15 Free Things To Do in South Florida and the Keys

Florida Keys Dry Tortugas National Park Fort Jefferson

We recently bought tickets to go to Dry Tortugas National Park, and those tickets are not cheap. Add to that a few days in the Keys, and your budget will definitely feel the pinch. However, as we discovered, there were plenty of free (and almost free) things to do in our two weeks between Fort Lauderdale and Key West. There was one card in our wallet that helped us out the most- our military ID. Read on to find over 15 free things to do in the area.

1. Alligator Alley (Tamiami Trail)

It is free to drive across parts of both the Everglades and Big Cypress along the Tamiami Trail. You will see quite a lot of wildlife as you drive. If you enter the Everglades National Park at one of its entrances, it will cost you $30 per car. However, if you have a national parks pass, a military ID (retired and active duty both get in free now, plus up to 4 accompanying occupants), or a 5th grader, you can visit inside the park for free.

2. The Ochopee Post Office

This small post office is the tiniest post office in the United States. It used to to be a storage shed! It’s just off the Tamiami Trail, before you reach Everglades City if you’re heading west. Stop by and take a picture, it’s really cute. Yes, it still sends mail! Thanks to Charles McCool for suggesting this one- find out why this post office is especially important to him.

3. Clyde Butcher Big Cypress Gallery

For some stunning nature photographs, visit the Big Cypress gallery of renowned artists Clyde and Niki Butcher. Their gallery also features art from other artists. Outside their shop is a short nature walk, and you can usually see a gator or two in the pond by their parking lot.

Florida Everglades Clyde Butcher photography

4. Museum of the Everglades

This small museum in Everglades City is really good. From their beautiful pine floor, to their extensive array of information about how the Tamiami Trail and Everglades City came to be, this museum is not to be missed. The museum is free, but you can always drop a few dollars in their donation jar, they do appreciate it.

Almost free: Smallwood Store

If you’re already as far west as Everglades City, you might as well continue down the road the last few miles and visit Smallwood Store in Chokoloskee. This old building, perched on pilings, is a real treasure. Built in 1906 as the first general store in the area, this is an actual “Indian trading post”, also post office, restaurant, shoe repair, bank, and apothecary. It does cost $5 to enter, but I found it well worth the price to go inside and look around. The breeze coming through there off the water can’t be beat.

5. Big Cypress National Preserve

Although national parks have entry fees, national preserves and national forests do not. Be sure to stop in at the HP Williams Roadside Park and check out their board walk- we saw tons of gators in the waters. We also saw manatees at the Kirby Storter Roadside Park a bit further down the Tamiami Trail.

6. Loop Road Scenic Drive

Taking this narrow dirt road will add some time to your Tamiami Trail drive, but we saw so much wildlife here that it was absolutely worth it. Recently graded, the road parallels cypress swamps and features gators, herons, cranes, turtles, and more. Keep an eye out for barred owls as well.

7. Betsy the lobster

As you head south into the Keys, you can’t miss Rain Barrel Village, which features a huge (40 foot) sculpture of a lobster out front. Rain Barrel Village might look like a t-shirt shop and bar, but if you walk through to the back yard, you’ll find some lovely art galleries, glass studios, and shady spots to sit.

8. National Key Deer Refuge

It’s only open three days a week, but you can stop in and learn about the Key deer at the refuge on Pine Key. Like a lot of wild animals that live on islands, this species is smaller than deer found on the mainland. If the refuge isn’t open, you can turn into one of the side streets near there and probably spot some if you drive slowly.

Almost or maybe free: Zachary Taylor State Park

This fort on Key West is a Florida state park, but if you have a Florida State Parks pass- or a military ID- you can enter for free. The fort, which is a sister fort to the one at Dry Tortuga, is really interesting in how it helped shorten the Civil War by as much as two years. Free guided ranger talk at 11 am daily. The park also has a nice, sandy beach, where you can picnic or buy concessions.

9. Books & Books @ The Studios

If you’re a literary fan, you probably already know that Key West was the home of Ernest Hemingway for nine years. But did you know that author Judy Blume lives here as well? Visit the bookstore she runs with her husband, and be sure to check out the Key West history section.

