You can’t go wrong with any of these cheap beach locations, whether you’re a spontaneous traveler who just happens to be in the market for a beach vacation or a beach bum who can’t imagine life without the ocean and the sand.
When compared to other beachfront areas, they offer more affordable lodging options, better public transit, more family-friendly facilities, and quieter areas away from the madding crowds.
And if you fall in love with your chosen location so much that you never want to leave, you may not have too many of them have plentiful waterfront (or near-waterfront) real estate, much of it affordable, and low costs of living overall.
Beaches You Can Visit For A Reasonably Priced Vacation
1. Rehoboth and Bethany Beach, Delaware
The small state of Delaware may not have miles upon miles of coastline, but it sure knows how to make the most of what it has. Rehoboth Beach and Bethany Beach, two municipalities in southeast Delaware, take their names from the beaches that made them famous.
The beaches are all relatively identical in appearance; they are all flat and covered with white sand, and they all feature the occasional teeming tidal pool. It’s not uncommon for both to reach capacity on sunny summer days, however, the throngs in Bethany are usually easier to navigate.
Cities have their own identities. In contrast to Bethany Beach, which is geared primarily toward families, Rehoboth Beach is known for its nightlife and progressive attitude.
However, they are both significantly less hectic than nearby Ocean City, Maryland, one of the busiest beach cities on the East Coast. Soda fountains, saltwater taffy, entertainment stalls, and low-priced seafood eateries are all staples of both boardwalks.
Cape Henlopen State Park, located just up the coast, is home to untamed dune fields and estuaries, perfect for those looking to get away from it all.
- Parking On Most City Streets is $1.75 per hour (10 am to 8 or 11 pm, depending on the region), however, there is no entrance fee to Bethany Beach (May 15th to October 15th). The standard time limit on business streets is 2 hours. Obtaining a parking permit from the Bethany Beach Police Department will cost you either $23 per day or $69 for three days. You can also enjoy Rehoboth Beach without spending a dime. From Memorial Day to about the middle of September, you can park for $2 an hour at meters in the downtown area. Permits cost $10 during the week, $15 on the weekends, or $35 for a special Friday-Sunday pass, and are required to park in non-metered places, which are typically further from the beach itself.
- Best Time to Go. Summers in the Mid-Atlantic can be stifling, but the Delaware coast is often 10 to 15 degrees cooler than inland cities like Baltimore and Washington, D.C. due to ocean breezes. Summer vacation weekends like Memorial Day and July 4th see the most visitors. During the shoulder seasons (middle to late April and May, and the middle to late September and early October), lodging costs less and the weather may be more pleasant.
- A Directional Guide. If you’re in the Mid-Atlantic or Northeast, driving is your best bet because you can reach Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. in two to three hours, depending on traffic. Fly into one of the cities listed and rent a car to get around the rest of the state. (Weekends and/or seasonal bus service may also be a possibility.) Chicago to all three destinations costs between $150 and $175 for a one-way flight. Flights from San Francisco and other West Coast locations start at roughly $300.
- A Place to Stay. During the peak season, nearby hotels and motels book up quickly (and often charge exorbitant rates). Camping is much more cost-effective and exciting. Just north of Rehoboth, in Cape Henlopen State Park, you can stay in a rustic site for $40 per night in the summer. The price per night for a campsite with running water is $45. Between Rehoboth and Bethany, in Delaware Seashore State Park, you’ll find primitive campsites for $30 and full hookups with water and electricity for $40. (Both parks offer discounted rates of $5-$10 during the off-season.) Both parks provide significant beach frontage, so campers can avoid the high cost of downtown parking by staying close to their campsite. Outdoorsy provides RV rentals for those who prefer not to pitch tents while on vacation.
- The Boardwalk is a Popular Destination in Both Cities, and since people-watching is totally free, it’s a great and inexpensive way to spend a summer afternoon in either place, regardless of whether or not you plan on going swimming. Delaware was the first U.S. state, therefore there is a lot of historical significance in the area. The Peter Marsh House and the Dodd Homestead are both excellent examples of colonial design, and their grounds are open to visitors at no cost. The Dogfish Head Brewery in Rehoboth has become something of a mecca for beer aficionados and amateur brewers alike.
