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Experience Miami on a budget
It might be notorious for its late-night party scene, swanky beach hotels with steeply priced drinks and the beachgoers who wear barely-there $300 swimsuits, but vacationing Miami-style doesn't have to cost a fortune.
From $3 beers to staying at a hostel for $34 a night to $7 bike rides along the Florida Everglades, visitors looking for deals have lots of options in the area.
LODGING: If you're adventurous and on a tight budget, consider staying in a hostel. Rooms can house anywhere between three and 14 travelers, sleeping on bunk beds, from $18 a night per person to about $40, depending on season and room size. Hostels in Miami Beach include Tropics Hotel & Hostel, 1550 Collins Ave., http://www.tropicshotel.com, Jazz on South Beach Hostel, 321 Collins Ave., http://www.jazzhostels.com/ and South Beach Hostel, 235 Washington Ave., http://www.thesouthbeachhostel.com.
For more conventional lodging, research your hotel at the one-stop shopping Web site http://www.miamihotels.com. Book a room while looking for nearby attractions, beaches and events.
MIAMI BEACH: The Lincoln Road pedestrian mall is perfect for strolls and people-watching. You'll find dozens of restaurants and shops, along with locals walking dogs or weaving through the crowds on roller blades.
For a quick bite, check out Pizza Rustica (667 Lincoln Road, other locations on Washington Avenue), where you can get a huge slice of gourmet pizza for about $5. This is also a great spot for club-goers looking for something to fill their stomachs after a few drinks since it's open from 11 a.m. until 3 or 4 a.m.
At 625 Lincoln Road is a hidden gem popular with the locals. Snuggled between two stores is the narrow, tiny bar called Zeke's Roadhouse, which boasts over 80 bottled beers and drafts from around the world -- each just $3. No hard alcohol is sold here, and no outside food or drinks are allowed on the premises. Keep your ID handy since bartenders check it with each purchase. No ID, no beer. If you prefer to spend your time on the sand, the beach is walking distance (and free, unless you rent the pricey beach chairs). On your stroll, check out the Art Deco architecture and ritzy hotels. Or snap some pictures at the Casa Casuarina mansion where fashion designer Gianni Versace once lived, now a luxury hotel at 1116 Ocean Drive.
A drink at a trendy hotel bar on the beach -- the Delano, Setai, Shore Club, Gansevoort -- can cost up to $15, but you might just run into a celebrity. Owen Wilson was spotted at the Delano while filming "Marley & Me" with Jennifer Aniston. She reportedly spent time at the Mandarin Oriental.
Many restaurants in South Beach and other touristy areas automatically add a tip (usually 15-18 percent) to the bill.
ART: The Miami Art Museum -- 101 W. Flagler St., http://www.miamiartmuseum.org/ -- has a unique collection of different cultural traditions of South Florida. Adults pay $8, seniors $4, free for children under 12 and students with ID; free to all on the second Saturday of each month. Also on second Saturdays, local galleries and studios in the Wynwood Art District offer free wine (or beer) on a gallery walk, 7-10 p.m. The Wynwood galleries are open other days as well.
A short cab ride away, in the heart of Miami about a mile from downtown, is Vizcaya Museum & Gardens -- 3251 S. Miami Ave., http://www.vizcayamuseum.com/ -- built by agricultural industrialist James Deering in 1916. The landmark property includes a main house filled with treasures from around the world, a walkway lined with fountains and foliage, 10 acres of formal gardens and a hardwood hammock overlooking Biscayne Bay. Admission for adults is $12; children 6-12, $5; ages 5 and younger free.
Not far, in the Miami suburb of Coral Gables, is the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden -- 10901 Old Cutler Road, http://www.fairchildgarden.org/ -- with an extensive collection of rare tropical plants. Stop by its verandah restaurant or garden cafe, or spend the afternoon drinking tea here. Adults pay $20; seniors $15; children 6-17, $10. Admission is pay as you wish on the first Wednesday of each month (next two, Nov. 5 and Dec. 3).
ENTERTAINMENT AND FOOD: Transit Lounge in the downtown area -- 729 SW First Ave., http://www.transitlounge.us -- hosts several local bands during the week that play Latin and funk music. A drink is around $6; open late (5 a.m.). If you get tired of dancing, sit along the walls adorned with paintings done by local artists and play that favorite game from childhood, Connect Four.
Calle Ocho, or Eighth Street, hosts Viernes Culturales or Cultural Fridays the last Friday of every month. The art and street festival spans four blocks lined with more than a dozen galleries, restaurants blasting Latin music and cigar shops -- some offering free drinks and appetizers. Stages are set up for live music. Organizers say the Latin festival attracts over 10,000 people to the heart of Little Havana. Dancing and cigar smoking is encouraged.
While on Calle Ocho, don't miss the Cuban food and coffee at Little Havana's famed Versailles Restaurant, 3555 SW Eighth St., a required stop for vote-seeking politicians -- including, most recently, Republican presidential contenders Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee.
NATURE: The best way to see South Florida's alligator-infested waters is riding an airboat through the Everglades. Everglades Alligator Farm is about 35 miles south of Miami in Homestead, http://www.everglades.com, while Everglades Safari Park is about 15 miles west on the Tamiami Trail, http://www.evsafaripark.com/. Both places offer a chance to experience Florida's river of grass up close. You can even take a picture holding a baby alligator or watch an alligator show. The adventure, airboat and all, costs about $23 for adults, $15 or less for children. Both Web sites offer printable discount coupons.
Also in Homestead, Shark Valley Tram Tours -- http://www.sharkvalleytramtours.com/ -- rents bikes for $6.50 an hour. A 15-mile nature trail through the northern region of Everglades National Park takes two to three hours. If you'd rather rest your feet, a two-hour guided tram ride with wildlife viewing and a stop at the Shark Valley observation tower for a panoramic view of the Everglades costs $15.25 ($9.25 for ages 3-12). (Access to Shark Valley was limited in early October due to flooding, with tram tours suspended and bike routes limited, so check on conditions before you plan a trip there.)
The fee for car entry to Everglades National Park is $10, good for seven consecutive days, or $5 per person on foot, bike or motorcycle; http://www.nps.gov/ever/.
TRANSPORTATION: Miami lacks comprehensive public transportation, but there are economical ways to get around. You can't miss the big blue Super Shuttle vans from the airport to the beach and Miami hotels, $20 plus tip. The Tri-Rail is a convenient, affordable way to navigate the region, with stops including area airports, Fort Lauderdale, Delray Beach, Boca Raton and West Palm Beach. One-way fares are $2-$5.50, all-day $4 weekend fare.
Taxis are widely available if you prefer not to rent a car. A ride from the airport to the beach can cost about $30-35.