Miami has two contradictory reputations: it’s either a sprawling retirement village full of golf courses and senior citizens in Hawaiian shirts, or it’s the fist-pumping lovechild of Vegas and Jersey Shore who grew up, became a pool-party DJ and moved to Florida. Both are true; Miami’s famous beaches, perpetually warm weather and status as the cruise capital of the world have made it a popular destination for people looking to make the most of their retirement years. For mostly the same reasons, the city also boasts one of America’s most diverse party scenes, from strobe-lit mega-clubs and gay bars to Latin dancehalls and upscale cocktail lounges. But Miami is so much more than The Golden Girls, Miami Vice or Scarface would have you believe. In fact, every neighbourhood feels like a completely different city. Whether you want to sip piña coladas at one of the colourful Art Deco gems along Ocean Drive, gaze at the glittering skyscrapers that light up Downtown, or dine on a dish of ropa vieja while watching some elderly Cuban gents play dominoes in Maximo Gomez Park, Miami has something for everyone. Here’s how to make the most of one of the US’s most vibrant metropolises.
Qantas flies to Miami International Airport (MIA) via Dallas/Fort Worth and LAX. The flight takes about 22 hours from the east coast and around 30 hours from Perth.
Entering the US
Australia is a participant in America’s Visa Waiver Program, meaning Australians don’t need a visa for visits of 90 days or less. We must, however, obtain an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) through the Department of Homeland Security site. Authorisation is usually granted on the spot but it’s advisable to apply at least 72 hours before you travel in case there’s an issue. ESTA-approved travellers also need a (machine-readable) ePassport.
If you overstay, the American Government could arrest or deport you or even bar you from returning to the States.
Flying in to Miami International Airport
MIA is just a 10-minute drive from downtown Miami and is the second busiest airport in the US. It also has more options for getting to and from the airport than most. The internal MIA Mover links the airport terminals to Miami Central Station, where you can catch a range of public transport including the Metrobus, Metrorail and Tri-Rail. The MIA Mover will also take you to the Rental Car Center’s customer service lobby if you prefer your own wheels.
Metrobus’s Route 150 Miami Beach Airport Express will take you to South Beach and connects to a host of local bus routes. The Metrorail’s Orange Line stops Downtown, while the Tri-Rail links to Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Another option is to take the Miami Beach Bus, which runs every 30 minutes from 6am to 11:40pm, seven days a week, between the MIA Metrorail station and Miami Beach.
Alternatively, taxis and shuttles are available at the airport. Metered taxi fares cost US$6.90 for the first mile (1.5 kilometres) and US$2.40 for each additional mile. Waiting time is US$0.40 per minute.
While there aren’t any specific vaccines recommended for travel to the US, it’s worth checking America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for updates on infectious-disease outbreaks. Until recently, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that pregnant women avoid south Florida due to Zika virus. That health warning was lifted in June 2017, but it’s still wise to exercise caution, practise good mosquito-bite prevention and ensure all vaccinations are up to date.
Miami is large and spread out which can make public transport tricky. There are two above-ground rail lines: the Metrorail, which runs all the way from West Miami to Downtown and South Miami and the Metromover, which does smaller loops around Downtown Miami and Brickell. Fares for the Metrorail start at US$2.25 and you’ll need an EASY Card or ticket, which can be purchased at stations or online. The Metromover is free and will be most useful if you’re staying Downtown and exploring central attractions like Museum Park or the Arts & Entertainment District. The Metrobus system services areas that the train doesn’t, such as Miami Beach and Florida Keys, but can be unreliable thanks to the city’s traffic congestion. (You can use the EASY Card on buses, too). Many areas have a free neighbourhood trolley system that runs smaller loops, including Downtown, Wynwood and the Design District. The Miami Beach Trolley service runs every 10 to 15 minutes, seven days a week.
That said, if you’re looking to hit different neighbourhoods in a single day, a set of wheels is worth the extra cost. In Miami, Uber and Lyft are as essential as a deep, golden tan.
At the time of writing, the Australian dollar was buying close to 74 US cents – check a reliable currency conversion service for up-to-date foreign-exchange rates.
Check with your bank that you won’t be hit with extra fees when using your credit card in Miami. Your Australian bank and American ATMs will each charge you for withdrawing money from your debit card, too, so it might be worth organising a travel card (most banks have one) with low or no fees to use while you’re away.
In any case, inform your bank of your travel plans, lest overseas purchases are misconstrued as fraud and your card is cancelled.
Finally, tipping in the US is such a complex ritual that we have addressed the etiquette here.
