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On a budget? Key West on the cheap isn’t easy, but here are tips

A Key West vacation won’t be cheap — no matter how many tips you read or how much you plan.

Hotels are pricey; budget restaurants are hard to find in Key West.

But the reason Key West commands high prices is that it is a special one-of-kind city. With history going back hundreds of years, well-preserved architectural gems, a funky street life and great outdoors activities in the surrounding waters, it’s a shame to pass up Key West because it is expensive.

Happily, it is possible to visit Key West on a budget. The key strategies are:

  • Go during the off season, roughly June to November. (September and November are the cheapest of all.)
  • Shop around for accommodations and compromise on amenities or location.
  • Seek out affordable, casual restaurants.
  • Take advantage of the many terrific free and inexpensive things to do in Key West.

Finding a budget Key West hotel or B&B

Key West Bed and Breakfast, 415 William Street,

Key West Bed and Breakfast, 415 William Street, is a turn-of-the-century house decorated with original art, vibrant color and serving a spectacular breakfast .

Even in the summer off-season, your first search for basic Key West motels will come up with rooms starting at $130 a night. I’ve tried several strategies to beat that price – some successful; some not.

Mo's Room, Key West B&B

At Key West B&B. we stayed in Mo’s Room, a second-story room that was one of four sharing two bathrooms.

What didn’t work very well: I used “name your own price” on Priceline twice in Key West. Both times I ended up in the eastern part of Key West, three miles from Old Town. There are eight or 10 hotels clustered on Roosevelt Boulevard at the entrance to Key West. They share a shuttle service into Old Town, which helps with parking.

The problem here is that the location isn’t ideal and the price included unexpected add-on fees — a $10 “resort” fee at the run-down Lexington and a $19.81 parking fee at the very nice Marriott Key West Beachside Hotel.

I had better luck finding accommodations in Key West where I compromised on amenities. One of the great charms of Key West is the historic bed and breakfasts in Old Town.  Many go for $200 to $300 a night. But there are a few quality places where several bedrooms share a common bathroom, and the savings are great.

Americans love their plumbing, but if you can share a little — as frugal travelers do elsewhere in the world — you can stay in Key West’s Old Town at a great B&B.

We stayed at the Key West Bed and Breakfast, 415 William Street, Key West, a turn-of-the-century house decorated with original art, vibrant color and serving a spectacular breakfast of fresh fruits and homemade blueberry coffee cake.

Our second-story room was one of four sharing two bathrooms, which were kept impeccably clean. Off-season, these rooms go for $89 to $110. (We loved Mo’s room for $99.) Rooms with private bathrooms rent for $125 to $165 off-season – still a very good deal for a quality Key West B&B.

Similar rates are available at the Angelina Guest House, 302 Angela St., Key West, another old house full of character. Here, rooms with shared bath are $104 off season with other rooms running $124 to $174. Another comparable option is the Curry House, 806 Fleming Street, Key West. (Not to be confused with the more expensive Curry Mansion.) Shared-bath rooms are $128 – $138 and other rooms start at $148 in the off-season.

The other alternative for a reasonably priced room is to stay in the Upper or Middle Keys and come to Key West for a day trip.

One favorite nearby place to stay is Parmer’s Resort, 565 Little Torch Key.  It’s 27 miles or 40 minutes outside Key West.  During low season (September through mid-December), rooms start at $119. This is a 1950s-vintage Key-style waterfront resort with pool, views and breakfast included.

Two other nearby choices: Sugar Loaf Lodge is 17 miles from Key West and offers waterfront rooms off-season starting at $140. Efficiencies at the Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge, 33000 Overseas Highway on Big Pine Key, start at $109.

You can find summer rates lower in the motels of Marathon. These are an hour from Key West, but it’s a beautiful drive over the Seven Mile Bridge. We’ve stayed in some ordinary mom-and-pop motels in Marathon for $90 to $100 – the Blackfin Resort and Marina, 4650 Overseas Highway, and the Kingsail Resort, 7050 Overseas Highway. These are not memorable; rather, they are just places to sleep while you fill your days with activities.

If you’re a camper, camping is another good way to make your trip inexpensive. Campsites in the Keys are expensive compared to other locales, but still cost less than hotel rooms. My colleague Bob Rountree has all the details on camping in the Lower Keys here.

In search of budget Key West restaurants

B.O.’s Fish Wagon is an open-air assemblage of drift wood, recycled sheets of tin and a 1950s Chevy truck apparently held together by bumper stickers.

B.O.’s Fish Wagon is an open-air assemblage of drift wood, recycled sheets of tin and a 1950s Chevy truck apparently held together by bumper stickers.

Key West is foodie heaven, with prices to match.  Finding good buys in restaurants will take some planning: You may not stumble across these places when you get hungry unless you keep a map handy. (Some restaurant prices listed are from 2013, but they’ll give you an indication. Expect them to be 10% higher today.)

