Dry Tortugas National Park is a remote island park just off Key West. It’s a picturesque tropical location with coral reefs, snorkeling, wildlife, a historic fort, and more. But you can’t drive there; only permitted boats and seaplanes can access the park.
The most popular ways to get to Dry Tortugas National Park are the Yankee Freedom ferry and Key West Seaplane Adventures, but you can also get there using a permitted personal boat or a private charter.
Unfortunately, I struck out with both the seaplane and ferry when I tried to make it to Dry Tortugas on a recent Key West trip. Although I missed out, I’ll share my experience, some tips, and everything you need to know if you’re researching how to get to Dry Tortugas.
What Is Dry Tortugas National Park?
Dry Tortugas National Park is almost 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. It consists of open water and 7 small islands and is the home of the historic Fort Jefferson, coral reefs, wildlife (including sharks and sea turtles), and beautiful beaches with stunning blue water.
The park is remote and only accessible by boat or seaplane. That makes it one of the least-visited national parks in the U.S. with about 80,000 visitors annually. There are no hotels or restaurants, though there’s limited camping if you arrive by boat, including the ferry.
How To Get to Dry Tortugas National Park
You can take the Yankee Freedom ferry, Key West Seaplane Adventures, or book a private charter to get to Dry Tortugas. Permits for boats, charters, and tours are required by the National Park Service. The ferry and seaplane are the most popular options.
Yankee Freedom Ferry
The Yankee Freedom ferry is how most people get to Dry Tortugas. It has a capacity of 250 passengers and makes daily trips to the park. Most people will pay $190 per ticket for the ferry, which is cheaper than a seaplane or private charter.
Taking the ferry is an all-day affair with check-in at 7 a.m. and a return to Key West by 5:30 p.m.
Dry Tortugas campers typically take the ferry, as you can’t bring camping gear on the seaplane.
All rates include your national park entrance fee, which can be refunded if you present a park pass at check-in. There are separate rates for day trips and camping trips:
- Adults: $190
- Children 4 to 16: $135
- Students 17+, Active Military, Seniors 62+ (with ID): $180
- Adults: $210
- Children 4 to 16: $155
The ferry takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes each way. That gives you about 4.5 hours at the park.
Ferry spots sell out months in advance. For the best availability, book your ferry reservation at least 2 months ahead of your travel dates. If you don’t get a reservation, you can stand by on the day you’d like to take the ferry. Standby spots are only available if there’s a cancellation or no-show passenger and there may not be any availability.
You’ll get breakfast and a snack on the ferry. Day trips come with a box lunch. Breakfast is grab-and-go bagels and cream cheese as you walk on the ferry, or you can get yogurt, fruit, coffee, and juice in the galley.
Water is available all day for free. The galley offers soft drinks and snacks for sale.
Trips are not canceled due to rain but may be canceled if conditions are too rough for a safe trip.
If you need to cancel your booking, you will not get a refund unless the ferry can accommodate another passenger with your spot.
Standing By for the Yankee Freedom Ferry
My seaplane reservation for Dry Tortugas was canceled, so we decided to try our luck standing by for the ferry. The ferry’s website indicates that you can put your name on a standby sign-up sheet as early as 6:30 a.m. and should know by 7:50 a.m. if there are any seats available from cancellations or no-shows.
We arrived at 6:25 a.m. and added our names to the list, which was already on its second page. We were among other seaplane cancellations, so our odds of making it on weren’t great. Then, we waited on the terminal’s benches to find out if we’d make it on.
As we waited, we watched the ships in the marina go out, listened to the ferry boarding instructions, and grabbed some coffee from a nearby stand.
We found out at 7:40 a.m. that there was no standby availability. But the check-in staff were kind and explained that the cancellation policy makes it so most people show up for their reservation, meaning standby isn’t a reliable option.
Bottom Line: Standing by for Yankee Freedom wasn’t a bad way to spend a morning in Key West and we’d do it again. But Plan A is to book a ferry reservation well in advance.
Key West Seaplane Adventures
Key West Seaplane Adventures is another popular Dry Tortugas transportation option. The flight is far more expensive than the ferry, but you spend less time traveling to the park and get incredible views of the surrounding area from the air.
The seaplane is limited to 10 passengers each on the charter’s 2 seaplanes. There are weight limits for the plane, so you’re limited in the gear you can bring. Large or styrofoam coolers, chairs or beach umbrellas, dive tanks, weights, and knives are some of the prohibited items. And you can’t take the seaplane if you’re camping.
The seaplane has rates for half-day and full-day excursions. All prices exclude the $15 per person national park entrance fee:
- Adults: $361
- Children 2 to 12: $288.80
- Children under 2 (lap riders): Free
- Adults: $634
- Children 2 to 12: $507.2
- Children under 2 (lap riders): Free
It takes about 40 minutes to arrive by seaplane at Dry Tortugas.
If you book an 8-hour full-day excursion, you’ll have at least 6.5 hours at the park, which is 2 more hours than you’d get with the ferry with far less travel time.
Alternatively, if you book a half-day excursion, your whole trip is 4 hours with 2.5 hours of park time. You’ll have time before or after for other activities, whereas the ferry or a full-day seaplane excursion is likely to eat up most of your day.
Although you may find more availability on the seaplane than on the ferry, expect seats to be booked at least a month out. As with the ferry, you’ll get the best chance at a reservation if you book at least 2 months ahead of when you want to take your trip to Dry Tortugas.
