Key West: The southernmost point in the continental USA, home of Earnest Hemingway, The Conch Republic, beaches, water activities, sunsets, and nightlife … it’s all here. The question is … “will you resist the urge to stay, or will you give in and go back to life as you know it?”
First you need to get here. As winter in New England (or anywhere) just doesn’t seem to want to end, the thought of warm winds, palm trees, beaches and sunset cruises seems just begs you to head south for a welcome break. But can I afford it on my budget? As with most questions in life, the answer is “it depends,” but there certainly are options for those on a restricted budget.
OK, so you need to consider the key ingredients in the recipe to your Spring Break in the Keys: airfare, lodging, ground transport, lodging, and activities.
In this first part, we’ll explore “getting there.”
Getting there – ingredients:
- Air Travel: While you can fly (via connection) to Key West, your lowest cost option likely is to fly into Miami and then rent a car. American Airlines (to Miami – MIA) and Jet Blue (to Ft. Lauderdale – FLL) seem to offer the most flights from New England to the Miami area, but Jet Blue and Spirit airlines are offering fares for as low as around $280 right now (to FLL). Depending on airfares and your preferences, American or Jet Blue may be your choice, especially if you miss your flight and want to take the next available flight.
- Car Rental: Miami International Airport now offers a new centralized Rental Car Center (RCC). If you are seeking convenience, try one of the larger car rental companies (including Hertz, Avis, Budget, Payless) that now share a new central car rental area, connected to the airport via a quick ride on the 1.25 MIA Mover, accessible from the 3rd floor of your terminal. Alternately, you may be able to save money by going with a smaller outfit including Advantage, E-Z Rent-A-Car, Fox, or Sixt, all on site at the RCC. These low budget companies offer rentals for as low as $13 a day or $70 per week (vs. about $230 per week for the major companies).
So you have arrived in Miami and have your car? Now it’s time to enjoy the warmth and travel the final leg to Key West. Miami International Airport is about 160 miles from Key West, a drive which will take you a minimum of 3 1/2 hours, but likely longer depending on road conditions and interim stops. For those seeking the direct route, make sure you purchase the SunPass option from your rental agency, which costs about $37 and will allow you to travel on the Florida Turnpike via tolls that automatically charge you by tracking your license plate.
Otherwise, count on adding an extra hour to your trip bypassing the tolls, though you likely will have to endure stoplights and traffic along Route 1 out of Miami on the local roads. Either way, once you hit Homestead and/or Florida City, you’ll be on Route 1 for the next 105 miles.
Once you are past Florida City, you’ll enter the Everglades for about 20 miles, moving with relative ease along mostly fenced and green areas, taking in a flat Florida landscape of hearty greens. At this point, you’ll enter a long stretch of Route 1 which may strike you with a bit of nostalgia of long stretches of ‘tourist traps’ and local commerce. In any case, you will know that you are not in Kansas anymore. Perhaps the aqua blue concrete dividers are your first sign.
You will pass multitudes of ocean-themed shops, boat and marine suppliers, boat launches, and the like, while taking in welcoming warm breezes, palm trees, and Florida marine vegetation. One by one, you will pass through the keys including (Key Largo, Plantation Key, Bahia Honda, and Sugarloaf Key). You may wish to stop along the way at one of the many visitor centers to collect brochures and continue planning your escape (hey, if traffic is slow, your fellow passengers can help enliven the drive with exploration of potential upcoming activities).
The largest key along the way will be Marathon Key (about ½ way into your drive). If you need any final supplies (toiletries, food, cash, etc.) this might be your best bet. You’ll see many billboards along the way courtesy of Sandal Factory Outlets, which will remind you time and again that it’s “cheaper than in Key West.”
So far, you will have hit a lot of commercial areas which may not be what you had envisioned of your visit, but things start to open up after Marathon Key. You will start seeing more bays and blue water, and more signs that you are about to enter a Valhalla of sorts.
The mile markers count down, and now you have only 25 miles left until you reach Key West. Things are looking more and more promising. OK, now you see the sign saying “Welcome to Key West.” You have arrived and indeed things are different.
Boats are in the bays, you see welcoming beaches lining the avenues, and the architecture has more character. Now you approach downtown Key West, and you definitely know that you have arrived. Ornate Victorians and hotels line the roads, and once you turn onto Duval Street, Key West thrives with activity. As you drive further down the main drag of Duval, you see many lively and intriguing bars, restaurants and shops which may on one hand seem a bit touristy, yet on another hand remind you that you finally have landed. It’s time to find your place of lodging and plan for your first sunset and night out in Key West.
Your home life and the colder climate from which you departed are a distant memory. Now it’s time to settle in and start your vacation. It’s time to escape.