It's an inevitable chain of events: the thrill of the season's first nippy air; the falling of the leaves; and then the realization it's about to be cold and gray for weeks on end. It's no wonder the Sunshine State’s tourism numbers are the envy of the world. An estimated 89.3 million people visited Florida in 2012, a record-breaking number that impacts its income to the tune of roughly $70 billion, making it the planet’s No. 1 travel destination. Clearwater Beach — Photo courtesy of Elena Petrova / Thinkstock
As such, the state’s many airports bustle with activity around the clock, a fact that keeps construction brisk in its air-transport hubs. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International (FLL) is amid a major runway expansion. Southwest Florida International’s decision makers are planning a host of projects over the next decade-plus – hundreds of millions worth. And just last month, plans were approved for a $1.1 billion expansion at Orlando International (MCO). But even with all the upgrades, some travelers prefer saving money and time by flying into Florida’s many regional alternatives.
Orlando/Central Atlantic Coast
MCO is the biggie here, but just 30 miles north – most of it a straight shot on SR-417S if you’re headed toward all things Disney – sits SFB, its smaller, less hectic alternative in Sanford, which has a charming, little downtown of its own, by the way. If you’re headed east, you’re actually closer to Atlantic cost beach destinations such as St. Augustine (under two hours’ drive), Cocoa Beach (1.5), Daytona Beach or the area around the Kennedy Space Center (each about an hour).
The Sanford airport’s biggest airline is Allegiant, which flies direct, always, from more than 50 smaller-sized U.S. cities throughout the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, Northeast and beyond – as far away as Bangor, Maine; McAllen, Tex. and Bismarck, ND. Allegiant’s fares are often very reasonable. As this was published, a trip for a family of four from Bloomington, Ill. priced out at $153.50 round-trip per person. Savings on airfare could easily boost your hotel budget or allow for an extra theme-park. Do your research.
International airlines here include ArkeFly, Icelandair and SST Air. Others internationals serve SFB, as well – Monarch, Thomson, Thomas Cook, each serving a hosts of UK-based destinations – but only for travelers whose flights originate from outside the U.S.
Northeast of SFB, Daytona Beach has an international airport of its own (DAB), serviced by both Delta and U.S. Airways with daily nonstops from Atlanta and Charlotte. Southeast of Orlando’s major hub is Melbourne International Airport (MLB). Melbourne’s carriers and nonstops are identical to Daytona’s, with the added convenience of Baer Air, a charter carrier with regular flights to Marsh Harbour in the Bahamas via Beechjet 400A airplanes.
SE and South Florida
The ‘Gold Coast,’ served by Palm Beach International (PBI) on its north end, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International (FLL) in Broward County, and Miami International (MIA) to the south, never wanes in popularity for winter vacationers. Well-heeled Worth Avenue shoppers, sportsmen in for a prize Atlantic catch and South Beach club-goers have a wealth of airports, which afford them quick and easy access to their recreational pursuits. Southbound jaunts to the Southernmost Point in Key West take about four hours from Lauderdale, three-plus from Miami.
PBI runs nearly 100 daily non-stop departures to more than 25 destinations in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean via 12 airlines. FLL is even larger, with 30 carriers and literally dozens of domestic and international non-stops. Miami’s main hub is one of the world’s busiest, served by more than 80 airlines and flying to approximately 150 destinations around the world – 130 of them non-stop! Of these, 49 are domestic. One of them is very likely yours.
Tampa International (TPA) boasts 18 airlines flying nonstop to and from more than 70 national and international destinations – and why wouldn’t they? The blinding powder and gentle green swells of the Tampa-area beaches are among the world’s most beautiful. Whether you’re staying local with plans for Clearwater Beach, St. Pete Beach or any of the beautiful lesser-known’s in between, or planning to head south for the posh sands of Sarasota’s Siesta Key, TPA’s alternative, St. Pete-Clearwater Airport (PIE)should be a top consideration.
Allegiant is the top dog here, shuttling visitors in direct from more than 30 destinations including Buffalo, NY; Grand Rapids, Mich. and Fargo, ND. Vision Airlines brings Mississippi Gulf Coasters in from Biloxi/Gulfport regularly, as well. Fly into PIE and you can be browsing the tony shops of Sarasota’s St. Armand’s Circle in an hour and a half. And if you’d rather be watching the watercolor sunset from Frenchy’s Rockaway on Clearwater Beach, an umbrella drink awaits you less than 13 miles from where your plane touches down.
Sarasota/Bradenton International (SRQ) brings travelers in just south of Tampa where access to those shark tooth-strewn beaches are easy, as is getting through baggage claim. SRQ is a good deal smaller than TPA. Air Canada, Delta, JetBlue, United and U.S. Air are the carriers here, with nonstops from Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Detroit, New York (LGA/JFK), Toronto and Washington, D.C.
