Most visitors go to Florida to see Orlando's theme parks or to relax on the beach. Choosing Walt Disney World as your destination is easy, but how do you pick a beach when Florida has some 800 miles of them?
Indeed, the Sunshine State has so much vying for your attention that planning a trip can seem overwhelming. But Florida's size and diversity also mean that it has bargains galore for the traveler who knows where to go, when to go, and how to mine for discounts.
We have scoured the state to come up with these great money-saving tips, which will tell you where and how to look for the best deals. Also here is information and our advice about transportation, seasons and special events, taking care of your special needs, and picking among the myriad types of accommodations--always with an eye on saving you money.
We've captured Florida's many personalities, attractions, and specific bargains in our destinations section. Peruse each one to see which destinations offer the activities you're looking for and the prices that fit your budget. If you pick the right place and go at the right time of year, you can have a terrific trip to Florida without feeling forced into bankruptcy.
With careful planning, two people can travel in Florida from $70 a day, combining their money for accommodations and at least two meals a day. That is, we assume you have at least $140 a day between the two of you for room and board, less drinks and tip. The costs of sightseeing, outdoor activities, transportation, and entertainment are all extras, but don't worry: We provide tips on saving money in those areas as well.
In an effort to restore the state's tourism business in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Visit Florida is now offering special discounts on its Web site, www.flausa.com. Or you can call tel. 888/5-FLA-USA.
And now, for the tip list:
1. Avoid traveling during the high seasons, especially in southern Florida where hotel rates can more than double from mid-December to April. Keep in mind also that many airlines have deep-discount promotional fares to Florida during the off-season. Central Florida sees less seasonal difference in prices, given its somewhat cooler winters and the year-round clientele visiting its theme parks. You can survive on $70 a day in northern Florida even during its high-summer season.
2. Always ask about discounts: corporate, students, military, auto club, senior citizen, and so on. Most airlines, car-rental firms, accommodations, attractions, and even some restaurants offer such price breaks but don't necessarily volunteer the information. Be sure to bring identification or your group membership card with you. Most Florida activities and attractions offer discounts, but you'll need a valid ID to qualify for the bargain rates.
3. Use any coupons you can get your hands on. The ubiquitous give-away booklets (such as Florida on the Go) you'll see in racks at the tourist information offices and elsewhere may look like junk mail, but they're loaded with discount coupons you can use at hotels, motels, restaurants, and attractions throughout the state. Other, more comprehensive coupon books are for sale. In business since 1961, the Entertainment publications (tel. 800/374-4464, www.entertainment.com) offer particularly well-stocked versions for Miami and the Keys and Orlando. Its books usually cost between $28 and $48, depending on the locale. Over at the St. Pete and Clearwater beaches, the Gulf Beaches of Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce (tel. 800/944-1847 or 727/360-6957, www.tampabaybeaches.com) sells a book with discounts at many area restaurants, attractions, and other establishments for about $30. You can recoup more than the cost of these books if you use them religiously. In Orlando, contact the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau (tel. 800-643-9492, www.orlandocvb.com) and ask for a "Magicard" providing up to $500 in discounts on meals, some lodging, and at the smaller attractions. Also look for the free Where Orlando in restaurants and hotel lobbies; it contains discount coupons, and its Web site (www.travelfacts.com) has links to hot deals.
4. Ask for the cheapest airfare, not just the coach fare. As the tips below illustrate, there are many options.
5. Buy your ticket well in advance. Most airlines offer deep discounts on tickets purchased 7, 14, or 21 days before the departure date--and the cheap seats sell out first. Always ask about restrictions such as staying over a Saturday night. Tickets are usually nonrefundable if you must cancel your trip, but even if you have to pay an extra fee if you alter your plans later, you'll get substantial savings over the regular fare.