Miami is part of the Caribbean and has the subtropical climate to prove it. Temperatures routinely reach 30 degrees Celsius and above in summer and can hover around the mid-20s even in the depths of “winter”. What you really need to watch out for is the rain, which can range from passing showers to torrential downpours and hurricanes. Hurricane season runs from September to November, so avoid those months if you can.
When to go
Summer is steamy and autumn weather is wild and unpredictable, but when the rest of the States goes into hibernation, Miami is just heating up. Here, winter is prime party season, with sun-seekers from around the world converging on the city to catch some rays and rub shoulders with celebs at Art Basel. If you’d prefer to avoid the crowds (and peak hotel prices) March to May offers milder weather, though it also draws hordes of college students. If you’re not keen on the Spring Break keg parties, try late April or early May.
There is nothing shy about Miami, so leave your sartorial inhibitions at home. Bright, bold colours and patterns will serve you well – when you’re actually wearing clothes, that is – as will a wardrobe of swimsuits, sunglasses and hats. A pair of comfortable slides goes from from beach to bar, while long linen trousers and shirts come in handy for the insect- and sunburn-prone. In winter, temperatures can drop to around 16 degrees Celsius at night, so you’ll also need a jacket. Stretchy waistbands are not essential, but you’ll be glad you brought them after your third Cubano sandwich.
The tap water is drinkable in Miami, although many locals prefer the bottled variety.
According to the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller website, thieves target rental cars in the US. If you’re planning to hit the road in a rental, don’t leave any valuables behind when you park. According to research cited by Smart Traveller, drivers are almost twice as likely to be killed in a road accident in the US than at home. Remember, you’ll be driving on the right-hand side of the road.
Without comprehensive travel insurance, travellers will pay through the nose for medical treatment in the US. Smart Traveller advises that a visit to the GP for a sore throat, say, will run up a bill in the hundreds of dollars – and this is before any extras such as blood tests or medication.
Miami has been synonymous with Cuban culture since the late 1960s, when huge numbers of immigrants crossed the sea to escape the Castro regime in the decades following the Cuban Revolution. Although Cuban Americans make up more than 50 per cent of the city, don’t assume that everyone who bids you “buenos dias” has the same heritage. Thirteen per cent of Miami’s Latino population comes from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico, and 32 per cent hail from other Central and South American countries. While you can certainly get by with English, a little Spanish will go a long way and is the predominant language in many areas.
No trip to Miami is complete without a meal and a coffee at Versailles in Little Havana, but don’t neglect the city’s other diverse cultural influences. Little Haiti in particular is a neighbourhood on the rise, offering everything from West Indian home cooking to Haitian cuisine like fried goat, plantains, and oxtail. It’s also home to some great art galleries, record stores, and indie music venues.
The days when a trip to Miami meant never leaving the beach are over. Don’t miss Wynwood’s iconic street art, galleries and breweries; Bricknell’s fine dining; and the Design District’s mix of elegant furniture stores, high-end retail and solid food and bar scene.
Phone calls and mobile data
Before you land, disable data roaming and don’t answer incoming calls on your mobile phone if you want to keep your monthly bill in check. Invest in a prepaid travel SIM card if keeping in touch with home is important.
If you need to make calls in Miami, buy a US SIM card for local calls and mobile data. Remember, this will only work if your phone is not locked to your Australian carrier. Also note that Australian mobile phones operate on a GSM network. In America, both GSM and CDMA networks are in operation. This means that your Australian handset won’t work on a CDMA network such as Verizon. See WhistleOut for more in-depth information on using your mobile phone overseas.
Consider buying a cheap handset from one of the US’s many big-box stores, such as Walmart. It will come with credit preloaded but keep in mind that in America you’re charged not just for making calls and sending texts but also receiving them.
To call Australia, dial +61 followed by the phone number – including the area code minus the zero. So, to call a Sydney landline telephone, you would dial +61 2 then the phone number. To call a mobile phone, use the same country code and dial the mobile number minus the first zero.
Power sockets in the US (120V) have a lower voltage than those in Australia (230V) and a higher frequency (60Hz compared with Australia’s 50Hz). Most gadgets are designed to work on a range of frequencies and voltages but double-check if you’re in doubt. Power plugs and sockets also have a different configuration so an adaptor will come in handy.
Handy apps and websites
Miami-Dade Transit Tracker for planning your route on public transport.
Smart Traveller for safety information.
XE for currency conversion.
MIA Airport Official app for information on flights, weather, traffic, parking, terminal locations and airport shuttles.
Gate Guru for flight status, airport information and rental cars.
Google Translate app for decoding menus.
Art Basel app for show information, live news updates, and figuring out the best way to track down Kanye West.
SEE ALSO: 11 Things You Must Do in Miami