If you enjoyed my posts about Miami, the Florida Keys and the Northern Florida Springs, you may now wonder how to organise such an adventure. If travelling to the United States doesn’t pose any particular issue, there were a few things I needed to be careful to make my trip enjoyable while avoiding to break the bank! During the two weeks of my adventure, I thoroughly noted every surprising point to share the best summary on how to make a scuba diving road trip in Florida as enjoyable as possible.
Driving around Florida
1 – Get your own SunPass to pay the highway tolls
If you are renting a car, this is a crucial point if you do not want to be ripped off by your rental company. If you are taking your car because you live in America, it is still better to pay attention to it.
Florida has a cash free electronic system to pay the highway tolls. It means if you do not have the “transponder” (the name of the electronic device you put in your car), you might end up paying many fines without noticing as they will take a picture of your registration plate every single time. You can avoid the tolls if you know very well Florida or if you are great at following the indications of your GPS which you preset at “no toll along the itinerary”. In reality, I found it hard to avoid the tolls. The SunPass is mainly used for the Turnpike, a motorway linking the north to the south of Florida (Crystal River being already 5 hours away from Miami, why bothering taking an alternative route?). It is also used for the roads around Miami (especially around MIA Airport) and the fast lane on the I-95 from Fort Lauderdale to Miami (it is easy to get on it without noticing). So I strongly recommend getting your own SunPass.
How? This is the part when car rental companies play on the lack of knowledge and the fear of tourists completely unaware of the toll system. My rental company was asking 9$ per day for the rental of the transponder plus the cost of the tolls. So for a 14-day rental, the total cost would have been around 146$. Hopefully, I found this information before my trip and consulted www.sunpass.com/howSunPassWorks. For 5$, you can buy a mini sticker transponder in any CVS or Walgreen pharmacy. I was wondering before arriving if it would be easy to find these shops. For my non-American readers, the pharmacies in the US are mini supermarkets, not only pharmacies, and they are everywhere! I bought my mini SunPass at the CVC Pharmacy (555 Washington Ave, Miami Beach) while walking around Miami Beach on the first day of my trip just before taking my rental car.
I activated it online with my smartphone and for this trip, I used a credit of 20$. Total cost 25$: I saved 121$ compared with the service offered by the car rental company! Just think to remove the sticker from the windshield and to deactivate your SunPass at the end, or you might end up paying more! This was my case, I got an extra charge of 10$, so ok, I only saved 111$!
2 – Navigate the Turnpike like a pro
Nothing complicated with the direction on the Turnpike: it goes straight from Miami to Orlando, and there is only one such highway in Florida. In the south, it goes down to Homestead, the gate of the Everglades and in the north, it stops a bit before Crystal River. It was perfect for my Florida scuba diving road trip.
The point you need to be careful is the number of lanes on the highway, up to 6. The first one on the right should only be used to take an exit, but the last one on the left is not necessarily for the fastest cars as the Rest areas called here Toll Plaza with a petrol (gas) station and a food court, are in the middle of the highway. It is very convenient for cars going both directions to stop at the same place without complicated access.
3 – Use this postal code trick to pay for petrol with your credit card
I was happy to find again in the US, as in France, petrol stations where you can pay directly on the machine. I still don’t understand why in the UK we still have to go into the shop and queue. This was until the machine asked me for an American postal code (made of 5 numbers) to authorise my credit card. Thanks to the kind help of the staff, we found out that with a British post code (ex: EH11 2AD in Edinburgh), you need to remove all the letters and add 0 to get a 5 figure postcode (with my example, it becomes 11200).
4 – Learn a new driving style
This is something I was having a hard time to understand: Police is very much present on the roads, but people drive fast, really fast. There is a speed limit, but there is also the rule of going with the traffic. Yes, driving too slow is also against the law.
The second biggest surprise is that it is legal to take over on both sides on highways. So watch out all around you before changing lanes. Here is a good website to learn the driving rules in Florida: hwww.stateofflorida.com/defensive-driving.aspx (Special note to my British readers: don’t forget to drive on the right!)
5 – Stop before the intersection, not at the traffic lights
This one is an easy pitfall when you come from Europe to America for the first time. I struggled a lot with it at the beginning when I moved to Canada. Contrary to Europe where traffic lights are before the intersection, in America, the traffic lights are on the other side of the intersection. So please, be careful to stop before the intersection!
6 – Carefully estimate your travel time
Another tricky point: There are sections of highways where maximum speed is 70 mph (113 km/h) especially on the Turnpike Highway. However, most of the time, you are going to be limited to 55 mph (89 km/h). This has a real impact on your travel time, so don’t be too optimistic. Also, do not underestimate the traffic jam around Miami and Orlando depending on the time of the day.
7 – Be wise with your island hoping plans in the Florida Keys
The Overseas Highway might be called a highway all the way to the US southernmost point in Key West, but it is not a multi-lane road all the way. If you add an opening bridge and that the Keys are only a couple of hours away from Miami, the traffic can be bad very quickly. So don’t be too enthusiastic about island hopping while staying in only one place. In theory, it is 3 hours of driving between Key Largo and Key West, but with the traffic, it is closer to 6 hours. Even getting something from the nearby supermarket can become a nightmare depending on the time of the day. If you can, get different accommodation places along the Keys depending on the area you want to visit. After a long drive to Key West, I was delighted I booked two nights there!
