Travelers can’t get enough of the Sunshine State. Home to Disney World and several other world-renowned theme parks, ecologically unique nature and wildlife, and some of the best-rated beaches in the world, Florida is superlative. The downside? None of this is a secret and the state’s hot spot status and 237 days of sunshine means there’s not really a low season. But have no fear! We’ve picked seven budget-friendly spots that shine in the sunshine state without spending your life savings. From cities where you can ride rollercoasters or peep alligators from a kayak to lively art scenes and chilled-out beach vibes, here's our cheatsheet to enjoying a cheap Florida vacation.
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It’s true that Tampa has gotten more expensive than it used to be, but that’s only because it’s a lot cooler than it used to be. And, the truth is, it’s still cheaper than some of Florida’s other big cities (looking at you, Miami). We love Tampa because it’s easy to get to (via TPA airport) and is kind of a one stop shop—it’s got top-notch attractions like Busch Gardens, great museums, waterside views, a historic and hip food scene—plus a bunch of history, nature, and fun activities to boot.
Snagging a City Pass (a discounted, bundled pass that gets you into all the city’s top attractions, including Busch Gardens and The Florida Aquarium) is a must for anyone that plans on visiting a few or more of the city’s big draws. Other ways to experience the city on the cheap include free yoga in the park, twice-monthly free guided tours of downtown, free movie nights in the park, and free manatee spotting at the Manatee Viewing Center. Hillsborough River State Park has an abundance of cheap or free outdoor activities, from kayaking to fishing. Historic Ybor City, the downtown RiverWalk, and Armature Works, a multi-use industrial complex, are all great places to soak in different sides of Tampa while scoping out a place to eat.
Free shuttle to Busch Gardens. Free Wi-Fi. Free breakfast. Outdoor pool. Clean rooms with microwaves. Check. This pick is an ideal budget hotel that checks all the boxes without breaking the bank.
St. Petersburg is an artsy and vibrant gulf coast city hiding it’s fair share of options for budget-conscious travelers. The downtown area is walkable (save money on Ubers) and lined with tons of restaurants and bars serving lunch, dinner, and happy hour specials. If you’ve got a competitive edge, check out free-play games like cornhole and oversized Jenga with a drink at Parks and Recreation, or hit up the Friday night open courts at St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club. Weedon Island, Sawgrass Lake, and Boyd Hill Nature Preserve are all fantastic (and free or extremely cheap) spots to go on a nature walk—try and spot alligators and native birds.
A few of the city’s many stellar museums offer once-weekly discounted or free entrance, but you can also take in the city’s arty side with an affordable street mural tour from Florida CraftArt. Or, visit one of the city’s many local markets scattered throughout the downtown area with free trolley rides to some 40-plus open studios and galleries during the free Art Walk event every second Saturday of the month. The city’s trolley system and Downtown Looper bus service offer free or cheap rides with stops throughout downtown and as far as the white-sand shores of St. Pete Beach. Last but not least, be sure to check the city calendar for any fun and free events at one of the city’s many parks.
If you want a low cost hotel that has a nearby trolley stop, is four blocks from the waterfront, and a hop, skip, and a jump from restaurants and bars, The Inn on Third is your budget-friendly spot. Freebies include: breakfast, Wi-Fi, parking, and evening drinks.
In addition to being as full of Florida history as the state capital, Tallahassee is also home to the colleges of FAMU and FSU, meaning you’re going to find several cheap spots to eat, drink, and be merry. Catching a college sports game in person might be out of the budget, but you can still soak up the fervor of fandom at a local sports bar—just be sure you’re rooting for the Florida home team! For a superlative outdoor adventure, make the trip to Wakulla Springs, the world’s largest and deepest freshwater springs where you can do everything from tubing and scuba diving to wildlife safaris and stargazing.
History buffs should take advantage of the always-free entrance to the Museum of Florida History, Florida Historic Capitol Museum, and Cascades Park, a 24-acre multi-use green space with trails, a huge water fountain, and historical markers. Go back in time at the reconstructed Mission San Luis de Apalachee, where history comes to life with reenactments of 17th century mission days and interactive activities. Architecture fans shouldn’t miss stopping to gawk at the Lewis Spring House designed by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright.
Each of the rooms here is an affordable suite, complete with wet bars, microwaves, refrigerators, and sleeper sofas. Wi-Fi, 24-hour coffee, and breakfast are all free. Plus, you can bring your dog.
