How to Plan an Affordable Key West Vacation
An Introduction to Key West, Florida
Key West is the most popular tourist destination of the Florida Keys, and for good reason. Known locally as the Conch Republic (a reference to when they declared independence), Key West boasts fantastic watersports, a crazy nightlife scene, and multiple historic sites and museums. Fort Zachary Taylor State Park is right along the beach in the southwest corner, which also has the distinction of being the southernmost point in the USA. There is something to choose from for nature lovers, adventure seekers, and day drinkers alike- even if they’re on a tight budget.
How Expensive is a Vacation to Key West?
Compared to virtually everything else I’ve written about? Very expensive. Restaurants are more expensive, activities are more expensive, and lodging is WAY more expensive. That all being said, Key West can be explored on a budget if you’re smart. Pick the right places and visit at the right times, and you’ll be fine. Like I experienced in Bocas del Toro, quite often the best restaurants and activities were on the lower end of the price range, but required more digging to find. I’m here to do the legwork so you don’t have to.
Key West Restaurant Prices
Think of Key West as two distinct sections- the trendy, expensive downtown and the more laid back, Caribbean and central American interior. The Northeast area doesn’t get factored in here as I didn’t explore it particularly well and it seemed to be dominated by chain hotels, fast food, and the airport.
In the downtown area you will find upscale restaurants serving cuisines from around the world. While there are some affordable options, such as this cute jerk chicken restaurant, most restaurants are on the pricier side. You will have a ton of options over a small area, including some very unique finds. Among other interesting options is a sexy desert bar and the both the original and new Sloppy Joe’s. Simply put, Duvall Street and the greater downtown district have something for everyone.
As you move away from downtown, the options become less dense and less varied. If you like Cuban, Central American, or Caribbean food, you’re in luck- there are many, and they are delicious. You can expect to pay quite a bit less for a meal from any of these locations than you would in downtown, especially the family-run establishments. El Siboney, Jose’s Latin Food, and Incas Restaurant are just three of the many flavorful options you have to choose from.
Key West Activity and Sightseeing Prices
Once again, wildly variable. Depending on what you’re into, Key West activities may be anywhere from a few dollars to hundreds. Atlas Obscura has some excellent, cheap recommendations for a fun-filled Key West vacation. Most of the museums cost around $20 for admission, including the Shipwreck Museum, the Hemingway House, and the Key West Aquarium. Some cheaper locations include Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden and the Key West Butterfly Sanctuary, both of which topped my favorite things to do.
If you feel like being a big spender, take a sunset cruise or go on a chartered fishing trip. Depending on how bougie you want to go, this can easily cost over $1,000 though cheaper options are available. A day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park- which I would highly recommend- will run you around $200 per person. Scuba diving trips are also popular, with local shops charging between $75-125 for a session. Of particular note is the Vandenberg dive, a massive shipwreck off of Key West that has the distinction of being one of the largest artificial reefs in the world.
Affordable Lodging Options in Key West
You’ll have to get a bit creative to find cheap hotels in Key West. There are few hostels, and they are very expensive. Like, 17 times the cost of my month in Aruba expensive. Airbnbs are a similar story, with an average nightly cost well above that of a hotel stay. For the first time in my travels, hotels seemed to be best option.
For an affordable hotel in Key West, you’ll want to avoid the downtown area. Now, this is just a general rule- the place I stayed at was a quite nice bed and breakfast called the Duval House. Affordability is a relative term when it comes to Key West. We paid about $300 per night, which is far from ideal.
In retrospect, the most affordable option that wouldn’t impact a vacation is likely found in the Northeast. Almost all hotels away from the main strip offer a constant, quick trolley to get to the city center. This ride only takes a few minutes and can be used as many times as needed. If you’re like me and only return to the hotel to sleep, it’s your best bet. Just know that it still won’t be cheap- $240 seems to be about as low as it gets.
The Best Restaurants in Key West
You can spend as much or as little on food as you’d like. Key West has options for any budget, stretching across a broad range of cuisines. Though most restaurants- especially along the main downtown strip- were along the higher price ranges, good deals could be found with a bit of digging.
BEST BREAKFAST SPOTS
Just a little bit out of the way, but well worth the extra block or two. Frenchie’s Cafe is a classic, unpretentious breakfast and lunch spot. The vibe is laid back and welcoming (like much of Key West) with many options for full meals or a la carte pastries made in-house. My personal favorite was the breakfast sandwich- classic, simple, and perfect if you’re trying to recover from one too many the night before.
