Thursday, April 27, 2017

Florida Keys Family Vacation {on a budget}

Is there an any more magical time in the year than Spring Break? The travel possibilities are endless. Some may call me a helicopter mom, but I refuse to let my high school kids go on spring break with just a bunch of other kids. I have heard way too many horror stories of what happens to high schoolers when there are no adult chaperones around. And don't even get me started with the college kids, same situations, but somehow worse.

When each of my children enter their senior year in high school, we asked them where they want to go for a family spring break. Now when I say family, it includes my daughter's boyfriend and my son's girlfriend too. They have both been dating for years now, and they are unofficially part of our family too. So I would need to plan a vacation for seven people. Two adults, three 18 year olds, one 17 year old and one 11 year old. For some larger families, this is daily life, for me I took it as a challenge.

So my daughter's senior year she said she just wanted to lay on a beach all day long. Since only three of the seven travelers have passports, it had to be in the continental United States. We live in Minnesota, so to get to any beach that is warm enough, it was going to be far away. We decided on the Florida Keys, and my research and planning began.

Now first of all, my family travels a little differently than most families do because of my husband job. You see, he runs a small used car lot. We tend to fly one way to our destination, he purchases a few cars and we drive them home. We get a vacation out of it and he gets transportation of cars back to his lot. This obviously won't work for many people, but it is just one way we save money. Maybe you have a friend who owns a lot, never hurts to ask them if they need somebody to fly out and drive home a car for them. Plus there is the advantage of seeing some sights on the drive home too!

You can check out this posting with all the details of How to Plan a Family Vacation. It shows you step by step how I go about the planning of each and every family vacation we take. I actually like spreadsheets and planning, so this step is almost as fun for me as the actual vacation.

The Florida Keys on a Budget

Day one: Orlando in route to Key Largo
We started off day one by half the crew picking up the cars at the auction lot and the other half packing up the room and waiting for my son's girlfriend to arrive from Fort Myers. Everybody took advantage of the free continental breakfast, and we might have even grabbed a few extra apples on the way out. When the cars arrived (a suburban and a Mustang convertible) we packed up the cars and headed south to the Keys. At this point we have not grocery shopped yet, so we stopped at a fast food restaurant for lunch before hitting the islands. We arrived in Key Largo and found our rental home before dinner time, unpacked and settled in. Hubby and I ran to the grocery store with our meal planned list (and coupons I brought from home) and picked up all the groceries for the week. The kids unpacked and figured out the TV's and set up the bluetooth speakers for music (yes, we travel with our own speakers wherever we go). A quick dinner of frozen pizzas in the oven, and off to explore the neighborhood for the evening. We also found a local Wal-Mart where the kids bought their beach towels and some t-shirts and baseball hats. We also bought pails, shovels and a frisbee along with large bottles of shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste and sunscreen. I don't like the travel bottles that are allowed on airplanes so I wait until we are at our destination to buy full sizes.

Day Two: Key Largo & John Pennekamp State Park
We had booked a snorkeling trip months in advance to see "The Statue" which is an underwater statue of Jesus that has coral reef growing on it named the Christ of the Sea. If you are at all a religious person, this is a must see as it will take your breath away, and not just because you are snorkeling. We booked a 9:00am snorkeling tour as there was a $5 per person coupon and it ended up costing $25 for the tour and $9 for equipment per person. This also included the take home souvenir snorkel. The tour was 2 1/2 hours long and was plenty of time. My only suggestion is to wear good sunscreen and have a friend apply it to your back, trust me! We had packed a picnic lunch of chips and sandwiches that we ate on a picnic table after the snorkeling tour. We then made our way down to the beach in the park. It was a beautiful beach and had plenty of palm trees to lounge under, because we were pooped. The kids got to use their snorkels again playing around in the water. We headed back to the house later in the evening and ate sloppy joes that had been warming in the crock pot all day, played some board games and went to bed pretty early.