If you’ve been to Orlando, you know how easy it is for all the costs to add up. However, this tourist-heavy (and tourist-priced) city has a surprising number of ways to have fun without breaking the bank. If you’re coming to Orlando for the world-famous theme parks, get cheaper tickets by booking in advance, stopping by the Visitor’s Center, or purchasing admission ticket bundles for more than one park. Outside of the theme parks, there are seemingly endless things to do that will cost you under $20, from mini-golf and boat tours to sketch comedy shows and outdoor activities.
Families with small kids should take advantage of fun freebies like the play area at The LEGO Store in Disney Springs, campfire and movie nights with Chip and Dale at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort, and self-guided nature walks through over 80 acres of native and exotic plants at the UCF Arboretum.
All grown up? Many Orlando museums offer free entry on certain days of the week or month, plus classes or interactive activities. Walkers can take strolls and tours inside Greenwood Cemetery, catch free live entertainment along the Coney Island-inspired boardwalk at Disney’s Boardwalk, join a brewery or winery tour, or soak up the lively atmosphere within Universal CityWalk.
Families on a budget love the Baymont Inn for its large rooms with mini-fridges and pull-out sofa beds. Amenities include a large swimming pool with a separate splash pool for kids, a 24-hour fitness center, and a free and extensive breakfast buffet with all sorts of hot options. The Baymont is one of the best values in the Orlando area.
5. Ocala: Silver Springs State Park and Horses
Ocala is Florida’s ranchland and a definite departure from what people normally expect of the Sunshine State. It’s also got some of the state’s most pristine natural areas—including Florida’s first tourist attraction, Silver Springs State Park. It’s been showing off its crystal clear waters and wildlife for over a century. Grab a park admission and famous glass-bottom boat tour for under $15 or rent kayaks and paddleboards to explore on your own.
It may come as a surprise, but Ocala is also known as the “Horse Capital of the World” and is a great spot to hop on horseback, catch a horse show, or visit a horse farm where you’re likely to meet a future Derby winner. The unspoiled nature and wildlife found in the Ocala area make it a top pick for hunters, birders, and even hardcore survivalists.
This Floridian local’s favorite beach has a laid-back and low-key vibe and promises less crowds and lower prices than neighboring Daytona Beach. The wide, white-sand beachfront is where you’re likely to spend most of your time while vacationing here. But if you need a break from the sun and sand, there’s enough to keep you occupied without emptying your wallet. Pop in and out of the cute and quirky shops, take a beachside stroll along the Flagler Avenue Boardwalk, or get a little more active with hiking, biking, and fishing. Other budget-friendly activities include a visit to the Marine Discovery Center, wildlife spotting from the boardwalk at Smyrna Dunes Park, walking through the 17th century Sugar Mill Ruins, and hiking up Turtle Mound, a 50-foot oyster shell created by the indigenous Timucuan people of Florida.
Looking for a budget hotel with old Floridian charm? Welcome to the Islander Beach Resort, with a beachfront swimming pool and direct access to the sand. Spacious Studio, One-, and Two-Bedroom Apartments have kitchens and living rooms, plus some have balconies with oceanfront views. Bring your quarters for the arcade.
While lots of Florida travelers opt for Key West, it’s one of the more expensive keys. For a better bargain opt to stay in Marathon, where you’ll not only find one of the best (and only) white-sand beaches in the Florida Keys but you’ll also get a more convenient Middle Keys location and backdoor access to some spectacular boating, water, and nature-based activities. At Sombrero Beach, visitors get free parking, free access, and perks like a picnic area, a volleyball court, playground, and even bathrooms with showers. The water right off the shoreline is warm and it’s not uncommon to catch locals and tourists snorkeling or even fishing in the shallow waters offshore.
If you can peel yourself off the beach and out of the water, explore some of Marathon’s other cheap and free activities like visiting and learning about sea turtles at the Turtle Hospital, walking or biking the famous Seven Mile Bridge, hike and wildlife spot through Curry Hammock State Park, hop in a kayak, test your balance on a stand-up paddleboard, or find your zen with yoga on the beach. Another bonus? Fresh-caught seafood without the tourist prices. We recommend Castaway Waterfront Restaurant & Sushi Bar—especially when they’re serving lionfish.
This budget pick has reopened following Hurricane Irma, and it’s still one of the best deals in the Middle Keys. Guests get a free hot breakfast buffet with pancakes, and 24-hour coffee. There’s an outdoor pool, renovated fitness center, and a tiki bar with happy hour specials. What else do you need on a Florida vacation?
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