Surprisingly affordable for a breakfast spot right along the main stretch. Banana Cafe has all of your normal breakfast staples- sandwiches, scrambled eggs, waffles- along with some more creative fare. My personal favorite was the quiche of the day (bacon gouda) which filled me up perfectly. The food was really good, but I was more surprised by the low cost in such a prime location.
Best Lunches and Dinners
Mary Ellen’s Restaurant
Frankly, I’m not even sure if I tried much of the food- but if I ever come back to Key West, it’s gonna be for Mary Ellen’s. The happy hour deal was excellent, with Bailey’s smoothies on the menu and flowing freely. My girlfriend and I had a few drinks and shared a few apps, then stumbled our way back to our hotel. If there is anything more Key West, I have no idea what it would be.
DJ’s Clam Shack
Okay, yes, it is a franchise. I don’t care. The seafood was delicious and at a fraction of the cost of some other local options. Being a huge fan of broiled clams, I was happy that they had exactly that- a big ass bucket of clams soaked in garlic butter. Nothing fancy, nothing pretentious- just good quality seafood prepared well. The place also had an outdoor, walk-up ordering option, which was cool.
El Siboney Restaurant
Casual and authentic Cuban food at an affordable price. El Siboney is where the locals go for delicious food without paying tourist prices. It becomes pretty obvious just by looking around- no sunburns, no dumb novelty t-shirts, friendly, laid back conversation- you’re in a totally different place compared to downtown. Enjoy the better flavors and the lower prices.
Poké in the Rear
If the name of this spot is off-putting to you, don’t visit- the puns only get worse from here. Not so much a restaurant as a food truck tucked behind a gay bar and accessible only through a narrow alley, Poké in the Rear is a full experience to be taken in. The owner is exceptionally friendly, welcoming his guests personally and inviting them to “enjoy his rear”. Oh, and the food is delicious, too!
Quick, friendly service and delicious Mexican(ish) food in an eclectic space. Though it is in the heart of downtown, you wouldn’t know it by the reasonable prices. For a quick grab and go meal, this is your best bet. Also, if you’ve never tried one, be sure to grab a Jarrito to drink, All of the flavors are great, but the most unique is tamarind.
Best affordable Activities in Key West
Good news if you don’t want to blow your budget- the best fun to be had in Key West is either free or very low cost. You’ll have to do a bit of searching, but there are plenty of affordable hidden gems. I mentioned it before, but it deserves repeating- Atlas Obscura is a great resource to find fun, weird things to do around Key West.
Visit Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden
Hidden behind a home in a residential neighborhood lies Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden, a paradise for bird lovers. The requested donation for entrance is $10 per person, but Nancy’s mission is worth much more than that- please donate what you can. As you walk around, Nancy or a volunteer will introduce you to the birds and explain a bit about their origins and character.
I came into this experience without much background on tropical birds. They’re pretty, but that was about where my knowledge ended. That has all changed. Many of these birds were older than me, each with a distinct personality and relationships that they’ve built over the course of decades. Some had trust issues. Some had nervous ticks. Nancy introduces you to her flock through her eyes, sharing why they are so deserving of protection and love.
Stroll Through the Key West Butterfly Sanctuary
An unbelievably magical experience at a price point any family could afford. The Key West Butterfly Sanctuary begins in a small room that provides an introduction to the biodiversity of butterflies. After taking in all of the colors, shapes, and sizes, you enter the main sanctuary. Walking in, my breath was literally taken away- soft music playing, thousands of butterflies and birds fluttering around your head. I had a large butterfly land on my hat and accompany me for my entire visit. Simply magical.
The whole path took about 30 minutes to complete, winding through the sanctuary past birds and butterflies small and large. In the middle of the exhibit are two charismatic flamingos relaxing in a small pond.
Walk the Key West Garden Club
A thriving arboretum built right on top of an old Civil War encampment. Free to enter but absolutely worthy of donation, the Key West Garden Club boasts dozens of species of trees, ferns, and shrubs- even a butterfly garden. Handy maps guide you and provide a reference for the many trees and plants you’ll encounter. Keep an eye out for the backdrop of the plant life- a civil war era military installation with remnants peeking out from all around the gardens.
Take some time to relax at the hidden gazebo overlooking the ocean. When you’ve had your fill of the greenery, stop back inside the gift shop to pick up a T-shirt or donate a few dollars- again, free attractions like this deserve your support.