10. Visit the sister shop of Hemingway’s Pilar at the Bass Pro Shop in Marathon

In 1933, Hemingway went on a fishing trip in this boat. He liked it so much that he kept the brochure, and had another one made! He named it the Pilar, and you can see it today at his house in Cuba. The original ship can be seen at the Bass Pro Shop in Marathon on your way down the Keys. You can also see this boat feature in the movie “Key Largo” as the Santana boat that Bogart sails at the end of the movie.

11. Ride the Duval Loop bus in Key West.

This bus stops at 16 points around historic Key West and is absolutely free. You can see their live map at kwtransit.com. A bus arrives every 20-30 minutes. Bonus: use your military ID to get onto the base and park for free at Trumbo Point gate- saving you $5 an hour or $40 daily on downtown parking fees. Stop #1 on the Duval Loop route is just one block from Trumbo gate.

Not free, but half the price: stay at the Navy Lodge

If you are active duty or retired military, you can stay at the Navy Lodge on Dredger’s Key for $135 a night- a huge saving from Key West hotel prices. You can call for a reservation starting 30 days out from your intended stay. But call as soon as you can- they only have 26 rooms.

12. Cool off at Truman Waterfront Park

It’s pretty hot in Key West, but there are some places to cool off. If you have kids with you, one excellent place is the Truman Waterfront Park. They have a splash pad there, and in Thursdays you can visit the Farmer’s Market from 2-5 pm.

13. Visit the Southernmost Point(s)

Of course you can’t visit Key West without visiting the southernmost point. Just walk down Whitehead Street until you get to the very end, and you’ll see the famous painted monument. But if you REALLY want to get to the southern point, you’ll need to go into the nearby naval air station, which is built in a mile of reclaimed land.

14. Wander up and down Duval Street

I don’t think it’s possible to visit very many of the bars, restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries without opening your wallet often, but it’s free to try! Even just people watching and reading all the funny t-shirts is a pretty good time.

15. Grab a book (or drop one off) at the Green Parrot’s Little Free Library

I hate trying to read on my phone or e-reader when I’m at the beach- a paperback works much better! If you need one, or finished yours and want to drop it off, I spotted several Little Free Libraries around town. This one at the Green Parrot is particularly well-located.

Borrow free snorkel equipment at Fort Jefferson:

Okay, so really this one isn’t free. It’s pretty expensive to visit the Dry Tortugas National Park. The only ways to get there are to sail your own boat, take a seaplane, or take the Yankee Clipper ferry, which will run you $200 per person. Be sure to take your national parks pass with you to get $15 off per person. However, they will provide a free breakfast, free lunch, and free snorkel equipment at the beach, as well as a free guided tour of the fort. We really enjoyed our day and felt in the end, it was worth the cost!

I’m sure there are more free (and almost free) things to do in South Florida, but these were some of my favorites. If you’ve visited the area, let us know your favorite things to do!

Cruise the Caribbean with Last Minute Tickets

Barbados Marella cruise

After our fantastic success getting last minute, deeply discounted cruise tickets to Antarctica last year, we found ourselves in the Caribbean this spring with some extra time and an empty travel schedule. We decided to see if we could get last minute tickets to visit a few Caribbean islands.

The Caribbean was meant for sailing

As we were already in South America, one of the closest island destinations was Barbados. Looking on VacationsToGo, we saw several upcoming cruises departing from there. Some were sold out, but we wondered if we could find a last-minute cancellation ticket in the next few days. We happily found a direct flight, and within two hours we were landing on the island, surrounded by the azure waters of the Caribbean Sea.

Early bird discounts (these sailings are next year) or last minute is the way to go

Barbados, as we quickly came to realize, is a huge hub for cruise ships, as well as flights from Europe and the US. At the airport, we saw a half-dozen Tui airplanes, as well as British Airways, American Airlines, JetBlue, and other smaller inter-island hoppers. With new camera kiosks at the arrivals terminal, we were processed into Barbados in just a few minutes. Once out of the airport, we could take a taxi into Bridgetown for $70 Bajan ($35USD), or walk across the street and catch a local minibus for $3.50 Bajan.

Every ride on the local minibus or full bus costs $3.50 Bajan. They accepted USD as well.

