Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Planning a Key West visit

This post will help if you're planning a Key West visit or vacation and have questions like when to visit Key West, how long to stay, when is the rainy season, what are the best budget hotels, and how to get to Key West. Here's the Key West truth from a fellow Key West visitor.
Planning a Key West visit. This picture is taken during the summer when crowds are much fewer
This post will answer these questions:
  • When should I visit Key West?
  • How many days should I stay? Is a weekend too short?
  • How to get to Key West?
  • How bad is the traffic?
  • Where to stop off on the way down the Keys?
  • How long to stay in Key West?
  • Do you need a car / what to so with the car while in Key West?
  • What to wear in Key West?  How formal is Key West?
  • Where to stay and what to do?
  • How good is Key West for children?
So click on the link below and let's get going....


WHEN SHOULD I VISIT KEY WEST?

FULL POST ON THIS BLOG: Full story on my blog on when to visit - with month by month guide.

This is the biggest question I get asked on this blog. It's important you know the difference between the seasons in Key West for visitors. The 2 seasons are VERY different. The seasons WILL impact your vacation.

Perfect weather time is December through May with February or March being the best months.

From June through November it's summer and it's hot and humid.  Really, really humid - so humid that it will definitely impact your vacation. And it's up to 50% less busy - Key West can be very quiet  in September, for example.


If you are coming for a special event then that will dictate your planning.
Hint: check the schedule of events in Key West as the Tourist center has done a brilliant job of bringing special events to Key West. There is a different event almost every week in Key West. Click here for the official tourist site's calendar of events.

You might find that an event you like the sound of is near to your planned date of visit and you want to slightly shift your dates to see it.

Is Fantasy Fest worth visiting for?
Yes, definitely (as long as you like a party). Fantasy Fest was ‘invented’ to bring in visitors before the season proper starts – just when the humidity is breaking. It’s grown and grown since then.  

It’s now lewd and noisy and crowded and can be fun depending on if you like it that way. Many locals shun the main parade now because of the lewd behaviour and the drunkenness.

However, I found it fun but would not visit every year. Fantasy Fest is a strange part of Key West’s character – I would say the true Key West you’ll find outside of Fantasy Fest.

Here's a post about visiting for Fantasy Fest, especially for the first timer.

Is it worth flying to Key West all the way from UK or Europe?
As you would expect, the majority of Key West's 3 million visitors are from the U.S.
But a small number are from Europe - there are about 40,000 German visitors and 30,000 from the UK every year.

I live in London and would definitely say it's worth it. It's not that far really: the door to door travel time from London is 17 hours. Here is a post about my trip from London to Key West - cold London to "Key West cocktail by 9pm" in the same day.

HOW LONG SHOULD I STAY IN KEY WEST?

FULL POST: Ideal length of stay and typical itineraries for different durations

Anytime from a long weekend to weeks. I would say a short / regular weekend is too short.
I’ve been back 20 times in 13 years, sometimes for 4 days, sometimes for a full 2 weeks. 
There are dozens of things to do and dozens of great bars and great restaurants.
To the other extreme, visitors coming from the cruise liners come for 5 hours and then sail on to the next port.
So it depends on your schedule.
I would say a minimum of 4 days to get a feel for the place and the vibe, and longer if you can.
For a longer answer to "How long to stay in Key West", and suggested itineraries for different vacation durations, see my post here.

HOW BUSY IS KEY WEST?

3 million visitors a year.

So it's definitely not a deserted, quiet, secluded tropical island where you'll be the only castaway. The whole island of Key West is only 4 miles by 1 mile wide so you won't be going on long treks when you don't see anyone else.

In the peak season, January to March in particular, the center of town and Duval Street is super busy, bustling and loud with different shops and a huge variety of bars & restaurants catering for all tastes from raucous to more mellow (including jazz), to laid back (Rum bar and wine bars).

While you'll never be able to fully get away from people it always surprises me how quiet Key West becomes within a block of Duval Street. The quiet, narrow tropical streets are beautiful to walk along.