- Things to Do Throughout the Year and Holiday Celebration. During the month of November, the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival ($25 for a pass) honors filmmakers from all around the world. Midway through October, music enthusiasts can attend the Rehoboth Beach Autumn Jazz Festival, which is well worth the investment in admission price (which can easily run $50 or more).
2. Manzanillo, Mexico
When compared to the other major vacation cities along the Mexican Riviera, Manzanillo attracts the fewest tourists and has the lowest prices. Mazatlan, Acapulco, and Puerto Vallarta are others. Because of its role as the international commercial hub for the massive interior metropolis of Guadalajara, its lack of pretension and low prices are not surprising.
Manzanillo may have a more commercial history, but that hasn’t stopped it from being a popular vacation spot. Playa Miramar has excellent surfing conditions, Playa Azul and Playa Las Brisas cater to visitors, while Playa Audencia and Playa San Pedrito provide opportunities to fish and mix with locals, all within a short stretch of coastline north of downtown.
Even though there is a bustling port close by, all of them are clean and rather safe, however, you should still exercise common sense and avoid venturing out after dark. And the city of Manzanillo has everything you’d expect from a world-class metropolis, from cheap and delicious street food to free and low-cost museums.
- Visits to Manzanillo’s Public Beaches Won’t Cost you a Dime, and as it’s unusual for visitors from outside the area to rent cars, you probably won’t have to worry about parking, either.
- Most Ideal Time to Go. To be honest, there is never a terrible time to visit Manzanillo. Due to its tropical location, the temperature is pleasant all year (between 80 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit, on average). In general, the wet season is from June through October, with its peak in September, however, this is not always the case. The late fall and early spring seasons see an influx of vacationers from out of town, particularly during the winter holidays and the more customary spring break weeks. This causes hotel prices to rise and the beaches to become more crowded than usual. If you want to avoid the crowds yet still see the sights, visit in the fall (October–November) or spring (May–June).
- You’ll Find a Wide Range of Hotel Prices in this Area. Oceanfront real estate in Manzanillo is typically more expensive than similar properties located further inland or closer to the city’s commercial core. Hotels on Division del Norte and Boulevard Costero Miguel de la Madrid are convenient (they’re only a quick cab ride away from all the best beaches and sights) and affordable (you can find rooms there for as little as $40 a night during the low season). While staying in a private home or condo through services like Vrbo and Airbnb is common, finding one for around $75 per night might be challenging.
- Getting There International flights to depart at a hub just up the coast from Manzanillo, a cab ride of 30 to 45 minutes depending on your location. Cheap flights from Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other major airports in the south and west of the United States can be found for around $300 to $350, depending on the time of year.
- I’m Not Sure What to Do. Manzanillo has so many beautiful beaches that a week there isn’t nearly enough time to see them all. If you tire of swimming and reclining, the zocalo (central square) in Manzanillo is free and has great old architecture. Take a day trip to Colima, a beautiful seaside hamlet south of Manzanillo.
- Attractions and Special Events for the Season. The International Sailfish Tournament, held every year in Manzanillo in the middle of November, is a celebration of the city’s de facto aquatic mascot and a mecca for anglers from all over the world. Hundreds of boats travel from San Diego to Puerto Vallarta in February to participate in the Regatta Marina del Rey (or vice versa, depending on the year).
3. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Myrtle Beach is known as a top golfing destination, which isn’t great news for anyone looking for a cheap beach vacation. Tourist dollars go remarkably far here because it is located in the heart of one of the least expensive districts in the country. If you aren’t dead bent on staying at a luxury golf resort, Myrtle Beach also has plenty of budget-friendly options.
Myrtle Beach, Surfside Beach, Murrells Inlet to the south, and North Myrtle Beach to the north are all considered part of the larger “Myrtle Beach” area. All are located on one of the longest stretches of continuous beach in the United States, so you can always find a somewhat uncrowded location to relax in.
Huntington Beach State Park, located close to the south, displays a traditional, still-wild Atlantic coastline environment, complete with bogs, waving grasses, and noisy seabirds.
