More Sun for Less

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Florida's beautiful beaches and exciting attractions are extravagant - but your budget doesn't have to be. Here are top travel tips and advice from Mitzi Gordon, VISIT FLORIDA's former Smart Travel Expert.

My earliest childhood memories are filled with discovery, as I forged new frontiers in the swamps of my own backyard. As a kid in Orlando’s suburbs (and later in Tampa) I loved being outdoors and wandered endlessly through golf courses and neighborhood wetlands.

My first car set me free to range farther, taking day trips to natural springs and sandy shores. With a shoestring budget, a good map and a spirit of adventure, I would take off at a moment’s notice to chart unfamiliar places.

Nowadays, my passion for travel involves spending more time in hotel rooms than in tents. I still like to stretch my dollar, but I’m no longer using inflatable pool rafts as air mattresses or eating soup straight out of the can.

Experience has taught me how to plan ahead and travel smart, and my “backyard” has grown to cover the entire state, from Bok Tower to Bahia Honda.

With its pristine beaches, year-round sunshine and world-famous attractions, it’s easy to see why Florida is a magnet for travelers. More than 82 million people visited the state in 2010, according to VISIT FLORIDA research.

If you’re ready to join the ranks, but feel overwhelmed by Florida’s offerings, I’m here to help. Start with a few of my simple tips, and get the most out of your Sunshine State vacation by saving money, avoiding crowds and discovering hidden hotspots.

You’ll be basking in sun, dining with the locals and dancing to the beat in no time.


STEP ONE: The Basics

One of the most important decisions you’ll make is when to travel. Keep in mind that while traveling during Florida’s slower “off-seasons” can trim your budget, other factors come into play.

Weather, for instance. My boyfriend Harold and I sweated it out on our first trip to the Florida Keys, planned for a roasting August weekend. Setting up camp at Bahia Honda State Park was sticky business. But the island was verdant with flora, and nightly off-shore storms illuminated the sky with spectacular lightning displays.

One afternoon, we cruised from base camp over to Key West, where cold beer and a divine grouper sandwich from B.O.’s Fish Wagon was our reward. The normally crowded shack was nearly empty in August, and we had a corner all to ourselves.

Florida hosts a popular tourist season June through mid-August, when children are out of school and families take vacations together. But because of unpredictable weather, spiked with high temps and sudden showers, most summer crowds never reach winter proportions. (Although Orlando, the theme park capital of the world, sees peak tourism during summertime.)

Many Florida destinations, like Key West, offer incentives to encourage summer tourism, when lower prices and fewer people can compensate for less-than-perfect weather. If that trade-off works for you, a summer trip may be a good choice.

The Sunshine State’s major tourist season runs from late November until early April, when Florida is packed with the proverbial “Snow Birds” from northern states. If you have to travel during this time of year, be ready – hotel rates and crowds can swell to double their normal size.

Florida is usually pleasant throughout late April and May, before summer sizzles. This can be a great time to take advantage of off-season discounts on hotels and flights.

Pre-holiday months like September and October are also good times to travel, as most areas tend to remain cooler and less crowded. When I lived in New York City, October was my favorite time to come home. The weather was balmy and the flights were cheap.

There are always exceptions. At popular destinations, peak season rates can go into effect any time, such as during large conventions or special events. Finding a reasonably priced hotel in South Miami during the Art Basel international art show proved to be a difficult task, but I managed.

My advice: Research carefully and plan ahead. The classic motto, “Be Prepared,” is well applied here. As a general rule, the more advance study I do, the better my trip turns out. (A lesson learned after taking the opposite approach through many early adventures.)

Try surfing the Internet to connect with regional Web sites; browsing local newspapers; and contacting a Convention and Visitor’s Bureau near your chosen location. Learn as much as you can about your destination, and you’ll feel less out-of-sorts upon arrival.

Whenever possible, pick a vacation spot off the beaten path and be flexible about dates of travel. Starting a trip on Tuesday or Wednesday, rather than Friday, may save you money. For example, hotels usually fill up on weekends, but sometimes go half-empty during week nights, when managers offer discounted rates to attract customers.

If one solid rule exists, it’s this: Travelers seeking fair hotel prices and thinner herds should avoid Spring Break. Each year, this mid-March to early April holiday draws college students from around the world to Florida’s sunny shores, and they come ready to party like there’s no tomorrow. Most prices rise according to the demand, and travelers looking to relax might find their stress levels on the rise, as well.

STEP TWO: Transportation

Folks flying into Florida should book airline tickets well in advance – or at the last minute. Advance fares are dependably low, but airlines often post deeply discounted last-minute getaways. I’ve had success with this strategy, but it requires a lot of flexibility.

Opting for a red-eye flight can also lower airfares. Catch up on sleep with a nap at the hotel after check in, and you’ll be good for the rest of the trip.

Planning to drive while you’re in town? Always try to reserve your rental car in advance. Compare rates and ask for the lowest, selecting the smallest vehicle that will accommodate all passengers. If you plan to stay in Florida at least a week, ask for long-term car rental rates.

Not renting a car? Save on taxi fare by asking about airport transportation when you book your room. Many hotels offer free shuttle service to and from the airport.

Florida’s public transportation can be spotty – some cities have great shuttle and bus systems, others not so much. Research this in advance and you may be pleasantly surprised. During my last South Beach excursion, I zipped around town on the Metrobus for just $2 a trip. Smaller island or park destinations often have alternative methods that are as fun as they are affordable: bike and scooter rentals top my list.

When in doubt, don’t be afraid to speak up. Inquire about discounts for students, seniors, military, auto club, corporate members and so on. Most airlines, hotels, car rental agencies and attractions offer these incentives, but don’t always advertise them. Just be sure to have a valid ID or membership card in hand to seal the deal.

After any rate quote, get to the bottom line and request the cost of your total bill, which will include taxes and sometimes carries hidden fees.

STEP THREE: Lodging

It’s always a good idea to comparison shop and look for package deals before settling on 500

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