How To Visit Key West On A Budget

Key West is known for many things: tropical weather, colorful sunsets, lively nightlife, great snorkeling, and a laid-back pace of life. Unfortunately, the tourist city at the southern tip of Florida is not known for being a budget-friendly destination. Hotels and activities can be expensive, especially during the busy winter season. Still, according to our personal experience, there are ways to save money on a Key West vacation. 

You won't need a rental car since the city's Old Town neighborhood, where most of the action happens, is compact and walkable, and tour and activity companies typically offer discounts if you look. More extreme cost-cutting measures include traveling with a large group to save money on lodging or taking the bus from Miami instead of flying directly to Key West. Coming during the less-crowded summer season can also result in lower hotel prices.

According to the latest census, the population of Key West is just over 26,000, but it feels like a larger city because of the high volume of tourists who visit for the nice weather, fun atmosphere, and water activities like jet skiing and parasailing. Key West also boasts several historic attractions, including the Civil War-era Fort Zachary Taylor and the homes of 20th-century literary greats who once lived here, including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Shel Silverstein, and Truman Capote. Many of these attractions are free or low-cost, giving travelers a chance to enjoy the city without breaking the bank. In our experience, it's not impossible to visit Key West on a budget. 

Consider alternatives to flying

If you're coming from anywhere in the southeastern U.S., driving may be a lot cheaper than flying. Key West International Airport has a limited number of flights, so prices can rise during periods of high demand. You can compare the cost of driving versus flying using websites like For instance, you may want to estimate the drive from Atlanta to Key West. Depending on your car's fuel efficiency, and with at least two people splitting the cost, you may find driving much more cost-effective than flying. 

Driving down means you'll also get a chance to travel on the Overseas Highway, one of the most scenic drives in the country. It covers 113 miles across 42 islands through the Florida Keys and includes the famous Seven-Mile Bridge where motorists are essentially driving on a concrete road over the ocean.

Another commonly overlooked option is taking the bus from Miami. Greyhound and Flixbus offer service from Miami to Key West, and tickets can be had for as little as $25 one-way for some dates. The 4.5-hour bus ride may not be the most luxurious form of transportation, so it's not for everyone. But if you're determined to save some cash on this trip, you have the option of getting yourself to Miami via Amtrak, bus, or a cheap flight, and then riding the bus to Key West. Compare flight prices between Miami and Key West to assess potential savings.

Look for affordable lodging

The average cost for a Key West hotel in March 2023 was $375, the fifth-highest price in Florida. But the city does have a few affordable options. Booking early is the key to nabbing a reasonably priced hotel before it sells out. If you don't care about having a fancy room, start by checking availability at Seashell Motel and Key West Hostel, which has been considered the cheapest hotel in Key West for years. 

The hostel offers dorm bunks for as little as $62 per night, and private bedrooms suitable for two people starting at $125 per night. While some hostels around the world cater to the youthful backpacker crowd, the Key West Hostel hosts travelers of all ages who stay here because of the low price. Another cheap option is Leo's Campground, which has RV campsites and traditional guest rooms for less than $200 per night for two people. Leo's is located outside the city center, but it's close to public buses that go directly to Old Town. 

Given the high cost of lodging, Key West is also an ideal place to redeem hotel points accumulated from credit cards. The Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt all have properties in Key West that can be booked with points rather than with cash. Take note that many hotels in Key West do not allow children, and others market themselves specifically to LGBTQ+ travelers, so be sure to check the details of any property you book to ensure it has the atmosphere you're seeking.

Travel with a group of friends

Key West is a popular destination for weddings, girls' getaways, LGBTQ+ vacations, and spring break partiers. Since everything is cheaper if you've got more people to split the costs, why not gather up some friends and make it a group excursion? Having a bigger group, ideally six or more people, means you can consider staying in a large Airbnb or vacation rental home, which can potentially bring lodging costs down to less than $100 per night, per person. Hemingway's View is an example of a large vacation home that can house eight people and costs less than $700 per night.

Regular hotels will also cost quite a bit less per person if you're willing to fit four people in a two-bed accommodation or a suite. For instance, suites at the Hilton Garden Inn often run less than $300 per night, which works out to $75 per person per night for a group of four. Some attractions and activities also offer group rates. The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum provides a discount for groups of 12 or more, to cite one example.

