This blog is what really happens on a driving holiday in Florida. I booked a trip for myself and my wife and read up on lots of sanitized versions of fly/drive holidays. This is the shit that really happens!!
Sit back , grab a coffee and get comfortable - its a long & bumpy ride :-)
Trip 1 : Orlando International Airport to International Drive, Orlando.
- Distance : 15k
- Tolls : 2
- Stress Levels : Def con 1 - Red Alert
So you arrive in Orlando airport after a 9hr flight not knowing which way is up. Disembark and head for baggage reclaim and on to car rental collection - no customs or security checks (felt odd, for the life of me I can't remember if this is the norm in US even though I've been here many times)
Downstairs to the Alamo desk , we booked them based on recommendations on various websites and they seemed best value.
Very quickly get called to the desk and really straight forward process. Prepaid, we just needed to show reference number and drivers licence for named driver.
Additional cover available for $5 a day (covers almost every doomsday scenario, we book for piece of mind) Pay up front for a tank of gas and we are good to go.
Then the odd bit (for me anyhow as I had never seen it before) we are sent out to the Alamo car park to pick out our own car. We had booked a mid range SUV so we were pointed to the SUV section and told to pick one!
Dodges, Jeeps, Fords, Toyotas and Nissans amongst others - what to pick? We decided on a Hyundai Santa Fe, as we might be in the market for one of these in the near future so a perfect trial run. So pretty straightforward so far I hear you say ? Well NO not really!
That takes us to the most terrifying part, a simple 15 mile journey to your hotel. Christ if only - seriously the journey out of an airport in an automatic 7 seater SUV rental the size of a house and on the wrong side of the road has to be one of the most I'll-conceived ideas after a long haul flight known to man!
Why the f##k did I book this behemoth rather than a Focus or some anonymous American saloon?
Spend 10 mins familiarising myself with car dials and functions (9 of those messing with stereo & tuning in decent Chanel, not ideal but we settle on 101one WJRR Rock)
Ok brakes , accelerator , lights , wipers and automatic gear box.... Check, check and check!
Enter Hotel address into Sat nav, no coverage as raining and cloud cover.
"Take North exit and turn off at exit 1" at least I think that's what Steve from Alamo said.
15 minutes later, one missed turn. One extremely dodgy U-turn , one near heart attack as we hear a police siren just as we take dodgy u-turn, we arrive at destination a little worse for wear and still none the wiser why I booked such a big SUV! I think we'll be taking the bus to Universal tomorrow!
If you’re the driver and travelling with a group, head straight to car rental and let someone else in your party collect your bag. You'll beat the que and have more choice picking out your own car.
Remember half the plane might be renting a car so queues can get busy!
Car Rental is right below baggage reclaim and you can travel between floors after picking up car / bag.
: Obviously check car internally and externally for any damage and report findings to car rental firm before leaving.
Tip 3 :
Accommodation in Orlando is more functional than comfortable, bear in mind if you are going to the Parks you will probably be spending little or no time in your hotel. Stay on International Drive for easy access to everything, we stayed in Rosen Plaza ( hundreds of shops , activities , bars & restaurants within walking distance) Complimentary self parking ( just drive into car park and park yourself - amazing) Valet parking available , but it is a waste of time and money.
Tip 4 :
Travelling to Parks.
There are numerous ways of getting to and from Disney Parks - shuttles , bus or car. We chose to drive as quicker and no queues for buses coming home. Parking is $17 a day but covers all Disney Parks so you can move from one to the other.
Trip 2 : Orlando to South Beach Miami
- Distance : 234 miles ( direct route )
- Tolls : 2 local / 1 ticketed ( see below )
- Stress : None
After 3 days of small journeys in and around Disney & Orlando and feeling much more comfortable with the Santa Fe and surroundings we are ready to take on our first proper road trip down to South Beach, Miami.
Unfortunately we got held up in Orlando on Sunday morning so slight change of route (Small matter of watching Dublin win the All-IreIand Football Championship - Up the Dubs!!!)
This meant we took the more direct and very boring route along the Southern Turnpike to Miami.
Tip 1 :
Tolls in Florida are frequent and can be confusing. From what I can gather there are 3 types :
Tip 2 :
- Local Cash Toll - you pay cash as you go ( normally $1 / $2)
- Pay by plate - where you drive straight thru and your rental company will be billed and they bill you.