6. On the other hand, you can often benefit by buying at the last minute. You do run the risk of being stuck with a really expensive ticket--or no ticket at all--but when a flight is only half-sold, the airlines may offer deep, deep discounts to fill seats that aren't sold 72 hours before takeoff. This is a better strategy in the off-season, when flights are more likely to have empty seats.
7. Be flexible in your schedule. Flying on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday can save you money with some airlines; the prime Friday, Sunday, and Monday flights are often priced higher. Also inquire about night flights; the red-eye may leave you bleary, but if it's substantially cheaper, it might be worth it--you can make up the sleep later.
8. Surf the Internet and save. There are lots of Web pages and online services designed to clue you in on discounted airfares, accommodations, and car rentals. And the airlines often sell last-minute unused seats on their Web sites.
9. If you don't have regular access to the Internet or if you don't want to conduct your business online, consult a travel agent. They can get on their machines and find you the cheapest airfares, room rates, package deals, and other travel bargains that you could never find. You're under no obligation to buy, although most agents now charge a fee for airline tickets, since most airlines have all but eliminated commissions in recent years. On the other hand, agents still work for commissions when selling hotels, car-rental companies, and tour operators.
10. Ask a travel agent about charter flights. Several airlines, such as the Canadian carrier Air Transat (tel. 866/847-1112, www.airtransat.com), have charter flights to Florida during winter. They can offer great savings over commercial airline fares, but make sure you book with a reputable firm and inquire about all restrictions before you pay.
11. Check out consolidators (also known as "bucket shops"). These wholesalers buy tickets directly from the airlines in bulk at heavy discounts, and then resell them. Many consolidators also book charter as well as commercial flights. The tickets are usually heavily restricted (ask about all the details), but you may save a bundle--usually 20% to 35%. See our article on consolidators by clicking here.
12. Check the travel ads in your local newspaper. Airlines, consolidators, and charter and tour companies love to advertise package deals and promotions in weekend travel sections around the country. Just remember: If you're dealing with a new company, or one that you're unfamiliar with, it's a good idea to check with the Better Business Bureau to make sure it's legit.
13. Take local shuttle services to and from the airports. Unless you're a family or group, they usually are less expensive than taxis. Some hotels will even pick you up at the airport for free, so be sure to ask if they have airport transportation when you book your room.
14. Reserve your rental in advance, especially during the high seasons when cars, particularly the small, least expensive models, can be in heavy demand. Not only will you have a car waiting, you'll avoid paying top dollar for a vehicle that's larger than you need.
15. Call all the major car-rental firms, or check their Web sites, and compare rates. Always ask for their cheapest rates. Even after you've made your reservations, call again and check rates a few days or weeks later--you may stumble upon a cheaper rate.
16. If you'll be visiting for a week or more, ask for a long-term rate. Most Florida firms offer substantial discounts for weekly rentals, especially during the off-season.
17. Be sure to ask for discounts if you belong to a national organization such as AAA, AARP, Costco Wholesale, or USAA, which negotiate special rates for their members. But be wary: Some of these specials may be more expensive than the rental companies' weekly rates or promotional deals, so ask about all possibilities.
18. Keep in mind that Florida has a $2.05-per-day state highway fund surcharge, that state and local sales taxes will be added to your bill, and that many airports tack on another fee. The car-rental companies don't include these taxes when they quote rates, so before you hang up, be sure to ask how much your entire bill will be.
19. If there are only one or two of you traveling, reserve the least expensive subcompact or compact (sometimes called economy cars). You'll also save money on fuel and have an easier time parking. But be careful: Some reservations agents may tell you that all their least expensive cars are booked; this may be a ploy to get you to upgrade, so thank them and call another company. On the other hand, if you arrive with a valid reservation with a confirmation number, the agents are obligated to honor the rate you were quoted, even if they have to give you an upgrade. Make them stick to their original quote.
20. Never agree to buy gasoline from a car-rental company. It will always be less expensive at a station in town, so fill up just before returning the vehicle.
