5 Tips for Planning the Ultimate Florida Road Trip

5 Tips for Planning the Ultimate Florida Road Trip

There are countless things to consider when taking a road trip or a day trip. Where you go can depend on where you live, what kind of activities you like to do, the sights you want to see, or how long you want the road trip to be. The US offers a variety of places that will give you completely different road tripping experiences.

If you are ready for a road trip with sun, beautiful views, ocean water breeze, and fun activities for adults and for the family, then Florida might be your best trip. Florida is a gorgeous state, and your road trip experience can be entirely different depending on the region of Florida you choose to go through.

That’s why we have put together the ultimate road trip itinerary for you but broken up the Sunshine State into Northern Florida, Central Florida, and Southern Florida. You can choose to do any section of this road trip, stringing together as many cities as possible. If you can, try to get at least a few days in so you can experience a range of activities and experiences. 

Before you jump in the car, drive down the East Coast, and head to Florida, you want to be properly prepared for the journey. 

Check Your Car

If you are going to be taking your own car, you have to make sure it is in the proper condition before starting your road trip. Driving long distances can be extremely hard on your car, even on the best roads, so make sure it’s in the best shape possible. This will reduce your risk of car problems. 

How To Check Your Tires

First, check to make sure your tires have the correct amount of air in them. Test your tires when your car hasn’t been driven for a few hours. Push your hand against the tire, and it should give a little bit but still feel very firm. If your hand can easily push down on the rubber, they don’t have enough air. If you can’t push in at all, they have too much air.

Put an air pump and tire pressure monitor in your car. Although gas stations usually have air pumps, you don’t want to be stuck on the side of the highway without a way to put air in your tires. 

How To Check Your Oil

Check your oil levels and add more if needed. If you’re due for an oil change during or immediately after your scheduled road trip, you should take your car into the shop and get it done before leaving on your scenic drive. 

If you are unsure if you should get a change out of precaution or not, take it into the shop, and the experts there will help you decide. 

How To Check Your Windshield Washer Fluid

Windshield wiper fluid might not seem that important, but it is crucial for a road trip. You will most likely have periods driving through rural or dusty areas. If you cannot clean your windshield, you won’t be able to see, and you are at risk of a car accident. North America has anything but homogenous weather — be prepared.

Check to make sure you are full with windshield wiper fluid before departure. If you run out during your road trip, you can usually fill it up at a gas station, but you can also buy washer fluid and put it in your car to use in a pinch. 

How To Check Your Lights

Making sure all of your lights are working properly is vital for your safety (and you might get a ticket if they aren’t working). Be sure that your headlights, brake lights, and indicator lights are all working. If any of these are not functioning correctly, you can take your car in to have it replaced.

Think Ahead for Gas Stops

It’s best to start your road trip with a full gas tank. It also will be helpful to plan notable gas station stops on your road trip. Although major highways and interstates will usually have gas stations at least every 10 miles, they can be lacking in rural or less trafficked areas.

If you are planning to have a long stretch of driving through less dense areas, plan to fill up on gas, even if your tank isn’t all the way empty.

What To Pack: Clothes

Our road trip itinerary takes you through a diverse set of activities, so you will need a range of clothing options. It may seem overwhelming to try and fit everything you want to bring into the car. Don’t forget you can always stop at a laundromat along the way if you are taking a longer, marathon road trip where you can’t pack all of the clothes you need.

Car Clothes

Obviously, you are going to be spending a lot of time in the car. It is always a good idea to pack one or two outfits that are comfortable to change into during long stretches of driving. If you use car time to nap or get started on a night’s sleep, be sure the clothes are comfortable enough to fall asleep. 

Hiking Clothes

If you choose to go to cities on our itinerary bucket list that involves hiking or outdoor activities, you will want to pack accordingly! Throw in a few outfits of activewear that are protective from the sun and irritants like prickly bushes or dust (often found on trails).

Be sure to bring good-quality hiking or athletic shoes to avoid injury or damage to your other shoes.

Swimwear

This is a Florida road trip, after all, so make sure you are bringing swimwear with you. Although it may feel tempting to bring your entire collection of bathing suits, try to stick to two.

