Every year by the end of ski season, the desire for warm weather and sunny beaches pulls at my heart (and my wallet) and we jet off in that direction. The most budget-friendly destination from Salt Lake City this particular year sent us to Florida. I bought flights into Orlando and out of Miami and booked a car for week. I reserved only the first two nights in Orlando, utilizing Airbnb for the first time, and left the rest up to where our wheels and budget took us.
We arrived after dark and, with the help of our host, found our way to our rental property. Through the shrouded darkness and giant trees, I could see Lake Jessamine at the end of the yard. After checking out our fully-furnished and clean apartment, we toasted the beginning of our spring vacation on our own private dock overlooking the shimmering reflections of nearby city lights.
I found myself on the dock again at sunrise for morning yoga, marveling at the privacy and our luck in finding such a cool place to stay (2 nights@$157). With the help of a quick Yelp search, we decided to have breakfast at Carol’s Place (3421 S Orange Ave, Orlando). A classic cozy diner with about a dozen tables and just as many locals, we dove into hearty biscuits and gravy and traditional diner coffee. While we watched the morning drizzle, we debated our plans for the day.
From the central flatlands around Orlando, Kennedy Space Center in Titusville on the east coast is less than an hour’s drive. With a hefty admission fee of $50 we were determined to pack as much in our day on the Space Coast as possible, which is not hard to do at this sprawling attraction. We strolled though massive air-conditioned museums, toured the launch area on a comfortable shuttle bus with an entertaining guide, and giggled while we were rattled to the core on the launch simulator. We were moved by the retelling of the Atlantis shuttle story, then overwhelmed by the actual ship suspended on display. In a reenactment of the lunar landing, we cheered along with the touchdown.
Twenty-five miles to the south lies Cocoa Beach, a popular coastal destination. By complete chance, we found ourselves vacationing at the same time and place as some family members and met them at the Boardwalk Bar on the Cocoa Beach Pier (401 Meade Ave, Cocoa Beach). We snacked on fried gator and ‘salt and vinegar fries’ while the sea breeze whispered through the open air bar. The view of the uncrowded and pristine beach showcased an active volleyball game and kids playing in the gentle waves.
Anticipating another day in the Orlando area, but with no solid plans for our next day, we set our sights on the area around I-Drive. We decided against the big ticket theme parks in favor of more budget friendly attractions. Disney Springs, formally known as Downtown Disney, is a free sample (with free parking too!) of Disney magic where we were enjoyed great people watching and expensive water-front drinks. Our big splurge for the day($25), we caught the newest Fast and the Furious at the state of the art IMAX theater. Early evening led us to Old Town USA, in Kissimmee. Funky souvenir shops, carnival rides, and open-air bars all free to wander about. As I mentioned before, we only had the first two nights booked, so as darkness fell, a quick search produced a nearby hotel where we scored a nice room on short notice for only $40. Totally within budget.
We high-tailed it out of central Florida in the morning and cruised west, destination: St Petersburg, about a two hour drive. We skirted south of Tampa on I-275 and crossed the huge expanse over Tampa Bay that is the Sunshine Skyway. We arrived at the Dali Museum mid-morning and leisurely strolled through 20,000 square feet of multiple stories showcasing Salvador Dali’s work, an exhibit on Leonardo da Vinci, and even more works of art scattered throughout the outdoor gardens. Heading south from St. Pete, we found lunch at Munch’s (3920 6th Street South, St. Petersburg). Featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, this original has been around since 1952 and is renown for it’s fried green tomatoes, which we definitely tried and devoured.
As we continued south, Airbnb came to the rescue for our evening’s spot to sleep. I submitted a request for a room with a king bed in Fort Myers for $45 on our way to Siesta Key. Voted #1 Beach by Travelers on Trip Advisor in 2015, this moderately crowded beach with soft, snow-white sand was a spectacular way to break up our trip and wait for a host response. Patty, a gentle and soft-spoken grandmother in her 70s, greeted us warmly when we arrived. She showed us to our room, made us feel comfortable and at home, and went about her business in the house. That evening we explored downtown Ft. Myers and discovered excellent pizza from Downtown House of Pizza (1520 Hendry St, Fort Myers) and live music in the rear courtyard. We rejoined Patty for Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, and Gray’s Anatomy, and it remains a treasured memory of all our Airbnb experiences.