- Beach Access Fees. Myrtle Beach is located on a 60-mile stretch of continuous beach. Even if local authorities wanted to, they couldn’t regulate access to this massive stretch of beach. However, parking in Myrtle Beach can be expensive, costing anywhere from $1.50 to $2 per hour in the city itself, $1 to $1.25 in Surfside Beach, and $1 to $1.50 in North Myrtle Beach. These prices apply during the peak season, which typically begins around March 1 and ends around October 31. Depending on where you park in downtown Myrtle Beach, one-day parking tickets can be purchased for $6 to $10.
- Best Time to Go. Winters are not pleasant for lazing on the beach here, despite the fact that freezing precipitation is unusual. Even with onshore breezes, the summers can be extremely uncomfortable due to the high temperatures and high humidity. The summer is also the busiest time for most people. In the late summer and early fall, tropical storms present a minimal but real risk. March through April and October are ideal because of the moderate temperatures and small crowds.
- Location. There are many low-cost hotel options in the Myrtle Beach area. In the off-season, you can find a hotel on Ocean Boulevard, right in the middle of the city’s tourism center, for as little as $60 per night if you stay away from the posh resorts on the outskirts. One more alternative is camping: It’s easy to get to the heart of Myrtle Beach from Myrtle Beach State Park, which is located on the oceanside just to the south of the city. Prices for primitive campsites start at $25 per night outside of peak seasons and go up to $40 per night then.
- A Directional Guide. Myrtle Beach is easily accessible by car from the southeastern United States; the trip from Atlanta takes less than six hours and the trip from Charlotte takes less than four. Prices for flights from the Northeast and the Midwest, which may include a layover, begin at around $100.
- The Proper Course of Action. Ready for a health and fitness-themed getaway? Every day, explore a new portion of the expansive beach by jogging, walking, bicycling, or swimming. Even if you remain for a couple of weeks, there will be too much to see. You can get away from the sand by going on a hike in Huntington Beach State Park or by strolling through the Broadway at the Beach complex in Myrtle Beach; just keep your wallet in your pocket and your eyes on the people rather than the dozens of high-end local and national boutiques that line the streets. T.I.G.E.R.S. is a free museum in North Myrtle Beach that displays real tigers in a responsible manner.
- Unique Seasonal Attractions. Downtown Myrtle Beach hosts a free concert series called Hot Summer Nights every Wednesday from June through August. When the weather is nice, Broadway at the Beach regularly provides free fireworks shows, however, the timing can be unpredictable. The annual Beach Boogie & BBQ Festival is free to attend, but the barbeque will set you back a few dollars.
4. St. Pete Beach, Florida
Located just a short distance east of the thriving city of St. Petersburg, St. Pete Beach is a long, low-barrier island on Florida’s central Gulf Coast. It has been a popular vacation spot since at least the 1960s, and unlike other Florida beach towns, it offers a unique cultural experience at surprisingly affordable costs.
Although the Tampa Bay area is now home to nearly 3 million people and is expanding rapidly, St. Pete Beach has managed to maintain a distinct community identity in contrast to the neighboring gated communities and sterile high-rise areas.
St. Pete Beach is plenty of historic landmarks, especially in the Pass-a-Grille Historic Sector, and the island’s northern business district is a fantastic place to hang out with locals.
The beach is a traditional stretch of white sand on the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s warm enough to lay out in the sun and take a dip in the water for almost the whole year. The Shell Key Preserve is a great place to see birds and is only a short distance offshore.
- Access to the beaches in St. Pete Beach is free, although parking in the downtown area can be expensive, costing up to $3 per hour at the Pier 60 lot. Parking at metered street meters and lots elsewhere costs between $1 and $2 per hour, depending on proximity to the beach. You may park all day for only $5 on the neighboring Sand Key. It may be worth it to walk to the beach if it’s not too far from where you’re staying.
- The Perfect Time to Go is St. Pete Beach, Florida, which has beach weather almost every day of the year, save for a few cold outbreaks in the middle of winter. However, summer does see a significant uptick in precipitation, and afternoon thunderstorms are never out of the question. Avoid that stretch of the coast if you can, as tropical storms can cause last-minute schedule alterations even in late summer and early fall. If you’re looking for a less busy beach, avoid visiting during the winter holidays or during spring break. It’s best to visit in the late spring or late fall when the weather is pleasant but the crowds are still bearable.