Bring one suit for lying on the best beaches and one suit for any water activities that are a little more secure and durable. For example, maybe you have your own snorkeling gear for your stop at Dry Tortugas National Park or boat shoes for your airboat ride at the Flamingo Visitor Center.

Lightweight Layers

Although Florida has beautiful, warm temperatures for most of the year, it can get chilly at night. Pack a few lightweight layers that don’t take up much room but will provide some warmth at night. 

Comfortable Shoes

Road trips involve a lot of sitting in the car, but they also involve a lot of walking. Our guide will take on tours of many different spots in Florida, so be sure your shoes allow you to walk all day. 

Sun Protection

Although you will be tempted to wear a tank top and shorts the entire time, you might want to invest in breathable pieces that cover your skin to avoid a burn. Be sure to also pack a few hats, visors, and sunglasses.

Speaking of sun protection, pack sun protection! Even if you don’t think you will burn, it’s better to be safe than sorry. You don’t want to get accidentally burnt on the first day and have it ruin the rest of your trip.

We recommend packing one lotion sunscreen, one spray sunscreen, and one face sunscreen. Reapply every few hours, especially when you are at the beach. 

What To Pack: Supplies

Now that all of your clothes are packed, it’s time to move on to the other essentials:

Navigation 

First, you want to decide how you will get from place to place. If you are going to be using a maps app on your phone, be sure to invest in a car mount for your phone, so you will be able to easily see directions while driving without using your hands.

You can also buy a GPS navigation system that sits on your car's dashboard if you don’t want to rely on your phone. 

Lastly, be sure to pack physical maps of Florida in your car in case your phone breaks or your GPS system stops working. You never know what can go wrong, so it’s good to be prepared. 

Cash

It’s also important to have an emergency stash of cash in the car. Try hiding it in a safe spot so that it’s not visible from outside of your car. This will give you a safety net in case your cards get lost or stolen. 

First Aid Kit

It’s also best to have a first aid kit on hand. Included in the kit should be band-aids, antiseptic wipes, other bandages, and antibiotic cream. Minor emergencies happen, and you want to be prepared when they do. 

Reusable Water Bottle

It is crucial to stay hydrated, especially when you are in the Florida heat. It will be much easier to stay on top of your water consumption if you have a reusable water bottle rather than relying on water bottles bought during your gas station trips. Fill it up whenever you can, and try to get at least 64 ounces in a day. 

Just to be safe, be sure to throw a few water bottles into your car for the trip. 

Cooler

Like we have already said, Florida gets hot. Keep a small cooler in your car so you can store snacks and drinks during the day. This will also be handy for holding water during beach trips. 

Umbrella

Not only is it really hot in Florida, but it also rains a lot. There is a good chance that, at least for a few days, it will rain at some point during the day. This doesn’t need to deter your plans (unless it’s a tropical storm). Just make sure you have an umbrella and a rain jacket on hand. 

Portable Charger

Since you will most likely be exploring places you have never been before, it will be important you have your phone for directions and safety reasons. 

Be sure to pack a portable charger that you can use during the day, and try to charge it every time you stop at a hotel or Airbnb for the night. 

Entertainment

Although road trips are generally very exciting, those long stretches of driving can become a little boring. It’s best to prepare some entertainment beforehand, so you are prepared for the hours on the road to come. 

Music 

Try to download a variety of music genres that are ready to play whenever you need them. Try to have a playlist of upbeat music to keep the driver focused and alert. Although no one should be driving if they feel tired, it is still helpful to have stimulating music playing while you are behind the wheel. 


In the Floridian spirit, make a playlist of the best Cuban music from Miami or dance music straight from the Key West’s nightlife scene.

HearHere

HearHere helps you make the most of your time on the road with bite-sized stories to help you get to know the world around you.

HearHere is a location-based audio platform that shares stories about the people, places, and history of the land they are traveling through. This will allow you to learn about the landscape you are driving through during your road trip, making every space you pass through even more exciting. 

HearHere connects generations by bringing the landscape to life through sharing stories that surprise, inform, and delight the listener. 

