My family still hasn't found a Fort Lauderdale hotel or Miami hotel, for that matter, that's free. But combine these fabulous freebies with the cheap airfare being offered and you'll have a Florida vacation even Sam Walton, of Wal-Mart fame, would condone.
Fort Lauderdale is home to many small nature enclaves and parks, all free and all wonderful. My family's four favorites are
1. John Lloyd Beach State Park: One of the best ways to live the cheap life luxuriously is to stay at one of those budget Fort Lauderdale hotels way off the beach, and then spend your days in this park with several miles of tranquil beach, mangrove, cafes and playgrounds. With a $5 car entry fee (or with a $78 yearly pass you get in free), that beats the resort fee at most ocean-front hotels any day. Showers, picnic tables and restrooms are all available.
2. Secret Woods Nature Center: Appropriately named, this teeny sanctuary is a few feet from the airport, making this perhaps the world's most peaceful — and noisiest — butterfly garden in the world at the same time. When there is no plane flying overhead, all you can hear are the birds and wind in the trees.
3. Anne Kolb Nature Center: 1,500 acres of wetlands with kayaking, 3,500-gallon aquarium, and a 68-foot observation tower. This is the ideal playground for active travelers.
4. Biscayne National Park: Unbelievable coral reefs, islands and pirate history! NOTE: Senior Citizens (anyone over 62) can get free LIFETIME admission to the National Parks for themselves and everyone in their car (up to 3 other adults, kids under 16 always free) for a one-time $10 charge.
The first Sunday of each month, SunTrust Sunday Jazz Brunch brings soul music to the people from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. And well-behaved pets are welcome!
While you obviously can't buy anything for free, there are some places where you can have a good time looking or get stuff at next to nothing. Here are my two favorites:
1. Swap Shop: OK, so most of it is schlock. There are still some bargains buried in there, and it is good for things like movies, video games and fake pocket books, if you can't make it up NYC's Canal Street.
2. Salvation Army Thrift Stores: Looking for a big t-shirt to wear to the beach? A huge bag of toys for the kids to use in the hotel room? Comfortable jeans? As long as the latest Prada sandals are not high on your list, this is a treasure trove of "aren't we glad we didn't schlep this from home" goodies. And with specials like 50% off for seniors on some days, the prices can't be beat. Locations include:1801 W Broward Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale, and 2300 SW 56th Ave., Hollywood.
Tips on getting in free to museums (these apply across the country — not just in Fort Lauderdale!)
1. Many museums, zoos and science centers are members of organizations that provide reciprocal admission. If you're a member of a local one you will either get free or greatly reduced admission. For example, Miami Metrozoo gives half-price admission to AZA members. The Museum of Discovery & Science, Inc. gives free admission to other ASTC members.
2. Bank of America is still running its "Museums on Us" program where customers show their bank card and get free admission to the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art and the Museum of Discovery & Science, and several others in Miami.
3. June is "Join One, experience them all" month in Broward County. Join any one of these museums and you get admission to all of them for the whole month. If you plan to do significant culture-hopping, this is a spectacular deal! For example, a whole family can join the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum for $60 — and then everyone in that membership gets to go to all the others for free! Participating museums include:
- African American Research Library & Cultural Center
- Art and Culture Center of Hollywood
- Bonnet House Museum & Gardens
- Cinema Paradiso
- Coral Springs Museum of Art
- Old Davie School Historical Museum
- Flamingo Gardens
- Fort Lauderdale History Center
- Historic Stranahan House Museum
- IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame
- International Swimming Hall of Fame Museum
- Museum of Art – Fort Lauderdale
- My Jewish Discovery Place Children's Museum Plantation Historical Museum
- Old Dillard Museum
- Seminole Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum
- The Children’s Museum -Boca Raton
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Samantha Chapnick is a New York writer who scours international destinations looking for what hasn't been found.