South Beach in Miami, Florida is famous for drawing in the rich crowds and famous people like Gianni Versace. However, you do not need to be rich and famous to have a great time here! South Beach on a budget is entirely possible! I spent two weeks in South Beach, or SoBe as the locals call it, and I am far from being rich! In fact, at the time of my visit I was an exchange student in the US and I was literally living on the most meagre budget.

The first step to having a holiday in South Beach on a budget is to fly in to Fort Lauderdale, which is where most of the budget airlines arrive. There are trains and buses to downtown Miami from Fort Lauderdale airport so unless you are flying in from abroad chances are you will land here.

I flew to Fort Lauderdale airport from Chicago just in time for Memorial Weekend, which is a big celebration in the US. The memorial weekend was the national hip hop weekend in Miami when I was there – I am not a big fan of festivals but it was still a lot of fun!

Getting to South Beach in Florida from Fort Lauderdale Airport.

If you want to arrive in South Beach in style you can grab a shared taxi or minibus for $21 by Go Airport Shuttle. The drive will take about one hour direct. There is also the option of taking public transportation using the train or the bus. There is a double decker train service to central Miami where you can catch a bus to South Beach.

Alternatively, you can catch Bus 01 to NE 29 P/Aventura B and change there to Bus 120. This will take nearly three hours in total.

Arriving in South Beach

South Beach Florida Budget Holiday

South Beach Florida Budget Holiday

I decided to take the train and then change over to a bus as I thought I would be adventurous. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise how long it would take and by the time I arrived at the SoBe Hostel & Bar on my first day it was nearly midnight! I was so tired I could hardly walk.

To top it all off, this Miami Youth Hostel is probably the most dreadful place I’ve ever stayed in. The bus journey from Fort Lauderdale to South Beach was gruelling and some of the folk that got on the bus looked terrifying.

The First Youth Hostel

When I finally arrived in the hostel on Washington and 3rd I dropped my stuff off in the room and went straight to bed. Unfortunately it was so cold in the room that I could not sleep so I then decided to go down to the TV room. Problem was, the guys there looked really rough. When they saw me entering the room they started playing with their knives as if they wanted to slice me up or something. I may have just been totally paranoid, but I decided to go back to the room where it was so cold a polar bear would have felt chilly.

Tip: don’t just book the cheapest hostel – read the reviews!

I covered myself in blankets, put several layers of clothes on and even my winter coat but I was still cold. Even though I tried to turn it down I couldn’t because the button was broken. So all night long I had to stay in the freezer and next day when I was down the beach I was so tired I fell asleep under the sun.

Miami Beach and South Beach have more than seven miles of beaches and 20 parks, a thriving art and cultural life and some amazing bars and clubs. Miami Beach itself is an island city of just 7.1 square miles and it separates Biscayne Bay from the radiant blue waters of the Atlantic.

South Beach on a Budget

South Beach might appear like a great place only if you have a lot of money – but that shouldn’t put you off visiting. There are plenty of things to do in South Beach even if you have little money. You can still have a lot of fun if you know where to look even if you are a poor student like I was when I visited.

South Beach in Florida is where Gianni Versace used to live and eventually died when his gay lover murdered him. Many tour operators actually offer tours of his favourite places and also visit the street where he died.

Tip: Walk around the Art Deco District to soak in the culture

According to the city government’s website, “Miami Beach is no longer just a place to lay on the beach soaking up the sun – it has much more to offer since the refurbishment of the Art Deco Historic District.”

There are also hundreds of cafés, clubs and shops along South Beach’s Ocean Drive, Lincoln Road, and Washington Avenue. Most of the international hotels and restaurants of Collins Avenue and Middle Beach are the higher end of the spectrum. There is also the re-emerging neighborhood in North Beach, so two weeks would definitely be the minimum for a visit.

View from balcony over South Beach

View from balcony over South Beach

My Nightmare Sunburn in South Beach

Unfortunately I arrived in Miami totally hangover and I hardly slept on my first night because of the cold room. This meant that when I arrived at the beach the next morning I was totally exhausted and I fell asleep under the sun in 40 degree heat! I don’t know how long I was asleep for but when I woke up my back was sizzling and I was in agony. I stumbled back to the hostel, hoping I would be able to sleep it all off.

That didn’t happen. I had a terrible night and by the morning I really was suffering from burns and a headache. I decided to have a shower but I collapsed in the shower and also in the corridor on the way back to the room. It was then that I decided to go to the A&E. Luckily I was fully insured and so they kept me in all day on intravenous rehydration. I also got some sort of an injection then they discharged me. Fortunately the insurance company covered everything, otherwise the day’s visit would have cost me nearly $10,000!

Tip: Get full insurance before you travel anywhere!

