Florida is a popular vacation destination for many good reasons. There are beautiful beaches lapped by warm ocean waters, quaint towns and sophisticated cities, nautical activities, wildlife refuges and world-famous theme parks, just to name a few attractions.
The peak of the tourist season lasts from mid-December to April – from snowbirds flocking to Florida for the sunshine to students with spring break fever. If the goal is getting the biggest bang for the least bucks, plan an off-season vacation, possibly in the late spring or early fall. These are the times when weather is mild statewide, the crowds are thinner and there are bargains to be had. July and August are also considered to be off-season and might be a good choice for those who don't mind some very hot weather, especially in south Florida. July and August are also peak season for rain and insects throughout the state, so plan accordingly. Don't forget that Florida also has a hurricane season lasting from June through November. Before finalizing any plans, see if the area you're going to visit has a history of hurricanes and/or tropical storms.
Plotting a Course
Before committing to a specific time or accommodation, think about the most important things you want out of this trip and how to fit them into your budget. What's at the top of the list? Nature lovers might look for an exploration of back roads and nature trails in rural northern Florida. Families tend to head for the fun of major theme parks – including Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld – in central Florida. Adventurous couples can enjoy the contrast between the vibrant culture of Miami and the primeval splendor of the Everglades, both in southern Florida. Or maybe you hanker for the artsy allure of Key West, off the southern tip, where Papa Hemingway did a lot of his writing, drinking and deep-sea fishing. Once the goals are established, it's time to devise a workable plan for an affordable vacation.
What to Expect
Traveling during the off-season – when costs tend to be lower pretty much across the board – is one way to save money, but anyone who doesn't mind a little homework can save even more. Before taking off, do some prep work. "Visit Florida" is the official organ of the state's tourism industry, and it's jam-packed with useful information about recreation, accommodations, dining, culture and more. The "Visit Florida" guide can be accessed either through its interactive website or by ordering a print version. Contact attractions you're especially interested in and ask for travel brochures. Also, you can navigate the websites of hotels, restaurants and parks. Contacting these places directly – through emails or phone calls – is a good option and puts you in control of your trip.
Ask about group rates, student rates, family rates, AAA discounts and so on. When making reservations, ask for final prices, including any extra costs, such as taxes and additional fees. If things start to look too complicated, it's wise to talk with a travel agent who makes her living by sorting these things out, and who may be aware of deals that are not well-advertised.
Deals and Steals
Check the availability of off-season travel packages, where a number of things are "bundled" together at a lower cost than if purchased individually. A typical package could include reductions in airfare, hotel rates, rental car rates and more. Look for such packages, including limited-time-only deals, on the websites of airlines and major hotels. Also, theme parks such as Disney World or Universal Studios often offer bundles for rides, food and parking. However, don't buy a package just for the sake of getting a deal when you're not all that interested in some portion of it.
Always make sure any discounts are through legitimate enterprises. Beware of unsolicited phone calls and emails promising luxury vacations at dirt-cheap prices, even when they claim to be from legitimate companies.
Flying on a Budget
When booking a flight, always ask for the cheapest fare, which is not necessarily coach-rate. If a charter flight is acceptable, look into flying charter with a group. Inclusion in a group can be arranged through travel agencies, youth groups, churches, schools, clubs – virtually any group whose members have something in common. Once the plane has landed in Florida, folks can go their own ways. If a flight is undersold, it may offer deep discounts to fill the seats. This is obviously more risky than making a reservation in advance, but it works for some folks. Sometimes a weeknight "red-eye" flight is cheaper than holiday and weekend flights. If there is a shuttle available from the airport, take it; it's cheaper than a taxi. Or make arrangements beforehand to have a car rental waiting at the airport.
Have a great trip to Florida, however you plan it – just don't forget the sunscreen!