A Florida Keys trip is the ultimate holiday for outdoor lovers, adventure seekers and road trip enthusiasts. Having just returned from our own road trip from Key Largo to Key West, we have compiled the best tips to help you plan and organize your trip from what to see and how to budget for all the things you may want to do. A Florida Keys road trip sets the background for an amazing vacation, well worth adding to your travel bucket list. Read on as we share our lessons learned to help you make the most of your visit.
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What (& Where) are the Florida Keys?
What exactly are the Florida Keys? The “Florida Keys” refers to an archipelago with around 1700 islands at the southern tip of Florida, only 90 miles from Cuba. Officially, the Keys begin around 12 miles south of Miami, extending south and south-westward more than 137 square miles long. Many of these keys are actually just mangrove forests on fossilized coral beds, while others have been developed into commercial centers and holiday destinations.
A few of the main islands that you will have probably heard before include Key West, Marathon, and Key Largo.
How to Visit the Florida Keys
You may be wondering how exactly you can visit the Florida Keys if they are a collection of islands. The coolest thing about this area is that it is possible to drive from the top of the Keys all the way to the bottom via the Florida Keys Overseas HIghway which covers around 113 miles from mainland Florida to Key West. Thus, one of the best way to visit is to plan a Miami to Key West road trip that takes in all the best spots on your Florida Keys trip.
Driving the Overseas Highway from Miami to Key West will give you the opportunity to see some of the most beautiful scenery in the state. Along your journey you will cross 42 bridges connecting some of the most interesting islands in the United States, encompassing mangrove forests and even areas with pine trees.
Getting to the Florida Keys
The best way to get to the Florida Keys is typically to fly either to Key West International Airport or to Miami International Airport. For most visitors, the best flight options will arrive to MIA which is the perfect base to begin your trip. If you are planning a Florida Keys road trip, you will also need to rent a car. I would recommend getting a smaller car as there are small parking lot areas, your boutique hotel might have limited parking areas and parking is tough in places like Key West.
How Many Days in the Keys?
Planning your Florida Keys trip is never easy when it comes to deciding how many days you should stay in the Keys. If you want to move quickly, you could do it in as little as 3 days, but you would be missing out on a ton. Ideally, I would suggest at least 7 days but you could easily fill your days up to 10-12 days.
When to Plan a Florida Keys Trip?
High season for Florida is typically in the winter months as it has the best temperatures and weather, however many families (like ours) visit in the summer which also is technically hurricane season. For the most part though, hurricanes typically really begin in mid August to the end of October. We visited in mid June and the weather was hot and humid with scattered storms most days. One of the best things about visiting the Keys even during hurricane season is you know you will have a few days warning, so you can usually adjust accordingly. That said, make sure to have travel insurance if you are traveling at this time to be prepared for cancellations.
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Top 15 Tips for Planning a Florida Keys Trip
If you are planning a Florida Keys trip there are a few things that you should know before you go to help your trip go more smoothly. Below are our top tips that you should keep in mind during the planning phases of your trip. Rest assured by being prepared you will have a good time and know all the best ways to experience the Keys.
Plan to Stay in Multiple Destinations
Even though the entire drive of the Florida Keys from Miami is only about 165 miles, it is highly recommended to stay in a few different places along the Keys to fully experience it all and to avoid driving back and forth every day on the 1 lane road. We recommend staying in Key Largo and Key West for sure. If you have more time on your trip, you could also stay between the two in Islamorada. The main islands that visitors tend to stay at include Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon and Key West. Additionally, if you plan to spend any time at the national parks, you could also spend a night in Homestead outside of Miami. During our visit we stayed in Homestead, Key Largo and Key West which was perfect for the amount of time we had. If we had a few more days, I would have loved a stay in or around Marathon.
The Keys are Expensive
The Florida Keys are not a cheap holiday destination no matter how you cut it, but it is SO worth the expense in the end. From the endless amount of water activities and tours, to accomodation and eating out all of your meals it can really add up. There are ways you can save money if you plan far in advance and really budget and plan out the things that are most important for your visit.
Camping is an option all along the keys in the various state parks. These book out WELL in advance though so you must be prepared, but that is one of the best ways to really cut your costs on a trip to this area. Also cooking some meals at your hotel can help reduce costs, or looking for hotels that provide free breakfast. We had a full kitchen at our cottage in Key Largo which was amazing.
