Information for Florida visitors

This image from Clearwater Beach is kinda how you picture a trip to Florida, isn't it? But there's a lot more to coming here than frozen drinks and beach towels. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

When to visit

That really depends on which part of the state you’re visiting, and what you’d like to do. You’ll hear the term “peak season” when referring to Florida’s coasts. That’s the time of year when the most tourists visit a certain part of the state.

In the northern parts of Florida and the panhandle, summer is peak season. In south Florida, you see people coming to enjoy the sub-tropical climate in the winter. Central Florida also gets a lot of winter visitors. Spring Breakers descend on all parts of the state in March into April. Local tourism agencies can tell you when the influx of people is highest and lowest. If you’re looking for solitude, check your destination’s shoulder seasons, when there are fewer people.

A word of warning: Summers are hot here, as you may have heard. Even if temps in the low 90s Fahrenheit (low 30s Celsius) don’t sound all that bad, remember that humidity here is much higher than most places. It will feel much warmer than you may be used to, and the moisture in the air can affect how it feels to breathe. Furthermore, Floridians swear that it feels colder than the air temperature in the winter, too. Just please don’t laugh at the parkas and boots when it gets into the 70s.

Finally, be aware that hurricane season — June 1 to Nov. 30 — can always affect plans, but most of all from mid-August to late October. (Read more about hurricanes below.)

What to pack

The short answer: Not much. The longer answer: It depends on what you’re planning to do on your trip, and where you’re going. The Miami area, for example, is much more fashionable than other parts of the state, so if you’re headed to a business meeting (or going clubbing) you may want to put some thought into your wardrobe. You’ll be hard-pressed to find people in anything fancier than an A-line dress or polo shirt.

Otherwise, casual is the rule of the day just about anywhere, unless you’re planning a meal at a Michelin-starred eatery. T-shirts and flip-flops are a universal uniform all over. Don’t worry about bringing beach toys, chairs or even umbrellas, because you can buy or rent those here. Keep in mind that wearing bathing suits into businesses does have its limit once you leave the beach, so consider common etiquette.

If you’re headed out for a particularly adventurous activity, like hiking or kayaking, you may want to consider what will both keep you cool and cover you up. If you fly, be sure to check with your airline in advance about how to pack special equipment, like fishing poles or camping gear.

Be sure to pack a hat and at least one or two clothing options that cover your arms and legs. Even if you pack or immediately purchase sunscreen, you’ll want to cover up at times; Florida’s sun is no joke, even if you’re used to being outside.

Protect your skin

The sun is wonderful, but be sure to use sunscreen or you’ll rue it the rest of your trip. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

If there’s one thing people headed to Florida aren’t prepared for, it has to be the intensity of the sun here. Sure, you’re coming to get a tan or avoid rainy days, but nothing says “tourist” more than having a bright red sunburn. If it comes on your very first day, it can seriously ruin your trip — not to mention presenting a serious health hazard to your skin.

Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa has provided these tips for respecting the sun here in the Sunshine State:

  1. When possible, avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when rays are strongest.
  2. Cover up with protective clothing made of tightly woven fabrics, and don't forget a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face, ears and neck.
  3. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen and lip balm with an SPF of 30 or greater, and reapply your sunscreen every two hours, especially if you've been sweating or swimming.
  4. Wear sunglasses that protect against UVA and UVB rays, too.
  5. Pay attention to the UV index.
  6. Avoid tanning beds. Research has shown that getting an "artificial" tan at a salon is just as dangerous as worshiping the sun — or possibly even more so.

If you do burn, be sure to drink plenty of fluids and soothe the sting with a moisturizing lotion (aloe vera is popular). Don’t expose your skin to any more sun after that, and consult a doctor if you feel particularly bad, such as having headaches, dizziness or nausea.

Rip currents

Rip currents are relatively narrow channels of water (usually less than 80 feet wide) that move swiftly away from the shoreline. They present a danger to swimmers who may be swept out from the beach into deeper water.

These strong currents, which occur after waves break on land and move back out to sea, can be either perpendicular or at an acute angle to the shore. They form around low spots in the sand or near piers or jetties. The water sweeps away from land at speeds reaching up to 8 feet per second, pulling even strong swimmers away.

While rip currents usually only last a few feet, just past the point waves break, some have been known to carry swimmers hundreds of feet into the ocean, the National Ocean Service says.