We stayed near Bridgetown in a cute AirBnB cottage for the first couple of days so we could assess the port situation and talk to people about their cruising experience. Could you just walk up to the port and pay money and get on a boat? Maybe in days past you could, or in other ports you still can, but not here. Without a ticketed itinerary, they would not let us through the security check. We chatted up some local taxi drivers, and got some good intel (more than one cruise ship a day, but the season was winding down- it generally runs from November to April in this part of the Caribbean). We went to get some lunch, and while we were enjoying our ice-cold Deputy beers at The Bird Bar near Carlisle Beach, we met some Brits and they told us about their Marella cruise, organized by Tui.

You can also charter smaller boats when island hopping, but we were looking for all-inclusive cruises for this adventure. Maybe next time!

That evening, we utilized the Cruise Time Table website to drill down on any boats that would be sailing in and out of the Barbados port. The great thing about this site is that you can look at cruises that are mid-sail, not just ones that depart from your chosen port. In many cases, you can embark or disembark on a cruise that is already in progress- but be sure to phone up the company and ask them directly before you purchase your tickets. As long as their port has customs and immigrations processing, the ship’s agent at that port of call can generally help you out (you may find yourself boarding with some of the entertainment crew, as they frequently swap out mid-sail).

This site can be a wealth of info!

Using this website, we found some options for the next few days. One MSC cruise that visited seven islands was showing up as “sold out”, but when we phoned them, they told us to check back each day to see if there was a cancellation (they do not do a “hold” list). The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection sailing had a nice itinerary… but cost $1000 a day. Another boat was a two week cruise that began and ended in Barbados, but it was a German cruise company, and aside from the safety announcements, German would be the main language spoken on boats. The best option for us was a Marella cruise, which is operated by the British company Tui. Their 2,000 passenger boat visited six islands, began and ended in Barbados, had an all-inclusive alcohol package, and had availability for a sailing in two days. We could take the boat for one week, or add a second week with a different itinerary. We phoned them up, and half an hour later we were booked. For less than £650 each (just under $750), we had transportation for a week, all our meals, two pools, and our own cabin steward!

Even our monkey, George, was pampered on our cruise

The key to booking a last minute cruise, flight, rental car, or activity is really being flexible. In reality, we could have started and ended our cruise at any port. We just had to pick an island and start searching. Obviously, Miami is a great port to try your luck. But don’t rule out Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, or Barbados! If you’re already overseas, make sure to download Skype, and put a few bucks in your account, so you can make phone calls (or talk to your cell company about their overseas plans). Don’t be afraid to just call up the cruise lines- we spoke to a few and there were no wait times or queues. They had very friendly agents (like airlines used to have). And one final tip: if you think you have a great cruise lined up but need to secure a flight to get there ASAP, remember that most major airlines will allow you to cancel a flight in the first 24 hours (in the US it is a law). So book a quick flight, book your cruise, and get going!

All aboard!

Looking for last-minute Antarctica tickets? Eight FAQ answered

King penguins antarctica

When Chris and I (Deah) set out on our year-long South American journey, we hoped that a visit to Antarctica would be in our near future. I set about to researching how to make that happen, and two months later, we were on a boat heading to our seventh continent. Here’s the most frequent eight questions I’ve heard from friends and travelers on how to score the very best deals to go to Antarctica.

Our itinerary was perfect for us!

1. What is the best time of year to visit Antarctica?

Aside from getting a paid or volunteer job at a research station, your only options for cruising to Antarctica are going to be in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months- namely, November through February. This is the only time that the pack ice breaks up enough, and storms calm enough, to get ships in and out across the Drake Passage and to the continent. At the beginning of those months you will see more seals and more fantastic snow and ice, while in later months you will see more newly-hatched penguins born towards the end of summer. Cruises do tend to get more expensive as the summer goes on, although there are always last-minute cancellations.

November is the best month for ice and snow

2. What are the best sources for gathering information about trips to Antarctica?

I start my searches online for recent travel blogs so that I can read first-hand accounts of people who have recently taken similar adventures. Add keywords like “travel blog” and “backpacking” to rule out news articles and marketing sites for cruise lines (although those can have good info as well). Since travel has changed a lot post-Covid, add in “2022” to your search to get the most updated information. The website Cruisemapper has a wealth of good info as well.