- St. Pete Beach’s center area is dominated by high-end resorts, therefore hotels there can be quite pricy. However, depending on the time of year, three-star hotels located within walking distance of the beach can be had for as little as $100 per night. Motels in the downtown area or close by start around $60 per night, however their quality and services vary widely. There aren’t a ton of campgrounds within a reasonable drive or bike ride.
- Because of its convenient central position in the state of Florida, most visitors to St. Pete Beach go there by car. Tampa International Airport, a key hub in central Florida, is also located close to the city. Costs for flights from large northern cities like Chicago and New York begin at $125 and go up from there, depending on the time of year. Costs can rise to over $350 from cities on the West Coast such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle for a flight to London.
- St. Pete Beach is only a few streets wide in most places, but it is approximately 10 miles long, making a leisurely stroll impractical. In order to get from the island’s central and southern beach areas to its northern downtown area, visitors can rent bikes from Island Action Sports for $25 per day. (The island’s main thoroughfare, Gulf Avenue, is serviced by a bus that makes getting about very easy.) Before or after your beach day, make sure to visit the Pass-a-Grille Historic District and the world-famous Don CeSar Beach Resort (you can stroll freely around the resort grounds). Northerners can spend the evening at the Drunken Clam or one of the other music-friendly establishments along Corey Avenue.
- The second Saturday of every month is Sunset Fest, a free event with kid-friendly entertainment and delicious local food. Free beach concerts, featuring largely local bands and cover performers, are hosted by the St. Pete Beach Recreation Department every spring. The month of April is when Central Florida hosts the annual Mainsail Arts Festival in nearby St. Petersburg.
5. South Padre Island, Texas
In Texas, even the barrier islands along the coast are enlarged. Despite being dwarfed by its northern neighbor, South Padre Island still has plenty of suns, sand, surf, and beach culture to offer. Its southernmost point is only a few miles from the Mexican border, making it a true year-round beach resort.
South Padre Island’s strengths are well-known to anybody who has spent time in Texas, and they include a mile-long beach and a coastal habitat that has been mostly maintained thanks to Padre Island National Seashore, located just to the north.
The culture here blends old-fashioned Southern hospitality with a chill beach vibe, and food and lodging are both reasonably priced and plentiful. The transportation system is well above average, and parking is usually not a problem.
The only real negative is that South Padre Island is one of the most popular spring break destinations in the country, so families should probably avoid going there between the months of February and April.
- There are no beach access fees on South Padre Island, and the city’s parking policies are more relaxed than those of most other beach resorts, so it’s possible to park for free if you’re lucky enough to locate a spot. (The beaches at SPI’s southern end are owned by the city.) Cameron County, which manages Isla Blanca Park, Andy Bowie Park, and other non-park beach accesses, does, however, impose a $5 per day car entrance fee at all parking lots and parks. It’s also possible to drive onto the beach at Beach Access #5 and #6 (to the north of the developed area), though doing so at high tide or without a four-wheel-drive vehicle is not advised. Furthermore, pay close attention to all signs indicating potential danger.
- Most Ideal Time to Go. The winter low rarely drops below 45 degrees, making South Padre Island practically a tropical resort. However, there is a risk during tropical storm season (approximately July through September) because evacuations and plan changes may be necessary if a cyclone is even close to making landfall. Additionally, spring break is not the best time to go, especially if you have young children. For the better part of the month, South Padre becomes a bacchanalian festivity as college students from all over the country flock there in search of thrills. During this time, everything is more expensive, everywhere is crowded, the commute is a nightmare, and good sleep is nearly impossible to come by.
- South Padre Island has a wide variety of accommodation options, and as long as you’re not picky about the amenities, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a place to stay within your budget. In all but the peak seasons, a three-star hotel on even the most crowded beachfront will cost you only $50 to $60 per night (spring break and summer holidays). There aren’t many places to pitch a tent in the region, but Andy Bowie Park, Isla Blanca Park, and the South Padre Island KOA all have RV hookups.
