The Complete Guide To: Cut-price Florida

The Sunshine State has something to suit everyone's taste – from Orlando's theme parks, to the beaches of the Panhandle, to Art Deco Miami – and it doesn't have to cost a packet, says Fred Mawer

With a pathetic pound, is Florida still affordable?

Yes – indeed, 2009 may be the ideal time to go. Many Americans are staying away from the beaches, theme parks and cities of Florida. To lure Brits instead, hotels and theme parks in the Sunshine State are offering a plethora of sunny deals. So with some good planning, you can take in the many pleasures of America's south-easternmost state. Many families will focus almost entirely on Orlando, theme-park capital of the world, while couples often concentrate on the chic style of Miami Beach. But from the historic quarter of St Augustine to the beaches of the Panhandle, Florida has much more to offer – such as the drive through the Everglades along "Alligator Alley", and US1 (the "Overseas Highway" to Key West).

Airlines have reduced their fuel surcharges since last summer, so airfares are generally a little cheaper than they were. And while it's true to say that the current pound-dollar exchange rate is dire for British travellers, day-to-day costs in Florida, such as eating out and petrol (in Orlando, currently around 37p a litre – half what it was last summer), are much lower than in European holiday destinations such as Spain and Italy.

Where do I start saving?

Click on the "Hot Deals" panel on the front page of visitflorida.com, the website for Florida's official tourism marketing organisation, and you will see many hundreds of tempting offers. Many of them are for cut-price accommodation, or hotels offering extras – from free breakfasts to free nights. Others offer half-price admission to attractions, or two rounds of golf for the price of one.

A budget flight?

Competition is intense between the UK and Florida, but avoid flying in school holiday periods if you possibly can. You can choose non-stop flights on Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; virginatlantic.com) from Gatwick and Manchester to Orlando, and Heathrow to Miami; on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Gatwick to Orlando and Tampa, and Heathrow to Miami; American Airlines (020-7365 0777; aa.com) from Heathrow to Miami.

As always, fares are determined by when you travel. For departures on 1 August for a fortnight from Gatwick to Orlando, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are currently asking over £800 return. For flights in May, you pay around half as much.

Contact agents for alternative options. Last week, for example, Expedia (expedia.co.uk) was offering Gatwick-Orlando flying Virgin but on a code-share with Continental Airlines for £308 return travelling in late April – £77 cheaper than Virgin's standard economy fare of £385.

Agents are also good for digging out indirect options: again, last week for travel in late April, Expedia was offering £232 return flying Northwest Airlines from Heathrow to Orlando via Detroit – though whether it's worth adding six hours to your journeys with children in tow is debatable.

Lastly, consider flying charter to Orlando's other airport, Sanford. Between them, Thomson Airways (0871 231 4787; thomson.co.uk), Thomas Cook Airlines (0844 855 0515; flythomascook.com), and Flyglobespan (0871 271 9000; flyglobespan.com) and Monarch Airlines (0870 040 5040; monarch. co.uk) offer flights mainly aimed at charter traffic to Orlando (Sanford) from eight UK airports. Fares with airlines such as Thomson Airways can be cheaper than with BA or Virgin, though watch out for extra charges – for example, for checking in bags on flight-only bookings.

Where to stay?

Most families spend the bulk of their time in Orlando, the theme-park capital of the world. Walt Disney World has the most fun hotels – they're all heavily themed – and guests staying at a Disney property get extra hours each day at one of the four theme parks.

Disney hotels aren't usually cheap. However, the company is currently offering four extra hotel nights and seven days of theme-park entry for free for those who buy a 10-night/seven-day hotel/ticket package. The deal applies to stays from 19 April to 1 October, and needs to be booked by 31 March – on 0870 242 4 900 or at disneyworld.co.uk. You can also book the deal as a flight-inclusive package through Virgin Holidays (0844 557 4000; virginholidays.com). Not to be outdone, Universal Orlando Resort (001 407 363 8000; universalorlando.co.uk), which includes two theme parks and three high-quality hotels in Orlando, is offering three free nights if you book a four-night hotel and theme park ticket package. The deal applies to stays up to 24 December (some dates are blacked out), needs to be booked by 15 June, and can be arranged as a flight-inclusive package through Funway Holidays (0844 557 0770; funwayholidays.co.uk). Universal hotel guests are allowed to skip the regular queues in the Universal parks.

