Tips for Canadians driving south

People fish at sunset on Captiva Island, just offshore of Fort Myers, Fla. (Courtesy Lee County...

People fish at sunset on Captiva Island, just offshore of Fort Myers, Fla. (Courtesy Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau)

MITCHELL SMYTH, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

The rumble has begun. The rumble of thousands of wheels--on cars, RVs, trailers, motorcycles -- heading south, chasing the sun.

It's a great Canadian tradition, the winter vacation away from the snow, away somewhere where you can play golf and tennis and maybe even jump into the sea, and the only ice you see is in your margaritas.

Florida and, to a lesser extent, the Gulf coast of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are the magnets.

First to set off, in October, were the long-term snowbirds; they'll be down there until March or April. For the shorter-term vacationers, January through March is the peak.

Florida's tourism people say about 3 million Canadians visit every year, making Canada the state's No. 1 foreign market. A lot fly, but past trends show about 40% drive. That's an awful lot of Canadian tires rolling down the interstates.

If you have the time and have at least two people in the car, driving is certainly cheaper. Airfare to Orlando, for instance, runs around $400 per person from Toronto (and $250 to $300 from Buffalo).

On top of that, says Dave Hunter, the author of Along Interstate 75, the best guide I know to the drive south, "you have to rent a car there if you want to get around. If you drive down you already have a car."

Here's an example. My wife and I drove to Florida last February, with two overnights (in Kentucky and south Georgia). Our total tab: $382 Cdn each way ($170 for gas, $100 in budget motels, $94 for food and $18 on miscellaneous items). That's $764 round trip; a couple couldn't fly and rent a car for that. (The tab might be a little higher this winter: Gasoline in the U.S. is up about 10%.)

Many motorists have done the drive before but many will be heading south for the first time. How, the newcomers are asking, do we get there? There are three favourite routes from southern Ontario.

* Interstate 75 is the most popular. You drive to Detroit, pick up 75 and you don't have to leave it, except for gas and lodging, 'til you reach Florida. You are less likely to hit bad weather on this route as there is no high ground until you reach Kentucky.

* Interstate 95. You reach 95, which runs from Maine to Miami, just south of Washington, having driven I-90 west from Buffalo to Erie, Pa., then I-79 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. An alternative, favoured by those living east of Toronto (and Ottawaregion vacationers), is to cross the border at the Thousand Islands and follow I-81 to Hagerstown, Md. before joining I-95 south of Washington.

* Interstates 79 and 77. Take I-90 from Buffalo to Erie, then head south on 79 and 77 to join I-95 in South Carolina for the run in. It's the most scenic route but the weather can be bad in the mountains of West Virginia, so it's best as a spring and summer drive.

On all the routes it's wise to stop at the state welcome centres to pick up coupon books offering discounts on motels (or download at travelcoupons.com).These really do save you money. And you'll often save 10% or more if you present an auto club or CARP (Canadian Association of Retired Persons) card.

Happy motoring!

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IF YOU DRIVE TO FLORIDA

Dave Hunter's book is available at bookstores and CAA offices. It's not just a mile-by-mile guide; it's packed with all sorts of interesting information about the area you're driving through. For Florida tourist information, check VisitFlorida.com.


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