Day Three: Key West
Wow, Key West. I can see why there are songs written about it, it is beautiful. We woke up early to get a head start on the traffic. I have always heard it could be a painfully long drive down if you time it wrong with traffic. We packed snacks for the drive and a picnic again for lunch and we were off. Our first stop was to Smather's Beach with it's white sand that is rumored to be brought in from the Bahamas. It was a beautiful morning and we ended up taking some senior pictures at this beach before the girls got their hair wet. It is a quiet beach where we could park right on the road. There are no changing facilities where we were, so we ended up changing in the port-a-potty after the photo shoot. After a few hours there we made our way down to the Southern Most Point in the United States. We stood in line to take a picture using a selfie stick (smart purchase) and had a nice picture to put on our Christmas card. Right next to the line was a local selling coconuts to drink from. We purchased one and took pictures of everybody drinking from it. From there we walked to St. Mary Star of the Sea church to check out the Grotto and Rosary path in the back. It was a quiet stop with benches for resting and a bathroom. From there we drove to Higgs Beach which is a beautiful sandy beach and seemed to be a popular hang out. I wish we would have gotten there sooner to check out the Garden Club right next door. We peeked in the fence and it looked like a fun place to explore for free. We walked to the African Graves and paid our respects and then hit the water. The kids went out onto the pier and used the Go-Pro from some fun pictures and videos. We had our picnic lunch on the beach when people got hungry. After a few hours at this beach we headed into town before it was too dark.  We tried to make it to  Mallory Square for the Sunset Celebration, but we didn't walk quite fast enough, and frankly we didn't quite know where it was located. So we did some souvenir shopping and bought a few t-shirts. Hubby and I found Margaritaville and had a picture taken out front and then we were on a mission to find some dinner. Walking past most of the restaurants because they seemed very college spring break-ish, or because the hostess was barely dressed trying to get people inside, we ended up picking Fogarty's with the Flying Monkey Saloon.  We sat outside at a huge table and it was a gorgeous night. We ended up with the nicest waiter who had a great sense of humor. We were apologetic to him for having such a big table, but after seeing the table next to us with their rudeness and demands on him, he decided he like us better and we ended up with better service because of it. The food was good and not to expensive at all. From there we ended up walking through a few more stores, but with it being late, the stores seemed to be advertising things I didn't feel appropriate for an 11 year old to see, so we headed back up the coast to our rental home. I wished I would have purchased a few more souvenirs while in Key West due to the long drive, I knew we wouldn't be stopping back down there again on this trip.

Day Four: Marathon & Islamorada
We started out the morning in Islamorada at Robbie's Marina. I can not express enough how much you need to check this place out, especially if you are on a budget and have kids with you. They have cute little shops to walk through where we purchased a few postcards and bumper stickers and one t-shirt, but head to the docks, that is where all the action is at. It costs $1 per person to go onto the docks and $3 for a bucket of "bait" and it is worth every penny. We ended up going back for more buckets because we were having such a great time. The dock workers will help you scare the pelicans away, but be sure to have your video camera ready because the first time a tarpon jumps up, you won't want to miss the reaction of your family. This was our youngest son's favorite part of the whole trip and still talks about it. That t-shirt we bought was for him and states "I fed the Tarpon" on the front of it. From there we went over to Marathon to a lunch spot that was recommended to us: The Sunset Grill & Raw Bar. Not that the kids were tired of swimming in the ocean, but I think the salt water was getting to them. This restaurant has a swimming pool out back that the kids can use while they wait for their food to arrive. We went for lunch because it happened to be St. Patrick's Day and I was afraid of what the youngest would see later on in the night at a pool bar. The food was good and somewhat filling, but the real treat was finally getting some Key Lime Pie. The kids ate everything they could and then jumped right into the pool, be damned the 30 minute rule, we were on vacation. It was nice for hubby and I to relax under the umbrellas and watch the kids swim for awhile after eating. After eating we walked over to the Seven Mile Bridge right next door to take a few more pictures. From there we drove a little further south to hit up the Bahia Honda State Park to take in another beach. We ended up staying at this park until just after sunset. It was quiet and peaceful and we ended up taking many pictures in the water at this beach. Be careful at sunset time as that was when high tide hit for us and we had to move all of our stuff into the sand dunes to keep dry. I had put a corned beef in the crock pot before leaving for the morning, so when we made it back to the house, we had a traditional American St. Patrick's Day feast waiting for us.

Day Five: The long drive home
As I mentioned earlier, we fly to our destinations and then drive home, and because we live in Minnesota, it was going to be a long drive from the Keys to Minneapolis. But this is not where the adventure ends, the drive is half the fun! Check out the fun we had at the Mammoth Caves in Kentucky and the day we spent in St. Louis Missouri. Driving home we all talked about the fun we had and all the stuff we want to see next time we visited, so the Pinterest board actually grew a little bit on the drive home.

Pros & Cons of The Florida Keys


  • Many islands to visit
  • Many different accommodation ideas
  • Free souvenirs: sand, shells, pictures
  • Friendly locals
  • Beautiful snorkeling
  • Gorgeous sunsets
  • Local seafood
  • Play spot the Manatee Mailbox game while driving
  • State Park beaches require parking passes
  • No free beaches except in Key West
  • Expensive to fly right into the Keys
  • Traffic
  • Long lines
  • You won't ever want to leave

The links in this posting are just for reference to the places mentioned. I am not compensated by any of these businesses or beaches. I have just linked to them so that if they sound of interest to you, it is easier for you to find them yourself. All opinions are my own. 

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