If a cruise might be in your future, this is a great site to start your searching.

The single best place I got information for this trip was by joining a private group on Facebook, the Antarctic Travel Group. By reading through the past several months’ of posts for that group, I was able to get a great overview of Antarctic travel: do’s and dont’s, what to pack, reviews of various cruise companies, and what to do in town before and after a cruise if you have extra time.

I’m sure there are other groups, but this one was a wealth of information

3. Should I just go to Ushuaia and wait at the dock?

It used to be that you could show up at the Ushuaia (Argentina’s most southern city) airport and get an empty seat on a resupply flight to Antarctica (not anymore). You can also get to Ushuaia and walk through the small town and talk to various cruise operators and look for a last minute deal. People get ill, miss a flight, or have other emergencies, and can’t make their cruise. Of course the cruise line still wants to fill that cabin, and may offer a serious last-minute discount.

You want to fill that last-minute cabin, don’t you?

However, you can essentially do the same thing by establishing a dialogue with cruise travel agencies online. I reached out to Intrepid, Hurtigruten, and Quark, and got standard email replies. However, I had best results by starting a WhatsApp conversation with Freestyle Adventure and Epic Polar travel agencies. By letting them know what places you’re interested in getting to, the size of boat you want, and the rough dates you can be available- and by touching base with them frequently- you can be first in line when they get an awesome new deal or a last-minute discount. We had all those text conversations while we were traveling around Chile, ready to take a quick flight or bus, rather than sitting around Ushuaia waiting.

Large cruise ships can only sail near the continent, not land, so if you want to get out and touch the Antarctic continent, opt for a small-to-medium size

4. What should I pack?

Layers. Layers. Layers. The cruises to Antarctica do go in the “summer” months, but it is still cold and windy at the lower latitudes. You will want a base layer (thermal leggings, long johns, or fleece-lined tights), t shirts, long sleeved shirts such as microfleece, and of course hat and gloves. Most boats require that you bring water-proof pants, to keep you dry while out in the zodiacs. We were already traveling when we booked our cruise, and were able to purchase rain pants in a hiking town in Patagonia. Our ship had a (free) launderette on board, so even though we went on a 17-day sailing, we only needed one set of everything.

Expedition-style cruises do not use tenders to get you to a dock. They use zodiacs, and most landings will be in 6 inches to 2 feet of water. The muck boots and rain pants (or ski pants) will keep you dry underneath while you’re on shore

Most boats (but not all- check with your travel agent or whoever you purchase from) will provide you with waterproof “muck boots” for the wet landings, and will provide a branded parka that you can keep after the cruise. Ours were 3-in-1 jackets, so they had a warm down layer and a waterproof Gortex outer layer. Don’t bother wasting room in your carry-on if you don’t need to!

Our 3-in-1 parkas kept us warm and dry, even on zodiac rides. Don’t overlayer- you can actually get too warm!

5. What camera should I take?

In general, you want to take a camera that you’re already comfortable with. That being said, if there’s one place in the world where you might want something nicer than a cell phone camera or a simple point-and-shoot, it’s Antarctica. Many people on the boat- but not all- will have special lenses for long-distance, close-up photography. You can also rent one if you like to try one out. For us, Chris captured our best shots with his Canon 70D, while I used our iPhone 12 to create short videos, panoramas, slow-motion, and time-lapse shots.

These king penguins were captured by our Canon

Some cruises have an additional photography course “add on”, typically an extra $1000, which gets you invited to lectures and small group landings with an expert photographer. Our ship, the SH Vega, had award-winning photographer Renato Granieri. He gave several photography lectures to any interested guests, as well as a link to his photo album of the cruise when we disembarked.

