On a weekday morning at Fort Myers Beach, Fla., pelicans swirl, shoreline walking begins and sunbathing chairs aren't yet filled.
Getting bumped from a flight to New York City gained me $400 in travel vouchers last year, but I procrastinated almost until they expired.
Where to go in January? Someplace warm, of course, and a search for cheap flights on United Airlines steered me to Fort Myers Beach, Fla. Net cost on a nonstop, roundtrip for two: About $40, from O'Hare in Chicago.
Leaving from my home base of Madison would have added another $100, per person. It was cheaper to hop a bus (coachusa.com, 877-324-7767, or golamers.com, 800-236-1240) to reach the airport.
The area's temps were in the low 80s; a sugary sand beach stretched for miles; friends were near; strangers were hospitable; and we chose to not rent a car because this stay was a mere four days.
Fort Myers Beach is not as overdeveloped or cluttered with national chains as touristy waterfronts elsewhere. The beach is dog-friendly (they're leashed), and all ages roam the seven-mile shore. The biggest challenge, when driving, is to time travel to avoid lengthy waits while crossing the easiest way in, over a two-lane bridge.
The island's biggest weakness is its lack of good shopping and diversions that don't involve beach or water. Most shops are full of tacky souvenirs that exist at any beach destination.
We took a gamble and booked a room at the Lani Kai (lanikaiislandresort.com, 800-237-6133), known as the wildest place to stay on the beach, especially during spring break. Appearances reinforce the notion: Big, bold and odd murals are everywhere: at the entry, outside of elevators, facing the beach, next to the body piercing booth. Posters advertise cheap drinks at long happy hours.
But all was relatively tame, especially after we asked for a quiet room and were situated away from alcohol-fueled antics. Staff members were friendly, accommodating and seemed to take seriously the "We're Glad You're Here" slogans on their shirts. January room rates, with a prime gulf view, started at less than $100; prices climb until spring break is history.
Across the street is little Yo! Taco (facebook.com/yotaco, 239-463-9864), which sells simple but fresh fare late and cheap ($1 each on Taco Tuesdays). A short walk south is Heavenly Biscuit (239-463-7600), a cottage where customers build breakfast or lunch onto light and just-from-the-oven biscuits, then add a hot cinnamon roll that dribbles with icing.
Our best seafood meal came after a hike over the two-lane bridge. The Fish Monger (fishmongerrestaurant.com, 239-765-5544) serves same-day catches from its own fishing fleet. Decor at the dinner-only spot includes a wall of aquariums - a little cruel, I suppose.
Bird-watching is easy. Pelicans sat within arm's reach on a fishing pier and dive-bombed into the Gulf of Mexico - over and over - for breakfast.
A beach trolley ride costs 50 cents, and the route extends to Lovers Key State Park, where nature lovers rent kayaks and canoes to explore inlets surrounding four barrier islands. Footbridges and trails also lead to the spoonbills, manatees and more that live here.
The park's beachfronts attract sunbathers, but footwear is necessary to walk some shores because of the mass of crushed seashells. That also means rich hunting for the 30-plus types shells described in park materials.
The getaway was a relaxing success, but if I were to retrace my steps, I'd pay more attention to ground transportation. I wrongly hoped for competitive pricing among airport shuttles (because several are listed online), but only one choice was available by the time my plane landed (on time) at about 10:30 p.m.
The $60, one-way and 30-minute ride was $10 more than the return trip. Car rental would have exceeded $200 for this four-night stay, but a public bus ride (on Route 50) would have taken me almost all the way for $1.25 (but in more than twice the time).
Problem is, nobody spells this out online, and buses quit running in early evening. A trolley driver, joking about ill-informed tourists, gets the credit for raising my awareness.
For more about tourism at and near Fort Myers Beach: fortmyers-sanibel.com, 800-237-6444.
Nearby Sanibel and Captiva islands make the second edition of "1,000 Places to See Before You Die" (Workman Publishing, $19.95) by Patricia Schultz, but you need wheels to see them.
Hundreds of bird species make their way here. The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum (shellmuseum.org, 888-679-6450) is the most comprehensive in the nation. The Center for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (crowclinic.org, 239-472-3644) treats at least 4,000 creatures each year; exhibits at the visitor center are kid-friendly, and behind-the-scenes programs aim to educate adults, too.
Be proactive to increase the odds of getting bumped from a flight. Ask at the gate whether your flight is oversold and, if it is, mention your willingness to consider a later departure.
When does a bump work to your advantage? You should have no concerns about making a flight connection, or a tight timeline for getting to a destination. It's best to travel with only carry-on luggage.
Before agreeing to a flight bump, be sure the later flight meets your time constraints, is not for a standby seat and will not require you to obtain overnight lodging at your own expense.
Check the airport flight board for patterns in arrivals and departures when weather affects travel. Be wary of bumps on bad-weather days because what looks like a sure thing can quickly change.
The bump that got me $400 in vouchers happened on a beautiful day for travel, and my departure was delayed by only three hours.
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