If you’d like to discover the history and related stories about the highways, cities, towns, and species you are driving through, sign up to gain access to thousands of bite-sized, location-based audio clips through your account

Book Hotels and Airbnbs

Book any hotels and Airbnb before the trip. Although it may seem appealing to choose how long you want to stay in each place when you get there, that puts you at the risk of not having a place to stay if the hotels and Airbnb are already full.

Map out how long you want to stay in each city beforehand, taking into account driving times and the number of desired activities in each location, and write a list of the cities or small towns where you want to spend the night. Afterward, you can choose whatever hotels and Airbnbs fit your budget. We will have a few suggestions added to our itinerary. 

First Stretch: Northern Florida

Now that you and your car are ready for a lengthy road trip, it’s time to start exploring. We are going to stop at the top of Florida (Northwest Florida/West Florida is often called the Panhandle). Then, we’ll map out a road trip that takes you all the way down to the Florida Keys.

So, first up: Northern Florida:

Pensacola

An awesome way to start your trip through Florida is to schedule a tour that lets you soak in the beautiful scenery of the coast. That’s why our first activity recommendation is to schedule an excursion with Gulf Coast Air Tours. On this tour, you and five other people will board a Piper Saratoga and choose the Romantic Sunset Tour or the Shark Patrol Tour.

The Sunset Tour is perfect for couples looking to drink champagne and have a romantic date night. The Shark Patrol Tour is perfect for people looking to get a close look at the Gulf Shores from above. The Saratoga will fly low enough to spot white sharks, bull sharks, and dolphins.

Now, it’s time to jump in the water on your first Florida road trip stop. The Niuhi Dive Charters will take you on a diving tour of wrecks and reefs. On this tour, you can see wrecked ships and even a wrecked plane. You will be led by a diving expert, and they have other diving tours to choose from if you would rather explore coral reefs or go spearfishing. 

To end the night, check out McGuire's Irish Pub & Brewery. This is a long-standing local pub that is popular among tourists and locals. They are known for their steaks and in-house brewed beer. 

Tallahassee 

A little under three hours from Pensacola is Tallahassee.

Start your day at the Canopy Road Cafe. This is a classic American diner with locations all over the city and menu options for everyone. 

Once you are finished eating, head over to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge spans 68,000 acres and includes tidal creeks, marshes, and islands. If you stop here, you will probably be able to spot local birds and alligators.

Additionally, there are spots designated for fishing, hiking, and cycling. Even if you don’t want to partake in any activities, many people come to the refuge just to admire the hidden gems of the landscape. 

We also recommend checking out the Museum of Florida History. This will give you a picture of the rich history of Florida as you walk through exhibits, look at their artifacts, and even watch educational programs. This will make you even more prepared and excited for the rest of your journey through Florida. 

If you are in Tallahassee on a Friday or Saturday evening, head over to the Bradfordville Blues Club. This venue has a packed schedule of performances from professional Blues musicians. The interior is charming, and in the back of the venue, there is a bonfire that people are welcome to enjoy during or after the performances. 

Gainesville 

After driving 2.5 hours out of Tallahassee, you will hit Gainesville.

To start out your day, head over to the Carson Springs Wildlife Conservation Foundation. This conservation is home to rescued animals and rehabilitated wildlife. This conservation is different from a zoo because it only takes in abused animals or animals that can no longer live in their natural habitat.

They provide the animals with comfort and care and use the space to educate visitors on wildlife. There are many different kinds of animals you will be able to see here, including rhinos, tigers, cheetahs, tortoises, and more.

Later, go to the Ichetucknee Springs State Park. This park is located on the Ichetucknee River and provides plenty of outdoor space for picnics, hiking, and swimming. The river offers plenty of water activities. You can go tubing, canoeing, kayaking, or even go snorkeling in the crystal clear water. It is a beautiful spot to spend an afternoon!

For dinner, you should try Cilantro Tacos. This is an incredibly popular spot in Gainesville that started out as a food truck but expanded into a restaurant. This restaurant is family-owned and serves authentic Mexican food, with plenty of vegetarian options. 

Jacksonville

Just a little over an hour’s drive away from Gainesville is Jacksonville.

To start the day, check out the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. This museum has an impressive art collection and is located on St. John’s River. The landscaping surrounding the museum is just as impressive as the art inside of it, with 2.5 acres of manicured gardens that include reflection pools, sculptures, reflecting pools, and places to sit and look out over the river. Overall, it’s an entertaining and beautiful must-see spot.  