Finally, if you want it quieter visit Key West in the off season (July to end November, but miss Fantasy Fest). In off season it'll be up to 60% quieter than peak season (December through June). But be careful about the other factors like humidity at this time - read my post here about when it's best to visit.

HOW TO GET TO KEY WEST
I’ve travelled to Key West by plane, by car, by Greyhound bus and by canoe (ok I am kidding about the last one).

The best / most fun / most genuine way is to drive and it's not much longer then flying.

If you’re connecting through Miami International Airport (MIA) then the time difference between car (using a rental) and flying from MIA to EYW (Key West International Airport – don’t ask me why international as there are no international flights at present!) is minimal.  

Flying to Key West
The plane only gets to 16,000 feet and the trip lasts less than 29 minutes.
If you're sensitive to turbulence (like me) then note that it's often bumpy in these tiny planes and in the tropical heat. The good news is that the flight is super short.
Delta flies from Atlanta.
Key West International Airport sign
Arriving into Key West airport
It’s tiny and easy to navigate (pics here of Key West airport arrivals and baggage reclaim - see bottom of the post). 

There are rental companies actually in the airport terminal and the rental cars are outside in the airport's parking lot. But you may not need a car in Key West – see below.

There are always cabs available (if real late or early you might have to wait 5 minutes) and the trip to Duval Street takes 10 minutes by car. It's common to share a taxi with other folks in Key West and split the cost.

Taking a rental / driving to Key West

FULL ARTICLE: On my drive along Highway 1 to Key West. Hour by hour guide.

The drive is easy but can be long if you time it wrong - see section below on traffic. It’s a fast freeway to Florida City and then the mile markers start at 126 just outside Florida City – i.e. it’s 126 miles to Key West.
The drive is easy and scenic with some stunning vistas and bridges (but also with a few ugly commercial stretches).

There are some longish stretches, especially in the upper Keys (the 50 miles nearest Miami), which are a bit boring and where you just see commercial buildings and no sign of the sea.
Then there are stretches where you see the endless Everglades. And then for 40 miles in the lower keys stunning and amazing views of the ocean each side of the narrow road.y

Do you recommend travelling to Key West by plane or car?
My preference is driving. It’s not that much longer and the drive is one of the wonderful drives in America. The hot breeze in your hair gets you in the mood for the tropical paradise which is to come.

Unless you are driving at night (or after sun set) when there is no view to see, and the drive is hard work - then I'd fly.

What about traffic?
Beware!!  For the vast majority of the 126 mile drive it's a one lane highway. The max speed limit is 55, for long stretches it's only 40mph (which people tend to keep to strictly as there are lots of cops!).

After 10am on Saturday, and during peak time (November to April) the traffic to Key West can be horrendous - and add hours to your trip.  Accidents are common.

My strong advice always is to leave super early - like 6am - and try and get to Key West by noon.

SHOULD I STOP OFF ON THE DRIVE DOWN THE FLORIDA KEYS?
Yes, if you have time.

There are lots of really cool things to do.

We normally break it with a 15 minute stop at the Key’s only Starbucks (apart from in Key West itself) – at Key Largo, MM100.
Remember it’ll take a minimum of 3.5 hours from Miami if the traffic is perfect so if you break the trip with a stop, that will be longer.

If you're only coming for a few days then I'd get to Key West as soon as you can. If you really want to stop off then here are my top recommendations:
Best - Bahia Honda state park and one of the most beautiful beaches in the USA – MM 37
2nd - Curry Hammock state park, MM56.2. This is quieter and much smaller than Bahia and has, over the years, become my favorite stop.
3nd - Turtle Hospital, Marathon, MM48.5 - click here for my review of our visit
4rd - Theater of the Sea (marine park) – MM 84.5 oceanside

Here's a full post on this blog of things to do on the 126 mile drive down the Florida Keys, or if you want to break your journey.


DO I NEED A CAR IN KEY WEST?
If you are only hanging out in Key West then NO. Definite NO. This is a walking, not driving, town.
Key West is a very small island and most hotels and B&Bs are in the center (Old Town).

