How to get to Florida
Although many general suggestions for foreign travelers visiting the US have been mentioned in a section above, Florida deserves some special comment. Florida receives very large numbers of both foreign and national tourists – far in excess to most other states. And Florida’s relatively unique geography and climate deserves a separate discussion.
Most foreign visitors will arrive in Miami or Ft Lauderdale (Gold coast beaches, city life etc) or Orlando (Disneyworld). However there are many other locations with smaller airports where renting a vehicle and avoiding city traffic at the outset of your travels is feasible. For example, if our focus is South Florida, we like to travel to the Southwest Florida International Airport (SFIA, near Ft Myers) as it has only 20% of the traffic of Miami. And yet smaller airports like Gainsville, Tallahassee, or Melbourne have only 10% (or less) of the traffic that the SFIA airport has. All of these smaller airports can be reached by a connecting flight from Miami or Atlanta.
As with almost every other US travel destination, a rental vehicle is an essential first step after arriving on your flight (assuming you don’t drive from somewhere else in the US). Most of Florida has good paved roads, with very few locations requiring high clearance or 4×4 vehicles. IF you know you will be exploring the National Forests of central or Northern Florida and you know lots of your time will be spent on forest roads (these can be very sandy in central Florida) then you might consider a non-standard vehicle. However, most standard vehicles will be fine under the great majority of conditions.
The climate varies considerably between north and south Florida, though in the summer months it is uniformly hot and humid. Why? Because Florida is surrounded by a warm ocean. For monthly mean sea surface temperatures over the western Atlantic see here. Although the ocean on the Gulf of Mexico side is relatively shallow (and cools considerably near the shore in winter) it is deep enough to maintain its temperature day-and-night in the summer months. Steady evaporation off this water, and importation of high humidity air from the south and southeast on most summer days, produces the continuous high dewpoint temperatures that makes most summer days uncomfortable outdoors.
Away from summer, there is a noticeable seasonal variation in temperature , mostly north to south. A few climate histograms demonstrate this.
The rainfall over Florida does have an interesting geographical and diurnal pattern that has been known, and mostly understood, for many years. During the summer, the land heats up and generates a sea-breeze. This produces sufficient rising motion to initiate thunderstorms inland from both coasts. Although these storms can them move in different directions depending on the conditions of the day, the net result is a rainfall climatology that has the maximum rainfall inland in bands parallel to both coasts. The actual coastal regions are relatively cloud-free on many summer days, while storms are occurring inland 10-20 miles or more.
Although Florida is surrounded by relatively warm water even in the winter, it is possible to have freezing temperatures in central Florida, when winds are from the north and are not moderated by flowing over the warm water. In northern Florida freezing occurs every winter, but near Miami (inland) 32˚F temperatures might occur only once every few decades. It has never frozen in Key West (lowest recorded temperature was near 41˚F) or the lower Keys, due to the warm water surrounding these small islands.
Hotels and Motels
Hotels and motels can be fully booked in high season, especially in south Florida where the “northerners” vacation in mass. (Well-know saying/truism among Floridians is that all the “northerners” are in South Florida and all the “southerners” are in North Florida. Having lived in both regions I (Mike) can attest to this.)
The reason why it can be hard to find affordable accommodation in South Florida in winter is that much of the land away from the coast is part of water conservation areas, the Big Cypress National Preserve, or the Everglades National Park. These areas are mostly water-logged in any case and unsuitable for construction. Farther north of these preserves, but south of Lake Okeechobee, there is mostly agricultural land. Such land, far from from beaches of either coast, is less interesting for tourists.
In central Florida, because of the higher elevations and better-drained soils, accommodation is available in many of the towns across the region. Naturally, the closer you are to Disneyworld and similar attractions the more hotels you will find. They also tend to be more expensive – throughout the year since these attractions are international destinations – even in Summer!
The most affordable hotels are found, on average in northern Florida because this area is cooler in winter (and not necessarily an escape from winter for those living in the NE US) and also because there are few major attractions for tourists in this part of Florida. Large cities are rare, and even towns can be widely spaced. Three National Forests also occupy considerable land, as do major military training regions (especially Eglin AFB). A fourth National Forest, the Ocala, straddles the ill-defined boundary between central and northern Florida. In summary, plan your travel carefully in south Florida – you will have greater flexibility in central and north Florida.
While most foreign tourists will not camp, this is a real option to better-see nature for those capable of driving to Florida. Florida has an excellent network of State Parks – where the stated goal is to replicate conditions prior to the arrival of Columbus to the Americas. Nature is a major focus of such state parks. Usually there are camping facilities at such parks, often including showers, electricity and water. National Forest campgrounds are also available – including dispersed camping (no facilities). In south Florida the Everglades National Park has two large campgrounds, though one of these closes during summer (mosquitos are intense).
If you fly to Florida consider buying or bringing an ice chest with you. Many nature destinations are relatively far from restaurants and you will want to have cool liquids and food suitable for a lunch. We found that we had time for eating out in the evening, but breakfast and lunch are eat into valuable nature exploration. You often want to be out early – to see that bear in the national forest or hike on trails before the summer’s afternoon heat and rain interferes with your walk. Waiting for a restaurant to open (except for fast foods) is unproductive.
Florida, like elsewhere in the US, has a wide selection of food and chain restaurants are widespread. Googling will find what you might want to eat.