SUN, SEA, AND SAND
A few days at the beach can be a great way to escape the rigors of everyday life and enjoy some simple pleasures -- collecting seashells, watching the sun set, and perhaps surfing or exploring tide pools. But not all beach vacations are created equal. For those seeking to stick to a strict budget and still have a memorable getaway, here are 13 options from travel industry experts and travel review and booking sites, with summer prices found in December 2017.
Gina Martinez contributed to this story.
ROCK HARBOR BEACH, MA
Cape Cod is practically synonymous with "beach vacation," but locals call Rock Harbor Beach in Orleans one of the most enchanting and budget-friendly in the area. Getting to this beach on the western side of the harbor is free, as is parking and exploring the tidal flats when the water pulls out of the harbor. Rock Harbor Pier is the home of the lifeboat that inspired the Disney rescue movie "The Finest Hours." Hotel options in the area start at $96 a night.
INDIANA DUNES, IN
True, there is no ocean in Indiana, but there is Lake Michigan. Indiana Dunes is home to 15 miles of shoreline and world-class sandy beaches. Beyond the beach, activities include biking, hiking along more than 70 miles of trails, and bird-watching for 350 migratory species. Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farm, which date back to the 1800s, are also within the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Three-star stays in the area can cost as little as $79 a night.
MISSION BAY, CA
A sunny, year-round destination, Mission Bay is famous for its 27 miles of free public-access beaches and boardwalks, and water activities of practically every kind, including sailing (rentals start at about $31), kayaking (starting at $21), and paddle boarding ($26). Bordered by quirky, colorful beach communities, this San Diego highlight has countless budget dining choices and nightlife options. Belmont Park, a quintessential boardwalk amusement park with one of the oldest roller coasters in the country, is a short walk away, and entrance is free. Three-star accommodations even by the Strandway can be as low as $113.
MYRTLE BEACH, SC
This family-friendly coastal area is easy to reach by plane or car, and there's lots to do between trips to 60 miles of wide, soft sand. Brookgreen Gardens tickets include a zoo, botanical gardens, history, and sculpture; a Myrtle Beach Pelicans minor league baseball game can be as little as $9, and there's weekend flea market that's hosted more than 250 vendors. Lodging in the area can be under $100 a night, and many properties include pools. Consider renting a condo as a group, bringing linens, cooking for yourself, and scouting out free tourist coupon books at convenience stores and other local spots.
CHINCOTEAGUE ISLAND, VA
A resort island famous for its oyster beds and clam shoals, Chincoteague is ideal for beachcombing, surf fishing, hiking, and biking and provides easy access to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, a 14,000-acre wildlife preserve with stunning wilderness trails. There's also a lighthouse that's free to explore, and refuge treks designed to showcase area wildlife are $14 for adults, $7 for children. Lodging on Chincoteague Island is especially cheap at privately owned campgrounds, while home rentals start at about $500 a week for small cottages without views of the water.
COLONIAL BEACH, VA
Less than two hours outside Washington D.C., this free public beach along the Potomac offers a variety of cheap activities, including free fishing from the town pier, kayaking, bike rentals, and Friday Night Art Walks downtown. Golf carts can also be rented and driven around this low-key town. For history buffs, the free George Washington Birthplace National Monument is just a short drive away. Accommodations include motels, rental cottages, cabins, and campgrounds. Expanding the search for waterfront lodging to Airbnb can make it as cheap as $94 a night.
PERE MARQUETTE BEACH, MI
Michigan may not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking "beach vacation," but Muskegon's Pere Marquette Beach on Lake Michigan is free -- and the largest in western Michigan. It includes 40 sand volleyball courts and a lighthouse, in addition to play and picnic areas. It's also home to the USS Silversides, a World War II submarine and museum ($15 for adults, $10.50 for kids 5 to 18). Downtown Muskegon offers a variety of affordable restaurants, two breweries, and a regular farmers market. Hotels can be found for less than $150 a night.
VENTURA COUNTY, CA
Skip Santa Barbara to the north and Malibu to the south and head for the much more affordable beaches of Ventura County. Accommodations are cheaper in the area's less glamorous beach towns, where vacationers enjoy free street parking, daytime lifeguards, piers, volleyball courts, and beaches that rival the beauty of the more upscale spots nearby. Ventura County also offers non-beach options -- nature trails, kayak rentals, camping grounds, and bike paths -- for free or modest rates.
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, TX
A mega-popular spring break destination due to its affordability, this resort town at the very tip of Texas offers accommodations below $100 a night at 2-star hotels. South Padre Island also boasts plenty of free and cheap activities, including Isla Blanca Park, a favorite spot for surfers, and the elevated boardwalk of the Laguna Madre Nature Trail. The Dolphin Research & Sealife Nature Center features upclose viewing of sea creatures and a boat tour to meet dolphins in the wild for a package price of $25. Animal lovers should also head for Sea Turtle Inc., a rehabilitation facility that asks only a $4 donation from each adult ($3 for seniors, $2 for children).