The best tip for dining in Key West is to head to the historic Key West Seaport at happy hour. The boardwalk along the harbor is one of the best free activities in Key West. Folks are feeding tarpon from the docks, fishing charters are displaying their catches and all the colorful yachts and historic ships are on display, with flags snapping.

B.O’s Fish Wagon, 801 Caroline St., Key West, is virtually legendary for its funky Key West style.

B.O’s Fish Wagon, 801 Caroline St., Key West, is  legendary for its funky Key West style.

We shared Alonzo’s sampler: four conch fritters, four Buffalo shrimp, four fish fingers and a pile of onion rings. That would be $17.30, but happy hour prices made it $8.65.

We shared Alonzo’s sampler: four conch fritters, four Buffalo shrimp, four fish fingers and a pile of onion rings. That would be $17.30, but happy hour prices made it $8.65.

Many harbor restaurants have happy hours, but I can especially recommend Alonzo’s Oyster Bar, 700 Front St., Key West. All drinks and an extensive selection of appetizers are half price from 5 to 6:30 p.m. and it’s easy to make a meal of it. We shared Alonzo’s sampler: four conch fritters, four Buffalo shrimp, four fish fingers and a pile of onion rings. That would be $17.30, but happy hour prices made it $8.65. We added two delicious sides of Granny Apple Cole Slaw (normally $2.10; now $1.05) and a beer and a glass of wine and two dined for $22 including tax and tip. We sat outside overlooking the harbor in a setting that didn’t compromise on atmosphere.

conch-shack

Right on Duval Street is a small treasure: the Conch Shack, a restaurant no more than 10 feet wide that accepts only cash and serves up fresh, reasonably priced fare.

There are two other budget spots nearby. Both are funky Key West and are virtually legendary: B.O’s Fish Wagon at 801 Caroline St., Key West, and Garbo’s Grill at 603 Greene St., Key West.

B.O.’s Fish Wagon is an open-air assemblage of drift wood, recycled sheets of tin and a 1950s Chevy truck apparently held together by bumper stickers.  The Fish of the Day Sandwich is $10.50 and the fried shrimp sandwich (local Key West pink shrimp) is $9.75.

Garbo’s Grill is sort of a permanently stationed food truck. Seating is outdoors on milks crates or coolers.

Garbo’s Grill is sort of a permanently stationed food truck. Seating is outdoors on milks crates or coolers.

Garbo’s Grill is sort of a permanently stationed food truck. Seating is outdoors on milks crates or coolers. Their $8.75 mahi tacos and $7 Kogi Koren Beef Shortribs, however, ensure there is usually a line and a festive atmosphere.

You can get reasonably priced diner fare at Harpoon Harry’s, 832 Caroline St. ($9 to $12 for sandwiches; very popular for breakfast, which is served until 3 p.m.; blue-plate specials for $9.95 each night.) (Prices as of January 2017; cash only.)

Right on Duval Street is a small treasurethe Conch Shack, a restaurant no more than 10 feet wide that accepts only cash and serves up fresh, reasonably priced fare. Three conch fritters are $4.50; a hamburger is $5. Seating is on stools at a counter. (And these prices, as of January, 2017, have held steady.)

As I asked Key West residents for suggestions for budget dining, at least three people recommended the classic Cuban restaurant , El Siboney, 900 Catherine St., Key West. This is a traditional restaurant with table service and bargain prices — $11.25 for three different preparations of pork, $15.25 for grilled mahi or grouper, topping out at $17.75 for skirt steak. It was all good and service was efficient. (Prices as of January 2017.)

Free fun in Key West

It’s easy to be entertained on the cheap by Key West: On your first visit, you might spend all day just  wandering historic Old Town and joining the nightly street carnival at Mallory Square sunsets.

But there are so many alternatives that Florida Rambler has devoted another whole article to free things to do in Key West.

Planning your trip to the Florida Keys

Key West and Lower Keys

Updated January 2017

3 Comments

  1. Edie gruber says:

    Gosh I hope we have a nice place at the parrot inn resort in key west..we booked it online we are from Texas and driving my husband and I and we don’t have a clue as to where the best food is along our way coming in on 75..we are in Bradenton,fl today..very excited to see the sites..your input would be awesome..thanks e.gruber

  2. Betty Donnelly says:

    Ms. Bonnie, how I wish I would have found your site prior to booking a room at the (deleted). You are a welcome bounty of knowledge to a beautiful area we have always wanted to visit. Now, as I sit drinking (awful) coffee on the balcony, realizing we could have come 2 to 3 times for what this cost, I thank you for your knowledge and expertise.
    Sincerely,
    Jim and Betty Donney

  3. Mary Huff says:

    Oh, Bonnie! This sooo makes me want to go to Key West! Thanks for sharing it on LinkedIn.

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