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Florida Vacation Travel Guide: How to Plan a Great Getaway

All those stories about spring breakers in April, humidity as thick as hot pea soup in May, and rain until September might have knocked Florida off your warm-weather vacation list. But for a lot of Sunshine State destinations, summer is actually the best time of year to visit. With a little thoughtful planning, you can enjoy everything the Sunshine State offers without so much as a sunburn.

A bird's eye view of Clearwater Beach in Florida.
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A Little Planning Goes a Long Way

A breathtaking sunset in Miami South Beach, Florida.

While summer showers and mid-day heat shouldn’t scare you away from a Florida vacation, a little thoughtful pre-planning can ensure that your holiday is hassle-free. More often than not, those infamous Florida summer showers are quick, and if you’re willing to wait them out, they can result in beautiful mid-day rainbows and breathtakingly colorful beach sunsets.

Still, you don’t want to spend your whole trip dodging drizzle, so it’s a good idea to plan walking tours and boating excursions for early in the day so you won’t be interrupted by afternoon rain. The hottest hours of the day are mid-afternoon, so beat the heat by planning mid-day indoor adventures. There are plenty to be had, from museums to shopping to indoor skydiving, and it will give you a refreshing break from the rays.

Pack Accordingly

A man standing beside his bed with clothes and suitcase, thinking of what else to pack.
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When prepping for fun in the Sunshine State, be sure to pack more than just your favorite swim trunks and beach gear – arm yourself with some tools to keep your vacation cool, safe, and soothing. Load up on products that are specially formulated to protect you from all the elements that come along with summer activities.

Higher humidity means that off-road summer spots can be a little too insect-friendly during the warmer months, so it’s a good idea to stay armed with bug spray if you’re planning to spend time out on the trails or in the water. You probably aren’t too keen on coating yourself with DEET – and we can’t say we blame you – so look for an insect repellent that focuses on ingredients like picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Finally, don’t stop at shielding your skin – you won’t want to skip out on investing in a great pair of sunglasses, especially if you want to truly take advantage of all of the outdoor adventuring Florida has to offer.

Location, Location, Location (and Timing!)

A bird's eye view of South Beach at Miami, Florida.
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When you think about a Florida summer vacation, you might be flooded with childhood memories of crowded amusement park lines, busy beaches, and crawling traffic. While the northern part of the state remains an incredibly popular destination for families looking to squeeze in a vacation before the kids head back to school for the year, June through September is the slowest time of year for tourism in South Florida.

Lodging options are plentiful, from condos and cottages to homes and resorts. You’ll be able to find the perfect space, whether you’re traveling solo or in a group, and the summer slow season means prices in the southern part of the state are up to 50% lower than the rest of the year. If you’re worried about summer showers, plan your trip for June when summer rain is at its lightest. To keep your vacation days cool and calm, aim for a coastal destination where the sea breeze will keep the summer heat at bay. Here are some of our favorite Sunshine State destinations where you can beat the heat, avoid the crowds, and soak up the sun.

For Aquaphiles: Marco Island

A scenic view of a beach in Florida.
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If you love secluded beaches and spending your days out on the water, Marco Island just might be your ideal summer vacation spot. Located along the state’s Paradise Coast, Marco Island is surrounded by nearly 100 miles of undeveloped islands, bays, and estuaries, with easy access from any of six nearby parks and preserves. Boat or take up kayaking through the Ten Thousand Islands and catch a bird’s-eye view of rare and endangered wildlife, explore the Everglades by airboat, take a guided wave-runner tour through the mangroves, or grab your gear and enjoy a peaceful day of fishing at one of many popular local spots. When you’re ready to head back to land, you’ll find plenty of opportunities for golfing, shopping, and seafood in the city, or go exploring by following a dozen historical markers placed throughout the island that highlight interesting and important moments in Marco Island history.

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For Night Lifers: Key West

An aerial view of a cruise shop at a pier in Florida.

Its isolated location makes Key West ideal if you want to embrace some quirky nightlife culture but don’t want big, rambunctious crowds. July and August are the best times to visit since warm weather keeps the crowds at bay, and silky smooth waters make for great fishing and some of the best snorkeling adventures in the country. Hop on a boat to Dry Tortugas National Park, just 70 miles west of the main island, for a beautifully secluded and truly unique experience.