A tip from Renato: focus on one individual in a sea of many

6. Are all cruises pretty much the same?

Not really. Ships can vary in size, from about 100 passengers up to 2000 or more. They can vary in the level of luxury- the MV Ushuaia is a former NOAA research vessel, very basic, while we traveled in the Swan Hellenic Vega, which was pretty much five-star (not our usual scene!). I researched other cruises that had add-ons such as arctic camping, kayaking, snow-shoeing, and photography. Some cruises are “classic” Antarctica, meaning they essentially leave Ushuaia, cross the Drake Passage, visit the South Shetland islands, and attempt to reach the Antarctic peninsula. Other ships, such as ours, leave from Buenos Aires, and ours included stops in the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) and South Georgia islands. With all ships, there is no guarantee that wind and weather will allow for a landing on the continent- but do check ahead of time that your ship has applied for and secured permits to at least try. Every ship that goes to the Antarctic is a part of IAATO, and they coordinate all the permits and ensure that Antarctica stays as pristine as possible.

Although you will see penguins and seals in Antarctica, the truly massive colonies live in South Georgia Islands. Don’t miss those!

7. What do you do while you’re on board?

It can easily be two or three days’ sailing between Buenos Aires, Falklands, South Georgia, Shetland islands, and Ushuaia, so there will be days at sea with no landings. Some ships have a sauna, gym, spa, and pool, as well as a beauty salon and massage room. Ships have both “formal” and “informal” dining. Even the formal dining, an amazing five-course dinner, is less “formal-wear”- our ship specifically asked us not to wear high heels on board. And there are several lounges, a science lab, and a library. Did I mention wine tastings and cocktail parties with caviar? That too.

Thanks to our lessons in whale behavior, we were able to anticipate where these humpbacks would breach next.

In between landings, on most ships, various expedition leaders and experts will give talks or lectures, which may be video-recorded and viewable from your stateroom. We had a lecture on the Falklands Conflict, photography workshops from Renato, tales of PolarAJ’s North Pole trek, and history lessons about Ernest Shackleton and other polar explorers. We also had Citizen Science opportunities to identify bird species, whales, seaweed, and clouds.

A photography lesson from Renato

If all that’s not enough, we had a selection of movies on our tv (similar to the kind on airplanes), and we had free WiFi for the duration of the sailing. I know that some other ships have a WiFi package that costs extra. Or you can choose to disconnect and spend your time editing your 8000 penguin pictures!

Do we need to keep this picture of a penguin jumping into the Antarctic? Yes. Yes we do.

8. Do you need insurance?

Yes. You really do. Because we have trip insurance through our United Explorer credit card, and are extremely flexible with our travel style, we rarely opt for extra travel insurance. However, most Antarctic cruises will require that you get an additional medical and evacuation insurance that covers up to $500,000 per person. Read these carefully- they can be quite sneaky in the wording and not “actually” cover Antarctica. I used insuremytrip to get a baseline idea of policies, but based on a tip from my ATG Facebook group, found a very reasonable policy via our USAA banking/insurance company. For less than $200, we were able to insure our trip against medical complications.

Just imagine the medical attention you’d need if one of these seals came for you.

I can tell you that the day we left port, two other ships had to return home early due to medical emergencies on board. They were in the Drake Passage and could not get a helicopter evacuation. Once they returned to port, passengers scrambled to get a different flight home, hotel stays, or an alternative sailing. Also on our sailing, we had a passenger with a medical emergency while in the Falkland Islands, who needed hospitalization and a flight back to South America. And, tragically, another ship on our sailing route had a terrible zodiac accident resulting in two deaths. They immediately headed back to Ushuaia. All of this is to say that you may be the person on board needing medical attention, or you may have your travel arrangements affected by external factors. Antarctic travel is very precarious- and passengers tend to skew toward the mid-elderly- so be prepared and protect your trip.

Luckily no medical attention was needed after I attempted this- twice.

Going to Antarctica was a dream come true for us. I was incredibly happy to finally make it happen, after thinking about it for YEARS. Best of all, we were able to purchase last-minute tickets at less than HALF the price listed on the ship’s website. By doing our research, reaching out to agencies, and being super flexible, Antarctica was finally within our reach.

“Pssst! Check out those savvy travelers- what a great deal they got!”

Questions about visiting Antarctica? Drop them below and I would be happy to answer. Let’s get you that fantastic deal to the White Continent!

