SUN, SEA, AND SAND
Luxury beach resorts around the world look spectacular and oh-so-relaxing, but they're not in the cards for vacationers eager to escape long winters while sticking to a budget. That doesn't mean a great beach holiday lies out of reach. Travel, review, and booking sites point to 10 beach destinations that suit a variety of ages and wallets.
DESTIN BEACH, FLORIDA
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, 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.
MYRTLE BEACH, SOUTH CAROLINA
This family-friendly coastal area is easy and cheap to reach by plane or car. Lodging is available for $60 to $70 a night and many hotels are outfitted with pools. Book early or consider getting a group together and renting a condo, which often is less costly. One blogger rents a condo annually and recommends bringing your own linens, cooking for yourself (snag a rental with a kitchen), and scouting out the free tourist coupon books found at convenience stores and other local spots.
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, TEXAS
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 less than $40 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 Sea Life Center ($3 a person) features up-close viewing of awesome sea creatures, such as octopods, sea turtles, stingrays, sea horses, and eels, many of which are rescues. Animal lovers should head for Sea Turtle Inc., a rehabilitation facility for threatened and endangered sea turtles, which asks only a $4 donation from each adult ($3 for seniors and $2 for children).
PUNTA CANA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
For anyone seeking an all-inclusive resort vacation, the Dominican Republic, specifically Punta Cana, is an excellent low-cost option. Dazzling beaches with clear blue waters, coconut palm trees, and pristine white sands face both the Caribbean Sea and the 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 start as low as $500 for five nights.
CLEARWATER BEACH, FLORIDA
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.
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.
VENTURA COUNTY, CALIFORNIA
Skip Santa Barbara to the north and Malibu to the south, and head for the much more affordable beaches of Ventura County, identified by the family vacation site Minitime as a best-kept beach secret. 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 upscale spots nearby. Ventura County also offers plenty of non-beach options -- nature trails, kayak rentals, camping grounds, and bike paths -- at modest rates.
MIAMI BEACH NORTH, FLORIDA
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.
PLAYA DEL CARMEN, MEXICO
For a Cancún experience on the cheap, check out the neighboring city of Playa del Carmen. Located on the eastern Yucatán Peninsula hugging the Caribbean Sea, Playa del Carmen is not only cheaper but also less crowded and rowdy than other popular area destinations. Here, visitors can enjoy lovely beachfronts and cheap local cuisine and take inexpensive day trips to the Mayan ruins at Tulum and Chichén Itzá and to the island of Cozumel.
KEANSBURG BEACH, NEW JERSEY
This secluded beach along the Jersey Shore claims a boardwalk, an amusement park, and a water park. Another kid-friendly destination on this list, Keansburg rates among the cleanest beaches in the area. The Keansburg Amusement Park offers a combination entrance to both Runaway Rapids (the water park) and the amusement park, which offers 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. Save this one for summer.