13 Best Beaches for a Budget Vacation
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 beach getaway, here are 13 options from travel industry experts and travel review and booking sites, with summer prices found in December 2016, prior to the recent spate of hurricanes.
Gina Martinez contributed to this story.Related: 25 Cheap Destinations for Off-Season Travel
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. Along Rock Harbor Pier, visitors can visit the lifeboat that inspired this year's Disney rescue movie "The Finest Hours." There's a variety of hotel options in the area, including budget properties starting at $43 a night.
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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. Stays in the area can cost as little as $50 a night.
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 $24), kayaking (starting at $13), and paddle boarding ($15). 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. Accommodations can be under $100, depending on the season.
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 are good for a whole week; a Myrtle Beach Pelicans minor league baseball game is $8; and there's a weekend flea market with more than 250 vendors. Lodging in the area can be under $100 a night, and many properties include pools. One blogger recommends renting a condo as a group, bringing your own linens, cooking for yourself, and scouting out free tourist coupon books at convenience stores and other local spots.
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 $600 a week for small cottages without views of the water.
Less than two hours outside Washington, this free public beach along the Potomac offers a variety of cheap activities, including free fishing from the town pier and 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. Travel experts say waterfront lodging can be as cheap as $89 a night during the week.
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 new breweries, and a regular farmers market. Hotels can be found for less than $100 a night.
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.
A mega-popular spring break destination due to its affordability, this resort town at the very tip of Texas offers accommodations that sometimes go for as little as $25 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 up-close 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).
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 go for as little as $87 a night during summer months.
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 $113 during the summer.
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.
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 lodging goes as low as $80 per night.