Skip the rental car

One benefit of Key West being such a compact city is that visitors can easily get by without a rental car. If you fly to Key West, grab an Uber or taxi from the airport to your hotel and forget about renting a vehicle. From the heart of Key West's Old Town, you can walk to most attractions in less than 25 minutes. Since most days are sunny and pleasant, you'll want to get outside and walk around a bit anyway.

Bike rentals are a great way to travelerblog the rest of the city. Key West is flat and doesn't have major highway traffic, so it's a perfect place to ride a bike for a few days. In general, expect most adult bicycles to cost around $18-20 for the first day and $10-12 for each additional day.

Additionally, Key West Transit operates the Duval Loop, a totally free public bus that runs seven days a week. It's ideal for tourists because it stops at 18 points of interest in the city. You can reach just about every noteworthy attraction in Key West via this bus.

Visit between April and November

Visiting during the off-season is a common money-saving tip for any popular destination, but it's especially true for a place like Key West, which gets crowded during the winter as Northerners come to escape the cold. November through May is considered the dry season in Key West, and these months are the best time of year to visit the Florida Keys. However, the months of April through November tend to have smaller crowds and lower prices.

The sweet spot, then, for getting both good weather and good prices is April and May. Once the spring breakers of March depart, hotel and activity prices drop. Visitors can often find hotels for under $200 per night during this time. Summer and fall are fine for visiting Key West, too, although the weather can be more challenging. 

Over the past 20 years, the average high temperature in Key West from July through September is roughly 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Rain is also more frequent during the summer. Some people avoid the city during the summer because they find that weather uncomfortable, but if you don't mind the heat, the savings may be worth it. Be aware that August through October are the most likely months for hurricane activity. While major storms are infrequent, it's a good idea to have travel insurance or a backup plan just in case the next Category 5 storm coincides with your vacation.

Participate in free activities

Key West has a bunch of awesome activities that don't cost a penny, highlighted by the sunset festival at Mallory Square. This nightly carnival features street performers, food and art vendors, and live musicians all trying to entertain the crowds. You never know who may appear, including fire twirlers, jugglers, magicians, unicycle riders, and sword swallowers. The unforgettable scene is totally free, but bring some dollar bills to tip the performers.

Although Key West isn't necessarily known for having spectacular public beaches, Smathers Beach and Higgs Memorial Beach both have beautiful white sand. Bring your towel and lie in the sun for free, or rent a chair and beach umbrella. Another popular free attraction in Key West is the painted buoy that signifies the Southernmost point in the continental United States. Since 1983, tourists have been lining up for a chance to take a photo with the famous black, red, and yellow buoy at the corner of South and Whitehead Streets.

Walk along the Key West Historic Seaport, or the "Bight," to see fishing boats and historic markers. Witness the daily tarpon feeding at 4 p.m. on the public dock area outside Alonzo's Oyster Bar, where workers toss small fish into the water to feed the giant tarpon fish that live there. Other free attractions in the city include the Key West Garden Club, the Key West Wildlife Center, and Truman Waterfront Park, which is another great place to take in the famous Key West sunset.

Traveler Blog affordable historic tourist attractions

Key West has a surprising amount of history. Between the bar hopping and watersports activities, make some time to travelerblog some of the city's budget-friendly historic sites. Start with Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. Construction of the fort began in 1845, and it became an important strategic asset for the Union during the Civil War. Today, it's a National Historic Landmark that contains the largest collection of Civil War cannons in the country. Entrance to the park costs just $6 per vehicle or $2.50 to walk in. A tour of the grounds is given at 11 a.m. each day. Fort Taylor Park also has what many consider the best beach in the city. You can swim at the beach, but water shoes are recommended since the seabed tends to be rocky.

The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum is also one of the city's most popular attractions. The Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner who penned "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "The Old Man and the Sea" lived in Key West for about a decade. Take a guided tour of his former house for a reasonable $18.

For $23, you can visit the Harry S. Truman Little White House, where President Truman stayed for several weeks during his presidency. And check out the free, self-guided walking tour of classic Key West houses, hotels, and stores, some of which are more than 100 years old, using the Key West Historic Marker Tour website.

