A Key West vacation won’t be cheap — no matter how many tips you read or how much you plan.
Hotels are pricey (the average room price now tops $300). Budget restaurants are hard to find. And you can spend lots of money on admissions and tours.
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 least $160 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 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 $300 to $400 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 as littles as $100 a night. (We loved Mo’s room.) Rooms with private bathrooms rent for $125 to $165 off-season – a very good deal for a quality Key West B&B in Old Town.
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.
Booking rooms in Key West requires a consumer to be vigilant: Everybody, it seems, finds ways to tack on extra fees. The historic Curry House B&B where I stayed recently added a $35 a night “cleaning fee” that was not disclosed in advance (or was extremely well hidden.) With that charge, it was no longer a budget option or a good value.
“Resort fees” of $15 to $30 a night are common, and you often discover them only when checking in, so if you’re on a budget, ask ahead of time.
Another 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 $159. This is a 1950s-vintage Key-style waterfront resort with pool, views and breakfast included. Like a lot of Keys properties, Parmer’s used to be more moderately priced, but it’s a good value if you want a resort experience AND a visit to Key West.
Two other nearby choices: Sugar Loaf Lodge is 17 miles from Key West and offers waterfront rooms off-season starting at $155. (Efficiencies at the Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge, 33000 Overseas Highway on Big Pine Key, start at $109 but the lodge is closed in summer 2018, recovering from Hurricane Irma.)
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 $100 to $150 – 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.
One tip for dining in Key West is to make your main evening meal a tasty assemblage of half-price happy hour appetizers.
An especially good place for happy hour is the historic Key West Seaport. 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, but happy hour prices made it half that price. We added two delicious sides of Granny Apple Cole Slaw 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.
Another seaport restaurant, Turtle Kraals, 231 Margaret St., offers food specials during happy hour such as conch fritters for $5.50, chicken wings for $6.50, guacamole with chips $6.
Beyond the harbor area but still centrally located, First Flight Island Restaurant and Brewery, 301 Whitehead St., has a great happy hour at the bar and nearby high-tops. First Flight is located in the beautifully restored historic building that was the ticket office for Pan Am in the 1920s when it began air service between Key West and Havana. From 4 to 6 p.m., happy hour brings cheap drinks and great appetizers at $5 a dish. We put together a delicious dinner combining beef brisket mac and cheese, Six Hour Confit Chicken Wings and a plate with three kinds of hummus.
After you eat “dinner” at happy hour, head to a vantage point for sunset. Afterwards, you can enjoy a late-night Cuban sandwich, conch fritters or an arepa at a variety of inexpensive, atmospheric Key West eateries where you order food at a counter and eat at a picnic table or bench.
A few good examples:
- We had a great Cuban sandwich ($9) at Frita’s Cuban Burger Cafe, 425 Southard St. Frita’s Cuban burger ($9) is unusual and spicy. Seating is in a small outdoor patio or benches at the take-out window.
- Near the seport, is the legendary B.O’s Fish Wagon at 801 Caroline 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. Folks rave about the fish tacos.
- Nearby, Garbo’s Grill at 603 Greene St., Key West, is sort of a permanently stationed food truck. Seating is outdoors on milks crates or coolers. Their mahi tacos and Kogi Koren Beef Shortribs, however, ensure there is usually a line and a festive atmosphere.
- 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.
For an air-conditioned restaurant with table service, we can suggest two classic Key West spots:
- You can get reasonably priced diner fare at Harpoon Harry’s, 832 Caroline St. One thing that keeps prices down is that this is a cash-only business. It is most popular for breakfast and lunch ($9 to $12 for sandwiches) but there’s a blue-plate specials for $9.95 each night.
- 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.
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
- Mile marker guide with dozens of stops to help make the most of your drive south.
- Florida Keys wildlife: Places to see animals
- Tiki bars: Soak up the Keys atmosphere
- 12 great kayak outings in the Keys
- Top 10 pit stops on Overseas Highway
- Free beaches in the Florida Keys
- Dry Tortugas: Day trip and camping
Key West and Lower Keys
- Key West is less crowded (and more enjoyable) when cruise ships are not in town. Check the cruise ship calendar when making your plans.
- Free things to do in Key West
- Florida Rambler guide to the Lower Keys
- Eight Key West restaurants for authentic local flavor
- Bahia Honda State Park: Good beaches & a great bridge
- No Name Pub worth finding on Big Pine Key
- Key West Butterfly Conservatory: A tranquil stop
- Audubon House, a lovely refuge in Key West
- Historic Key West Seaport
- Historic Key West Cemetery is full of stories
- Fort Zachary Taylor
- Hogfish Grill: Where Key West locals go for fresh fish
- Key West chickens
- National Key Deer refuge
- Key West Tropical Forest and Botanic Garden: It will charm plant lovers
Updated July 4, 2018