Needless to say this completely messed up my holiday. I spent the next two or three days recuperating. The hostel was also atrocious and most people were very unfriendly. It was memorial weekend and the city was full to the brim so I couldn’t even change hostels even if I wanted to. The room was freezing as the aircon was down to 16 degrees, whereas outside it was well over 35 degrees heat. The difference in heat hit me every time I left the place and I slowly developed a very bad cough.

Miami Beach International Travellers Hostel

Thankfully when the memorial weekend was over I could move to another hostel. I checked into the Miami Beach International Travellers Hostel which was much friendlier. The hostel is in an art deco building and they gave free pizza every Sunday.

There was also a movie night twice a week. I actually looked at this place before I booked the SoBe hostel but it was $27 a night, which was $5 more than the other, so I decided against it! This hostel has since won the best hostel in the US award and got a nomination for the best hostel in the world award.

By the time I checked into the Miami Beach International Travellers Hostel my sunburn was healing fast. It was also here that I met Hans-Juergen, a German tourist. He was totally fed up with Miami so we decided to team up and commiserate: me about my sunburn and Juergen about everything else. We went to a museum together and also visited a couple of bars but generally stayed in the hostel bar in the evening as there was always something on. We are still in touch via email and Linkedin, so at least I made a friend in Miami.

The Barnacle in Miami

The Barnacle in Miami

The Hostel Bar

This hostel, just like the one in Chicago was part of Hostelling International. In the hostel we would sit outside on the terrace every night after sunset and just drink and chat. Nobody really had money to go out because everything was very expensive for students. There were also a couple of Russian guys who got a few bottles of vodka every night and invited everybody to drink. They were friendly people, only one of them was an asshole.

Homesick In Miami

Hans-Juergen left Miami later that week so I was bored alone. Then, three days before my departure from Miami I became totally homesick. I was depressed, tired, still in pain from the sunburn and just fed up. By then I had been away from Scotland for nearly six months and I was missing my friends. Strangely I felt no home sickness for Hungary…

After the sunset I went to swim in the ocean and relaxed a little. I then decided to have a drink in a bar on Ocean Drive. It was here that I met Frank Lavin and Marcella Paz Cohen, two estate agents in Miami Beach (or realtors as they say in the US!).

The Palace Bar On Ocean Drive

The place where we met was the Palace Bar on 12th and Ocean Drive. I got in, bought myself a drink and headed outside to watch the drag show on the curb side. There was only one empty table so I asked the woman and man sitting there if I could take a seat. They looked at me, then at each other and said “fine”. When the show ended they asked me who I was. It turned out that the table was the owner’s and the locals knew better not to sit there! We ended up talking about astrology and it turned out that Marcella and I were born on the same day and that she was from Chile!

My Second and Third Friend In Miami

Frank Lavin

Frank Lavin

We instantly became friends and I told them about my miserable sunburn and how I hardly had any money to spend on a nice holiday. They then looked at each other and told me that I couldn’t leave Miami with bad memories. They promised that they would show me the best of South Beach!

So we spent the next three days together cycling around Miami, doing a guided city tour and we also had lunch twice in their favourite restaurants. I simply couldn’t believe how friendly they were and how lucky I was!

Frank even put me up and took me to some really nice places and Marcella paid for the cycling city tour that I couldn’t afford. Frank even lent me a bicycle so we could go a little further out of South Beach. They really made my holiday a wonderful experience for the last three days. Later that year in October Marcella even visited me in Edinburgh then we went to Budapest together!

The Hungarians At Frank’s Apartment

The best bit was Frank’s apartment! He had a massive condo on the tenth floor of a tower with a swimming pool and sauna, Jacuzzi and gym on nearly every floor. One of the evenings I decided to go down to the swimming pool and as I was swimming back and forth a family arrived. Two elderly ladies and their grandsons as I found out later. The ladies started talking and I went over to eavesdrop and to find out what the rich people talk about in Miami. Then I was in for a big shock!

Frank's Place in South Beach

Frank’s Place in South Beach

One of the old ladies said to the other: “Let’s talk in Hungarian, I am sure nobody understands it here!” – well well, how wrong were they! Turned out they were a bunch of millionaire Hungarian expats! I could not believe it!

We started talking and I found out that they owned several hotels in New York. The guy’s father came out to the US in 1956 where he started working as a kitchen porter in a hotel which he later bought and turned into a chain! The most amazing thing for me was that they bought their apartment in that block from a catalogue. They hadn’t seen it before buying it and that was actually their first visit to see the place!

Ending The Holiday In Style

One of Frank’s friend came over to Frank’s place during my last day in Miami. She had a Porsche and she offered to take me to the airport which of course I could not refuse! So I was whizzed off to the airport in style! I arrived on a bus, left in a Porsche! It was such a great holiday by the end of the second week I was sad to leave!

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