Best Budget Beaches
Buy a package of air, hotel and rental car. You usually pay less than you would if you purchased the components separately. Check the companies listed above for deals, plus Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz and individual airline sites. Just be sure to do the math before you click.
Check the official tourism sites of the state, island or region you want to visit. Many feature sections offering discounts on lodging, dining, activities and more.
Think outside the hotel box. Vacation Rentals by Owners and Craigslist eliminate the middleman, and B&B-cum-social-networking sites like Airbnb.com and iStopOver offer wide selections of rooms at bargain rates. Many hostels [www.hostelworld.com] now offer private rooms and cushy amenities, and some are located in prime beach destinations. For the truly frugal, there's Couchsurfing, GlobalFreeloaders.com and Hospitality Club, whose members offer up their sofas or spare bedrooms for free. Checking references is key.
Focus on towns or regions that feature low-key cottages and motels, or are near state and national seashores. Instead of Miami Beach, for example, try the Florida Panhandle; instead of Santa Monica, try California's Huntington Beach; instead of Cape Cod, try Rhode Island's South County. Info on each is below, along with a couple more of our favorite budget-friendly strands.
Tourism along northwest Florida's Gulf Coast seems to be rebounding since the 2010 BP oil spill, and the sugar-sand beaches are as gorgeous as ever -- although the sight of crews still patrolling for tarballs may be jarring. The new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, serviced by Southwest Airlines, provides easy access to Panama City, Pensacola, South Walton and other popular area beaches. Destin, with its fishing boats and dockside cafes, is particularly charming, and the state parks of St. Andrews, St. Joseph Peninsula and Grayton Beach have been ranked among the most beautiful in the country.
Picture the hordes sitting in traffic on Cape Cod while you drive leisurely past the fishing villages and scenic vistas of the Rhode Island coast. South County has more than 20 beaches to choose from. Options include Narragansett Town Beach, with 2 full-service pavilions that feature concessions and surfing lessons: Atlantic Beach Park in Westerly, with an antique carousel, batting cages, bumper boats and other amusements; and East Matunuck State Beach in South Kingstown, a pristine strand with plenty of parking and picnic tables.
While the beautiful Caribbean island of St. John is home to the world-class, and wildly expensive, resort of Caneel Bay, there are some great bargains on the island, too. At the tent camps and eco-studios of Maho Bay and Estate Concordia Preserve, you can enjoy the same stunning beaches as the moneyed crowd, but at a fraction of the lodging costs. Choose from platform tents with communal bathrooms and showers, or studios and villas with kitchens, electricity and private bathrooms. The toilets are the composting type and the showers are solar-heated, but that's all part of the charm.
You've never heard of Huntington Beach? How about Surf City USA? Yep, this is the place Jan and Dean immortalized in song in the 1960s, and there's the International Surfing Museum and Hall of Fame to prove it. It's easy to sample the Southern California good life here, with plenty of casual lodging and dining options to choose from. In addition to the 8 miles of beaches, check out the 1,800-foot-long Huntington Beach Pier. It's the scene of year-round events, including entertainment, art shows, farmers markets, and volleyball and surfing competitions, natch.
On Ambergris Caye, the largest island in the tiny Central American nation of Belize, there's only one town, the streets are made of sand, and the locals get around by golf cart. It's impossible not to relax. Boasting the second-largest coral reef system in the world, and the longest in the Western Hemisphere, Ambergris attracts divers and snorkelers from all over the world. Luxe resorts have sprung up in and around the town of San Pedro but there are enough affordable hotels and eateries on the island to make it a true budget destination.
Washington, DC-based writer K.C. Summers was recently the travel editor at the Washington Post.