21. If you don't mind driving to Florida, ask about "drive out" programs that some firms use to reposition their fleets. Major companies like Avis, Budget, Hertz, and National sometimes move their cars from northern cities to southern Florida for the winter season, and you could get a ridiculously cheap rate if you'll drive the vehicles south (or back north in the warmer months).
22. Book early to get the least expensive room, and shop around. Use the toll-free numbers; at some chains, only the reservation clerks at the national number know about package deals that can save you money. Some major chains also post deals on their Web sites.
23. Don't just accept the "rack" or published rate--there's almost always a lower price available. Ask for the cheapest rate and about discounts for seniors, families, or any national organizations that you might belong to (especially AAA and AARP). Ask about special promotions and discounts for stays of a week or more.
24. Inquire about golf, tennis, and other packages. Many Florida establishments offer them, and you will pay less than if you ante up separately for the room and activities. Sometimes you can even get a rental car thrown in. We've mentioned the hotels and resorts that regularly offer package deals in the accommodations listings in this book. Their offers change frequently, however, so you'll have to ask.
25. Choose a hotel or motel that offers free continental breakfasts. The savings could enable you to afford better meals at lunch and dinner. The accommodations listings in this book indicate the properties that offer free breakfasts.
26. Stay a block or more from the beach, since hotels and motels not directly on the water usually are less expensive than those directly facing the sand. And in places where the prime resorts are on islands, mainland hotels and motels usually cost less than their offshore brethren (they also are more likely to offer discounted weekday or weekend rates). And even if you elect a beachfront hotel, rooms with bay or garden views normally are less expensive than those directly facing the ocean or gulf.
27. If you're traveling with children, check to see if they can stay in your room for free. Or better yet, consider getting a one-bedroom suite with a pullout sofa in the living room; one suite is usually cheaper than two hotel rooms, and you'll still have privacy.
28. Get a room with cooking facilities. Many Florida establishments have units with at least kitchenettes. They cost a bit more than regular rooms, but preparing your own breakfast and lunch could slash your food costs in half. And it makes life a lot easier, especially if you're traveling with kids.
29. If you're staying for a week or more, consider a condominium unit, apartment, or cottage, especially if you're traveling with children. Condos usually have a sleeper sofa as extra bedding, a kitchen that lets you prepare some of your own meals, and the complexes usually have a pool and often tennis courts and other recreational facilities. Most have weekly rates that are less than paying by the night at hotels. Do note, however, that you'll usually have to pay extra for daily maid service.
30. Choose a hotel or motel that lets you make local calls for free. Most charge 50¢ or more per local phone call, and some even hit you with a fee on credit-card calls. Use the pay phone down in the lobby instead. Many hotels also tack on hefty surcharges for laundry, dry cleaning, and other services. You can cut these costs by choosing one with a guest laundry and washing your own clothes, and you can easily find dry cleaners on your own.
31. If you show up without a reservation, bargain at the front desk. This usually won't work during the high seasons, when most hotels are nearly full, but you might be able to strike a very favorable off-season deal. If you try this, arrive in late afternoon or early evening, when the majority of the guests with reservations have already checked in, and rooms that aren't yet occupied are likely to stay empty for the night. If the front-desk clerk is unhelpful, ask to speak to the hotel manager, who may be the only employee who can discount rooms.
32. Take advantage of Florida's usually fine weather by planning daytime and romantic sunset picnics. Many towns and cities have shops purveying gourmet picnic fare, and most of the large supermarkets such as Publix, Albertson's, and Winn-Dixie have deli sections with good selections of meats, cheeses, breads, and salads.
33. Ask the staff at your hotel or motel which local restaurants and cocktail lounges have happy-hour specials. They signal reduced prices on drinks, and sometimes appetizers.
34. If you don't mind dining before 6pm, take advantage of the early-bird specials offered by many restaurants. The selections may be limited, but they are a less-expensive way to sample the fine fare at otherwise expensive establishments. We've pointed out many of them in the dining listings in this book.