So if you are only staying for 3 or 4 days or even a week then you definitely don’t need a car. Parking can be difficult and/or expensive.

Hint: In fact, part of the charm, pleasure and vibe of Key West is walking around the beautiful streets.
Even the party street, Duval Street, has the majority of the bars on it and so, again, is very walkable.

HOW EXPENSIVE IS KEY WEST?
To be honest, it's expensive. 

Of course, it depends on how you do it. For the budget traveller, there are cheaper options. But, it's generally quite expensive, and there are far more premium/expensive places than cheap. The most expensive part of your stay is going to be the hotels or guest houses - in peak season they are super expensive. 

If you're on a budget here my advice: It's definitely cheaper in the summer or off season that is, July to September. Many restaurants do discount menus much cheaper (30% off) than it would cost in the peak season. The downside is that it's very hot and humid - see here for more information on when to visit.

WHAT DO I WEAR?
Key West does NOT have a dress code. At all. Anywhere.
The Key West 'uniform' is shorts.

For the entirety of my visit, every single time I’ve visited – whether in summer or winter - I’ve only worn shorts and a t-shirt. I've NEVER ever put a pair of jeans or long pants on!

Rainy season gear (September through November)
Still shorts but as well...
You’ll need rain protection for the very wet months – but it will still be really humid and hot – so something light like a poncho is ideal.
And even the most top end restaurants, you’ll be totally fine in shorts.

In December to February, if you get cold then I recommend some form of outerwear for the evenings.

WHERE SHOULD I STAY IN KEY WEST?
There are big hotel chains so TripAdvisor can guide you if you want one of those. But…..

There are many very good quality ones indeed –straight and gay. They have great facilities and they are far friendlier than a hotel.

And many have happy hours (which can last much longer than an hour) from 5pm onwards so you can meet the guests over a beer or cocktail (or several).

Don’t worry about staying several blocks away from Duval - even a dozen blocks back. But don's stay too close: Duval is noisy every night until 4am so it’s a good thing to be set back – and a 10 or 15 minute walk is no problem in Key West.

See my story here on hotels in Key West; and best guesthouses and bed and breakfasts in Key West.


Campgrounds
Betty emailed me (keywestdavid911@gmail.com) and asked:

"Do you have any reviews of campgrounds?  How about arriving with a camper and renting a car?  Is that practical or no?"

I answered: 

hi Betty

no campgrounds on Key West

the nearest - Boyd's - is on Stock Island which, while officially in city limits, is on the next island along - quite close but not that close - it's 5 miles to the center of Key West from there

more importantly, Stock Island does not have the vibe of Key West 

you can come down with a camper and rent a car but it's difficult and expensive to park in Key West - the lovely thing about actually staying in downtown (Old Town) Key West guesthouse is that you are right in the middle of the beauty and in the morning you can leave the guesthouse, and then after no more than a 5 to 10 min walk be wherever you want to be in Old Town (i.e. how relaxing it is not to need a car, for everything to be "local"  and to be staying in beautiful Old Town Key West

all the best, David


WHERE DO I STOCK UP ON PROVISIONS IN KEY WEST?
Stop off at Publix on the way into Old Town for snacks, wine and beer, suntan lotion etc. It's on N Roosevelt Boulevard.

When in Key West, the supermarket is Fausto's, on Fleming Street, one block up from Duval Street.

Duval Street has several pharmacies - Walgreens and CVS.


CHILDREN AND KEY WEST
Key West is NOT a good place for either teenagers or young children. Strangely for an island, the beaches are not great (there is only one really good beach in Key West - it's the local's secret - click here). There's not that much for kids to do. It's more of an adult place, to be honest. 


OTHER RELATED, INTERESTING STORIES ON THIS BLOG:

Where to stay in Key West - Key West hotels

What to do in Key West - Key West visitor attractions and fun stuff to do

How long to stay in Key West

When is the best time of year to visit Key West?

I hope this post helped - please leave a comment in the comments section below. Thanks, David.