VIRGINIA BEACH, VA
With three miles of boardwalk and 14 miles of free beaches and inexpensive restaurants and bars, Virginia Beach is popular and affordable. Just walking around the resort area is entertaining, with street performers, live music, and festivals, but there are also 4,000 acres of state parks and national wildlife refuge in the area. The Virginia Beach Amusement Park is free to enter (visitors use tickets amounting to $3 to $5 for a ride, or buy unlimited-use armbands). Rooms near the beach can be less than $100 a night even during summer months.
OCEAN CITY, MD
This classic beach town and its miles of wooden boardwalk are within driving distance of Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Philadelphia and offer free family activities six nights a week during the summer. Options include fireworks, concerts, and movies. Sundaes in the Park combine live music, ice cream sundaes, and stunning sunsets. Rooms at budget beachfront motels start at about $122 during the summer.
KEANSBURG BEACH, NJ
This secluded beach along the Jersey Shore boasts a boardwalk, an amusement park, and a water park. Another kid-friendly destination, Keansburg rates among the cleanest beaches in the area. The Keansburg Amusement Park offers a combination entrance to both a Runaway Rapids water park and an amusement park with arcades, go-karts, and rides. The beach is free to enter and features a skyline view of New York City. There's also a fishing pier and plenty of cheap dining.
CANNON BEACH, OR
A popular weekend getaway outside Portland, Cannon Beach has miles of scenic sandy beach with dramatic rock formations (National Geographic named it one of "The World's Most Beautiful Places" in 2013). Nearby is Ecola State Park, which offers scenic and hiking opportunities as well as tidepooling, surfing, and wildlife observation for a $5 day pass. The town of Cannon Beach is a postcard-worthy Oregon Coast community known for art galleries, specialty shops, public art, and restaurants, and entire Airbnb apartments can be had for $130 a night.
DESTIN BEACH, FL
The "World's Luckiest Fishing Village" lies in the Florida panhandle, in a stretch known as the Emerald Coast, and is often referenced by travel media as one of the best budget beaches in the country. The waters appear to be a brilliant emerald green and the stunning bright white sand, composed entirely of ground Appalachian quartz, resembles sugar. Three regional airports (Destin-Fort Walton Beach, Pensacola, and Panama City Beach) make Destin easily accessible, hotel lodging starts at $120 nightly, and cheap travel packages frequently surface. The local seafood is top-notch -- catch your own and cook it to save cash -- and inexpensive chain restaurants abound.
PUNTA CANA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
For anyone seeking an all-inclusive resort vacation, the Dominican Republic, specifically Punta Cana, was spared the worst of last year's devastating hurricane season and remains an excellent low-cost option. Dazzling beaches with clear blue waters, coconut palm trees, and pristine white sands face the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. The shallow waters of the area, enclosed by a reef, are well-suited for beginner snorkelers and divers. Combination packages of air travel and all-inclusive accommodation can be under $1,000 for six nights.
Mexican beach getaways attract everyone from raucous college students to newlyweds, retirees, and families with kids -- but they often don't run cheap. Still, inexpensive beach vacations are possible south of the border, and Mazatlán is a good choice. Located on the central Pacific coast and boasting an international airport, Mazatlán features 50 miles of beaches and plenty of cheap, casual dining. Playa las Gaviotas ("gull beach") is free though very touristy, and Playa Olas Altas ("high waves beach") ranks highly for value and tranquility, according to the travel press. Free things to do in the area include exploring the Malecón boardwalk and Old Mazatlán, visiting the lighthouse (El Faro), and admiring the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Even the four-star Best Western Hotel Posada Freeman Centro Historico can be as low as $63 nightly.
MIAMI BEACH NORTH, FL
The glitz and glam associated with Miami don't necessarily bring to mind frugal travel. But shunning South Beach and planning ahead can make possible an affordable trip to Miami. North Beach offers the cheapest restaurants and accommodations in the area, as well as Art Deco architecture that's free for gawking. Cheap fast food dots the area, along with plenty of opportunity for people-watching (both locals and tourists). Check out the free and often family-friendly entertainment in the area, as well. If you're adventurous and traveling solo or in a small group, consider staying in a hostel dorm, which costs as little as $20 a night, or find a private-entry Airbnb as low as $48.
CLEARWATER BEACH, FL
Along the central Gulf coast of Florida sits Clearwater, which lives up to its name. This affordable beach destination consistently ranks among Florida's top beaches and it's easy to see why: well-maintained facilities, lifeguards during the days, excellent weather year-round, powdery sands, and clear, blue waters. There are numerous free and cheap things to do, many of which will please kids and adults alike, from nature walks to musical performances. Beach access is free, but parking is not. Hotel stays can be as low as $82 and an Airbnb apartment $77 nightly.