Miami and South Florida are long-established tourist meccas, offering the best in beaches, entertainment, dining, and attractions. It's easy to spend too much money enjoying these amenities.
When to Visit
It's best to avoid peak tourist periods such as Christmas and spring break when restaurant lines are long, causeways are clogged and attractions are jammed. Also be careful scheduling trips during hurricane season (August-October can be troublesome months). Even if a hurricane does not hit the area, the mere threat creates multiple logistical problems. Mid-winter and late spring are two high-value times for a visit.
South Florida has three major airports. Use that fact to your advantage. This is one of those places where it pays to shop by airport. International terminals at Miami (MIA), Fort Lauderdale (FLL), and Palm Beach County (PBI) are all located within a 60-mile span along I-95. Fares can vary quite a bit from one airport to the next, and sometimes the price of ground transportation pales in comparison to the savings. At MIA, the bus station is in Concourse E, directly across from U.S. Customs. Cab rides into downtown Miami generally run about $40.
Where to Eat
There are many places in South Florida that serve "Early Bird Specials" for mainly elderly patrons on fixed incomes. You'll pay less but eat very early dinners. For great hoagies, check out LaSpada's in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea and other Broward County locations, or make a small splurge and eat at the Too Jay's locations in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Many shopping centers have bagel shops that frequently offer filling lunches at modest prices.
Another source for good, updated information on dining is SouthFlorida.com. It's tough to keep up with what's hot, what's gone out of business, and who is keeping up the good work. Recommendations here will provide an informed opinion to guide your dining choices.
Where to Stay
During the late 20th century, the "South Beach" area of Miami Beach was a slum. Since that time, many of the Art Deco, stucco buildings there have been restored. This trendy locale is a great place to find small budget hotels with reasonable prices. Some are so small they don't have their own web sites, so you'll need to use TripAdvisor and other online directories to find them. Beach-side cities along the coast have large selections of these small hotels. Be aware that they vary in quality. As you search for Miami-area hotel stays, look for the family-owned, well-established places.
Three-star hotel under $130/night: The New Hotel Miami Beach offers a great north beach location and free parking.
If the beach and a few local attractions are your aim, you might be able to visit without renting a car. But be aware that many of the more interesting area attractions (the Everglades, for example) are quite a distance from where you're likely to stay. Car rental rates in Florida tend to be reasonable because of the volume of business. Tri-Rail provides north-south service from West Palm Beach to Miami Int'l Airport. There is an online fare calculator. It also connects with Metrorail and Metrobus routes.
They offer monthly passes (obviously not geared for visitors) and discounts for younger riders.
South Florida Attractions
The aforementioned Art Deco district is well worth a walking tour. But you shouldn't stop there--go to the beach! South Florida offers a variety of beaches. Some are more secluded while others are places to see and be seen. Another place not to be missed is Little Havana, a place where restaurants, language, and ambiance allow for an international escape on a budget. Further away from the city, you'll find Everglades National Park, a truly unique national treasure that is well worth a visit. A $25 permit allows your private vehicle inside all entrances of the park for seven consecutive days.
An offbeat attraction: The Coral Castle is not really worth a special trip, but if you're in the Homestead area, check it out. Giant coral rocks were carved and balanced perfectly to form a "castle" by one man who weighed only 100 lbs. This Latvian immigrant did all of this to attract the love of a woman, who later rejected him. How did he do it? It's something you'll talk about for days. Tickets are on the expensive side at $18 for adults.
Key Largo and the Florida Keys are nearby and beautiful. You can reach Key Largo and Pennekamp State Park (great snorkeling and diving) in less than two hours driving from Miami. The remaining 120 miles to Key West requires an overnight commitment. The Keys tend to be expensive. Some people like to use less expensive chain hotels in the Homestead area as a base to explore both the Everglades and Key Largo.
Spend a day with the wealthy and visit Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. It's about 60 miles north of Miami. Here, you can window shop for some of the finest luxury goods the world. Take a few hundred thousand "imaginary dollars" and decide what you would buy. If Palm Beach is too far, you can have a similar experience on Fort Lauderdale's Las Olas Boulevard.
Two Gems Most Visitors Miss
Bewildered by Florida's admission fees? Here are two places you can visit that many visitors skip so they can line up at the Theme Parks: Fairchild Tropic Botanical Garden in Coral Gables is one of the highest-rated gardens in the world. You'll see a tropical rainforest and guides provide tram tours at no extra charge. Vizcaya Museum and Gardens is an Italian villa built by James Deering. You'll find architectural beauty, objects d'art, and stunning grounds. While neither admission fee is especially low, you could combine Vizcaya and Fairchild admissions and still pay less than what is needed to buy one theme park ticket!
More South Florida Tips
- Consider a GO Miami Card. This is a card you buy prior to your trip and then activate on first use. You can buy from one- to five-day cards ($75-$189) good for free admission at dozens of South Florida attractions. Design your itinerary before you consider a Go Miami purchase. That way, you can determine if the investment would save money on admissions. After all, you don't want to pay for a bunch of admissions that don't hold any interest.
- Try to Blend in. Despite South Florida's reputation, most tourists will not run into violent crime. But unfortunately, there are criminals who specialize in targeting visitors. Make it more difficult for them to spot you. Don't stack luggage in your car so it can be seen through the windows. Keep big bills tucked safely away in a money belt. Use common sense when walking in unfamiliar areas, and heed local advice about entering areas where security is an issue.
- Sunburn can ruin your trip. It might be obvious advice, but scores of people plan and save for a Florida vacation, only to lose most of the trip's value to sunburn. The intensity of the sun rays here probably exceeds what you're accustomed to at home, and sunburn will set in far more quickly. Buy a good sun-blocker and use it. Consider it cheap travel insurance.