Florida is casual and what to pack is mostly about being comfortable. If you’re spending time in Naples, Sarasota, or Tampa’s Hyde Park, bring something a little more formal, preferably in a tropical style, to wear in the evening. Elsewhere, the name of the game year-round is layering. For women, a twin set and slacks is a good dressy outfit, for men a polo shirt and khakis. You will need several pairs of shoes: something for dinner, sneakers for hiking (ones that can get wet and possibly muddy, repeatedly), and swim shoes or sandals.
Even if you’re visiting the Gulf Coast in the summer, bring a sweater. Most places keep the air conditioner going strong. You’ll appreciate this when you first step inside from the relentless heat, but if you plan to spend any length of time indoors you’ll end up getting cold, especially when the cold air-conditioning is coupled with sweat on the skin. In the winter, a long-sleeved pullover with light slacks is usually fine unless you’re up north on the Panhandle and in the Tallahassee area, where the temperatures can drop near and very occasionally below freezing during the winter months of January and February. During these times you will want to layer your tops, maybe bring a fleece or other good jacket and a pair of warm pants or jeans.
Bring sunscreen, binoculars, polarized sunglasses (for seeing depth when you fish and to better spot dolphins), a bird book, snorkel, swim flippers, a good novel, more bathing suits than you think you can use, bug spray, flip-flops or sandals, a digital camera, maybe a disposable waterproof camera, and your cell phone (it will work in almost every part of Florida these days, except a very few rural parts of the Nature Coast, especially with Verizon service).
A car is an essential tool in most of the area, but visitors can also rent bikes, scooters, skates, strollers, beach chairs, boogie boards, surfboards, skimboards, fishing equipment, motorboats, personal watercraft, kayaks, canoes, sailboards, and sailboats.
What It Will Cost
This information is hard to nail down: What it costs depends upon what you’re willing to spend. If I averaged the prices at all the restaurants of the Gulf Coast, I’d say a restaurant dinner for one person costs $20. If I were to do the same thing for accommodations, I might find an average hotel room costs $100. But are those numbers really helpful? It’s a range, with significant variation, on both counts.
Travel costs are at their most expensive during peak season, which for the Florida peninsula is December–April; for the Panhandle it’s June–August. What’s helpful to know is the Gulf Coast is less expensive the farther north and west you go, and also in Tampa. Top-dollar honors go to Naples, where an average dinner for one is about $30 and an average room is about $150 per night mid-season. Then it gets cheaper and cheaper as you drive up I‑75 and west along U.S. 98. Cheapest place on the Gulf Coast? Panama City Beach, where lots of bargain hotel rooms on the beach bottom out at $30. Pensacola is a very affordable town; Sarasota, not so affordable.
Beaches on the Gulf Coast are free, maybe a few dollars for parking and sunblock. What you do at them may cost more—a half-day offshore fishing trip will run at least $250, an ecotour kayak trip $50, a brief Wave Runner rental $40. Of the attractions, everything pales financially by comparison to a day at Walt Disney World. Still, Busch Gardens in Tampa, Asolo Theater tickets in Sarasota, and snorkel-with-the-manatees charters in Homosassa are all pretty expensive.
If you can stay for a week, which I recommend, you can cut costs: A totally luxurious multibedroom beach house rental on St. George Island or even North Captiva Island will cost you less per night than a swanky single room in Naples. In a rental house, you can be even more fiscally prudent by preparing your own breakfasts and picnic lunches. Splurge on dinners.
With attractions, check their websites for free or reduced-rate days or nights. Museums tend to admit people free on Thursday nights or Sunday mornings, primarily to lure locals, but you can benefit. It’s worth it to visit the local chambers of commerce or convention and visitors bureaus, not only for the information, but also for the coupons.