say “pickup trucks and vans,” unless you’re intentionally importing plants, fruits, or vegetables into or across the state, you’re not expected to stop and declare anything.
Some of Amtrak’s most popular routes terminate in Florida, including the Silver Service / Palmetto and the Auto Train. Amtrak’s southern terminus for the Auto Train (the northern terminus is Washington D.C.) is in Sanford, a historic community just north of Orlando. The Auto Train is an option of bringing your car to Florida while enjoying the luxury of train travel along the way.
Greyhound Bus Lines service most major Florida cities, but the bus stations are often located nowhere near other transportation hubs. A hop in a cab or Uber may be necessary to connect you to other public transportation. Inside Florida, Red Coach connects college towns and urban centers.
Once you’re in Florida, a car is virtually a must if you want to explore the state. Florida is a very large state, spanning two time zones. If you look at a map, you’ll see the state fits in a square, but there is no way to cut across the diagonal of that square because it’s in the Gulf of Mexico. So driving from one end of Florida to the other takes a minimum of 15 hours. On a good day with light traffic, a drive from Orlando to Miami takes 4 hours down Florida’s Turnpike. If you follow coastal roads, which are certainly very scenic in North Florida and Florida’s Panhandle, your drive will be twice as long as you think it might be, thanks to the irregularities of the coastline. Use Google Maps to plan out any sightseeing by car before you hit the road, so as not to be disappointed with how far you might think you can roam in a day. The good news: Florida has many designated Scenic Highways and Byways, making for some beautiful road-tripping, especially through rural areas in the less populated sections of the state.
Rent an RV
If you’ve seen the Robin Williams movie RV, you know what a comedy of errors operating an RV can be for the first time. My take? Do it if you’re experienced and aren’t planning any city travel. It’s cheaper to fly here and rent an RV than it is to drive yours cross-country to get here. Stick with something small to mid-sized, as it will fit better in campgrounds. And there are hundreds of campgrounds that cater to RV travelers across Florida, with many of them open to RVs only. If you’re a nature lover, you’ll find it an economical way to roam the state, since our fuel prices aren’t too bad compared to the rest of the country.
Take the Train
Florida doesn’t have much in the way of inter-city train service other than along the sole remaining Amtrak route through Florida. There are twice as many train stations as places where the train actually stops. If you need to go to a city where the train no longer stops, they’ll bus you there (and back) to a scheduled stop along the route. They designate this as “bus stop” on their list of stations.
Amtrak stations in Florida where you can actually step on a train include Deerfield Beach, Deland, Delray Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Jacksonville, Kissimmee, Lakeland, Okeechobee, Orlando, Palatka, Sebring, St. Petersburg, Tampa, Waldo, West Palm Beach, Wildwood, Winter Haven, and Winter Park.
Amtrak recently tested its east-west route across Florida’s Panhandle, which closed more than a decade ago due to hurricane damage. We hope it will reopen soon. If it does, it will connect Pensacola to Jacksonville via Tallahassee.
Tri-Rail connects cities between Palm Beach and Miami. It’s a commuter train, so it runs frequently on weekdays, less so on weekends. The same goes for Sunrail in Orlando, which passes through three counties but does not yet connect to the Orlando International Airport (except by using a bus to make the hop) or to the theme park area of town. Perhaps someday.
In downtown Tampa, the TECO trolley system is a retro delight, and is really more of a tourist attraction than a serious people-mover. It connects the hotel district along the riverfront to Ybor City, with stops at major tourist attractions like Channelside and the Florida Aquarium.
A Miami-to-Orlando rail system is in the works, but without any plans for intermediate stops along the way, it won’t ease the transportation problem much.
Board the Bus
Inside the state of Florida, Red Coach is the bus carrier of choice for hops between college towns and major cities. It connects Fort Lauderdale, Fort Pierce, Gainesville, Miami International Airport, Naples, Ocala, Orlando, Tallahassee, Tampa, and West Palm Beach. Greyhound works for city-to-city bus travel as well, but Red Coach is more comfortable.