Despite these deals, to keep costs down, book accommodation not affiliated to the theme parks. Orlando is awash with inexpensive places to stay. On a discount hotel website such as hotels.co.uk, you can currently find a room sleeping a family of four in a chain motel near International Drive, Orlando's main tourist area, for as little as £24 a night.

Self-catering: good idea?

Definitely – especially for larger families who can't all fit in one hotel room (most Disney hotel bedrooms sleep a maximum of four). There is a glut of holiday homes to rent in residential developments in the Orlando area, so rates are low. A week's rental of a three-bedroom property with a private pool can cost as little as £350 in May/June, or £462 from July to mid-August, booked through Florida Options (0845 345 1212; floridavillaoptions.com) on its allocation-on-arrival "value plan". Specify a development, and prices are around £100 a week higher.

Sociable types may find renting an apartment or "townhouse" in a self-catering complex more appealing. Complexes usually have at least a 24-hour reception, communal swimming pool, and a bar or café, and many are closer to the action than residential estates. Again, rates are very reasonable – roughly similar to renting a modest home. Florida Options, and tour operators such as Virgin Holidays, offer a wide choice of complexes.

Getting around?

It can cost next to nothing – or, in the case of Walt Disney World, which has its own free (and efficient) public transport system, nothing at all.

Journeys on the I-Ride Trolley around International Drive cost $1.15 (90p), and are free for those 12 and under; many hotels offer free shuttles to the theme parks.

More widely, Miami and other cities have cheap and efficient bus and trolley services, while Amtrak (amtrak.com) trains and Greyhound (greyhound.com) buses take you longer distances for reasonable fares.

That said, having a car is essential on many Florida holidays, and rental rates are some of the lowest in the US. Using the price comparison website travelsupermarket. com, you should be able to find a week's rental of an economy car from the airport for under £120, including taxes and all the necessary insurance. To preserve your budget credentials, resist all the pressure by the car-rental clerk to upgrade either the vehicle or insurance.

Should I book a package?

Booking flights, car hire and accommodation together through an agent such as Expedia or Trailfinders (0845 054 6060; trailfinders.com), rather than buying everything separately, can offer better value plus stronger consumer protection. Leading tour operators specialising in Florida have keenly-priced deals. They include: British Airways Holidays (0844 493 0758; baholidays. com); Funway Holidays; Jetsave (0871 664 0294; jetsave.co.uk); Kuoni (01306 747008; kuoni.co.uk); Travel City Direct (0844 557 6965; travelcitydirect.com), and Virgin Holidays.u oFor packages based on charter flights arriving at Sanford, you could consider Thomson, Airtours (0844 800 7799; airtours.co.uk) and Monarch Holidays.

Travel City Direct was one of the brands that hit the headlines last September when the XL Leisure Group – of which it was part – went bust. The name has been resurrected by the Virgin Holidays Group, and it is currently offering 14-night holidays to Orlando for as little as £399 per person in early June. The price includes flights with Virgin Atlantic, airport-to-resort transfers, and accommodation in the Masters Inn at Disney's Maingate on a room-only basis, and is based on four sharing.

Jetsave has good availability on an offer that allows one child to travel completely free with two paying adults in June and September.

Kuoni's website is very useful for establishing exactly when it's cheapest (and most expensive) to travel, as it displays in calendar form the actual prices of holidays on different dates.

Any other money-saving tips?

Don't eat your main meal of the day in the theme parks. There are much better deals in local restaurants – for example, at branches of the Ponderosa Steakhouse (ponderosaorlando.com), a decent 10oz steak and an all-you-can-eat buffet costs around £9. Look out for "kids eat free" deals – and consider investing in a Kids Eat Free Card (kidseatfreecard.com), which allows one child aged 11 or under to eat for free at 130 restaurants in the Orlando area per full-paying adult. Attraction Tickets Direct (0800 975 0002; attraction-tickets-direct.co.uk) sells the card for £10.

Shop in factory outlet malls. Orlando Premium Outlets (premiumoutlets.com) is a good bet for discounted mainstream and upmarket clothing brands, and has a store dedicated to selling authentic Disney merchandise at knock-down rates.

More information?

The best single source for deals is visitflorida.com. Other tourist board websites, with their own deals sections, include: orlandoinfo.com/uk (from which you can download the free Orlando Preferred Visitor Magicard, which will entitle you to discounts at some restaurants and attractions); miamiandbeaches.com; and floridasbeach.com, for St Petersburg and Clearwater.

Discount coupons are always available at local tourist information centres – for example, at Orlando's Official Visitor Center (001 407 363 5872), at 8723 International Drive.