Few Florida destinations offer this much diversity in such close proximity. Naples, with its upscale dining and shopping and world-class golf offers Palm Beach-like sophistication with a less formal vibe. Marco Island is no less classy – check out the Marco Beach Ocean Resort for a sample – but offers vacationers white-sand beaches with plenty of space and lots of nature with stretches like Tigertail Beach, a clandestine family favorite.
Punta Gorda Airport is also an Allegiant hub, with service to more than 20 cities including Long Island’s MacArthur Airport in Islip, N.Y., Des Moines, Iowa and Springfield/Branson, MO. As Allegiant is a primary carrier at many regional Florida airports, it should be noted that while service to some of its destinations overlap, others are exclusive. PGD is about an hour-and-a-half from Marco Island and hour from either Fort Myers Beach or Naples and visitors to the area could cross the state in roughly two hours for side-trips to either Fort Lauderdale or Miami.
PGD’s better-known counterpart, Southwest Florida International (RSW) is served by 14 airlines from internationals like Air Berlin and Air Canada to JetBlue, Frontier, Southwest and WestJet. Its nonstops are many; passengers fly in and out direct from major U.S. hubs in Chicago (both Midway and O’Hare), Atlanta, Dallas and New York (EWR, LGA, and JFK) along with many smaller cities and international jumps from Dusseldorf and Montreal.
Down in Naples - the posh jewel of the Paradise Coast - Naples Municipal is served by a handful of air charter carriers (there’s no commercial service at this time) but folks for whom $800 one-way fares to Key West are doable may find this regional the best bet to get from that conference and/or golf game in Naples down to the Old Town Bight District to charter a tarpon boat without the five-hour drive.
Key West’s airport (EYW) sits about 180 miles southwest of MIA and although it, too, is international, it’s a far cry from Miami in both pace and space. Airlines that fly regularly at EYW include American Eagle, Delta, Silver and U.S. Airways.
The sublime sands of Destin and Panama Beach, the students and state capital of Tallahassee along with a host of other cities in Florida’s panhandle are served by four airports: Pensacola International (AirTran, American, Delta, Silver, Southwest, United, U.S. Air), Northwest Florida Regional (American Eagle, Delta, United, US Air, Northwest Florida Beaches International (Southwest, Delta) and Tallahassee Regional (AA, Delta, US Air, Silver). Pensacola (PNS) is the largest, serving 12 major cities as far west as Dallas. It’s also the westernmost airport in the state. Those with a mind to “ride the line” at famed Perdido Key beach bar, Flora-Bama, will find PNS the most convenient for their purposes.
Looking for nonstops into the panhandle from Atlanta, Dallas, Charlotte, Houston or Washington, D.C? Look into Northwest Florida Regional (VPS). Likewise, Northwest Florida Beaches (ECP) is an excellent hub for visitors to the Emerald Coast towns of Fort Walton Beach, Santa Rosa Beach and the like, and runs nonstops to Atlanta, Baltimore, Houston and Nashville daily via its two providers. Tallahassee Regional (TLH) is served by four airlines but between them affords passengers access to virtually any destination in the world. Direct flights from Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Washington, D.C. run daily.
University of Florida Gators, prospective Gators and north Florida visitors, particularly those with a mind for some time on the east coast, might choose Gainesville and its regional airport (GNV) as home base. It’s roughly an hour and a half from G-Ville to St. Augustine or Jacksonville. American, Delta, Silver, U.S. Air and United serve GNV – with nonstop service from Atlanta, Charlotte, Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, Orlando and Tampa.
Jacksonville has its own international airport (JAX) and this quaint-but- cosmopolitan city enjoys its own Atlantic beach with the historic towns of St. Augustine to the south and Savannah, GA, to the north within easy driving distance for day-tripping or overnights. AirTran, American, JetBlue, Silver, Southwest, United and US Air all serve JAX, with nonstops to 21 major U.S. hubs plus San Juan, PR, and Marsh Harbour in the Bahamas.
Allegiant serves Fort Lauderdale airport, as well (though from far fewer destinations) but Florida residents, snowbirds or visitors staying awhile may look into Silver Airways for some interesting time savers to see more of the state. While some may seem pricey for a single-state excursion (a random round-trip – quick stopover – from Orlando to Key West price out around $260), you can be hauling in tarpon a la Hemingway – or perhaps drinking like him at Sloppy Joe’s – in 2.5 hours. Drive instead, and you’ll be spending that money in 7-8 hours’ worth of time, plus gas and perhaps even parking, in a town where a car is hardly necessary. Silver serves 10 airports in Florida, making it food for thought.