The key to dealing with rip currents is to avoid trying to swim directly back to shore. The outflowing current is too strong to fight, and swimmers can succumb to fatigue and potentially drown.

Swim parallel to shore until you are out of the rip current. You can do this either while you are in the current, or you can wait until the current eases once its far enough from shore. Once you are safely out of the current, you can then return to shore.

The U.S. Lifesaving Association estimates that about 100 people drown each year after being swept away by rip currents. The group also says that about 80 percent of all lifeguard rescues are saving people from rip currents. They suggest looking for these clues to identify rip currents along the shoreline:

  • A channel of churning, choppy water.
  • An area having a notable difference in water color.
  • A line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward.
  • A break in the incoming wave pattern.

Boating

If you want to boat or go fishing or go fishing on a boat, you’re going to have to follow the rules. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

Getting out on the water is one of the main reasons people visit Florida, whether it be by sailboat, speed boat or kayak. There is no shortage of places that will rent a boat to you, but there are regulations to keep in mind.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission:

“In order to operate a motorboat of ten (10) horsepower or greater, Florida law requires anyone who was born on or after Jan. 1, 1988 to successfully complete an approved boating safety course and obtain a Boating Safety Education Identification Card issued by the FWC. Florida does not have a ‘boating license.’ The Boating Safety Education Identification Card is proof of successful completion of the educational requirements and is valid for life.”

There are exemptions from this, but even if you are not from Florida, you are expected to follow the rules:

“As a nonresident, you must comply with the boating safety education requirements. However, if you have proof in your possession that you have completed a boater safety course or equivalency exam that meets or exceeds Florida's requirements (usually in the form of a certificate or card), you would not need to have a Florida Boating Safety Education Identification Card. In addition, you would also be exempt if you met any of the other conditions for exemptions listed in the previous question.”

Non-motorized watercraft are not subject to this, but lessons would be wise if you’ve never paddled, surfed or sailed before. Check our travel guides for suggestions.

Fishing

Anglers from all over come to Florida’s shores and waterways for sport and recreational fishing. But state law says that in order to go fishing in Florida, you have to have a fishing license

There is a license for both freshwater and saltwater fishing. Both are good for 12 months after purchase, and must be available for inspection if you are attempting to fish, even if you aren’t catching anything. Anyone helping you also must have a license.

Information on ordering a resident or nonresident fishing license is available on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website.

We offer some suggestions for fishing charters in our travel guides.

Florida's beach
flag warning system

Beach Warning Flag - Double Red: Water Closed to Public
Water Closed to Public
Beach Warning Flag - Red: High Hazard
High Hazard

High Surf and/or Strong Currents

Beach Warning Flag - Yellow: Medium Hazard
Medium Hazard

Moderate Surf and/or Currents

Beach Warning Flag - Green: Low Hazard
Low Hazard

Calm Conditions, Exercise Caution

Beach Warning Flag - Purple: Dangerous Marine Life
Dangerous Marine Life

Stingrays, please shuffle your feet

On any given beach, you may see one or more flags flying over a lifeguard tower, boat shack or pier. While the combination of colors may seem bright and cheerful, the flags are actually signaling current conditions for beachfront communities.

In 2005, the state decided to pull together the statewide amalgamation of warning flags into a single system, resulting in the colored flags you see today.

The flags mean different things:

  • Red over Red (two red flags): Water closed to the public.
  • Red: High hazard, high surf and/or strong currents.
  • Yellow: Medium hazard, moderate surf and/or currents.
  • Green: Low hazard, calm conditions, exercise caution.
  • Purple: Dangerous marine life.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection notes that warning flags are for all water conditions, and not specifically for rip currents (see below). The particular marine life present also isn’t specified unless you ask. In late spring, for example, beaches often fly the purple flag to warn swimmers about migrating stingrays.

Hurricanes

If you’re not from a coastal state, hurricanes can be a bit of a mystery. But there are two main things to keep in mind about these large storms:

  1. They can be deadly when making landfall; and
  2. They can be easily avoided if you heed warnings.

Hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, but those aren’t some magical cutoff dates. There can be major storms both before and after the season.

Florida can be hit by a hurricane from any waterfront direction, whether the storm formed in the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean. Landfall from one of these storms can mean torrential rainfall, devastating winds and lethal storm surge (when the storm pushes ocean water ashore).