The Brit Guide to Orlando 2009 (£14.99, askdaisy.net/orlando) is full of money-saving useful tips, as is mousesavers.com, particularly on Walt Disney World.

Bargain beaches

Keep costs down on a Florida holiday by spending part of it on the coast. The state is fringed by over 1,000 miles of superb sandy beaches, which, unlike theme parks, are free or inexpensive to access – some of the best beaches are designated state parks, for which there is usually a fee of $4-$5 (£3-£3.50) per carload to visit.

For families, the west Gulf Coast is best, as the water is calmer and a bit warmer than on the Atlantic side. From Clearwater to St Pete Beach (close to the interesting city of St Petersburg) is one of the most affordable stretches. While parts have been over-developed, there are unspoiled spots, such as Fort De Soto Park's North Beach, rated best beach in the US by TripAdvisor last year.

You could stay at the Madeira Beach campsite with Eurocamp (0844 406 0402; eurocamp.co.uk), from £490 for a week in June in a cabin sleeping six. Or consider the Inn on the Beach (001 727 360 8844; innonbeach.com) in the civilised community of Pass-a-Grille, whose individual studios and apartments cost from $118 (£85) a night, room only.

Cheap theme-park tickets

Tickets allowing you to visit several parks over a number of days will save you money over single-park, one-day tickets. However, the multi-day, multi-park tickets are expensive, so don't over-buy and end up with unused days.

For first-timers to Orlando intent on doing all the major parks, Disney's 5 Day Premium Ticket (see disneyworld.co.uk), and the Orlando FlexTicket (orlandoflexticket.co.uk), covering unlimited admission to Universal's parks, SeaWorld and the Aquatica and Wet n' Wild water parks over 14 days, plus Busch Gardens in Tampa as an add-on, should more than suffice. That said, Disney is currently selling its 7 Day Premium Ticket for the same price – £219 adults, £199 children 3-9 – as the five-day one.

Shop around for best deals. Ticket prices can vary so much between ticket agents, tour operators and the theme parks themselves that a family of four could save over £300 by buying the above tickets from the cheapest rather than the most expensive seller. Also, some deals need booking ahead, online. For example, Universal Orlando is currently offering savings of $25 (£18) if you buy its 2-Park Unlimited Admission ticket on universalorlando.com, instead of at the gate. Any offers in Orlando of free theme-park tickets are likely to be linked to attending a timeshare presentation. An exception this year is Disney's promise of free admission to one of its theme parks on your birthday. If you've already got a multi-day ticket that you will use on your birthday, you're entitled to a gift equal in value to the park ticket – more on disneyworld.com.

Reputable ticket agents include Attraction Tickets Direct (0800 975 0002; attraction-tickets-direct.co.uk) and Theme Park Tickets Direct (0844 579 3060; themeparkticketsdirect.com); the latter has a sales promotion this weekend offering $25 in "Disney Dollars", valid in the theme parks' shops and restaurants, for each 7-Day Premium or 14-Day Ultimate entrance tickets booked.

Websites for the main theme parks are: Walt Disney World, disneyworld.co.uk; Universal Resort Orlando, universalorlando.co.uk; SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Aquatica, Discovery Cove, worldsofdiscovery.co.uk; Kennedy Space Center, kennedyspacecenter.com

Cut-price Miami

The South Beach section of Miami Beach is a hedonistic adult playground par excellence, packed with jaunty Art Deco architecture, and trendy hotels, restaurants and nightclubs.

Even in these recessionary times, many of the fanciest hotels are still charging sky-high rates. But the Standard (001 305 673 1717; standardhotel.com), a chic, laid-back hangout with a superb spa, is offering double rooms in late April for $187 (£135) a night, which is excellent value.

Go in the sweaty summer months (May-October), and many hotels slash their prices. For example, the funky Catalina (001 305 674 1160; catalinahotel.com) is cutting its rates by half for stays of seven nights or more this summer, making the nightly cost in early May around £82.

A further reason to visit in August or September is that many of the city's best restaurants will be offering bargain fixed-price, three-course menus ($24/£17 for lunch, $35/£25 for dinner) then, as part of the Miami Spice 2009 event; for more details, see ilovemiamispice.com.

Don't, by the way, rent a car in Miami. You'll almost certainly spend most of your time in South Beach, where parking charges are exorbitant, most places are in walking distance, and the local shuttle bus costs just 25c (18p) a ride.

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