Everything You Need to Know Before You Visit the Florida Keys

I’m a sucker for insider tips! That’s why I try to write a “know before you go” post for every place I visit. Steve and I have visited four of the major Florida Keys just this year, and it quickly became a favorite destination! If you’re planning a trip to the Keys any time soon–which I highly recommend you do–this is your ultimate guide to what you need to know before you go!

Terminology

As with any destination, there are always some local terms to get used to in a new place. Here are the most notable ones to know for your trip to the Keys:

  • Northbound vs. Southbound: There’s only one main road through the Keys. Heading toward Key West? That’s southound. Going to Miami? That’s northbound.
  • Bay Side vs. Ocean Side: This refers to the side of the island you’re on, either facing the Florida Bay or the Atlantic Ocean. For example, Steve and I ended up staying in accommodations that were all on the “Bay Side” of the islands.
  • Conch: It’s pronounced “conk.” Sound like a local!

How Many Keys are There?

There are over 1,700 islands that make up the archipelago of the Florida Keys, spanning across the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and Florida Bay. These Keys arc out over 137 miles from Key Largo to Garden Key, where Dry Tortugas National Park is located.

Don’t skip Garden Key–home to Dry Tortugas National Park!
Want more? Check out Everything You Need to Know about Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park

Do I Need a Car?

Yes. Unless you’re staying on Key West your entire trip, you will definitely need a car! Key West is the most walkable and condensed Key. The others are longer and more linear, meaning that the sites you’ll want to see, even on the same island, could be several miles away. For instance, if you want to visit both Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park and Anne’s Beach, both on Islamorada, those sites are 12 miles apart!

Get ready for the open road!
More here: The Ultimate List of Road Trip Tips

How Do I Know Where to Stay?

The thing to know is that the east side of the islands are on the Atlantic Coast (or Ocean Side), and the west side of the islands are on the Florida Bay (or Bay Side) of the islands. We stayed on the Bay Side on Key Largo, Islamorada, and Marathon, and on the Ocean Side on Key West. Either is great, but the Bay Side has the sunset views the Keys are famous for, and the waters are calmer.

We saw loads of wildlife in the Florida Bay, including our sweet, new manatee friend! Photo Credit: Ashley Johnson
Find all my hotel and B&B reviews on my Accommodations Page!

What Can I Do if I Don’t Want to Snorkel?

You can still do a lot of things! My husband Steve and I are not great snorkelers, so we found lots of things to do above the water. We took a cruise on the movie-famous African Queen, paddleboarded, kayaked, relaxed on the beach, got natural fish pedicures at Crane Point Museum and Nature Trail, and visited many Florida State Parks! I’ll be writing about many of these things soon, so make sure you’re subscribed to the blog (at the bottom of my home page!) so you don’t miss them!

Don’t skip a ride on the historic ship from the movie of the same name!
Coming soon: How to Take a Cruise on the African Queen

Tell Me More about the State Parks, Please.

Sure! We didn’t know anything about all the state parks in the Florida Keys until we were driving through. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is on basically every “Florida Keys To Do” list, but because most of it is under water, we didn’t visit ourselves. Instead, we enjoyed Windley Key Geological State Park, Curry Hammock State Park and Nature Trail, Long Key State Park, and others.

If we had known in advance how much we would enjoy the State Parks in the Keys, we would have spent a little more time researching them on the Florida State Park Website, and we probably would have considered buying a Florida State Park Pass. Individual Annual Passes are $60 for one person, and each additional person accompanying the pass holder is $2. Family Annual Passes are $120 to include the pass holder and up to eight people.

Exceptions are Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, and Skyway Fishing Pier State Park. Please check their website for the most up-to-date fees and information.

Sneak Peek at Long Key State Park!
More to come: Your Guide to Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park

How Can I Get There?

Here is a quick run-down of your transportation options. In addition to those listed below, you can also arrive via private boat or private airplane. For more details, check out Getting to the Florida Keys from floridakeys.com.

Driving

You can, of course, take U.S. Highway 1 all the way! Keep in mind that speed limits are strictly enforced throughout the Keys. We saw lots of people getting tickets during our trip, especially in the stretch of Marathon right before the seven-mile bridge.

Get this view of the 7-mile bridge from the Sunset Grille in Marathon!
More here: Your Ultimate Guide to Driving in the Florida Keys

Bus

There are three charter bus companies that provide transportation to the Keys from MIA, FLL, and around the region. Please visit their websites at the links below for current informaiton. The three companies are:

Ferry

You can arrive by ferry if you like! The Key West Express ferries passengers from Marco Island to Key West seasonally, as well as Fort Meyers beach to Key West daily. The cost is $161 per adult round-trip (discounts apply for children, seniors, and advance purchases. The trip take approximately 3.5 hours one-way.

Boats have always been a popular way to visit the Keys!
When in Key West: Should I take the Seaplane or Ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park?

Flying

There are a few airports in and around the Florida Keys. They include:

  • Key West International (EYW)
  • Florida Keys Marathon Airport (MTH)
  • Miami International Airport (MIA)

Key West is very walkable and has both rideshare and pedicab options, so when we visited there, we didn’t feel the need to rent a car. However, when we visited the Upper Keys (Key Largo, Islamorada, and Marathon), we flew into Miami and rented a car. If you fly into Marathon and plan to only stay on that Key, you may or may not want to rent a car, depending on how far you want to explore while you’re there.

Other airports to consider within driving range include Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Tampa International Airport (TPA), and Orlando International Airport (MCO).

Bird’s eye view of the Overseas Highway (Route 1)
Flying to and from MIA? Check out the Star Alliance Lounge by Turkish Airlines!

There is no Kokomo off the Florida Keys!

Did I break your heart? I didn’t mean to! It’s an amazing song–perhaps my favorite Beach Boys song ever! But alas, there is no island called Kokomo off the Florida Keys. There is a Kokomo, Indiana, though!

Want more? You’ll find all my posts about the Florida Keys on my United States Page!

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Published by quickwhittravel

Hey there! I am an avid traveller and adventurer, and you're always welcome to join me! The things I love most are God, my husband Steve, and seeing new places! My favorite places include Sydney, Australia; Ise City, Japan; and Bergen, Norway--but there's always room for more favorite places!

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