- In terms of proximity to other major cities, Houston and Dallas are much further away from South Padre Island than Monterey, Mexico. If you’re not already familiar with the area, the best way to get to South Padre Island is to fly into Brownsville South Padre Island International. Price ranges from roughly $175 to north of $300 for flights departing from cities in Texas and the southern United States. Flights from northern cities start at roughly $300, however, this varies greatly by time of year.
- What to Do. South Padre Island’s beach offers a plethora of opportunities for low-cost, physically active recreation, much to Myrtle Beach’s apparently infinite stretch of sand. During your beach stroll, keep an eye out for dune systems and small estuaries. When the weather is nice, it’s well worth your time to spend a few hours at either Isla Blanca or Andy Bowie Parks. Visit the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center or the Schlitterbahn Waterpark & Resort ($50 for a day pass – well worth it if the kids need a break from the beach) with your children.
- Attractions and Special Events for the Season. The South Padre Island Farmers Market opens in February at the Namar Event Center, giving weekend shoppers access to farm-fresh goods. Every month of the year, the South Padre Island Convention Center, located on the island’s northern tip, plays host to a new sculpture show. Live music lovers may enjoy Bands on the Beach, a music and fireworks event, at Clayton’s Beach Bar every Friday night from early April through late October.
6. San Juan, Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico, the largest and most well-known U.S. territory in the Caribbean, is a tropical island that welcomes millions of visitors annually from all over the world. San Juan is an outstanding blend of Old World architecture, high-end creature comforts, authentic street life, and, of course, wonderful beaches; it is a flourishing modern metropolis that also happens to be one of the oldest European settlements in the Western Hemisphere.
Since San Juan is the principal port of entry for visitors from outside and the continental United States, it’s the best place to begin your cheap beach vacation.
Outside of the island’s largest city, however, there is a wealth of natural wonders to explore, such as bioluminescent bays (such as Mosquito Bay, on the neighboring island of Vieques), practically uninhabited beaches (such as those on Culebra, another adjacent island), and active coffee farms.
Since Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, American citizens don’t need a passport or to convert currency before leaving the country, unlike visitors to most other Caribbean countries. Though it’s not required, it wouldn’t hurt to brush up on your Spanish language skills.
- There are no beach fees at the San Juan, Culebra, or Mosquito Bay beaches, and the public restrooms on Vieques cost between $0.25 and $0.50 for each visit. You can avoid the neighborhood-specific and proximity-based street parking costs in San Juan by simply walking to the beaches. There is a ferry fee of $2.25 per person to travel to Culebra’s beaches.
- The Perfect Time to Go is Puerto Rico’s weather is really tropical, with definite rainy and dry seasons. While the months of June through November are known for heavy rain, the amount of water that falls on the island varies greatly even across short distances. Stay away unless you’re looking for a really tropical rainy season experience. In contrast, the winter in Puerto Rico is warm and dry, attracting many American snowbirds and college students. April and May are ideal because of the average temperatures and low numbers of visitors.
- Accommodations. Camping is the only option in Culebra. That’s why it’s so important The campsites are located such that you can see Playa Flamenco when you wake up. The cost of a campsite is $30 per night, and if you don’t want to lug a tent around with you, you can rent one for $10 to $15. Location is key in San Juan. Rooms in the Old City’s historic district start at roughly $150 per night (more in winter). Taxis are cheap and plentiful, and your money will go much further in outlying areas like Levittown and Carolina.
- There is a huge international airport in San Juan that can get you there. There are direct flights from several major cities on the East Coast and even those in the West (Texas). Rates typically begin at $250 per night regardless of the time of year. You can save a lot of money on your lodging and transportation costs if you stay at one hotel or resort throughout your whole trip.
- Next Steps. Spend some time exploring the historic district of San Juan before relaxing on the sands of Escambron Beach or Playa Pena. After soaking up enough rays, it’s time to visit El Fuerto San Felipe del Morro, a fort built in the 16th century that rivals the beach in terms of visitor numbers. El Yunque National Forest, located just southeast of San Juan, is a must-see for anyone with even a passing interest in outdoor activities since it displays a tropical rainforest unlike anything on the U.S. mainland. One does not have to pay to enter. To the east, on the island of Culebra, beachgoers can enjoy a more relaxed atmosphere and breathtaking coastal scenery.