There is no standby process for Key West Seaplane Adventures. However, you can email the company to join the waitlist. I did this for my booking and got a prompt response with half-day availability for 2.
Key West Seaplane Adventures supplies coolers, ice, bottled water, and soft drinks. They also offer snorkeling gear, including masks, snorkels, fins, and flotation vests, though you’re welcome to bring your own gear.
Unlike the ferry, you’ll need to bring your own food on the seaplane. The half-day trip is short, so you may just want a snack and plan to eat before and after your tour.
If you’re doing the full-day excursion, however, you’ll need to pack a lunch, which you can store in the provided cooler. No food or drink is available for purchase at Dry Tortugas, though you could try to purchase food from the ferry’s galley when it’s docked.
Trips may be canceled due to mechanical failure, which I experienced. Also, pilots may cancel on a given day due to bad weather. If Key West Seaplane Adventures cancels your booking, you can reschedule or get a full refund.
If you need to cancel or change your booking, you must do so at least 24 hours before your flight time, or 48 hours for groups of 10 or more. After this time, you will not get a refund for your reservation, which is paid in full at the time of booking.
My Experience With Key West Seaplane Adventures
I booked my trip to Key West about 6 weeks ahead of time. The ferry was completely booked for our travel dates, but the seaplane had half-day availability on the waitlist, so I booked it. I was excited to get a quick flight to the park and enjoy the view along the way. And was also thrilled about my first seaplane experience.
The day we arrived in Key West, 2 days before our seaplane booking, Key West Seaplane Adventures called to cancel our reservation. They were apologetic and told me the plane had major mechanical issues that meant they couldn’t safely operate our flight.
I was offered a refund or rebooking for the following week. Our visit to Key West would be long over by then, so I opted for a refund, which was prompt — disappointing, but I certainly don’t want to get on a tiny plane to a remote island if the aircraft isn’t completely safe to fly.
A fellow canceled seaplane passenger I met at the ferry terminal on standby was pretty upset about the cancellation. She mentioned they offered her a discount for next time to make up for the inconvenience, which I was not offered but will mention if I decide to rebook.
I later found out that the necessary part to repair the plane had been on order for at least a month before our scheduled trip. Was the plane working when we made our booking? If I rebook in the future, I’ll be sure to ask whether the plane is currently working or not.
Bottom Line: It would have been helpful to know long before our arrival that the seaplane was not a strong possibility. With other bookings we’d made in between our seaplane booking and arrival in Key West, we only had 1 morning available to stand by for the ferry. We could have adjusted those bookings and had 2 chances to stand by for the ferry if we’d known earlier. Or we could have looked at private options if we’d had more time to figure it out.
Private Charters to Dry Tortugas
There’s not a lot of information about private charters to Dry Tortugas, but they do exist. Just be prepared to pay a hefty fee for this exclusive experience.
If you’re looking for a private charter to Dry Tortugas, you can get quotes online, but your best bet may be to ask a local. You could also get in touch with your hotel’s concierge service.
Private Charter Options
As Dry Tortugas permits private boats, you have a variety of options for arriving by private charter, including catamaran yachts and high-speed powerboats.
Hot Tip: Some charters offer multi-day excursions with overnight accommodations on a private boat.
Private charters to Dry Tortugas aren’t cheap. You should expect to pay somewhere around $1,000 per person and may face minimum-booking requirements.
Taking a private charter to Dry Tortugas is likely to be exponentially more expensive than what you’d pay for the seaplane or ferry, but the math may work out if you have a large enough group. That’s especially true if your group is too large to book for your planned date on the seaplane or ferry.
Most private charters don’t post rates publicly or allow online booking, as rates may change depending on your needs and other variable costs including fuel and crew. You’ll generally need to ask for a quote, so be prepared to start the booking process far out enough to confirm availability and pricing.
Benefits of a Private Charter
Although the cost is likely to be much higher, you’ll get more comfort and flexibility from a private charter than the public ferry or seaplane. You have the ability to choose how you want to spend your time at Dry Tortugas. A charter is less rushed, and you’re likely to get more time at Dry Tortugas and can enjoy the park before or after the crowds arrive.
You may have more flexibility in how much gear you can bring, which is helpful if you’re planning to snorkel, scuba dive, or camp. Some charters offer equipment, including stand-up paddleboards and snorkel gear.
And if you’re planning to fish, swim, snorkel, or scuba dive, the charter can take you directly to where you want to do these activities. For example, just off Loggerhead Key is the Windjammer Shipwreck, a great spot to snorkel or scuba.
We were disappointed to miss out on Dry Tortugas, but it means we have a great reason to head back to Key West and try again! I plan to book the ferry next time, even though it means we have to make our booking much earlier.
The seaplane looks like an incredible experience. And although it’s more expensive, I found a lot of value in shorter travel time than the ferry since you get more time in the park. I also liked that the seaplane has under a dozen passengers, while the ferry has more than 200.
However, the ferry seems like a safer bet, at least in my experience. We might try the seaplane again after a successful ferry trip, but I’d be especially disappointed to try flying a second time only to be canceled again.
Either way, I’ll book an excursion to Dry Tortugas as early as possible during our next trip. That way, if our transportation option falls through, we have more time to explore other options such as a last-minute private charter.