Scuba diving in the US
8 – Don’t get lost in translation during the dive briefing
In Europe, we dive with metres, bars and degrees Celsius. American divers dive with feet, psi and degrees Fahrenheit. If you want to be able to follow the dive briefing, better to feel comfortable with these units. Try at least to remember these:
- 60 ft = 18 m / 100 ft = 30 m
- 3000 psi = 200 bars / 1000 psi = 70 bars
- 70°F = 21°C / 80°F = 27°C
9 – Don’t forget your DIN regulator adaptor
If, like me, you are a European diver and you travel with your gear, let’s say there is, at least, a good 50% that you have a DIN regulator. In America, do not expect people to adapt tanks for you, they cannot! The only solution is to get a DIN/yoke adapter. Mine is made of aluminium and is extremely light. If in Mexico (where same situation applies), each dive centre had some to rent, I have not seen any during my trip to Florida.
10 – Be ready for short surface intervals
The coral reefs in the Keys offer shallow dive sites. I never went below 11m. With shallow diving, bottom time can be long but dive centres limit the dive to 50 min / 1 hour. For these reasons, the surface interval is only 30 minutes. This time includes gear preparation time for the second dive. I was surprised on my first dives in Key West, but then I saw the same pattern in Key Largo. So once you are back from your first dive, don’t delay, prepare your second tank and then enjoy a 15-minute nap in the sun.
11 – Call the dive centres beforehand if you want to go wreck diving
Because of their depth and because dive centres need to make sure they have a minimum number of divers with the right certification and experience, it is better to call in advance the dive centre you want to dive with a couple of days in advance. They do not go every day to the wrecks, so it would be a pity to miss the wreck of your dream because of a lack of organisation.
Travelling without breaking the bank
12 – Don’t necessarily fly to Miami
Miami International Airport (MIA) is not the only international airport of Florida. There are 15 international airports in Florida, and I am not counting the domestic airports! Many offer direct flights from/to Europe. So when you are looking for the best fare, do not hesitate to change the destination airport to save significant money depending on the time of the year. If your road trip is making a loop, it does not really matter where it starts once you have the car.
Here is the list of the international airports of Florida with their FAA airport code:
- Daytona Beach (DAB)
- Fort Lauderdale (FLL)
- Fort Myers (RSW)
- Jacksonville (JAX)
- Key West (EYW)
- Melbourne (MLB)
- Miami (MIA)
- Orlando (MCO)
- Orlando Sandford (SFB)
- Panama City Beach (ECP)
- Pensacola (PNS)
- Sarasota (SRQ)
- Peterburg (PIE)
- Tampa (TPA)
- West Palm Beach (PBI)
13 – Rent your car in the city centre instead of the airport
This tip is valid for any place in the world, but I found that the price difference between renting a car at the airport versus in the city centre was exceptionally big in Florida. The cost per day could be cheaper by 15$. When you rent a car for two weeks, these are significant savings! To find the best price, I used the website Autoescape. They had the best price, and I found a 5% coupon in my guidebook which is still better than nothing!
14 – Stay in motels for incredible value
First, the motel is a must-have American experience. By definition, they are located near roads and hence not very fancy places. As they are often not in quiet places, I would recommend checking if the rooms are well sound proofed. However, when on a road trip, this is one of the most practical and cheapest options, especially if you have 3 other buddies. Many rooms are 2 queen size beds where 4 adults can comfortably sleep. If the room is about 100$, it is 25$ per person, so it is cheaper than a hostel in Florida. They offer free breakfast (I especially loved the waffle machine!) and free Wi-Fi, and there is usually a swimming pool.
15 – Avoid American Holidays and especially Christmas
Here is my last tip and not the least. I can warmly recommend this one as I had the “brilliant” idea to start my trip to Florida during Christmas holidays. To be fair, in my case, I did not really have the choice, so I decided to bear the responsibility for higher than usual cost for this trip. In the end, it was beyond imagination. Accommodation prices skyrocket at that season. A standard room in the Florida Keys which is normally around 100$ can reach 400$ between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. In Miami, the large offer of accommodation limits this effect and there were still plenty of Airbnb rooms available. The bad thing about Christmas is that many places are fully booked months in advance. So if you can, avoid that period, and, generally speaking, any of the big American holidays:
- Spring Break (Different period State by State, from mid-March to mid-April)
- Memorial Day (Last Monday of May)
- Independence Day (4th of July)
- Labour Day (1st Monday in September)
- Xmas holidays from the 24th of December to the 5th of January
I hope with these 15 travel tips you will be able to organise a fun, enjoyable and make-your-bank-adviser-happy scuba diving holidays in Florida!
Let me know in the comments if you would like to know anything else about travelling around Florida or if you’ve already been, what tip you would recommend to other world adventure divers.
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