We said our goodbyes to Patty as she blessed us with a prayer for safe travel. Back to Fort Myers, we didn’t want to miss the Edison and Ford Winter Estates. The museum’s fascinating variety of inventions and displays educated and enthralled us for hours. We toured the laboratory, seemingly undisturbed for decades and marveled at the 400 ft banyan tree that had been planted in the 1920s. Overall a valuable piece of history I’m glad we didn’t skip.
The majority of the rest of the day was spent driving. We moved south to Everglade City for a brief visit to the tiny Visitor Center, then east across the vast swampland of Big Cypress National Preserve and the Everglades. For extra adventure, we decided to break off the highway and take the old dusty Loop Rd through Big Cypress National Preserve. We encountered wild alligators sunning themselves in nearby bogs, including one up close run-in with a hefty adult that was, and I’m guessing here, at least 10 ft long. The next fours hours were spent driving south on Rt 1, heading to our next Airbnb, in Marathon, the Florida Keys.
With some confusion and driving in circles, we finally found our rental. True to the pictures online, we discovered a spacious seafoam green travel trailer reminiscent of the 1950s, complete with patio furniture and a BBQ grill (a huge score for only $150/2 nights). We were in love! and happy to call this our ‘island home’ for the weekend. For dinner we walked a short distance to Lazy Days South (725 11th St Ocean, Marathon) and sampled savory conch fritters while dusk settled upon us sitting at water’s edge.
We enjoyed the drive to Key West, cruising over vast bridges and gorgeous seas, passing through tiny towns and tucked away island retreats. In town, we traded our car for bicycles and hit the streets. This is by far the best way to see Key West. The streets are narrow, crowded, and flat and the town itself is only about 7 square miles. We pedaled all over, stopping where ever we pleased to taste this, drink that, shop here, listen to live music there. Although we had heard so much about the party that happens at sunset, we were Key’d out before then and made our way back to Marathon.
Wrapping up the end of the trip, we only had a few spots on our wish list left to check off. I cashed in Choice Rewards Points for a free hotel night just south of Ft. Lauderdale. Another big score while traveling on a budget! We drove to the city for dinner at a busy restaurant called Shuck ‘N Dive (650 N Federal Hwy, Ft Lauderdale) and although this place had great reviews, the service was terrible and the food was mediocre. Maybe it was just an off night. The next day we checked out and drove south through the heart of Miami, carving our way through imposing high rises and city traffic. A gem lies south of the metro area, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. Built in 1912, this sprawling estate entranced us to explore it’s many rooms and seaside gardens, feeling like we stepped back in time.
Not to be missed, we strolled along Calle Ocho in Little Havana. El Cristo Restaurant (1543 SW 8th St, Miami) served up a generous classic Cuban Sandwich that I gladly took half in a to-go box. A spur of the moment decision sent us west back to the Everglades. I found a Groupon for discounted admission and tour at Coopertown Airboats. We browsed the Alligator Exhibit, housing quite a few large reptiles and enjoyed the presentation we received before crossing the highway and loading the boats. Bring your earplugs, this is a rockin’ ride! Flocks of birds, including the gorgeous Purple Gallanule, flapped away as we raced through the mangroves. Alligators, as promised, were seen sunning themselves once we were cruising in the Everglades.
The grand finale, our last night in Florida, and we scored free lodging again! This time utilizing Couchsurfing.com, we found a willing host not far from the airport. Jeannette greeted us warmly and welcomed us into her home. We talked and drank and laughed, the guys played video games, and her son showed off his magic tricks. We enjoyed a clean and comfortable bed in a gorgeous home and made new friends.
The thrill of the open road, staying in unique places not owned by big corporations, eating a wide variety of local specialties, and making new friends and special memories…and making it all possible with a tight budget. It can be done, you just have to think outside the box!
Get a car and go! With so many apps available, you can let the planning happen as you go