- Unique Festivals and Year-Round Attractions In June, the Old City plays host to SoFo Culinary Week, a must-experience for foodies that features a surprisingly affordable smorgasbord of traditional Caribbean and European dishes. In February or March, a celebration rivaling Mardi Gras known as the Carnaval de Ponce ushers in the season of Lent. (Ponce is in the southern part of Puerto Rico, not too far from San Juan.) When January rolls around, the historic neighborhood of San Juan plays host to the annual San Sebastian Street Festival, which celebrates the rich cultural heritage of Puerto Rico.
7. Western Michigan
There is proof in Michigan that you don’t need seawater to have a beach that rivals any in the world. The west coast of Michigan is a nearly continuous stretch of white and yellow sand beach dotted with otherworldly dune ecosystems, lush forests, and picturesque harbor towns like South Haven and Saugatuck, which can be found anywhere from Sleeping Bear Dunes in the north to the Indiana border in the south.
Everywhere looks out over Lake Michigan, a freshwater sea more than 300 miles long. Since much of Michigan’s coastline is preserved from massive construction, visitors can stay in quaint inns and rustic campgrounds rather than in towering hotels.
The cost of lodging is far lower than in Chicago or Detroit, and there is always something to do, no matter the season. You may easily drive to Chicago if you want to combine a trip to the city with the countryside.
- Costs to Visit the Beach. Most west coast beaches in Michigan are free to the public, while some bigger cities may have parking fees. For instance, in South Haven, one must pay either $1 per hour or $7 for a daily ticket to park on the street. Entrance fees to beaches in state and national parks may cover parking costs. A $10 car fee is required for access to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which is valid for seven days.
- The Perfect Time to Go is The west coast of Michigan is slightly more temperate than the state’s interior, thanks to Lake Michigan’s moderating influence. During the summer (approximately Memorial Day to Labor Day), when the temperature rarely rises over 90 degrees and the humidity is kept in check by onshore breezes, this place is a paradise. However, a light jacket may still be necessary on cloudy days and during gusty summer winds. Crowds are not typically too bad, but if you want to prevent unnecessary brushing against other tourists, you should avoid visiting on holiday weekends and, ideally, the entire month of August. Early to mid-October is peak foliage season, so expect more visitors; nonetheless, the beautiful scenery may be worth the hassle. Most of the coast lies within a lake-effect snow belt, making late November through early February an excellent (and inexpensive) time to come if you enjoy winter sports and lots of snow. However, most campgrounds are closed during this period.
- The area around the lake is dotted with dozens of charming, reasonably-priced communities. Motel accommodations in Benton Harbor, South Haven, and Saugatuck, in southwestern Michigan, can be had for less than $50 per night (more on summer weekends, and many close in winter). Visit Van Buren State Park in the south (campsites cost between $18 and $30 a night, depending on amenities) and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the north (campsites at Plate River Campground cost between $21 and $24) if you want to go camping.
- The Route to Take. If you are coming from the Great Lakes area, driving is your most economical option. Chicago and Detroit both have major international airports with links to most large U.S. cities, so they are good options for overseas visitors. It’s possible to travel between the two cities via rail (fares range from $50 to $100, depending on the final destination), Greyhound bus (fares range from $30 to $75), or rented car (cost varies). Depending on traffic, most western Michigan beaches can be reached in one to five hours from Chicago or two and a half to five hours from Detroit.
- Plan to visit at least one of the several dune fields while you’re in the area. If you’re looking for a park in the south, Saugatuck Dunes State Park is your best bet, while if you’re up north, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is the clear winner. Sleeping Bear offers excellent hiking opportunities along its shores and inland. It’s worth noting that most wine tastings in the Midwest are either free or cost only a few dollars, and that the Leelanau Peninsula, between Sleeping Bear and Traverse City, is the region’s top wine-making region. Grand Rapids, located inland, is a great place to experience the area’s nightlife because of its thriving cultural scene and lovely (and free) river walk.