- Ticketed toll - when you get on to Southern Turnpike get in lane for a ticket. You get your ticket and hand to cashier when you get off at other end ( Orlando to Miami $15 )
Also take note, there are service areas every 30/45 miles on Turnpike with everything you may need while travelling.
Destination Ocean Drive , South Beach Miami.
This is very built up and busy (not ideal if you just picked up rental in Miami airport) Allow up to 45mins to 1hr to negotiate 2 mile strip in the evenings,
None of the hotels have on site parking, valet parking only ( $$$ you can pay anything from $25 to $39 dollars a night here! )
Abandon car outside hotel, avoid valet dudes in t-shirts as they swarm around your car. Self lift your own bag, check in , get your valet receipt and give your keys to reception to sort out with valet company.
Tip 3 :
Ocean Drive is not suitable for young children. Very loud and slightly trashy in parts.
Tip 4 :
When driving at night on Ocean Drive be careful of local wildlife : The strutting Peacock !
Normally male , early 20's. Nighttime is mating season for these individuals and involves strutting on pavement and roads at glacial pace. These people have absolutely no awareness of the environment they are in other than the next yard in front of themselves. They can also be found on skateboards , miniature segways and the more affluent ones hanging out of Ferraris!
We stayed in The Pelican Hotel on Ocean drive overlooking the beach. We didn't venture too far from hotel as plenty to do nearby. Location excellent, food ok but 'style over comfort' seems order of the day here.
Trip 3 : Miami to Key West
- Distance : 165 miles
- Tolls: 6 ( we think / Toll by plate )
- Stress : steadily increasing by the mile.
Back on the Southern turnpike for the first half of this journey. At least 6 tolls on the turnpike before arriving at the start of the Florida Keys. For those who don't know, the Keys lie South of Florida compromising of 113 mangrove and sandbar islands linked together by one of the most unique roads in the world : the Overseas Highway ( US Hwy 1 )
While the scenery is stunning in parts, progress on US Hwy 1 is soul destroying and slow. Be warned, much of the route has severe speed restrictions with max speed of 55mph and large tranches with 45mph & 30mph limits.
However once you arrive at the end destination Key West its best to do what the locals do - take off your watch , kick off your shoes and relax. See you in 3 days so!!
Stayed at Silver palms , decent, not spectacular. Location good.
Trip 4; Key West to Naples
- Distance : 270 miles
- Tolls : Zero
- Stress : Speed limits slowly breaking me.
This was our toughest drive yet. The distance wasn't the issue, it was the strict speed limits and roadworks turned this journey into a
5hr slog! Luckily enough we were on the road at the crack of dawn so the return journey over the keys didn't seem so bad when tackled at the early part of the journey.
Once we hit the mainland things were straightforward enough until we hit roadworks at Florida City and I think our Sat Nav conspired against us. We ended up on 'Highway 97' heading North which was a single lane country road - on a bright note, no tolls.
We trundled on through more roadworks until we entered the Everglades National Park. We had to head West on Interstate 75
(Everglades parkway , also known as Alligator alley)
What followed was an 88 mile dead straight never ending bore fest with 50mph speed limits through the Everglade Park.
Nothing to see here, little or no opportunity to overtake as traffic all travels at speed limit with lots of police presence and enforcement.
Luckily there is a little gem at the end to look forward to. The town of Naples is by far the prettiest and coolest town we have come across so far.
Tip 1 :
Price of fuel. The price here is on average $0.75 a litre . With fx rate this is roughly half what we pay at home. Most pumps are pre-paid if you don't have fuel cards. Be careful not to prepay too much as $40 / $50 will fill most cars / SUV's.
Tip 2 :
Fuel Consumption. For the first few days we were getting only 21mpg in the Santa Fe. We are up now at an average of 26mpg and improving. There are a couple of simple steps to improve fuel consumption when driving an automatic.
Firstly find the right rpm range in the appropriate gear. The Santa Fe has a 6 speed automatic gear box. Listen out for the gear changes and drive at the lowest rpm range in the highest gear.
For example, there is a gauge on the dash which shows me my fuel consumption to the second - driving at 65mph has me in 4th gear at high rpm ( MPG = low teens )
By increasing speed to 68mph the car drops into 5th gear and driving at a much lower rpm ( MPG = mid 20's)
: Air conditioning : A/C had a huge effect on your fuel consumption. On this model there is a couple of A/C options :
Standard A/C - badly needed especially when temp is in 90's but can be turned down or off when cooler.