If you are ready to get back out on the water, take a tour around Jacksonville and Amelia Island with Now & Zen Sailing Charters. They offer tours on a Catamaran and offer a variety of tours, including sunset cruises, dinner cruises, and day cruises. 

If you are in the mood to shop, the St. Johns Town Center is an open-air mall with plenty of budget and designer brands. 

In the evening, try out the Jax Ale Trail. This will take you through the many craft breweries in Jacksonville. You will also be taken to restaurants where you can grab a small bite or have a meal. 

St. Augustine

Only an hour outside of Jacksonville is the next stop, St. Augustine.

If you are ready to fully experience Florida wildlife, check out the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. This zoo is located on Anastasia Island and has all 23 types of crocodilians. You can view them in their natural habitat and watch them be fed and handled by professionals. You can also see exotic birds and snakes at this zoo. 

Afterward, head over to St. George Street. This pedestrian-only street is packed with shops, restaurants, and other attractions. It is a cobblestone street lined with historic buildings, such as the Oldest Wooden School House. You can easily spend hours here tasting the various bakeries and restaurants, taking tours of historic architecture, and shopping in the local shops. 

Also, be sure to check out the schedule for The St. Augustine Amphitheatre. This is an outdoor venue that frequently holds concerts and other performances, with seating for over 4,000 people.

If there isn’t a concert you want to see while you are in St. Augustine, you can still check out the Amphitheatre on Saturday mornings during the Old City Farmers Market. You can find fresh produce, seafood, baked goods, and live entertainment. 

Second Stretch: Central Florida

Once you have taken a thorough tour of Northern Florida, it’s time to move South. Central Florida is packed with interesting landscapes, theme parks, and, of course, some beaches. 

Orlando

Less than two hours from St. Augustine is one of the biggest Florida destinations, Orlando. 

First, let’s talk about Disney World. Disney World is a prime destination because, with four different theme parks, you could spend one day here just as easily as you could spend four. The parks include Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. Walt Disney World even has championship golf courses.

Magic Kingdom feels magical and is usually best for kids to be immersed in the world of Disney. Epcot is a fantastic choice for children and adults, as it takes you through a tour of the world, including food and recreated sights from multiple countries. 

Hollywood Studios is best for those who want to ride multiple roller coasters or visit Toy Story Land. Lastly, Animal Kingdom includes safari tours in which you will see African wildlife, as well as Disney’s most immersive ride, Avatar Flight of Passage. 

Next up: Universal Studios. Universal Studios brings some of your favorite TV shows and movies to life and recreates them into themed attractions and roller coasters. Highlights include rollercoasters and attractions based on Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Despicable Me, Transformers, Kung Fu Panda, The Simpsons, and many more. 

Looking for a touch of nature? Try the Ocala National Forest 

Cape Canaveral

Less than an hour away from Orlando is the next stop, Cape Canaveral.

The most obvious and most exciting attraction in Cape Canaveral is the Kennedy Space Center. If the timing of your trip works out, you could potentially watch the actual launch of a space rocket from the center.

If not, you can still visit their museum and see astronaut suits, pieces of moon rock, and endless information on space exploration. You can also see actual rockets that have been in space and check out their space shop for Space Center memorabilia. 

Next, check out the Time and Tide Tours. This boat tour will take you into the Atlantic Ocean and the Banana River Lagoon in search of dolphins, turtles, stingrays, and, potentially, whales. 

Cape Canaveral is also a great spot for deep-sea fishing.

If you book a trip with Orlando Princess & Canaveral Princess Deep Sea Fishing, you will be taken out in the water and learn from deep-sea fishing experts. You will spend a chunk of time out on the water; meals and drinks (and fishing tackle) will be provided for you on board. 

Also, if you are ready for some beach time, check out Cocoa Beach, Indialantic, and Melbourne Beach. These beaches are family-friendly and have playgrounds, beach volleyball, picnic tables, and plenty of space to lay on the sand and soak up the sun. 

Vero Beach 

Just about an hour and a half down the coast from Cape Canaveral is Vero Beach. 