Explore Fort Zachary Taylor
Get ready for a fun-filled day on the land and in the sea. Fort Zachary Taylor is the westernmost point of Key West, featuring a fort, a museum, a park, and an aquarium to explore. Oh, and the famous beach, of course! All of these locations are steps from each other, all either free or cheap to visit. The entrance fee to the state park is just $6 per vehicle or $2.50 per pedestrian, and both the eco-center and park are completely free.
The USCGC Ingham Maritime Museum
The first attraction you’ll be passing when you enter is the USCGC Ingham Maritime Museum. This vessel-turned-memorial dates back to World War II and is one of only two Coast Guard Cutters in it’s class still afloat, and the only Coast Guard cutter to receive two Presidential Unit Citations. Entry is $15 for non-military adults and $5 for military, with discounts for children. The museum is almost entirely self-guided, giving you free rein to wander around the vessel and ask the volunteer staff any questions that you have. Being a military ship, it is not the most handicap accessible; be aware that quite a few low entrances, steps, and ladders are involved.
Truman Waterfront Park
Once you’re done at the USCGC Ingham, hop over to Truman Waterfront Park to relax for a bit. Be sure to take your kids to the splash pad- or take yourself, I don’t judge. The park here features benches and shelter to beat the heat, along with a pretty cool water feature and play area. Hang out, have fun, dry off, then head to the nearby Eco-Discovery Center.
Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center
Recently reopened following a long renovation, the Eco-Discovery Center lies to your right as you get back on the main road from Truman Waterfront Park heading toward the fort. The center features different exhibits that explore the ecology of the region, from coral reefs to invasive species.
One of the coolest exhibits is a model of the NOAA Undersea Lab, Aquarius. Once you’ve had your fill learning about the coral reefs and peering at the lionfish, spend some time learning about the harsh realities our oceans are facing. Our reefs are dying and our fish disappearing, but we have the tools to fight back.
Fort Zachary Taylor
The Fort Zachary Taylor website describes it as being “at the intersection of natural beauty and profound history”, which is, if anything, an understatement. The bottom and top levels of the fort are open to exploration, with guides walking around the facility answering questions and providing context on many of the areas. Interpretive panels are also scattered around the fort for those that prefer to go solo, but the tour guides are fantastic- I’d recommend following one of them.
If you happen to be here on the third weekend of the month, you’ll be treated to historic demonstrations by local re-enactors. If you’re not, don’t worry- you can still enjoy the beauty and history of an antebellum fort, with sweeping views of one of the most beautiful beaches the US has to offer.
Fort Zachary Taylor Beach Snorkeling
Now that you’re fully dry again after the splash pad, time to get back in the water. If you’re rich or fiscally irresponsible, you can rent beach equipment and snorkel gear from the extortionately-priced vendor. Otherwise, I’d recommend you bring your own. Lockers at the café can store your items while you’re in the water, or just go in shifts to make sure your belongings are protected.
The snorkeling here is not particularly great, but there are some species you can find if you know where to look. This is, however, the best location for snorkeling in Key West. There are other snorkeling spots through the rest of the keys- more on that shortly. For the best chances of spotting fish or lobsters, swim to the rock mounds built near the shore. Hiding in these crevices just off the beach you’ll be able to spot sergeant majors, parrotfish, and possibly some snapper. There was not much coral to speak of, but a few remnants here and there.
Again, Fort Zachary Taylor didn’t have the best snorkeling. Worth it if you have your own equipment? Absolutely. Worth it for a $20 rental fee? Nope, not quite. If you don’t have your own, I’d recommend buying a nice set from US Divers. After two rentals, they’ve paid for themselves.
Rent a Car and Go Island Hopping
Island hopping the Keys was my personal favorite activity along the Florida Keys- besides, perhaps, Dry Tortugas National Park. My girlfriend and I rented a car for a day and drove all the way up to Key Largo then back down to Key West. This trip guided us on the famous Route 1 corridor over the turquoise waters of the Florida Keys, with plenty of spots to pull off the road and take in the sights. At one such stop we were fortunate to see two eagle rays sweeping through the water just under us.
The entire round trip is about 4 hours, providing plenty of time for stops along the way. Obviously, each stop will be pretty close to the main turnoff so detours will be short. Of special note is Bahia Honda State Park, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Biscayne National Park (though getting there is a bit more of an ordeal), Fred the Tree (a must-see, all my homies love Fred), the History of Diving Museum, and the Dolphin Research Center. Honorable mention for the Turtle Hospital as well- there is, frankly, way too much to fit into one day.
