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Monday, June 16, 2014

Guide to Key West on a Budget

Alisha McDarris

Key West is one of the most notoriously expensive vacation spots in Florida. The restaurants are expensive, the accommodations are expensive, even the parking is expensive. But if you’re clever, you can find ways to save on just about everything. Just steer clear of the inordinate amount of novelties that will vie for your dollars.

Free Things to do in Key West


It can be done!

Stroll Duval Street and Mallory Square: It’s always free to browse, so as long as you can keep yourself from pulling out your wallet every time you see a cutesy knick-knack or souvenir, browse away in all the shops and galleries that line the streets. Be prepared to fight the crowds, though. These are the most popular spots in the city!

Smathers Beach: It’s the one nice, big public beach on the island, complete with stone jetties and soft sand. There are volleyball nets and clear water perfect for swimming and snorkeling. If you want to spend a few bucks, there are lots of rentals and experiences to book (kayaks, parasailing, etc.)



Sunrises and sunsets: They’re always free and in the Keys you can see both in one day without even having to try! Step over to the Atlantic side in the AM and watch the sun come up over one body of water and head over to the Gulf of Mexico side in the PM to watch it go down over another. Mallory Square is a popular spot, but busy, so if you want to escape the crowds, just find a dock or a lot along the edge of town and take it all in.




Tour the island by bike: It’s not a big island so you can see it all on two wheels in an afternoon if you’re up for it. Of course, in order for it to be free you’ve got to bring your own set of wheels, but riding around on two is a lot faster than walking and costs a lot less than parking your car (which can cost $20 a day or more). Key West is pretty cycler-friendly, too.



Eco Discovery Center: It’s one of the few (if not only) museums on the island that doesn’t charge admission. It’s not huge, but it’ll give you and your family something to do in the air conditioning for an hour or so as you read about Key West’s plant and animal life and intricate eco-system. Interact with the displays, watch an educational film and let the exotic fish mesmerize you. It’s located right next to the entrance of Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. www.eco-discovery.com



Historic Key West Cemetery: It may sound macabre, but it’s rather interesting, even if you didn’t spend as much time as me taking photos in graveyards in high school. Pick up a self-guided tour booklet, complete with map, at the Passover Lane entrance of the cemetery. It will give a bit of history about the area and point out the burial plots and tell the stories of local celebrities and highlight humorous epitaphs. Check out number 36 for a chuckle.




The Southernmost Point: It may cost you time, but not money. The popular Southernmost point, marked by a giant painted concrete bouy, is popular with tourists. Everybody wants a photo in front of it. So if you do, too, get there early or be prepared to wait in line.



Florida Keys Wild Bird Center: Alright, this one’s in Key Largo, technically Tavernier, which is at the other end of the Keys, but if you came in from Miami (or anywhere on the mainland, really), you’ll be driving through it on the way in and on the way out, so why not break up the drive with a brief pit stop. The Bird Center has all manner of common and uncommon fowl from pelicans and blue jays to barn owls and falcons. It’s free to get in and you can take your time walking the footpaths, browsing and admiring. If you’re lucky you might even get to witness feeding time. Find them at 93997 Overseas Hwy in Tavernier or online.

Our Favorite Things


They may not be free, but these attractions won’t break the bank, either.

Cycle Key West: We brought our own bicycles because we drove down, but if you can’t do the same, there are literally a dozen or more places to rent a set of wheels for $10-$20. Too tame? Many of the same places offer scooter rentals, too. Take it easy as you cruise around the island taking in the sites. It may be a small island, but if you’re hoofing it, wear comfy shoes ’cause you’ll be walking all day.

Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park: It’s your best bet for snorkeling in Key West. There’s a charge to get in depending on how many people are in your car (and it’s cheaper if you walk or cycle in), but once inside the park you can enjoy the beach, snorkel around the rocks (rental gear is available), have a picnic in the shady grove, and tour the historical fort.