Hurricanes are divided into five categories of severity, called the Saffir-Simpson scale, and are based on wind speeds. When a low-pressure system reaches wind speeds of 39 mph, it is given a name from an annual list. Once a tropical storm hits 74 mph, it’s classified as a hurricane:

  • Category 1: 74-95 mph
  • Category 2: 96-110 mph
  • Category 3: 111-129 mph
  • Category 4: 130-156 mph
  • Category 5: 157 mph or higher

Storms that are Category 3 and above are considered major storms, because of the potential for property damage and loss of life.

The easiest way for visitors to avoid hurricanes is to pay attention to the weather report. Storm paths are projected for days leading up to landfall, so if you’re in a beach community that’s in the crosshairs, the best idea is to pack up and leave. Just keep in mind that they refer to the projected path as the “cone of uncertainty” for a reason. It’s impossible to bee 100 percent accurate when estimating where a hurricane will head.

If for some reason you end up staying, heed local authorities and bulletins. Should a hurricane make landfall where you are, it’s entirely possible you’ll end up stranded for several days, if not more.

Click here for the Department of Homeland Security hurricane guide, which contains useful information to prepare for and recover from a hurricane.

Wildlife

Manatees look cute enough to hug, but please don’t. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

Wild animals are truly part of the Florida beach experience, with all manner of animals unique to the area and the waterways in particular. Knowing what to do when you encounter one on the beach may be necessary during your visit.

Stingrays

Summer is stingray season, when stingrays often hide under the sand in as little as 10 inches of water. Unwitting beachgoers can accidentally step on the animals, which respond to the surprise by stinging the stepper with the venomous barbs in their whiplike tails. To prevent this, do the stingray shuffle and slide your feet in the water instead of stepping. The vibrations will scare off nearby stingrays. If you are stung, there’s more information on treating the wound here.

Jellyfish

All manner of jellyfish live off Florida shores, but sometimes ocean currents and weather conditions can bring them close to shore, sometimes by the thousands. Keep an eye on news reports about jellyfish and stay alert. Jellyfish stings can be painful. The most infamous example is when a smack of Portuguese man-of-wars end up on beaches. These creatures, technically not jellyfish but communal organisms called siphonophores, are known for their painful stings and venomous tentacles. If you are stung, there’s information on treating the wound here. But wait, we're not quite done with jellyfish yet ...

Sea Lice

As gross as they sound, the sea lice to which people commonly refer aren’t actually lice, but microscopic jellyfish larvae. They’re found in warm waters like the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, traveling in blooms and affecting swimmers mostly in the months of April to August. Since they’re so tiny, the only way to detect their presence is from reports of swimmers being stung. (There are also “real” sea lice, which are parasitic crustaceans that feed on fish but don’t affect humans, just to confuse you.) The larvae get trapped under a swimmers bathing suit and sting the skin causing an itchy rash often called “seabather’s eruption.” You can try to avoid them by wearing as little clothing as possible — no, really! — to lessen the chances of them getting trapped. Be sure to wash off with freshwater and washing your swimsuit after a dip, because they tend to literally stick around. In most cases, the rashes subside on their own, but some do need medical treatment. The Florida Department of Health recommends to use an antihistamine and a hydrocortisone cream to treat stings; Calamine lotion or even oatmeal can soothe the rash.

Sharks

This is the big kahuna of marine monsters, as most people get goosebumps at the mere mention of sharks. But here’s the thing: Sharks really aren’t all that bad, and don’t care about what humans do. About a dozen species are common to Florida waters, and yes, the Great White is a seasonal visitor. Florida leads the U.S. and the world in unprovoked shark attacks, with 31 of 88 global shark attacks occurring in Florida in 2017, according to the International Shark Attack File (none of them were fatal). Of course, that’s largely because so many people come to Florida to get into the ocean, where the sharks are. It’s hard to quantify the precise risks for attack, let alone the true reason any particular attack occurred, the ISAF notes. But rest assured you’re much more likely to need stitches for stepping on a seashell than you are of even seeing a shark, let alone being attacked by one.

Manatees

These harmless marine mammals have lived in Florida for millions of years, and are a popular sort of mascot — there’s even a county named for them. For the most part, manatees are simply big, slow animals that bob up and down in fresh or salt water as they eat or rest. They have front flippers and paddle-shaped tails, reaching average adult lengths of about 10 feet, and present no danger to people. People do present a threat to manatees, which are a protected species. Manatees often are killed by speeding boats, freezing temperatures or other dangers. Beware of signs warning about the animals being present, and remember that at no time are you allowed to harass or touch the creatures. You can read more about manatees here.