Tipping is Expected
One of the most important things to know when planning your Florida Keys trip is that tipping is the expected norm here in everything you do. When you start adding it up each day it becomes a lot, so it is important to really budget in this extra cost for all of your guided tours, water sport adventures and of course hotels and restaurants. Even buying a cup of coffee these days comes with an extra 18% or ore tip! This is a good thing to plan into your budget in advance. If you are taking a boat tour, the sea plane over to Dry Tortugas, a snorkel adventure, a taxi, etc you will be expected to provide a tip.
It is Hot & Humid
Everyone knows Florida has a reputation for being hot and humid. And well, it is true! While this can be a major deterrent for many people, even though I am not a fan of the heat or humidity, we actually managed quite well even in mid June! Of course we came outfitted in our favorite wool which helped keep us cooler than had we worn cotton. It also dried quickly when we did get super sweaty! Bring light, breathable clothes that dry quickly and keep you covered. My go to outfit on this trip was this dress or this tank top with these bike shorts and my coverup! (see the photo of me at the Southernmost Point in the Continental United States above). Being dressed in cool clothes can help make all the difference.
Bring Reusable Water Bottles
There isn’t a huge push in Florida to reduce plastic usage as they still provide plastic bags at shops and plastic water bottles are all over, but to help reduce plastics finding their way into the ocean, we highly recommend bringing your own reusable water bottles. And since it is so hot for much of the year, I would highly recommend you take something like a hydro flask that will keep your water cold all day! We would fill up our bottles with ice in the morning, add a little water and then could refill it as the day went on. And it makes the perfect souvenir collector to add your stickers to.
Beaches are Few & Far Between
The Florida Keys is not where you come if you want to laze on a white sandy beach with sand as fine as flour. That is the more common in places on the Gulf of Mexico, like Clearwater! The Florida Keys are, or were essentially small islands made up of mangrove forests on fossilized coral reefs, hence there aren’t the long stretches of white sand beautiful beaches you might be expecting since these are islands. That said, there are some great places to seek out while on this chain of islands. Some of the best beaches can be found in Bahia Honda State Park, at Smathers Beach in Key West and Sombrero Beach. You can always fit in a little beach time, but just know that your main Florida Keys activities are going to be out in or on the water!
Budget for Adrenaline Activities
Whether you are fishing, diving, kayaking, or parasailing, there are tons of options for adventure on the water throughout the Florida Keys. Of course these add up quickly, but it is well worth budgeting for some of these. Islamorada is often called the Sport Fishing Capital of the world, which makes it a great place to go fishing, while parasailing is a must do in Key West.
Somehow we managed to snorkel every day of our visit to the Keys which was amazing, but it also wasn’t always cheap. Plan out the main water activities you would like to do during your visit and see if you can hit them all in one go. We really loved our day out with Fury Key West on their Ultimate Adventure H2.0. It included a quick banana boat ride, jet skiing, parasailing (see the video below for our experience!), a water playground and snorkeling in an all day boat trip. For $169, which also included breakfast and lunch this was a steal! It allowed us to try a lot of activities all in one day. There are also great options for snorkeling right off the beach or piers in many places.
Try to Get in the Water Daily
If you are planning a Florida Keys trip during the summer months when it is super hot and humid, try to plan time to get in the water every day. Whether this is taking a boat trip out onto the ocean where you can hop in or planning down time at your hotel pool, you will want the opportunity to cool off with water every day. Trust me!
On this note, make sure to spend some time under the water to see so much more of what is happening in the Keys! the diving and snorkeling here are really great as this is the world’s 3rd largest reef! The tropical fish and marine life are so beautiful and so abundant. We snorkeled every day and every dip under the water was a new adventure with something new and cool to see. It wasn’t always crystal clear water, but the visibility was pretty good most of the time. The Keys have everything from snorkeling off an electric boat to SNUBA for first timers.
Bring ONLY Reef Safe Sunscreen
One of the most important factors to know when planning a trip to the Florida Keys is to bring only reef safe sunscreen with you if you plan to be in the water at all. As organizations are working hard to reduce the pollution in the waters, one of the easiest ways to help keep the coral reef alive and help restoration efforts is to make sure you are only using reef safe sunscreen. We love this brand, but you can also use this brand, which is easily available at most stores. To help reduce the amount of sunscreen we need to put on, we also always recommend wearing long sleeve swim shirts while on the water or in the water.
Don’t Skimp on the Bug Repellent
The mosquitos are horrendous in some places and at certain times of year. During our June visit we were eaten alive at Biscayne National Park and the Everglades. For much of our visit in the Lower Keys and Middle Keys the mosquitos were minimal and were kept at bay with a quick spray. That said, if you are anything like us, make sure to come prepared. I typically spray our clothes with permethrin before going to a buggy place and get these bracelets for my son as he is a bug magnet. This time I forgot, so we had to purchase bug spray locally. Make sure to get sweat resistant as well as you will be sweaty most likely!