99% of the 140-acre park is located underwater, and you can enjoy the stunning marine life by diving, snorkeling, or gazing out at the pristine water from the perimeter of Fort Jefferson – a massive 19th-century brick fort that sits on the park’s main island. When you’re ready to catch the ferry back to civilization, head over to Key West’s Duval Street to grab a beer and a bite, or catch the nightly Sunset Celebration at Mallory Park, a seaside square where visitors gather every evening for shopping, dining, and street performances.

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For Laid-Back Loungers: Sanibel Island

The breathtaking view of the night sky in Sanibel Island, Florida.
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Hiking, museum-hopping, and urban exploration can make great vacation memories, but sometimes you just need a little time to decompress. If lazy summer days biking through serene nature preserves, sipping cocktails, and scrounging for shells on some of the world’s best beaches sounds like your scene, then you’ll want to check out Sanibel Island. Located just off the Southwest coast of Florida, this island becomes a peace seeker’s quiet respite in the summer months. Over 22 miles of paved bike trails cover the island, weaving through a nature lover’s paradise.

Nearly 70% of the island is comprised of protected conservation land, which means you’re guaranteed to see some interesting wildlife on your trip, from manatees, dolphins, and alligators, to over 240 species of birds that call the island’s J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge home. You can while away hours spent on the beach by combing for shells, which wash up in piles with the high tide and are such an integral part of the island’s identity that locals and frequent visitors have coined the term “Sanibel Stoop” to describe beach-combers bending over to scour the shoreline. With strict island-wide building height limits, ocean views are largely unrestricted, so when the day is done, you can soak in a beautiful beach sunset before heading off to grab some fresh seafood at one of the island’s rave-worthy eateries.

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For Hiking Enthusiasts: Ocala National Forest

A first-person view of an individual kayaking in Ocala National Forest.
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While heading south is your best bet for avoiding summer crowds in Florida, some northern destinations can still provide the peace and quiet you’re looking for without the long haul. If nothing centers you more than spending a few days at one with nature, you do not want to miss this unexpected and one-of-a-kind destination hidden in plain sight just north of Orlando. This breathtaking forest encompasses over 380,000 acres and over 600 bodies of water, so even on busy days, it’s not difficult to find seclusion here.

It includes a 75-mile stretch of the Florida National Scenic Trail that is widely renowned as one of the most beautiful and enjoyable hikes in the country, and a wide range of camping accommodations – from the best tent sites to large cabins – mean you can spend your entire vacation right smack in the middle of nature. When the sun is high, sink into one of the forest’s natural springs, which maintain a soothing 72-degree temperature year-round. When you need a break from hiking, you can also explore the forest via ATV, kayak, bicycle, or even horseback on a 100-mile equestrian trail.

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For Space Nerds: Merritt Island

An empty road with a tall tree and a body of water in Merritt Island.
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If you’re looking for a quiet vacation where you can nerd out far away from the hustle and bustle of your everyday life, you should check out Merritt Island. Less than 20 miles from Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, it’s tucked away just enough to be the best low-key way to enjoy the Space Coast. Merritt Island is a fantastic place to center a late-summer getaway: By August, most of the summer travelers have come and gone, so you can enjoy shorter waits, open beaches, and less-crowded attractions. Its proximity to nearby Cocoa Beach and Port Canaveral means your vacation can be bursting with a huge variety of activities: Museums abound in Cape Canaveral, Merritt Island’s beautiful National Wildlife Refuge offers up 140,000-acres of scenic exploration, surfing and sunshine await at Cocoa Beach, and Port Canaveral’s active nightlife scene is overflowing with drinks and dancing.

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When you’re planning your summer vacation this year, remember that Florida is more than mouse ears and beach parties. The Sunshine State is beaming with art, nature, and activity from coast to coast, and it has plenty of perfect summertime destinations that are miles away from those crowded resorts and bustling theme parks.

Benjamin Buckingham
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Ben lives in Portland, Oregon where he works as a freelance writer and outdoor guide.
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