Great Destinations from DC by Plane, Train, Bus, or Car

Do you live in the Washington DC area and are looking for a quick vacation spot that is close to home? Are you visiting DC soon and want to add in a day trip to somewhere outside the city? Do you wonder how how find direct flights from nearby airports? Do you need some packing tips? If so, check out this presentation:

Do you love Washington DC? What is your favorite place to visit outside the city itself? Let us know in the comments below.

Six steps for getting in your steps while on vacation

I rarely have enough discipline to follow much of an exercise regimen when I’m traveling. I do, however, follow an eating regimen; mainly, I eat everything I want in a new place for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Throw in some happy hours and some wine tastings, and that’s a lot of excess calories.

Pastel Com Nata in Lisbon? Yes, please!

However, there are ways to combat the battle of the bulge when visiting Europe or any other new place. All it takes is some good walking shoes, a hat or umbrella, and some sunscreen. Here’s how you can continue to get in your steps while you’re traveling- and keep eating all those delicious new foods.

1. Use public transport

When we arrive in a new country, rather than take a taxi straight from the airport to our hotel, we generally opt for public transport. That usually means walking to one end of the airport, and scouting out the metro, train, or bus stop closest to arrivals and departures. Finding a ticket machine takes a few more (hundred) steps, and then we’re on our way. Once we arrive in our neighborhood, it’s often another few blocks to our accommodation. Day one: we’ve added at least 1000 steps getting to our new “home”.

In Frankfurt, it’s easier to take the train!

2. Visit a museum

Every national capital, plus most other cities in the world, boast some museum that they are very proud of. We love to walk through these museums and learn about the history of the area, all while (usually) enjoying the air conditioning. Some museums literally take more than half a day to go through thoroughly, while others may only take an hour or two. But either way, you’ve upped your total steps for the day by walking through all those exhibits. Keep an eye out for a day of the week or month that most museums are free!

The Mexican Anthropology Museum will take hours to fully visit

3. Take a free walking tour

About ten years ago, the concept of the free walking tour started rippling across Europe, then Asia, then South America. The idea is that you join a group tour at a designated meeting spot, the guide shows you all the city they love, and you pay whatever you think the tour was worth. I have only very rarely seen people skip out on paying the guide- most people seem to enjoy the tour and pay the guide anywhere from $10 to 20€ per person. Over the years, we have taken free walking tours everywhere from Beijing to Cuzco, and have never had a bad time. A walking tour can last from 2-3 hours, and can easily add 6000 to 8000 steps to your day.

A free walking tour in Delhi showed us the famous sights, as well as recommending us a fantastic place for lunch!

4. Ride the bus out, walk back

A great way to see part of a new city while getting in your steps is to once again utilize public transport. We will identify a neighborhood that looks interesting, then take a subway or bus ride to a sight in that area. A one way ticket usually costs less than $2. Then, we spend the rest of the day leisurely wending our way back to our place. We stop at bookshops, restaurants, parks, or bars along the way if we get tired. If you don’t have a local SIM card, no problem. Download the maps.me app, and you’ll have offline maps all the way.

Take the iconic yellow Lisbon trams all the way to the end- then slowly roam back

5. Take a day hike

A hike through a national park or a state park is a perfect way to spend a day of your vacation. Be sure to carry plenty of water, and a snack or picnic lunch if there’s no food to purchase within your park. If you’re less sure of your own ability to navigate a hike in the wild on your own, see if there’s a guided ranger walk- inquire at the visitors center. We’ve had some fascinating ranger walks at national parks and learned a lot.

Plitvice National Park in Croatia was a fabulous day hike

6. Make your vacation a long-distance hike

This one’s a bit drastic, but it does work. Consider turning your entire vacation into one… long… walk. If you’re okay with carrying a tent, sleeping in the wild, and cooking your own food, consider a long hike such as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail- or even just a section of it. If you are already shaking your head NO NO NO, then consider a hike such as the Camino Santiago, or hiking a circuit in Nepal such as the Annapurna. Known as “teahouse” hiking, these kinds of hikes mean you sleep indoors every night, and go to cafes or alburgues for your meals. All you have to do is walk each day!

Chris hikes from Mexico to Canada on the PCT

What are some of the ways you get in your exercise while you travel? As for us, we are currently in Portugal, and starting next week, we’ll be on the Camino Portuguese. Check back soon for an update!