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Tampa along with its more recreational twin across the bay, St Petersburg, is the big city on Florida’s Gulf coast. It’s a major port, but also home to tourist attractions like themeparks, professional sports teams and the nifty Ybor historic district. Beautiful beaches await just 45 minutes west, making a car rental a critical component for travellers who want some sand and sun in their Florida holiday.
Who to Book With
Renting a car is very common among visitors to Tampa, so there are dozens of options between the national chains like Enterprise and the local rental companies such as Payless. All of them keep a desk at Tampa’s international airport, and there are also offices scattered around the edge of downtown in business parks. Online booking in advance will ensure the lowest prices and best vehicle selection.
Best Time to go
This tropical town is packed to the gills between October and April when temperatures are ideal and the skies are blue. Winter and spring visitors are strongly advised to book their rental online and early avoid disappointment. Summer and fall is hot and humid, however, so few tourists both to come.
Need to Know Essentials
Bring the following documents when picking up your vehicle:
- A valid driving license or International Driving Permit
- A second form of picture ID
- The credit card used in the original reservation
- A print-out of your rental confirmation
Like many large American cities, there is reliable traffic congestion throughout the downtown region and highways on weekdays during rush hours (07:30 to 09:30 and 15:30 to 19:30). Some on-street parking is free for up to two hours, while other spaces use meters. Tampa city manages several parking garages and outdoor lots in the downtown area with rates from US$1 per hour to US$5 per day.
There is a network of interstate and local highways running all around Tampa, with Interstate 275 and 4 the main roads. These are free, but other highways charge a toll to use such as the Veterans Expressway. Tolls can be paid at the booth, so no special pass is needed.
Like most American cities it’s all but impossible to properly experience Tampa without a car. HARTline operates the city’s pubic transport network, which includes buses, streetcars and a vintage trolley line. These services are useful for moving around the downtown core but won’t help much when trying to reach the Gulf beaches or big attractions like Busch Gardens.
Different tickets are needed for each of the three forms of transportation in Tampa. The bus fares are paid directly to the driver upon boarding, whereas the fares for trolleys and streetcars can either be paid to the driver or tickets can be bought from machines at each station. Single fare, one-day and three-day passes are available for the streetcars and trolleys, but not the bus.
Streetcars and Trolleys
Tampa has a cool fleet of old-school streetcars and trolleys that run around the downtown area. The TECO Line Streetcar has 11 total stops and is very useful for tourist travel. A one-way fare on the streetcar is US$2.50, while an unlimited one-day pass for both streetcars and trolleys is US$5. These fares can be bought directly from drivers, who only accept exact change. Streetcars hit each station every 30 minutes between noon and 22:00 (Monday to Thursday), 11:00 and 02:00 (Friday and Saturday) and noon to 20:00 (Sundays).
The In Town Trolley line runs a shorter route between Marion Street’s North Terminal bus station and Harbor Island from 06:00 to 18:00, Monday to Friday. The trolley stops at each of the 17 stations every 10 minutes. The fare is just 25 cents, with one-day passes at US$3.75.
Taxis are not easy to hail on the street but they do queue up at major public spots like the bus and train stations, hotels and the performing arts centre. Fares are determined by meter, which costs US$2 to get in and US$2.25 for each mile travelled. There are several companies in town such as Yellow Cab.
Tampa’s public bus system, operated by HARTline, is lightly used by residents and of little use to visitors. The route network is extensive, however, with both local and commuter express lines. Fares are US$1.75 per trip.
Besides the downtown corridor and historic neighbourhood of Ybor, all of Tampa’s big attractions lie outside of the city centre and purview of public transportation. From the massive Busch Gardens themepark and zoo to the Channelside entertainment development, you’ll find a car very useful in Tampa. The beaches are amazing along this stretch of the Gulf Coast, but they are about 45 minutes west of the city and only really accessible by car.
The Gulf Coast of Florida - This is a beautiful destination, and the seaside town of St Petersburg is just across the bay. From here, drive north or south and discover an endless string of powdery white beaches. Some are national parks and showcase the natural side of the Gulf, while others are nicely developed for tourism.
Crystal River - This is an amazing natural feature of central Florida where manatees live freely in the spring-fed waters of Crystal River. There’s a quiet little town by the same name where visitors can arrange to swim with the manatees, go snorkeling, scuba diving or paddling with these gentle creatures.
Disney World - Located a mere two hours drive from Tampa , and offers tourists a chance to witness the planet’s largest collection of themeparks. This is where the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, SeaWorld and Universal Studios all co-exist in the same area offering unlimited options for fun.