Today’s Smart Travels post brings you to beautiful Siesta Key, Florida! Siesta Key is a Gulf Coast barrier island off mainland Sarasota. You can visit this amazing 8-mile long beach community (that has been rated #1 in the country) on a small budget – if you make some smart decisions!
This year, we spent Thanksgiving week at our snowbird condo in Sarasota. In an upcoming post, I’ll share more details about our decision to buy a $45,000 – 2 bed/2 bath “vacation/retirement” condo back in 2013. When we are at our condo, we spend a lot of time on Siesta Key enjoying the beach and the community. It has a resort-like feel, but at least to us – it doesn’t seem commercial and that’s what we love!
We traveled from upstate New York to Tampa (non-stop) on Southwest (SW) using points, along with our Southwest Companion Pass! These holiday week flights cost 22,556 Southwest points and $22.40 in fees total – for 2 of us. The price would have been $350 (total) if we paid cash instead of using points. We booked these tickets back in May when the SW portal opened for the holiday dates. Southwest’s “Transfarency” policy is very generous for changes/cancellations and you can check that out here.
The Southwest Companion Pass is an incredible value. I only had to pay the $11.20 fee to be my husband’s companion – on his points! We’ve earned the Companion Pass (twice) using a personal and business SW credit card through Chase. I know others have earned it with two personal cards, so don’t let the business card idea scare you away! If you have questions about how we did it, send me an email or let me know in the comments and I can get you more information! (I am not a Chase affiliate and I have no affiliation with Southwest – so information is based on my personal experiences and opinions.)
Using the Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR)Travel Portal, we booked a Thrifty economy size car for 13,688 UR points. It would have been $171.25 (including taxes & fees) if we paid for the rental through the UR portal. Check out my post on renting the car using the portal so you can see how much it saved us over other booking options! This is our economy Nissan Versa rental. It was much bigger than we would have needed but it was the smallest option available.
It’s about a 50-minute drive from the Tampa (TPA) airport to Sarasota. Sarasota (SRQ) has an airport too – but Southwest doesn’t fly there and other airlines do not fly there directly from our home airport. And we LOVE non-stop flights! Flights from our area into Sarasota usually cost more and the car rentals do too. We look at both flight/car costs and travel time (including layovers) when we make travel decisions.
Tampa International Airport usually makes the most sense for us. But you can also check out other Gulf Coast airports in Ft. Myers (RSW), St. Petersburg-Clearwater (PIE), Punta Gorda (PGD), or Naples (APF) and still be within a couple hours of Siesta Key. Orlando (MCO) is only a few hours away too (if the traffic isn’t too bad on I-4…) Atlantic Coast airports including Fort Lauderdale (FLL), West Palm Beach (PBI) or Miami (MIA) are also less than a four-hour drive – so there are many options to consider!
When we get to Sarasota, one of the first things we do is head to Siesta Key to see the sparkling turquoise-blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico! The Key is accessible from Sarasota by two drawbridges over the Intercoastal waterway. (There are also some AMAZING houses to look at along the Intercoastal!) Our condo is a little over a mile from the south bridge. There are no fees or tolls for crossing bridges over the Intercoastal. And there are no parking fees at any of the beaches on Siesta Key. There are also numerous public access beach points across the Key. This is terrific for us because we can head to the beach for a swim or to watch the sunset and we don’t have to pay for anything!
TripAdvisor describes Siesta Key as a “laid-back beach town” with “world class powdery white quartz sand beaches” near an “endless selection of cultural and family activities” (and dozens of golf courses!) The Chamber of Commerce website is a nice resource for “all things” Siesta Key – including things to do and where to stay.
Today, I want to share our favorite places on Siesta Key and explain some (mostly) frugal options that everyone can enjoy in this beach paradise! There are four major areas on Siesta Key:
1) Siesta Beach is one of the highest-ranking beaches in the United States. In the last two years it was ranked #1 by Trip Advisor and #2 by Forbes and “Dr. Beach” and his beach ranking formula! The wide, level white-powdery sand beach is incredible. The facilities were just upgraded and there are lifeguards at this beach. They have even made it much easier to access the beach with wheelchairs! The beach has a variety of concessions and we even saw two small weddings on the beach the other night at sunset! Siesta Beach is a 5-mile round-trip walk or bike ride from our condo and we visit it often. One trip there and you will understand why we love it and why it is one of the best beaches in the country
2) Crescent Beach won an award for the “finest white sand in the world” back in 1987. It is more private than Siesta Beach but it doesn’t have any facilities. It is at the end of one of the public access points and it has about 15 parking spots. There is a small shopping area with a grocery store, some shops and restaurants across the street. We walk the 1.3 miles to this beach from our condo many days – especially when traffic is really bad! It has bike racks too – so a quick 10-minute ride and we can be enjoying the tropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico!
