Florida Keys: Planning Your Trip

Directly above view of the Overseas Highway in Florida Keys with turquoise watercolor.
Artur Debat / Getty Images

Each year millions of vacationers visit the Florida Keys. Moderate year-round temperatures that come from its unique geographical location nestled between the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico provide the perfect setting for limitless outdoor recreation including fishing, boating, scuba diving, snorkeling, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, biking, and camping. And, of course, nature lovers will enjoy seeing abundant wildlife.

If you're planning a Florida Keys vacation, learning a little bit about the area and what to expect will help you get the most from your time and vacation dollars.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: In terms of warm weather, the Florida Keys are truly a year-round destination. The extended Halloween celebration known as Fantasy Fest in Key West at the end of October is one of the busiest times to visit, and it stays busy through the winter as folks escape the cold at home. Summer is considered the off-season and visitors will discover that rooms are cheaper and the Keys are less crowded during these months, but it's also muggy and thunderstorms are common. Hurricane season is officially from June to November, but most storms occur in August and September. The chance of a storm hitting the Keys is rare, but if a storm is predicted then be aware that you'll likely be evacuated before it hits.
  • Language: The language spoken throughout the Florida Keys is English, although Spanish is commonly spoken as well.
  • Currency: The U.S. dollar is the currency used, with credit and debit cards widely accepted.
  • Getting Around: All of the main islands are connected via the Overseas Highway, so you'll need a car if you plan on visiting multiple spots. If you're staying on one island, it's easy to get around by bike, scooter, bus, or walking.
  • Travel Tip: The Florida Keys have a reputation for honeymooners, bachelor and bachelorette parties, or retirees, but these islands are also very family-friendly. If your kids enjoy exploring outdoors, they'll love this little paradise just as much as everyone else.

Things to Do

The Florida Keys are one of the most paradisiacal destinations in the entire U.S. and the main activities are exactly what you'd expect for a tropical getaway. While it's easy to think of the Keys as one uniform place, they are actually incredibly diverse, beginning with Everglades National Park at the point closest to the mainland and stretching 180 miles to the exuberant nightlife of Key West. Regardless of which islands you visit, there is plenty to keep busy in these parts.

  • Dive down to an underwater park. Scuba diving and snorkeling are excellent at any one of the over 800 islands that make up the Florida Keys, but John Pennekamp State Park on Key Largo is unique for being the first undersea park in the country—and one of the best diving spots in Florida. Dive through coral reefs, aquatic mangrove orchards, and even sunken parts of an old Spanish ship, all while keeping an eye out for local wildlife like sea turtles and dolphins.
  • Cast your rod and try sportfishing. The warm Gulf waters are filled with fish, and sport fishing is one of the most popular activities in the area. You can hop on a boat and fish anywhere from Key Largo to Key West, but the island of Islamorada is considered the sportfishing capital of the world. Fishing excursions are common and easy to find, whether it's deep sea, offshore, or backcountry fishing. Catch and release is a common practice in the Florida Keys to protect the local ecosystem, and the state of Florida reminds anglers to "limit your catch, not catch your limit."
  • Take a tour of Ernest Hemingway's home. The Florida Keys aren't just about beach time and sunshine. One of America's greatest novelists and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature resided for many years in Key West, and his Spanish Colonial-style home is open for guided tours. To add to the Hemingway experience, it was in the waters between Key West and Cuba that set the scene for one of his most famous novels, "The Old Man and the Sea."

What to Eat and Drink

You've probably heard of Key lime pie, which is widely available across all of the Florida Keys and made with special Key limes that have a distinct flavor from the more common green limes you see at your local market. But this regional dessert is hardly the only food to try on your vacation. Due to their location, Florida Key cuisine is a delicious fusion of Southern U.S. and Caribbean flavors, and seafood tends to be the star.

Of the many dishes to try, one of the most typical delicacies is stone crab, which is mostly fished from the Keys region. Other seafood specialties include snapper, red grouper, and lionfish. Conch fritters a type of fried sea snail and a specialty throughout the Caribbean, but it's definitely something you should try during your Florida Keys visit.

Where to Stay

Staying in the Florida Keys is a dream, but admittedly not a cheap one. Even the budget accommodations can quickly add up, especially in the high-demand islands like Key West and Key Largo. Choose your base depending on what kind of vacation you're looking for, whether it's diving and snorkeling in the Upper Keys around Key Largo, history and social activities in Key West, or more seclusion in the Middle Keys between them.

Key West is the most popular destination and spending the night there tends to be the most expensive. That said, there is a wide range of hotels from homey guesthouses to penthouses with a private dock for your yacht, so look around with your budget in mind.

One of the most classic accommodation options in the Florida Keys is the cottages. These charming homes are usually located right on the water, range from one to four bedrooms, and typically include amenities like a full kitchen. While some cottages definitely lean on the extravagant side, others are affordable and make great options for larger groups who can split the cost.

Of course, the cheapest way to stay in the Florida Keys is to pack your camping gear and reserve a campsite in one of the area's natural parks which are scattered across the archipelago. For one of the most remote and most rewarding camping experiences, get a spot in Dry Tortugas National Park, which is 70 miles further west of Key West and only reachable by ferry.

Getting There

Most visitors start their trip by arriving at either Miami International Airport or Fort Lauderdale Airport and renting a car from there. Shuttles or private cars are also an option for those who don't want to drive. The journey from Miami to the Upper Keys—such as Key Largo—is just an hour by car, but expect to be on the road for three to four hours to get to Key West. The two-lane Overseas Highway quickly gets backed up on Friday afternoons as Floridians head out to the Keys for a getaway, so try to avoid the weekend rush hour if you can. If you do get stuck in traffic, at least take time to enjoy the views on what is easily one of the most breathtaking routes in the U.S., admiringly known as "the Highway That Goes to Sea."

Since many long stretches of the drive are completely surrounded by just water, it can be disorienting to know exactly where you are. Mile Markers (MM) are spaced throughout the trip so you can always find your relative location in the Florida Keys. The higher the mile marker number, the farther you are from Key West and the closer to the Florida mainland—in other words, Key West is Mile Marker 0.

If you want to skip the long drive, there is a small airport on the island of Marathon and another on the southernmost island of Key West. Both of them have direct connections to Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports.

For a fun experience and quick access to the Keys by water, the Key West Express is a ferry with service from Fort Meyers and Marco Island directly to Key West.

Money Saving Tips

  • There are generally fewer tourists in the Florida Keys from June to November. Summer is hot and muggy, but it's the low season for the Keys and Florida in general, meaning cheaper hotel rates and flights to Miami.
  • The cheapest months are September and November, and parts of October as long as you don't coincide with the Fantasy Fest celebrations.
  • Take a close look at the fine print before reserving a place to stay. Places that seem the cheapest often tack on "hidden fees" after booking, so thoroughly compare prices before making a final decision.
  • Chartering your own boat or going scuba diving may be out of your budget, but there are plenty of free activities to enjoy throughout the Keys, such as scenic beaches, walking or biking across the Seven Mile Bridge, exploring Bahia Honda State Park, and much more.
  • Parking is difficult and can be expensive around the Keys, especially on the busiest islands. If your hotel doesn't include parking, try asking them for nearby locations.
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