- Unique Festivals and Year-Round Attractions Visit Traverse City in early July for the National Cherry Festival, a celebration of the region’s major agricultural product if you don’t mind crowds and love tart cherry (besides wine grapes). Grand Rapids, Michigan, becomes an open-air art museum throughout the months of September and October thanks to the ArtPrize show.
8. Cannon Beach, Oregon
The wide, relaxing Willamette and Columbia Rivers in Portland are stunning, but they are not quite on par with waterfront property at the beach. Cannon Beach, Oregon, is the best place to do it, and it’s also one of the most well-known beaches in the world.
It takes around 90 minutes to drive or take a bus from Portland to Cannon Beach, which is only 80 miles away to the west. Towering stone columns, carved and hewn by wind and waves over millennia, litter the shore and its shallows, making them easily recognizable even to those who have never been here (the best-known of these is Haystack Rock).
Plenty of animals can be found here as well. Birds of prey such as eagles and ospreys soar above as marine mammals such as sea lions and seals play in the waves below. The Oregon Coast Trail, one of the best long-distance trails on the Pacific coast, is not far from this beach, and you may walk for kilometers along its rough shores.
Keep in mind that Cannon Beach isn’t exactly a tropical paradise. Cool (occasionally cold) fogs and torrential downpours are conceivable at any time of year because of the tremendous impact of the Pacific Ocean and the mountains just inland.
However, the drive is well worth it due to the area’s stunning scenery, relatively low visitor numbers, affordable housing alternatives, and occasionally excellent weather.
- Beach Fees. Cannon Beach does not charge for public parking or access to its beaches, although nearby oceanfront state parks do charge daily entrance fees (ranging from $5 to $15, depending on the time of year and the type of vehicle).
- Most Ideal Time to Go. Even in the relatively dry summer season, showers and thunderstorms can sneak up with a little warning, so if the thought of being wet makes you nervous, you might want to skip a trip to Cannon Beach. Despite being painfully cold all year long, the ocean is most enjoyable to swim in from June through September. Summer is also peak tourist season, so if you want to beat the throngs, you might want to wait until late September or early October.
- Where to Stay. Hotels in and surrounding Cannon Beach are scarce, so expect to pay more, especially during peak season. A room can be had for as little as $70 a night outside of peak season. (Remember that some of the local hotels close for the season.) Consider camping as a way to cut costs and increase your options for places to stay. The state of Oregon has liberal regulations regarding camping on public beaches, so long as there are no visible private residences or signs prohibiting it. Nehalem Bay State Park has tent sites starting at $11 per night (depending on the time of year).
- Getting There Driving time from Portland to Cannon Beach is roughly 90 minutes, while the driving time from Seattle is about four hours if you take the scenic route. If you’re coming from out of town, you can fly into Portland International Airport (direct flights from major West Coast cities start at $125, while direct or one-stop flights from other parts of the country start at $200) and then drive yourself or take the Northwest POINT bus ($17) to Cannon Beach.
- There’s plenty to do in Cannon Beach, Oregon, and it doesn’t even have to do with the beach, which may keep you occupied for hours with photography, wandering, and (weather-allowing) sunbathing. Take a stroll down Hemlock Street and Spruce Street and look at the quaint homes and unique shops. If you’re looking for a great place to go hiking, bird watching, or have a picnic, look no further than Nehalem Bay State Park, Ecola State Park, or Hug Point State Park. You probably won’t be tempted to go for a swim here due to the chilly water, but if you do, please exercise extreme caution: Rip currents and sneaker waves, which can wash you off your feet if you’re standing in the shallows, are common along the northwest coast of Oregon.
- Attractions and Special Events for the Season. During the first weekend of May, Cannon Beach hosts the free Spring Unveiling Art Festival, where dozens of local art galleries unveil the works they’ve been working on all winter. Family-friendly activities in Cannon Beach include the annual Sandcastle Contest, which has been going strong for over 50 years now. To participate in the sandcastle building competition, however, there is a registration fee ranging from $5 to $20 (depending on the participant’s age).
