10 tips for saving money on a Florida vacation

A Sunshine State vacation can be a luxurious splurge, but it can also be quite a steal if you know how to save money on your travels. Here are some tips for saving money on your next Florida vacation.

Plan a spring or fall visit

Most vacationers come to Florida in the summer (when families travel during school breaks), or the winter (when folks venture south for a bit of Florida sunshine). That means you’ll find the best Florida vacation bargains during the so-called shoulder season: in April and May (between Easter and Memorial Day) or September and October (between Labor Day and Thanksgiving).

As proof, consider this: In May 2010, a room at Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – Riverside goes for about $170 per night. One month later, you’ll pay more than $200 per night during summer vacation.

Head to a lesser-known beach
If a Florida beach vacation is what you desire, step off the beaten path for cheaper accommodation and food options. A rental home that sleeps six in popular Panama City Beach costs more than $1,200 per week during the shoulder season each fall. But 90 minutes east in Apalachicola, a comparable beach-front home costs less than $800 for the same week.Are there more attractions, restaurants and souvenir shops in Panama City Beach than Apalachicola? Yes. But if you plan to spend your time lying on the beach and relaxing in your rental, you will save hundreds by going to a less popular destination. Plus: fewer folks jockeying for beach space and for table service.

Consider a vacation home or condo
At first blush, a rental home or condominium might seem like a more expensive choice for a Florida vacation, but it can be a money-saving decision. The biggest benefit to renting a home is that you have a full kitchen. If you choose to buy or bring groceries and prepare meals in your rental, you can save hundreds of dollars in restaurant bills over the course of a week. (Other potential benefits include a private pool, a garage, laundry facilities, your own yard, and a little elbow room between you and your nearest neighbor. Some of these rentals are pet-friendly, so you can also save money by bringing your dog or cat, rather than boarding them.)

Further, many rental homes sleep six or more people, so your party may be able to share one rental rather than have multiple hotel rooms. Both HomeAway and VRBO both offer a search of Florida vacation rentals, or check with the visitor’s bureau in the city you plan to visit for a list of local vacation rental Web sites.

Pick up restaurant and attraction discount books
You’ll find racks of free tourism booklets in the lobbies of hotels and restaurants and at Florida Interstate rest stops. While they might look like junk, you can save 10 to 50 percent at attractions such as the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, Butterfly World in Coconut Creek, or Gatorland in Orlando by clipping the coupons inside.

You’ll also find Florida motel discounts, restaurant coupons, and souvenir freebies in some of the magazines. An online search for the attraction name followed by “coupons” might yield similar discounts that you can print at home and bring with you on your Florida trip.

Look at package deals
Just as bundling your cable and Internet saves you money, booking a vacation package can get you deep discounts on a hotel or rental car. A quick search of AOL Travel for vacation deals in your desired Florida destination will give you many options for the cheapest airfares and a variety of different lodging choices, all for one discounted price.

Pro tip: check the rates on the hotel or rental car’s Web site before you book a package. There are travel booking services out there that actually mark up these combo deals.

Fly into secondary airports
Several smaller airlines have moved into the Florida market by calling some secondary airports home. Want to travel from Detroit to Tampa this spring? A flight on a major carrier will cost you about $265. But drive an hour to depart from Toledo, Ohio, and Allegiant will fly you direct to St. Pete-Clearwater International, about 30 minutes from Tampa, for $140.

To save money on food in Florida, ask the locals where they eat. You might discover a treasure, like a $3.49 pressed Cuban sandwich in Tampa or a bucketful of fresh raw oysters in Orlando.

Other small Florida airports to try include Southwest Florida International in Fort Myers, Charlotte County Airport in Punta Gorda, Orlando Sanford International and Daytona Beach International. Don’t forget about Palm beach International, which offers free WiFi, and from which you can easily reach Fort Lauderdale or Miami.

Eat like the locals
To save money on food in Florida, drive away from the beachfront property and ask the locals where they eat. The bell staff or housekeepers at your resort are often a great resource for this information. You might discover a treasure, like a $3.49 pressed Cuban sandwich at the Interbay Meat Market in Tampa or a bucketful of fresh raw oysters on the concrete bar at Lee and Rick’s Half Shell Oyster Bar in Orlando.

Shop right for souvenirs
When you are in need of T-shirts, postcards or other Florida trinkets from your trip, you can save money on souvenirs by passing up the souvenir shops. Instead, head to the nearest Walgreens, CVS, Walmart or Target. These mass market retailers know that their Florida customers include many tourists, so they offer local souvenirs at discount prices. You will find Mickey Mouse stuffed plush at the Walmarts in Orlando and T-shirts emblazoned with South Beach sunsets at the Walgreens in Miami.

Get outside
What makes Florida the most visited state in the union? The weather! So get outside on your vacation and save money on free or cheap Florida activities. The most famous free attraction in Florida is the beach, of course. But you can also camp, hike, kayak, and cycle in Florida state parks for very little money.

Pack a picnic lunch and drive just 30 minutes from Walt Disney World to spend the day hiking 23 miles of trails at Lake Louisa State Park in Clermont, where the entrance fee is $5 per car. Or bring your fishing pole and pay $4 to cast your line into Tampa Bay from the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Piers, south of St. Petersburg.

Save on theme park admissions
If you plan to visit one of Florida’s famous theme parks, research the various tickets available before you leave home. You will often find the best deals online, in advance. For example, if you are going to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay or SeaWorld Orlando, you can save $10 off the cost of an adult admission simply by buying online before you get to the park. Also know that you get more for your money if you plan to visit the theme parks for more than one day. A one-day ticket that gets you in to Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure costs $109. Plan to stay two days, though, and your ticket cost drops to $67.50 per day.


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