If the name didn’t give it away, this is an ideal location for plenty of beach time. Vero Beach has a few different beaches to choose from, depending on what you want to do. Wabasso Beach Park has beautiful beaches that are large and quiet, and the water is perfect for swimming.

Golden Sands Beach Park includes a picnic area next to water that is great for snorkeling or scuba diving, protected by lifeguards. If you are looking for a waterfront space that is different from a typical beach, Jaycee Park will be what you are looking for. This area includes playgrounds, a boardwalk, a restaurant, and large picnic areas, all along the oceanfront. 

Before heading to the beach, you might want to check out the Farmers Market Oceanside. It is open every Saturday and has local produce, drinks, pastries, and other treats. You can pick up some snacks and refreshments for your beach day while listening to local musicians play. 

For dinner, check out Vero Beach’s many waterside restaurants, like Waldo's Restaurant. This restaurant is a laid-back spot with a rich history. It is located inside a historic inn, next to the pool. This is a perfect pick for casual fare, options for the whole family, and wonderful views of the water. 

Sebring

A little under two hours away from Vero Beach is Sebring. 

Daytona Beach isn’t the only racing car hot spot. If you are a car racing fan, Sebring is the spot for you. Sebring is most well known for its International Raceway. This raceway used to be a training base for B-17 pilots during WWII but now is a popular racing track.

They host many famous races, including the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring and the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. If you are interested in seeing a race, be sure to look at their schedule and line up your Sebring stop with a race. 

If you aren’t a racing fan, you can check out the Highland Hammock State Park. This park is located just outside of Sebring, but it is well worth the extra few-minute drive. Here, you will see hundreds of protected trees that are over a thousand years old.

There are two paths that take you through a tour of the park: one for driving and one for hiking. Additionally, there is a boardwalk that runs through a swamp area which gives you a great view of the park and is a popular spot for bird watching. 

If you are looking for a relaxed afternoon or evening, try out the Secret Gardens Winery and Farms. You can walk through the vineyards and sample many local wines. They offer many official tastings and tours that you can choose from. 

Fort Myers

A little over an hour and a half from Sebring is the next stop, Fort Myers. 

This is another lovely spot for beach activities. Fort Myers Beach spans over seven miles and has soft, white sand beaches with a calm waterfront. Visiting these beaches, you will see people lying in the sun, playing beach volleyball and other beach games, and dining at beachside restaurants. The water is calm enough for water sports like jet skiing, kayaking, and parasailing. This shallow, calm water also makes for perfect swimming conditions. 

If you are anxious to get on the water and spot some marine life, book a tour with Good Time Charters. They offer a variety of tours that are led by marine experts. No matter what tour you choose, you are guaranteed a 90-minute tour on the water and the potential to see plenty of dolphins, manatees, and tropical birds.

For shopping and dining, you will want to head over to Fort Myers’ own Times Square. This plaza has beach shops, seafood restaurants, bars with live music, and boutiques. No matter what time of day you visit Times Square, you are guaranteed to find shopping, dining, and entertainment.

Third Stretch: Southern Florida 

Last but not least, we are going to take you on a tour of Southern Florida. Here, you can expect a lot of beach and water activities, so make sure you have plenty of sunscreen and beach gear ready to go. 

Naples 

Less than an hour away from Fort Myers is Naples. 

One of the most iconic spots in Naples is the Naples Pier. This pier has been rebuilt many times after being destroyed by fire or hurricanes. It is deeply treasured by the local population.

There are plenty of things to do on this pier, including taking a scenic walk, fishing, dolphin spotting, or eating in its covered eating area or at its concession stand. You will have the best chance of spotting dolphins early in the morning, but a sunset walk is just as beautiful. 

Naples has a beach that is considered to be one of the most pristine beaches in the world. Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park contains miles of beach along the Gulf of Mexico and is perfect for countless beach and water activities. You can bird watch, lay in the soft sand, snorkel, fish, or look for unique seashells.

If you need a break from relaxing in the sun, check out The Village on Venetian Bay. This is an open-air shopping mall with plenty of high-end fashion brands.

Even if you aren’t looking to spend a lot of money on a designer item, this mall is still worth a visit for the restaurants and beautiful views. You can eat hot dogs by the water or dine in a 5-star restaurant. Their event calendar is usually packed with fashion shows, wine tastings, and live entertainment. 