City bus systems offer transportation options if you’re on a budget. Many Florida counties have a county-wide bus system in place, but only a few provide connections to neighboring counties. Some of the more useful bus systems for visitors are LYNX (Orlando metro), Miami-Dade Metrobus (Miami), CAT (Naples) and SCAT (Sarasota), since they can get you to many of the points of interest in their regions. In some coastal areas, linear bus options like the Jolley Trolley in Clearwater Beach can get you up and down the beachfront between hotels, restaurants, and shopping with a minimum of hassle.
In general, there is a lot of free parking throughout Florida. The major exceptions are in big cities, where parking garages are the norm, and in the downtown areas of smaller cities, where you’ll find metered parking. Beach parking will cost you in some places – like Sanibel Island and Boca Raton – and is totally free in other places, like most of the beaches along the Space Coast and all of the beach parking areas on Pensacola Beach. Hourly parking fees are charged at almost every park and beach in Lee County (Fort Myers / Sanibel).
If you’re headed to an upscale coastal destination, say Miami Beach or Fort Lauderdale, you don’t want a rental car. You want an airport shuttle, taxi, or Uber to your destination, since parking fees will eat you alive. Similarly, if you’re driving to these areas, you’re on the hook for some major fees. Valet rates and parking garage fees can run up to $25 a day.
Tip: Always carry quarters in your car for parking meters, but don’t leave them visible.
Toll Highways and Bridges
Florida has had toll highways since the 1920s, but until Florida’s Turnpike was built, nothing lengthy and high-speed. The Turnpike, as we call it, stretches 309 miles across Florida from I-75 in Wildwood diagonally down through Orlando to West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami before reaching its terminus at Florida City, the gateway to the Florida Keys.
Today, there are dozens of toll highways throughout Florida, primarily in major cities. Orlando is circled by SR 417, SR 429, and SR 528. Lakeland has the Polk Parkway circling it. Tampa has the Veterans Expressway leading north from the airport to the Suncoast Parkway. Fort Lauderdale has the Sawgrass Expressway. The new trend is to add toll lanes to the interstates in major metros, with rates that vary according to how clogged traffic is in the normal lanes. Scary, eh? You’ll find these in Fort Lauderdale on I-595, with more to come on I-4 in Orlando. Add in the toll bridges you’ll find around the state, and that’s a lot of dough to shell out for the privilege of driving a direct route (or accessing an island, like Sanibel). On a budget, you’ll need to balance the need for speed with the cost of tolls.
Florida has a statewide program called Sunpass where you can buy a transponder, link a credit card to it, and have the state pull the tolls directly from your account so you don’t have to deal with toll booths. If you plan to roam around Orlando by car, or expect to stay in Florida for an extended period, it’s worth picking up a Sunpass. You can purchase a Sunpass at Publix Super Markets, Walgreens, CVS, AAA offices, and at service plazas along Florida’s Turnpike.
Despite all of the waterways you’ll find throughout Florida, there are very few ferryboats remaining. Three, as a matter of fact. The St. Johns River Ferry, which is officially part of Florida A1A, crosses the St. Johns River between its north shore at St. George Island and the south shore at Mayport, downriver from downtown Jacksonville. It saves a significant amount of time from driving around. The car ferry that takes vehicles to Don Pedro Island is included in your stay at Palm Island Resort.
The ferryboat pictured at the top of this page is the oldest remaining ferry service in Florida. It’s called the Fort Gates Ferry and crosses the St. Johns River between Welaka and the former site of Fort Gates, now part of the Ocala National Forest in Salt Springs. It can only handle a car at a time, but it saves an hour of driving and is a fun excursion just to experience crossing the river with a 1920s Sharpie sailboat powering your trip.
From the earliest visits by outsiders, Florida has been romanticized in literature, in music, in movies, and even in non-fiction accounts. In 1575, Hernando D’Escalante Fontaneda, rescued after 17 years of living with the Calusa, writes of both the Cubans and Juan Ponce De Leon searching for eternal youth in the waters of Florida, “that they might see what river that could be which did such good work, even to the turning of aged men and women back to their youth.”
In 1905, a passenger on a steamship up the St. Johns River recounts his trip in Harper’s Weekly to “Florida, the ‘American Riviera,’ the land of orange groves and tropic bloom, of palatial hotels, of delightful drives, and limitless sea-beaches.”
