Florida: the cheap way to stay longer in this top winter sun destination

“Have a wonderful day ma’am,” the Siesta Beach car parking attendant says, beaming. At first, I am unnerved by such unabashed joy. But then, I think, working at one of Florida’s white-sand beaches must make smiling easy.

It’s mid-November and I am on the last leg of a motor home tour around the “Sunshine State”. The temperature is 29°C, and my windows are down. Festive lights line the streets of Palmetto, one of Florida’s many beachside towns.
All this, on a trip that works out at less than £100 day for accommodation, domestic travel and flights.

In the Bahamas, just 50 miles from Florida’s east coast, it would cost upwards of £1,000 for a week’s holiday during peak season. Such prices make an extended stint of sub-tropical winter sun unattainable for many British holidaymakers.

Siesta Key beach makes up a fraction of Florida's miles of coast (Photo: Pola Damonte/Getty Images)
Siesta Key beach makes up a fraction of Florida’s miles of coast (Photo: Pola Damonte/Getty Images)

Yet, with household energy bills set to go up in January, Saga, a tour company focused on the over-fifties, has (like several more travel providers) seen an uptick in demand for its longer-stay winter breaks.

I am sampling a section of its cost-effective solution for winter heat: a 29-day motor home tour of Florida. The trip will be offered again next November.

It’s not just older travellers tapping into this trend. Recent research by Abta has found that 18-24 year-olds are twice as likely as the average traveller to want to go on a motor home holiday. Florida is the ideal place to try one out.
The state takes motor homes and recreational vehicles (RVs) seriously. Its specialist RV camping sites are a reasonably priced alternative to hotels in winter, when room rates are at their peak, averaging £200 a night.

Saga’s month-long touring package of Florida’s Gulf coast and Panhandle costs £2,642pp, including flights, van rental and campsite pitches. Compare this with the average cost of a one-week holiday in Florida, which is £2,751pp, based on figures from travel website Budget Your Trip.

At the various RV parks I visit, from Orlando to Crystal River, I meet US tourists who have lived at these venues for months, even years. Halloween decorations are strung from hi-tech trailer trucks; others are lit up with neon palm trees. In Crystal River’s afternoon heat, retirees and digital nomads gather around the pool. At night, I relax in the site’s hot tub.

The mangroves of Banana River (Photo: Visit Florida)
The mangroves of Banana River (Photo: Visit Florida)

My journey starts in Orlando, a city better known for its theme parks (it has 10, including Disney’s) than its camping scene. At Orlando’s Thousand Trails RV campground, it is hard to miss the nightly Walt Disney World Resort fireworks show. The crackles travel for miles.

But I am not here for the rides and character meet-and-greets. Instead, I head to Cocoa Beach on Florida’s “Space Coast” near Cape Canaveral.

I rent a kayak for a sunset paddle through the Banana River Aquatic Preserve. As I glide through the mangroves, a dolphin makes its way towards me. It darts in and out of the water while a gold sparkle spreads across the river. Bottlenose dolphins are common here: it’s estimated that around 1,000 live in the wider Indian River estuary.

It is one of several dolphins I encounter while travelling through the state. On Siesta beach near Sarasota one afternoon, a loud crash wakes me from a doze. A few metres from the shore, I see a dolphin’s tail. A whisper of excitement flitters among the sunbathers.

Around 20 miles north of Siesta beach, I spend several days in Palmetto, parking up at Fisherman’s Cove, an RV campground with sea views.

I also visit Tampa, a city known for its Cuban community and nightlife. A Cuban sandwich at Columbia Restaurant in Ybor – which claims to be Florida’s oldest – is a highlight: perfectly roasted pork, layered with melted Swiss cheese. From Tampa, I drive north to Crystal River, where I stay at Crystal Isles Thousand Trails Park.

Tampa's historic Ybor City district (Photo: Pgiam/Getty Images)
Tampa’s historic Ybor City district (Photo: Pgiam/Getty Images)

In the winter months, manatees crowd the warm waters of this small town, their numbers rising after recent conservation efforts have turned the tide on decline. It costs $50 (£40) to swim alongside them. They’re easy to spot, their bodies, typically around 9ft to 10ft in length, float above the water. The animals’ poor eyesight and gentle nature mean they are inquisitive. I’m thrilled as they touch my arms and face as I snorkel.

In the same spirit, evenings at Florida’s RV campsites are peaceful and slow. While staying at Crystal River, I look out for turtles on the rocks. But, after nightfall, alligators are the thing to keep watch for. I see plenty in the daytime, on a tour of the Everglades.

Manatees are returning to Crystal River (Photo: Visit Florida)
Manatees are returning to Crystal River (Photo: Visit Florida)

I find Florida offers as many surprises as its wildlife, not least the possibility of relaxing on a budget.

The cost of living may be high in the US, but there are ways to reduce daily spending. I make use of the RV’s kitchen and fridge on several occasions. A motor home trip proves to be a comparatively affordable – and deeply enjoyable – way of soaking up winter sun.

Booking it
Tailor Made by Saga’s Snowbirds in the Sunshine self-drive holidays costs from £2,642 per person (based on two sharing) for 29 days. Customers can stay on RV parks in four destinations in Florida (Orlando, Panhandle, Crystal River and Gulf Coast). The price, valid for travel from November 2024, includes motor home hire and return flights from the UK, holiday.saga.co.uk/tailormade.

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