One of America's favorite winter destinations, the southernmost city in the continental USA is a four-mile-long sprawl of rainbow-colored Caribbean homes, shaded verandas, palmetto fronds, open-air bars and resorts with sea views. What Key West is not, however, is cheap.

To enjoy the balmy winter sunshine – Key West sees daytime highs of 77°C, even in January – you'll either need a healthy budget, or a little ingenuity and flexibility. By being selective about where you stay and eat and how you can get around, you can live the high life without a princely holiday fund.

Here are our top suggestions for ways to save on a trip to Key West at any time of year, but be aware that this will make your trip less expensive rather than truly cheap – think of it as "discount Key West" rather than "the Florida Keys on a shoestring."

Visit Key West in the off-season

Unless you are totally set on winter sun, the easiest way to save is to visit Key West when the crowds aren’t here. The fall (September–November) is the low season in Key West, and room rates can drop by 50 percent or more. The hot, storm-prone summer months also see lower prices, and you'll find decent discounts in April and May after the winter crowds thin out.

With fewer people, cheaper hotel rooms and plenty of sun, what’s not to love about the low season in the Florida Keys? Hurricanes. Tropical storms in the Gulf of Mexico blow through regularly from June to the end of October; they don't always make landfall, but Hurricane Irma scored a direct hit on Key West in September 2017, causing widespread devastation.

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Eat out on the cheap

Dining out can be a pricey business in Key West. Entrées at a mid-range restaurant run in the $16-25 range, but you can skirt around this cost by self-catering and relying on local grocery stores, or grabbing takeout Cuban sandwiches ($5–8) and other similarly basic meals at local cafes and counter-service spots, which can be found throughout Old Town. Good picnic spots for self-caterers include Mallory Square, Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and Sonny McCoy Indigenous Park at 1801 White St.

How to get around the Florida Keys

Skip the rental car in Key West

One cost that is completely optional in Key West is a rental car. Flights run directly to Key West International Airport, a $9–20 taxi ride from the center, and once you’re in Old Town, you can easily get about on foot or by bicycle or bus. It's even cheaper to take the bus from Miami; a ticket on a Greyhound or Flix will cost around $13-25.

For easy exploring, bikes can be rented from companies such as Eaton Bikes for around $18 per day, which is well worth it for the convenience of being able to get across town quickly without having to worry about parking. Walking isn't too onerous either, considering Key West's small size, though it can be a draining ordeal in the hot summer months. There's also a moderately useful local bus service – fares start at $2 one-way.

People rest on the sunny beach of Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
For a picnic with a view, head to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park © Pgiam / Getty Images

Seek out low-cost activities on Key West

Key West attractions don't all come with a painful entry fee. Fort Zachary Taylor State Park charges a modest $2.50/6.50 admission fee for each pedestrian/vehicle, and for that price you get the run of a historic fortress and access to one of the best beaches in the Keys.

Nearby is the free Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, a natural history museum providing a window onto the unique natural environment of South Florida. You can view the underwater side of that world for just the cost of renting a mask and snorkel at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. If it's sun and sand you crave, sandy Higgs Beach, an artificial beach at the end of Reynolds St, is one of the few open-to-all public beaches in the Keys.

Catch a pocket-friendly show at Mallory Square 

At sunset, buskers, fire-eaters, jugglers and acrobats gather in Mallory Square for an evening carnival that has entertained generations of Key West tourists. There’s no admission fee, but the entertainers live on tips, so this isn’t technically free, but it's still one of Key West's cheaper evening experiences.

If you like watching people dress up in amazing costumes of beautiful glitter faeries, saucy superheroes and just about anything else you can imagine, we recommend visiting during the dreamlike bacchanalia of Fantasy Fest – costs do go up a bit during the festival but watching the parades is free.

The iconic Blue Heaven restaurant in the historic Bahama Village area of Key West
There's no charge for admiring the architecture in the Old Town on Key West © Fotoluminate LLC / Shutterstock

Explore the Old Town for free

Key West's Old Town is full of fascinating lanes and alleyways lined by a veritable catalog of old Caribbean architecture and historical homes, many painted in attractive pastel tones. No one will charge you for walking around and taking pictures, and you can download a free walking tour with background information on sights of historical and cultural interest. 

Visit free attractions in the heart of Key West

Even the middle of old Key West has its share of free things to do. Keep an eye out for the entrance to West Martello Tower, a lush, free-to-visit garden planted amidst ruined Civil War-era brickwork and maintained by the Key West Garden Club.

In the middle of town, the Key West Cemetery, a romantically moldering necropolis that houses graves belonging to some of the oldest families on the island, is also free to explore. Duval St is the main nightlife strip in the Keys, and while the bars may not be free, the people-watching is. 

First-time Florida Keys: island hopping along the Overseas Highway

People watching street performer playing with fire, Key West
A street performer wows the crowds in Mallory Square © Getty Images

Be flexible about where you stay in Key West

Sure, the Key West dream is a room overlooking the water, but you'll pay for the privilege. Staying in the backstreets, and choosing guesthouses and B&Bs over hotels and motels can bring savings. Hotels on the east side of the island (ie not Old Town) tend to be cheaper, but you’ll either have to pay for taxis or use a hotel shuttle service or rental bike if you want to get to the main drag of Duval St.

Booking far in advance can sometimes bring savings, but you’ll still find many rooms topping $200 per night, even in low season. A more reliable method of slashing costs is staying in a property with shared bathrooms; the Key West Bed & Breakfast is a reliable choice. 

Day trip to Key West from another island

Another way to sleep cheaply on a trip to Key West is to not sleep on Key West at all. There are dozens of other islands in the Florida Keys, and accommodation is cheaper on all of them, although remember that these are relative savings. Key West Transit's Lower Keys Shuttle and other local buses services provide inexpensive connections between Key West and other islands.

You’ll find the greatest variety of hotels and motels on Marathon (a one hour drive away) and Big Pine Key (45 minutes away). Another convenient option is the not-too-expensive Looe Key Dive Center, about 40 minutes away from Key West. The obvious disadvantage is that you’ll need to arrange transportation back to your lodging if you’re planning on drinking in Key West in the evening.

Colorful bikes and cyclists on Key West
Renting a bike is a great way to explore Key West on a budget © Kristi Blokhin / Shutterstock

Pitch a tent at a nearby campsite

The cheapest accommodation option of all is camping, although in practice this often means RV sites rather than peaceful tent sites. There are no campsites on Key West itself, but there are a few tent and RV sites on next-door Stock Island, including Leo's Campground.

Sugarloaf Key has the southernmost KOA Campground in the country and you'll find decent tent sites from as little as $50 per night at Bahia Honda State Park, on Big Pine Key.   

Daily costs

The main reason for the high cost of living in the Florida Keys is the archipelago's distance from just about everything (the largest nearby major metropolitan area is Miami, still three hours away by road, even in good traffic). Because Key West is both a tourism hotspot and the last island in the chain, the already high costs of the Keys are exacerbated here. 

  • Midrange hotel room: $170–250
  • Self-catering apartment: $250–500
  • Cuban coffee: $3.50–6
  • Cuban sandwich: $8.50–10
  • Dinner for two: $40–90
  • Mojito: $10–16
  • Slice of Key Lime pie: $7–11

You might also like:
First-time Florida Keys: island hopping along the Overseas Highway
The best time to go to Key West
The best things you can do for free in Key West

This article was first published December 2021 and updated January 2022

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