3) Turtle Beach is at the southern end of the Key and it boasts a campground, marina, pub, and restaurant. Turtle Beach experienced a great deal of erosion over the last ten years but was revitalized in the spring of 2016. It gained hundreds of feet of sand and it is an incredibly big beach to enjoy now! This is a cool video that shows the revitalization process. They are also in the process of upgrading the playground and parking lot areas at this beach. Turtle Beach has nice facilities but no food/drink concessions. But it does have a nice small boat launch there too! It is an 8-mile round-trip to Turtle Beach from our condo so we usually drive or ride bikes. This beach is great for shells and has a number of beautiful (and huge) houses along its’ coast! And yes, turtles can sometimes be found nesting there from late April to early November.
4) Siesta Key Village is north of Siesta Beach and has numerous shops and restaurants. You can find T-shirts, groceries, donuts, and sushi (and everything in between) in the Village and there are some really unique shops. And you can always find live music at restaurants there in the evening! Parking is free in the village too – but it can be very hard to find a spot, even in non-peak travel times! I’d suggest walking from Siesta Beach or trying a service like Johnny’s Original Free Ride rather than trying to find a parking spot right in the Village. Johnny’s is a driver “tip only” service that seems very popular on the key! We wander through the village once or twice each time we visit. Sometimes we grab a beer and listen to some music or we get a treat at Sub Zero Ice Cream (it was on Shark Tank a few years ago!) But we don’t spend too much time in the Village because we don’t really need to buy things and we cook at home most nights.
What can a frugal visit to Siesta Key look like?
Accommodations – I’d suggest that you look for some type of vacation rental with a kitchenette on the mainland in Sarasota. The lowest prices are likely to be “east of the trail” (Rt. 41/Tamiami Trail). There are also many rental properties and a few hotels “west of trail” but before the bridge too. If you really want to stay on Siesta Key, check rentals on the “bay side” of the key for better prices. Along with the bigger beaches I described above, there are plenty of public beach access sites. Just walking across the street to get to the beach can save you hundreds of dollars a week! And many of the “ocean side” units do not have ocean views and they still have long walks out to the beach.
*The biggest reason I’d consider staying on the Key is to avoid traffic – but good planning can prevent wasting time sitting in your car too! During the busiest months (mid-January through mid-April & holidays) it is very difficult to get a parking spot at any beach from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Go early and stay for a few hours – then get out of the sun! You can always head back later in the day to catch a late afternoon swim and sunset when others pack up and leave the beach. Or pack up a cooler and bring lots of sunscreen and stay for the day! The traffic is real – and frustrating. People want to be on Siesta Key for a reason – and after you visit, you’ll understand why!
Activities – Siesta Key is a beach community and once you arrive, there are plenty of FREE activities! If you get food and supplies at the grocery store (there is a Publix right before the south bridge), you can walk the beach, swim, fish, search for shells, watch the dolphins and catch an amazing sunset for no extra cost!
There are plenty of grills for cookouts and brand-new playgrounds for the kids at the beach that even have sun shades covering them! You can play beach volleyball or bring your racket and play at the 4 public (lighted) tennis courts at the beach too! Bring some books or a play some board games at the picnic tables – so many low-cost options in such a beautiful place!
You can really make a frugal trip out of a visit to one of the most highly ranked beaches in the United States – with a little planning and some smart decisions!
But there are certainly many places to spend money on Siesta Key. You can rent a luxury beachfront property for thousands of dollars a week. If you want to shop in trendy stores or rent bikes, kayaks, boats, or take charter fishing trips – you can certainly do that. There are no amusement or water parks, not even mini-golf on the Key – so you’ll have to be creative on spending money on the kids. But an hour of parasailing or a scooter rental can drain your wallet too! You could also eat out in restaurants for every meal during the week. It’s all up to you and how much you want to spend!
We enjoy those free (or pretty frugal) activities most of our vacation. And that allows us to vacation more often too! We have a few more visits planned this year (thanks to Southwest and our Companion Pass) and we’ll be at our condo a lot more in the future! You’ll likely find us on the Key for an early morning walk or at sunset – enjoying a glass of wine (brought from our cheap box of wine at our condo!) We might even be enjoying a beer and some music in the Village!
If you’re ever in Siesta Key – let us know and we’ll treat you to a sunset drink!
We’re happy to answer questions about our travel “hacking” or give guidance on Siesta Key stays. And if we don’t know the answer, we’ll try to steer you in the right direction too! Thanks for stopping by and be on the look-out for more Smart Travels posts soon!