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
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.
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 $79 to $99. (We loved Mo’s room for $99.) Rooms with private bathrooms rent for $115 to $155 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 $84 off season with other rooms running $104 to $144. 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 $99 and other rooms are $119 in the off-season.
You might also try the Blue Parrot Inn , 916 Elizabeth St., Key West. Their smallest rooms are tiny with double beds but start at $90 per person off-season and include private bathrooms.
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 $99. 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 $120. 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
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.
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.
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.
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. 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 $11 for sandwiches; very popular for breakfast, which is served all day.)
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. Three conch fritters are $4.50; a hamburger is $5. Seating is on stools at a counter.
You will find good options away from the main drag too. If you like wraps, sandwiches and salads, Lobo’s Mixed Grill, 4 Key Lime Square, Key West, is a good choice. A few steps off Duval in a tropical courtyard, Lobo’s is a friendly counter-service restaurant with dozens of menu items from $8 to $11.25.
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 — $10.75 for three different preparations of pork, $13.95 for grilled mahi or grouper, topping out at $19.95 for paella. It was all good and service was efficient.
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.
More things to do in Key West
- Key West Historic Seaport
- Eight Key West restaurants for authentic local flavor (including some bargains!)
- Hogfish Grill: Where Key West residents go for fresh fish
- Best beaches in the Florida Keys
- Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park
- All about those Key West chickens
- Find peace at Key West Butterfly Conservatory
- Audubon House, a lovely refuge in Key West
- Historic Key West Cemetery is full of stories
- Dry Tortugas: Day trip and camping
Planning your trip to the Florida Keys
- Print out this mile marker guide to enhance your road trip to the Florida Keys.
- Florida Keys wildlife: Places to see animals
- Florida Rambler guide to the Lower Keys
- Feed the tarpon at Robbie’s Marina
- Tiki bars: Soak up the Keys atmosphere
- Biking or walking the Old Seven Mile Bridge
- Visit historic Pigeon Key in Marathon
- Kayak or canoe to historic Indian Key
- No Name Pub worth finding on Big Pine Key
- Long Key: Beach camping in the Keys
- Camping in Middle Keys: Curry Hammock State Park
- Camping near Key West