Fort Lauderdale 

From the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast, Fort Lauderdale is just under two hours away from Naples. 

If you still haven’t had your fill of sun and sand, head over to the Fort Lauderdale Beaches. There are over 20 miles of soft sand beaches that have a wide range of activities. These beaches offer surfing, swimming, water skiing, snorkeling, and fishing.

The water here is extremely warm and clear, so be sure to take advantage of all the water activities. Hollywood Beach has a boardwalk that stretches over two miles and is excellent for biking, rollerblading, or taking a scenic walk.  

However, if you are looking for a break from the sun, head over to the NSU Art Museum. Here, you will find an extensive collection of contemporary and 20th-century art. It will also be a great experience for a Florida road trip because this museum showcases South Florida and Caribbean culture and art. 

For the evening, be sure to look at the performance schedule at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. This center frequently puts on concerts, ballets, Broadway musicals, plays, concerts, and other shows. It is a popular theater, so be sure to look at the shows and book your tickets in advance. 

Everglades

Just over an hour away from Fort Lauderdale is the Everglades National Park. 

This National Park spans over 1.5 million acres of wetlands. These wetlands are made up of mangroves, marshes, and pine flatwoods and provide a wonderful space for outdoor activities and wildlife viewing, specifically leatherback turtles and manatees. 

There are plenty of activities to partake in here, including:

  • Bicycling on Shark Valley, Snake Bight Trail, and along the Long Pine Key Trail
  • Bird Watching
  • Boating throughout the park to get a better, closer look at the landscape
  • Kayaking & Canoeing 
  • Hiking
  • Slough Slogging, which entails off-trail hiking through the swampy areas 

You can get all the information you need on how to partake in these activities at the visitor center located within the park. 

Key Largo

Just under a one-hour drive from the Everglades National Park is Key Largo. 

Dive right into the water and check out an underwater park. The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park protects the only living coral reef in the United States and spans over 170 nautical square miles. You can independently snorkel or dive to view the park or join guided snorkeling, scuba diving, or boat tour to explore the area. 

If you are a dolphin lover, then you are definitely going to want to check out Dolphin Cove. First, you will go on a 30-minute boat ride in which an expert will give you all the information you need to know about dolphins and will show you where their natural habitat is. Afterward, you can hop into an enclosed area where you are allowed to interact and swim with dolphins. 

Key West

A little over two hours away from Key Largo is the final stop on this complete Florida road trip itinerary. 

To explore the area in a new, fun way, book a tour with Lloyd's Tropical Bike Tour. Tours start every morning at 9:45 am and last about two hours. This is a leisurely tour through Key West streets, and Lloyd, the bike tour guide, will tell you fun facts about famous spots in Key West as you pass through them.

You will make a handful of stops in Key West’s most popular destinations, including the Key West Wildlife Center, a botanical garden, private gardens, and houses that celebrities have lived in.

Of course, we can’t end our Florida road trip itinerary without one more water activity suggestion. We recommend booking a tour with Sebago Day Tours. You will be able to board a beautiful sailing boat and take a tour around Key West.

You can pick a sunset tour, snorkeling tour, or day tour. You also have the option to add water activities like parasailing, jet skiing, parasailing, paddleboarding, or kayaking. 

If you want to know where everyone in Key West goes for the evening, check out Mallory Square. This waterfront plaza faces the Gulf of Mexico and offers beautiful sunset views. You can also explore the multiple art exhibits, food vendors, and street performers.

Expect to be in a large, vibrant crowd every time you visit Mallory Square. Head to Duval Street for a touch of retro Florida.

A Slice of Heaven (and Key Lime Pie)

For a USA road trip, Florida is a must-do. Between the mesmerizing waters of Sanibel Island to the art museums of Sarasota in Tampa, there is something for everyone. 

 

Sources:

Home | Gulf Coast Air Tours

Home | Carson Springs Wildlife

Catamaran Boats: Types, Uses & Activities | Discover Boating

Kennedy Space Center | NASA

Beaches to Visit in Greater Fort Lauderdale | Visit Fort Lauderdale

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