Bahia Honda: Both it’s own Key and a Florida State Park, Bahia Honda is about 30 minutes north of Key West on Overseas Highway. It costs a few bucks more to get in than at the Fort in Key West ($9 for two in a car compared to $7), but offers sandy beaches for swimming on the Gulf and ocean side, camping, snorkeling excursions for around $30 per person, and more. There’s a small nature center for the kids, a concession stand that offers food and rentals for snorkeling and swimming fun, a butterfly garden and a trail that leads to an overlook of the old bridge.

Grab a Bite


Considering it’s diminutive size, it’s impressive how many vegetarian restaurants are crammed onto the island. I was only bummed I didn’t get to try all of them! But vegetarian or not, to save some hassle (and probably a fistful of cash) skip the touristy attractions like Margaritaville and the Hard Rock Cafe and hit the local joints instead.

The Cafe: This mostly restaurant has a bright, eclectic vibe and good food for around $10. The Cafe serves mostly vegetarian and vegan cuisine, but offers fish dishes, too. There are more expensive items on the menu like an udon bowl and locally caught Mahi-Mahi, but also sandwiches and salads (like their popular veggie burger and kale salad) for closer to single-digit prices. It’s located at 509 Southard Street next to a coffee shop that reportedly has the best key lime pie in the Keys, maybe the world.



Sugar Apple Juice Bar: The perfect spot for a smoothie or inexpensive sandwich on your way to the beach. Many of the smoothies are organic, they’re delicious, everything is vegan and their vegan BLT (FLT for Fakin’ bacon) made Peta’s top 10 list. Most items are under $10. It’s a tiny little hole in the wall, so if you’re going at lunchtime, be prepared for some physical contact with the other patrons. There’s not much seating, either, so your best bet is to get it to go. But while you wait, browse the nutrition and health food store that’s attached and stock up on all natural sunscreen and healthy snacks. It’s not open for dinner, though. It’s at 917 Simonton St.



Ballyhoos: Granted, this one isn’t in Key West, but if you drove in from Miami (or from even farther north), you’re going to be passing it on your way in and out anyway, so why not give it a mention? Located on 97860 Overseas Highway in Key Largo, the restaurant specializes in fresh fish but has a whole vegetarian menu, too, if you ask for it. There are certainly menu items that are closer to the $20 mark than $10, but you don’t have to spend big to eat well. The black bean burger was delicious and huge and even better with their house made remoulade. All their sauces are house made. Even their ketchup. Cool, huh?


Money Saving Tips


Hotels, guest houses, bed and breakfasts and the like will cost you a pretty penny in Key West. If you plan far enough in advance and go in the off season you might be able to score a deal under $150, but otherwise a nice place will run you at least that much plus parking fees in most cases. So if you’re up for roughing it, go camping instead. There are several campsites in and around Key West and most of them even offer ocean-front campsites so you can really enjoy the view.

Try Boyd’s Campground in Key West. The staff is friendly and accommodating, it was clean and well-kept, and there were lounge chairs waiting for us at our site on the water.

No matter where you stay, there are bound to be more coupon books than you can count. Grab a few. They’ll probably only come in handy if you were planning to spend a few bucks to begin with. Most of the coupons are for things like jet-ski rentals and parasailing, but if those things are on your vacay to-do list, might as well save a few bucks.

Ask a local: They live here, so they know where to find the best music on which nights, the best attractions and the best deals on dining. They’ll probably be thrilled to share their favorite things with you as so few people seem to ask.

Because Key West is so touristy, filled with novelties and attractions to keep visitors occupied, it can certainly become expensive. But part of the fun of traveling is finding joy in the little things and taking pride in the fact that you found entertainment where less savvy spenders didn’t even bother to look.

Alisha McDarris / Author & Editor

Alisha has been a writer and photographer forever. OK, maybe not forever, but at least for more of her 20-something years than she hasn’t been those things... [Read More]

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