Max A/C - turns car into a fridge almost instantly but should only use when getting into a hot car. Use this function indefinitely and watch your MPG plummet !
Stayed in Trianon hotel, perfect location - within walking distance of most things.
Trip 5: Naples to St Petes Beach
- Distance : 152 miles
- Tolls : 2 local
- Stress : Zero
We bid Naples a sorry goodbye safe in the knowledge we'll be back someday. Late check out so leisurely lunchtime departure so little or no traffic. Roughly 15mins outside Naples we are on to Interstate 75 which brings us nearly all the way to our destination. Never have I been so excited to see a 70mph speed limit!
Sat nav arrival times are based on conditions, traffic and obeying speed limits. If you drive below speed limit your arrival time will change. Unfortunately no short cut to shaving time off your arrival. However even though Interstate speed limits are 70mph plonk yourself in inside or middle lane at 75-80 and let the guys in outside lanes doing 80+ keep the patrol cars busy ( obviously we don't condone breaking speed limit at any time ?)
Picking your lane. Most highways / Interstates run on the opposite rule to Ireland / UK.
Fastest lane is the far left as you drive (take note when there are 3 or 4 lanes you can be overtaken on either side )
Most exits are from far right lane but be careful if you’re in this lane and going straight as sometimes right lane is exit only.
Also highways frequently split in two so pay attention which lane you are in at all times.
Finally a note of caution, when traffic is coming on to the highway from your right and merging into existing lanes take extra care. For about a mile after these junctions there is an awful lot of lane hopping and not much driving etiquette.
Speed Limits. Although I mentioned earlier about doing 75/80mph on the Interstate speeding and the policing of it are taken very seriously in the US. We lost count of the number of cars we saw pulled over.
Also be aware that speed limits around school areas are 30mph and at certain times when yellow lights are flashing as little as 10mph. Any good Sat nav will flag these well in advance. Finally take extra caution to keep within speed limits where roadworks are taking place. Fines are double!
Changing Lanes. There is little or no courtesy here when it comes to allowing you to change lanes. Nobody gives way. You see a gap be aggressive and take it.
Funnily enough even though nobody gives you any room once you take a space it's fair game. We saw no road rage or aggressive behaviour from drivers even when they were cut up!
Trip 6: St Petes to Orlando International Airport
- Distance : 115 miles
- Tolls : 2 local
- Stress : Zero
It's hard to believe 2 weeks have passed since our first terrifying journey from the airport. Normal business has resumed and we are now moving lanes in advance of Sat Nav telling to us. Also berating drivers who are in wrong lane is a sign you've nailed driving in the US. Pretty straight forward drive east to Orlando and then on to airport.
Dropping car back couldn't be simpler. Follow signs for your car rental firm and park in a line as directed. Agent from Alamo is out as you park and sign off there and then in the car park. Whole process takes 2 minutes.
Vital Stats :
Hyundai Santa Fe 2015 (7 seater 3.3L 290bhp GDI DOHC 24v V6 engine)
- Price : €456 ( 14 days rental incl. Sat nav )
- Unlimited mileage
- Extra Insurance : ( Optional $4.99 a day )
- Mileage : 1357 Miles
- MPG : 25mpg
Car was phenomenal, absolutely loved it and confirms my own car needs upgrading. Great driving position, easy and comfortable to drive with plenty of poke to get you out of trouble.
Be careful when renting the right car for what you need. We were doing a multi trip journey with heavy enough mileage. The urge to rent a Mustang convertible is huge but would have been totally inappropriate for our trip as not comfortable or practical for long journeys.
It takes a little getting used to driving in USA but once you get the hang of it it's very straightforward. Road signage is excellent, however for peace of mind a Sat nav is a must.
Pay tolls by cash where you can to avoid any surprises later on.
Petrol (Gas) is nearly always prepaid. If paying by card, ID is necessary.
Word of warning; if you have a fear of heights, bridges or driving over expanses of water this is not the trip for you. Some of the bridges are very tall and extraordinarily long (14kms down in Key West)
Above all enjoy picking out your rental car (whether it's a Mustang , Challenger , SUV or Pick up truck!)
Get the shades on , pick a good radio station and drive. Definitely the best and most enjoyable way of seeing Florida.