Sea turtles

Five species of sea turtle — loggerhead, green, leatherback, Kemp's ridley and hawks bill, all of them threatened or endangered — live off the coast of Florida, and summertime is when they nest on Florida’s shores. Female sea turtles return to their birthplaces during that time of year, usually coming ashore at night to lay clutches of eggs in the sand. It is against the law to harass the turtles should you come across them, either the mothers or the hatchlings that emerge from the sand weeks later. Nests likewise are protected. Many communities also institute a lights-off policy on the beach during nesting season, so as not to confuse the turtles on the beach. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has more information about sea turtles here.

Alligators and saltwater crocodiles

Possibly the most recognizable Florida animal is the alligator. These large reptiles live in all 67 counties of the state, so there’s a decent chance you may see one. But since they are freshwater creatures, you likely won’t see one at the beach, unless you’re at some kind of roadside attraction. They do inhabit lakes, ponds, streams and other fresh waterways, so be aware. Alligators are prone to attack small animals like pets, seeing them as an easy meal. Unfortunately, alligators also are known to attack humans, although those instances are rare and seldom fatal. Saltwater crocodiles, meanwhile, live primarily in south Florida and are found in coves and brackish waterways. They have recently rebounded and yes, on odd occasion, they can end up on a beach — but that’s an extremely rare occurrence. Read more about alligators and crocodiles here.

More

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has detailed information on these animals and others on its website.

Red Tide

Red tide is the name of a dangerous algae bloom that occurs when colonies of the microscopic plants grow out of control and release toxic chemicals that can kill fish and hurt mammals and birds.

Scientists call these “harmful algal blooms,” according to the National Ocean Service. The agency points out that while these blooms affect every coastal state, Florida’s gulf coast experiences one of these blooms practically every summer.

These specific algae blooms do often make the water red, and can make the surrounding air hard to breathe. Humans can suffer debilitating illnesses that can potentially be lethal.

Beaches will post when there are red tide warnings, and prohibit swimmers from entering the water.

Read a Q&A about Red Tide here.

Flesh-Eating Bacteria

It’s not horror-movie fare, but flesh-eating bacteria are real. Vibrio vulnificus is a species of bacterium that can lead to a sometimes fatal infection after exposure. Vulnificus can be contracted by swimming in infected warm, brackish water or seawater, or by eating raw seafood — oysters especially.

Most cases occur on the Gulf Coast from May through October. Swimmers face infection when the bacteria enter open wounds, potentially leading to skin deterioration and ulcers. When coupled with fever, shock or upset stomach, all after eating raw shellfish or swimming in the ocean, vulnificus may be to blame. Doctors can only diagnose the condition through blood, stool or wound cultures.

The disease is usually mild, but can be life-threatening for people with compromised immune systems, chronic liver disease or kidney disease. Surgery or amputation may be needed in the worst cases, making immediate treatment essential.

Avoid going in the water if you have fresh cuts or scrapes, and think hard about those raw oysters. The Florida Department of Health provides more information and safety tips here.

Lightning

This is typical for a summer thunderstorm in Florida. You’re better off not being outside when this happens. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

While no one likes to be caught out in the rain, thunderstorms present a special danger in Florida. The state is often referred to as the lightning capital of the United States, thanks to its unique geography and weather.

Surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, with a sea breeze carrying hot air inland, the state faces thunderstorms practically daily during the summer. And with those thunderstorms come the danger of lightning strikes.

Florida routinely leads the nation in both lightning strikes and deaths, so it’s wise to pay attention and seek shelter when a storm is brewing. The U.S. Lifesaving Association warns that people should seek shelter if they are outside during a storm, especially on a body of water.

The group’s website offers these guidelines about where is safe and where is not during a lightning storm:

Locations that offer protection from lightning:

  • Fully-enclosed buildings that are grounded with wiring and plumbing
  • Lifeguard towers that are fully-enclosed and compliant with NFPA 780 lightning guidelines
  • Fully-enclosed metal vehicles (no soft top convertibles)

Locations that do not offer protection from lightning:

  • Beaches
  • Water
  • Open-sided pavilions (such as picnic areas)
  • Restrooms, changing facilities, and showers
  • Lifeguard stands that are not fully enclosed and compliant with NFPA 780 lightning guidelines
  • Tents
  • Boats that are not designed or retrofitted to be compliant with NFPA 780 lightning guidelines
  • Small personal watercraft (e.g. Jet Skis)