9. Ogunquit, Maine
Ogunquit Beach, located in the heart of Maine’s busy southern coast, is one of the state’s longest sand beaches, which is saying very little given Maine’s reputation for having a very rocky coastline.
New Englanders who crave sunshine go to Ogunquit during the summer. Its proximity to Boston and the picturesque seaside cities of Portland, Maine, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, makes it possible for out-of-town visitors to break up their journey into multiple stops.
Ogunquit isn’t the warmest or driest area on Earth, just like Cannon Beach or the beaches of western Michigan. There will be lots of sunny, warm days perfect for swimming and lounging this summer, but you should still prepare for the possibility of cooler weather or even rain.
Luckily, there are many land-based things to do in the Ogunquit area, such as going on long hikes through the forest or window shopping in Ogunquit, Wells, or Portland.
- Parking in town can be expensive, with some lots charging up to $25 per day in high season and up to $4 per hour during the summer months. In the shoulder seasons (spring and fall), parking costs no more than $20 per day, and in the dead of winter, it’s free.
- The Perfect Time to Visit. Peak season occurs in late July and August, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The water is usually warm enough to swim in around the beginning of June, depending on the severity of the previous winter, so that month likely offers the best combination of manageable crowds, beautiful weather, and favorable swimming conditions. Even though rates may be higher and swimming may be impossible, early to mid-October is a beautiful time to come because of the changing leaves.
- Where to Stay. This stretch of Maine’s coast is home to a wide variety of hotels, B&Bs, and motels, many of which are privately owned and operated. The low season fee for a standard room is roughly $50, whereas the high season ranges from $75 to $100. (possibly higher on summer holiday weekends).
- Plenty of camping options can be reached by car or trolley. Tent sites at the Riverside Park Campground can be had for as little as $25 per night in nearby Wells.
- How to Get There. If you’re driving north from Boston, Ogunquit is about an hour and a half away in ideal traffic circumstances, which can be hard to come by during the summer. (I can attest to the fact that driving down I-95 through northern Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and southern Maine on a summer weekend during “beach traffic” can be a nightmare, adding an extra two or three hours to your trip.) You may easily reach Boston by flying into Logan International Airport (flights from major U.S. cities start at $125 one-way) and then getting around the city with a rented automobile. If you want to avoid traffic, you can take the Amtrak Downeaster from Boston’s North Station to Wells (fares range from $18 to $30, depending on when you travel and what fare class you purchase) and then ride the seasonal Ogunquit Trolley (which runs from early June to early September and costs $2 one way) to get to Ogunquit.
- When the weather is great, folks in Ogunquit know how to make the most of it. Repeat these steps: Get some rays and a little wet on the town beach if the weather is nice, especially at the beginning of your trip. Not only Ogunquit but also Wells and York, have attractive main streets perfect for window shopping on days when the weather is less than ideal. Day visits to Portsmouth and Portland are highly recommended due to the abundance of inexpensive seafood and numerous free historical sites in the area. If you want to see coastal birds in their natural habitat without having to deal with sand, a visit to Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge is a great option.
- Event and Seasonal Attractions. The Fourth of July fireworks show in Ogunquit is one of the most well-attended along the whole Maine coast. There will be no admission charge, but donations will be accepted. The town hosts a parade, market stalls, tours of historic buildings, and other events for the whole family in the middle of April to celebrate Patriots’ Day. OgunquitFest, held in October, is a mini-film festival, scarecrow-building competition, and classic automobile exhibition that draws in the thousands.
To be honest, when I think of a beach vacation, I immediately picture one of those tacky, all-inclusive tropical resort or cruise package deals that we constantly see marketed on TV and in the newspaper. However, if you want to make your next trip to the beach more of an adventure, you may do so without having to deal with any of the typical hassles, such as crowded hotels.
Actually, if you want to save money on your next trip, the best thing you can do is to stay away from expensive resorts and well-heeled crowds. This could make it possible for you to take another vacation sooner than you expected. It will also likely enhance your trip since you and the kids are more likely to recall a bustling tidal pool long after the hordes of scantily clad tourists have faded from memory.