If you want to have the most flexibility in when and where you snorkel, consider bringing your own gear. It was great to have our own snorkel mask so that when an opportunity arose to snorkel we were prepared. While most tours do provide the gear, it is nice to know yours works well. In this realm, we also highly recommend bringing your own towels as none of the tours have them and you will need them all the time. We have several that we always bring on trips. Mine is this one which is large, doesn’t collect sand and dries overnight easily. My son has a quick dry towel, but also uses his Nomadix poncho as a towel and cover up. Lastly, we would recommend having a mesh lightweight tote to keep all your gear in to easily take from one place to another.
Eat All the Key Lime
Yes, Key Lime Pie is really a big deal here and you will have the opportunity to try it at almost every restaurant. But what you really need to do is read up on it before you arrive so you can have a basic idea of what you are looking for in your pie slices. Some of the best places for key lime pie are in your regular restaurants, so you don’t have to always go out of your way to find some delicious treats.
Eating Out is Expensive
Meals are expensive in the Florida Keys. Coming from Los Angeles, I wasn’t expecting to see prices as high as at home or even higher for what often felt like a mom and pop restaurant. While the food was always pretty amazing, it definitely wasn’t expected. If we got an appetizer and two main dishes with only water our meals were coming out to minimum $60. As such we tried to find more local places, chose appetizer sized plates more often and didn’t always eat fresh fish even though that is the best thing to eat here. That said, you will eat at some of the best restaurants without having to dress up or make reservations, so do make sure to pop into a few places! Our absolute favorite was The Fish House in Key Largo.
Utilize the Florida Keys Website for Planning
One of the best resources to plan your trip (besides us!) is the Florida Keys Visitor Website. Here you will find more information on where to eat, stay and things to do.
Take Time to Learn While Here
While a Florida Keys trip might be all about fun and adventure, there are actually some really great learning opportunities here as well. We highly recommend taking time to learn about the Coral Restoration work that is happening (and that you can volunteer to be part of if you are a diver!). Additionally, the Turtle Hospital is an amazing resource to find out all about the sea turtles that call the Keys home and how this one facility does so much to help them. If you visit, make sure to pick up one of their laminated cards to take out with you in case you see an injured turtle on your water adventures.
Furthermore, if you are a book lover or history lover make sure to visit Ernest Hemingway’s House and if you have time the Key West Shipwreck Museum is also super cool and a must visit. Another great place to visit is Pigeon Key Island where you can learn about the old seven mile bridge and the workers who lived on this small island. While here you can also hop off the pier for some snorkeling! The Pigeon Key Tram is super cute and a great way to get out here if you don’t want to walk or if you don’t have your own bike to ride out.
Take Guided Tours
Even though I have mentioned several times how expensive things can be on a Florida keys trip, I will say that everytime we took a guided tour we were very happy with the money we spent. We learned so much more, saw so much more in the water and really enjoyed the day more by having someone to ask questions to. We loved so many tours we did, but the most educational tour we took was at Biscayne National Park. We did a snorkel and eco paddle tour where we learned about the history of the park, the ecology of the mangroves and saw some cool stuff under the water.
Plan to Visit a National Park on your Florida Keys Trip
There are 3 National Parks located either in or very near to the Florida Keys. If you can set aside time to visit one or all of them, your trip will be greatly enhanced! The hardest one to reach is the Dry Tortugas National Park which lies 70 miles off the coast of Key West and is surrounded by a sea of stunning turquoise waters. You can reach the island by ferry or seaplane – both of which sell out quite a bit in advance. If you think this is something you want to do, book it very early!
Biscayne National Park is another national park just at the top of the Keys about 20 minutes from Key Largo outside of Homestead. This national park is about 95% underwater. Here you have the option for snorkeling day trips, kayaking through mangrove forests and even sailing out to further islands.
Lastly, not totally in the Keys, but close enough is Everglades National Park. For a quick visit, head to Royal Palms Visitor Center to see alligators and get a feel of what this park is all about.
A Florida Keys trip is truly one of the best holiday destinations in the United States. It provides the feel of being out of the country with the Cuban culture, the chill vibes while also providing the ease of in country travel. I highly recommend putting the Florida Keys on your travel wishlist. There is so much to discover there, we are already planning our next visit.