My recommendation is to do some research into the options listed above, then view Route 1 from Key West to Key Largo on Google Maps. Scan over the drive, clicking on whatever looks interesting to you. My highlight was the feeling of adventure just doing whatever looked cool- I loved it and maybe you will, too.
Exploring Dry Tortugas National Park
And now for the highlight of my trip- snorkeling Dry Tortugas National Park. Unfortunately, this did somewhat break the bank. A day trip to Dry Tortugas will start at $200 and go up from there. Still, for the chance to visit the most remote National Park in the National Park Service, it was well worth it. Do your research beforehand and come prepared so you can make the most of the experience. I’m working on a comprehensive snorkeling guide to Dry Tortugas which will provide more in-depth info, but I’ll cover some of the main details here as well.
Getting to Dry Tortugas National Park
Getting to Dry Tortugas isn’t the simplest or cheapest task. A daily ferry transports visitors for $200 or more per person, while a flight to Dry Tortugas will start at $370 per person. The ferry is around 2 hours each way, while flying brings you to Dry Tortugas in about 45 minutes. An option I didn’t consider for my trip but may have been worthwhile is a private boat rental, which starts around $75 per hour. With the cost spread over a few people, it quickly becomes cheaper than taking the cramped ferry.
If you’re doing a day trip, time is a major consideration. Understand that you will only have a few hours on the island and it’ll go QUICKLY. It felt like as soon as we were starting to get into the swing of things we were having to pack up and head back to the ferry. One way to avoid this is to do an overnight trip with primitive camping. Dry Tortugas camping doesn’t have any luxurious accommodations, but it does provide an excellent way to increase your time on the island without much of an increase in cost.
Where to Snorkel on Dry Tortugas
The two most popular spots are the moat wall and the two coaling dock ruins. Signs will recommend the “Snorkel Trail” along the outer moat wall. While there is some cool coral formations along the moat wall, it is nowhere near the quality of the coaling dock ruins. I started with the recommendation, and while I did see some cool brain coral and a few fish species, it was not worth the time. The coaling dock ruins had a significantly more vibrant coral habitat with many more fish species. The issue, however, is the difficult involved- navigating the coaling dock ruins at Dry Tortugas requires a strong swimming ability.
Dry Tortugas Moat Wall Snorkeling
Snorkeling the moat wall is not as exciting as the coaling dock ruins, but there are still some cool sights. Enter the water through the South Swim Beach. You can either stay close to the moat wall or swim through the sand a bit, heading diagonal towards the wall. While there may be some fish species closer to shore along the wall, the sea grass is where reef squid are usually found- we encountered a school of thirteen. Whichever way you choose, meet up with the moat wall and begin following it out.
Healthy brain coral stretches over most of the moat wall, accompanied by sea fans. Small sergeant majors, bluehead wrasse, and juvenile parrot fish can be seen swimming around, though there weren’t many more species than that. Once you pass the south and west moat wall, coral density and visibility both drop. If you decide to snorkel this section, stay to these two wall sections and don’t continue swimming around the moat.
Dry Tortugas Coaling Dock Ruins Snorkeling
One of the best small snorkeling spots available in the Caribbean. You can enter the north ruins through the beach directly beside them, or enter the south ruins from the South Swim Beach to avoid swimming past the ferry. The coaling dock ruins consist of a series of criss-crossing structures that have become home to many coral and fish species. Swimming between the pilings you will see large schools of doctorfish, grunts, and angelfish, as well as countless other fish species in smaller quantities. There were some surprisingly large parrotfish, as well as some filefish and cowfish.
While the coaling dock ruins is undeniably cool, it was quite hard to navigate. Some areas were only a few feet deep, with narrow openings between the crossing support beams. Care for the coral should be the utmost concern- do not snorkel here if you are not a confident swimmer. Touching the corals can lead to damage, disease, or death- don’t risk it. Oh, and you can cut yourself up pretty bad as well. For newer swimmers, swim around the outside of the ruins looking in. You’ll still have some excellent coral coverage and will see plenty of cool species- my favorite find, a large scrawled filefish, was hanging out around the perimeter. For more advanced swimmers, carefully swim around inside the pilings, being careful not to touch or disturb as you go along.
About Baylen McCarthy
I’m a travel writer and marketing strategist based in Norfolk, Virginia. When I’m not busy hurting myself by walking unreasonable distances, I can be found reading in a hammock or watching Tottenham underperform.
Have a question about an upcoming trip you’re planning? Shoot it over to me, I’d love to help if I’m able.
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