Bring your own snorkel or fishing gear

The Florida Keys have some of the best beaches for snorkeling in the United States. While the very best snorkeling spots may be offshore reefs accessible via guided tours or private boats, visitors can find some quality snorkeling at a few Key West public beaches, all of which are free or low-cost. Key West has plenty of companies that rent snorkel gear, but you can save a bundle by bringing your own mask and fins.

Higgs Memorial Beach is a good snorkeling spot, especially for beginners. The beach features the only underwater marine park in the U.S. that is close enough to shore to be accessible by swimmers — the Key West Marine Park. The snorkeling is especially good between West Martello Tower and Reynolds St. Pier, with lots of corals, sponges, and colorful fish of all kinds.

South Beach and Fort Zachary Taylor State Park are also good snorkel locations, where you can see a lot of marine wildlife without straying too far from shore. Along with snorkeling opportunities, Fort Taylor offers good fishing spots, so anglers can bring their rod and reel and head to the rock jetty in the park in search of tarpon, grouper, and snapper. Remember that you will need to purchase a state fishing license.

Take advantage of happy hours

Key West's nightlife is legendary, especially the Key West bar crawls on Duval Street. One of the best things about the city is the large amount of happy hours. Numerous bars and restaurants offer late afternoon specials on food and drink, so you can save a few bucks while still getting to enjoy the atmosphere of all the famous bars you've heard about.

The popular restaurant Alonzo's Oyster Bar offers daily happy hour specials, and appetizers are discounted significantly from 4 to 6:30 p.m., with loaded fries, conch fritters, and Buffalo shrimp all available for less than $10 each. Hank's Hair of the Dog Saloon has 50% off mimosas and Bloody Marys from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then another happy hour at 4 p.m. with discounted well drinks and sangria. Dante's Restaurant and Pool Bar has buy-one, get-one specials on beer, cocktails, and snacks from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays. The Tattoos and Scars Saloon is a classic rock bar with a 4 to 6 p.m. happy hour, and another from 2 to 4 a.m. 

Other bars and eateries with happy hour specials include Schooner Wharf Bar, Mary Ellen's Bar & Kitchen, the Roost, and Pepe's Café & Steakhouse. The full list of establishments with happy hour specials is too long to name. It's best to check the website or social media of a place you're interested in to find out what discounts they might offer.

Look for online discounts

The Key West Discount Card Package can be a good value if you plan to do a lot of eating, drinking, or group tours. For $32, you'll get three discount cards. One provides 15% off guided tours and bike rentals, one offers a 10% discount on food at more than a dozen restaurants, and one provides a "buy one drink, get one drink free" deal at popular bars like Margaritaville Café, Salty Frog's, and Smokin' Tuna Saloon. The cards are valid for a full calendar year, so if you visit Key West twice in the same year, the discounts remain valid.

Some attractions and activities offer discounts if you book online. The Harry S. Truman Little White House, for instance, discounts admission by 5% for those who buy online tickets in advance. The Key West Art & Historical Society takes $1.50 off tickets purchased online for each of its four museums. Visitors can also find online discounts for sightseeing activities such as Key West Trolley Tours. Markdowns range from 5% to 26% depending on the type of tour booked. Sunset Watersports also offers discounts on its parasailing and jet ski packages. The savings may not be massive, but every dollar counts, right?

Get creative with your itinerary

Saving money in such an expensive destination requires some creativity. Can you cut one night from your schedule while still checking off everything on your itinerary? Paying slightly more to get the perfect flight times may ultimately save money if it means one less night in a hotel. For instance, instead of spending three nights in town, consider flying into Key West early in the morning, and then flying out in the evening two nights later. You'll still get nearly three full days to travelerblog the city while only paying for two nights of lodging.

Alternately, look into staying at a hotel further north in the Florida Keys and driving down to Key West each day. In that case, a rental car may be worth it, depending on the size of your group and how much you can save on the hotel. Sugarloaf Key, Summerland Key, and Big Pine Key all offer affordable motels and lodges and are less than a 45-minute drive from Key West.