35. If you're traveling with the kids, inquire about children's menus or discounts. Most restaurants in Florida offer them--and at resort-restaurant prices, they can be a real boon to your budget.
36. Look for fixed-price menus at the pricier restaurants, or splurge on a special meal at lunch rather than dinner. In general, you'll pay half (and sometimes even less than that) as much for a lunchtime main course as you will at dinner. You may not get the attentive service, but you'll be surprised at the quality, even at some of the pricier restaurants.
37. The Friday Calendar section of The Orlando Sentinel (www.orlandosentinel.com/) sometimes includes two-for-one dinner special coupons and other discounts on entertainment. It also lists cultural events and concerts throughout Central Florida, some of them free or for a small admission.
Sightseeing and Activities
38. Bring your own golf clubs, tennis rackets, snorkeling and scuba gear, and other equipment. In addition to saving the rental costs, your gear will fit correctly and be in top condition.
39. Before booking a tee-time, check with the agencies that represent many Florida golf courses. Some of them offer discounted fees and golf-travel packages. The best way to find a good deal for Orlando's many golf courses is to look in the sports section of the local newspaper, The Orlando Sentinel, for discount coupons and otherwise unadvertised specials.
The Major Theme Parks
40. Stick with the Value Pass over the Park Hopper when buying multiday tickets to the Walt Disney parks in Orlando. Both options permit visits to multiple parks over 4 days, but the Park Hopper pass allows you to visit more than one park during a single day. This can take considerable effort and time, so it's better to stick to the Value Pass, especially if you are traveling with children. And the 4-day Value Pass will save you about $17 per person.
41. Buy a combined pass to Universal Studios Florida, SeaWorld, Wet 'n Wild in Orlando, and Busch Gardens Tampa. You pay one price to get into all three over either a 7- or a 10-day period. The combined passes cost more up front, but you'll save in the long run. You can also save 10% if you purchase tickets on the Internet at Universal's site (www.uescape.com).
42. Look for discount tickets to SeaWorld and Universal Studios Florida on 2-liter bottles of Pepsi products. These discounts are usually available during Halloween Horror Night at Universal.
43. You can save 10% by purchasing your SeaWorld tickets through its Web site (www.SeaWorld.com).
44. Take food and drink with you into the parks. Grocery stores and discount drugstores tend to be a little more expensive in tourist areas, but filling coolers or backpacks with snacks, lunch basics, sodas, bottled water, juices, and other drinks will save you a bundle over the cost inside the parks.
45. Invest in inexpensive plastic rain ponchos for the entire family before you leave home. Many major parks include water rides, and it's miserable to walk around wet all day, even in the summer. Plus, they will come in handy during summer storms, which can come up quickly. In the parks, they cost twice what you'll pay at home.
46. If you have young children, bring lightweight, easy-to-carry strollers, since rentals inside the parks can add up. Don't bring your Cadillac of kiddie carriers: It could be stolen.
47. Think twice about items such as souvenir cups or fanny packs that some hotels leave in your room. These are not complimentary: If you use them, you will be charged.
48. The Disney parks have outdoor carts selling things such as turkey legs, baked potatoes, and fresh fruit. These can easily make a simple meal and are cheaper than any restaurant food.
49. Buy your tickets to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay at Tampa Bay Visitor Information Center, across the street from the main entrance (tel. 813/985-3601, www.thcva.com). You'll save a few dollars, and the staff is expert at advising you on how to maximize your time in the park. Many area hotels and motels have packages that include free or discounted admission.
50. Check out the local newspapers for free concerts and other entertainment in municipal parks. The Friday newspapers usually have entertainment sections listing activities for the upcoming weekend. And be sure to pick up copies of the local "alternative" tabloid newspapers; they're free and are packed with entertainment ideas.
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