The facts? Much of Florida is subtropical, but also retains features of the Appalachians along its Panhandle: deep ravines, quartz beaches of Appalchian sands tumbled down from the mountains, pockets of mountain laurel and rhododendron. Most of South Florida and the Florida Keys are true tropics, topped with Caribbean trees. Florida is also a very wet state, defined by vast river floodplains, bayous and swamps, and the sweep of waters south from Lake Okeechobee known as the Everglades. This is a large enough state that while snow flurries fall in Pensacola, an iguana can be munching down on a hibiscus flower in Miami.
Since the 1920s, tourism to Florida has been heavily promoted, and with the advent of air conditioning and the eradication of most tropical mosquito-borne diseases, a backbone of the economy: Florida has more incoming visitors than any other destination in the world, 87.3 million a year at last census. Compare that to 19 million residents the same year, and you can see why us folks who live here year-round feel a bit outnumbered.
Dig through these pages to learn more about Florida and where you can find more information to prepare yourself for your visit.
Unlike the rest of the East Coast, Florida is very laid back. Almost California-like in its casual demeanor. Place the blame (or the blessing) on the massive influx of servicemen training in Florida during World War II, who moved their families into Florida once the war was over. This massive influx of immigrants from outside the state echoed through the 50s and 60s, tipping the balance of residents away from the long-established genteel Southern ways and towards the newly minted Floridians with northern roots and a vacation attitude.
Still, you’ll find formal terms of address – “Miss Lucy, Mister Brown” and respectful use of “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” when you travel through rural Florida, especially in the towns of North Florida and Florida’s Panhandle. Echo that respect right back when you interact with innkeepers and shopkeepers.
Florida has banned smoking in hotels, stores, restaurants, and even in bars, except for those that serve a very limited amount of food. Smoking is not permitted in public buildings or on public transportation. Most medical complexes ban smoking altogether, even outdoors. If you’re a smoker, look for designated smoking areas – and don’t even think of lighting up in your rental car.
Florida’s economy is very dependent on tourism, and wait staff don’t receive full wages: they’re expected to make up the difference in tips. Tipping is never optional.
While the United States is an English-speaking country, you’ll find a great deal of Spanish-language signage in Florida, particularly in Central and South Florida. Florida ranks 3rd nationwide in Hispanic population among states. Nearly a quarter of all Floridians are Hispanic.
While traveling in South Florida, particularly in the Miami metro, you may find neighborhoods, restaurants, and shops where only Spanish is spoken.
Because travelers come to Florida from around the world, many major attractions have signage (and printed guidebooks) in a variety of languages in addition to Spanish, including German, French, and Chinese.
A Brief History of Florida
An overview of Florida history by the Florida Department of State, the agency that manages historical and cultural resources, including the Florida State Archives.
Florida 511 for Travelers
Obtain text or email alerts of road closures statewide, and view images from traffic cameras. You can also call 511 on your phone for these updates.
From the Florida Division of Emergency Management, real-time situation updates for weather and statewide emergencies, including major road closures, wildfires, flooding, and evacuation orders.
Florida’s Geologic History
No, Florida never had dinosaurs roaming its hills. But it did have giant sloths, mammoths and mastodons, and the biggest shark in the world. A capsule history from the Florida Geologic Survey.
Comprehensive outdoor information for Florida, from day hikes to backpacking trips, bicycle paths, campgrounds, and where to go swimming in springs. Disclaimer: I founded this website 10 years ago, and my husband and I still actively publish it.
Florida Scenic Highways
Information and interactive maps to help you find the many designated scenic highways in Florida, from the Florida Department of Transportation.
Florida State Parks
The state’s official website for state park information. We have more than 160 state parks, many with campgrounds, all appealing to outdoor lovers and budget travelers.
DeLorme’s Florida Atlas & Gazetteer
It’s worth having a copy of this detailed map book in your car to carry with you for those times when cell service is slow or non-existent, or you’re truly trying to stay off the grid.
NOAA Tide Predictions for Florida
A clickable list of all tide monitoring stations across Florida, by location, with a chart for each showing daily tide predictions for that location.
The state’s official tourism website by VISIT FLORIDA, the official tourism marketing corporation for the State of Florida.