With gas prices still pretty painful and the cost of flights continuing to rise, planning cheap beach vacations can feel harder than ever. Especially if you want to take your plus one or your extended family along with you. The fancy resorts, chic seafood restaurants, and over-the-top cocktails are not exactly the first things that come to mind when you think of a budget-friendly trip.
But you can actually enjoy time with your toes in the sand without totally busting your budget — if you choose your locations wisely. (Before you book, did you know that it just got a little cheaper to fly with kids?)
These cheap beach vacation destinations earned a spot on our list for their closeness to bodies of water, of course, and also for their fun things to do and general affordability.
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1. Gulf Shores, Alabama
With 32 miles of white sand along the shoreline, Alabama’s Gulf Coast is one of our favorite under-the-radar cheap beach vacations. Accessible by car, plane, or ferry, Gulf Shores has six campgrounds near the water so you can save on where you sleep. If you prefer something a little more traditional, a wide variety of places to stay — from cabins and bed-and-breakfasts to vacation rentals and resorts — are all around. For example, rates at the charming circa-1897 Magnolia Springs Bed and Breakfast start at just $149.
2. Cannon Beach, Oregon
If a misty, yet moody beach destination with dramatic scenery is what you’re seeking, consider Cannon Beach. It’s a mere 90 minutes west of Portland and was named among the 100 most beautiful places in the world (not just America!) by National Geographic.
Take in those awe-inspiring views at one of the many local sleeping options, such as the cozy Nordic Star vacation rental that sleeps 10 and starts at $225 per night. It’s free to enjoy the hiking and biking trails, the gorgeous architecture, and the natural beauty of the area. Plus, you can snap a selfie with Haystack Rock, which you might recognize from the 1985 film The Goonies. Art galleries, displays, and festivals abound, and if you visit during June, you might be able to cheer on the builders in the popular sandcastle contest. Food is also in fine form here, with seafood, local beers, and top-notch coffee taking center stage.
3. Manzanilla, Mexico
This year, skip the common spring break spots like Cancun, Cozumel, or Playa del Carmen. Instead, take the road less traveled and book it to the port city of Manzanillo. There you’ll be treated to fewer crowds, 5-mile bays with beaches, terrific seafood restaurants, and a more casual vibe. Plus, Tamarindo, a popular golf spot, is just 10 minutes away if you’re seeking more of a city feel.
Rent a vacation home, apartment, or hotel and then fill your itinerary with some budget-friendly activities, like horseback riding, snorkeling, whale watching, mountain biking, or yoga. Definitely worth considering: a cooking class hosted by a local cook, Eileen, which includes 2.5 hours of instructions, lunch, and drinks for about $20 per person.
Related: Read our tricks for scoring cheap flights to cut down on some of those family travel costs.
4. Tybee Island, Georgia
Head east from Savannah and you’ll land at a small, walkable barrier island that’s covered in powdery sand and warm waves. While Tybee Island has plenty of Victorian architecture and history that will take you back to the 1800s, don’t worry — the resorts, B&Bs, and vacation rentals are thoroughly modern.
In addition to plenty of room to splash around in the water, you can take part in budget-friendly nature tours, museums, galleries, and more. One option we definitely have on the agenda for our next trip? Captain Mike’s Dolphin Tours day trips, which cost just $15 per child or $25 per adult.
5. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan
Who says a beach must be oceanside? The Great Lakes area, including this Midwestern gem, is a terrific destination for cheap beach vacations. And since it’s more unexpected, that means there’s less competition for tours, restaurants, and rooms. All of this translates to a more affordable trip.
Situated 450 feet above Lake Michigan, Sleeping Bear is scenic and lush. Climb the giant sand dunes, paddle around the freshwater lake in a kayak, hike through 100 miles of forest trails, or simply lounge on the beach. Camping options abound, as do gorgeous inns, lodges, and vacation homes. The food and drink options alone are worth the trip; everything from wineries to ice cream to bakeries earns rave reviews from visitors.
6. Cape May, New Jersey
Sure, you could go to the Hamptons or another celeb-spotting place in New York. But we’re fond of this New Jersey gem, which is America’s first seaside resort town. Brush up on history by taking a trolley tour to peek at some of the 600+ Victorian buildings, including the “Painted Ladies” next to the event-packed promenade.
More than two miles of beaches lie just past that promenade, and the town includes museums, a zoo, a bird observatory, and more to keep the whole family entertained. Visit during Cape May Restaurant Weekend in October or the 8-day Cape May Restaurant Week in June to score a 3-course prefixed meal for about $40 per person.
7. Panama City Beach, Florida
As far as cheap beach vacations go, Panama City is not just a spring break party spot, I promise! Restaurants, spas, eco-adventures, beach sports, and family activities are ample here. Plus, TripAdvisor ranks their 27 miles of coastline among the top three beaches in the U.S.
According to Hotels.com, many hotels in Panama City clock in at less than $150 per night. That affordable lodging will leave you with more money for shopping, fishing, or dining out. The only downside is Panama City Beach is over five hours away from the family-favorite destination Disney World.
8. Virginia Beach, Virginia
From roller coasters to rocking surf territory, there’s a little something for everyone in Virginia Beach. The seafood alone lures us in, but even more enticing is what’s on Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau’s list of 11 free things to do in the city. State parks, farmers markets, an art museum, a wildlife refuge, and free summer concerts ensure there’s something for everyone — and the price is right.
9. Crystal Coast, North Carolina
This area along the southern part of the Outer Banks is home to several small communities like Newport, Emerald Isle, and Beaufort (which has been named “America’s Favorite Town” by Travel + Leisure). Quaint, cozy, and situated along 85 miles of coastline, the Crystal Coast offers plenty to do. You’ll find water sports, film festivals, and unforgettable seafood feasts along the coast.
Each season ushers in a new crop of lodging deals, too, and several of the attractions like parks, lighthouses, historic sites, and museums are free.