The idea of a beach vacation is to lose your cares in the waves, on the water or settled blissfully atop sun-warmed sand. But you don’t want to lose your savings in the process. Though beachgoing itself is usually free, enjoying access means finding accommodations and activities within your means. Whether you like your waves salty or fresh, the following beach towns offer free and affordable variations on the perks of vacationing by the water.
Lodging in each town varies, depending on when you go and how long you stay, but prices range from $100 to $400 a night.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Don’t rule out one of Florida’s top beach towns as too expensive. Fort Lauderdale is a popular destination for several low-cost airlines, including Spirit, which helps lower the price to get there.
What to do: Travelers have eight beaches in the greater Fort Lauderdale area to explore. From busy Deerfield Beach with a popular fishing pier to the main city strand with the 2-mile beachfront promenade and Lauderdale-By-The-Sea where you can snorkel from shore. Watch for wood storks and osprey at Snake Warrior’s Island Natural Area, part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. Use the free LauderGo! Micro Mover to get to many restaurants and shops downtown.
Where to stay: Plenty of bargain chain hotels are close to the beach in Fort Lauderdale. For something more personal in a similar price range, book a room at the Oasis Hotel a few blocks from the beach.
On freshwater Lake Michigan, a little more than two hours from Chicago, arty Saugatuck’s lakeside dunes and undeveloped beaches attract explorers, as well as boaters and lovers of slow-lane travel.
What to do: Wade into the water from more than 12 miles of beaches surrounding Saugatuck, including popular Oval Beach backed by rolling dunes. Just north, wander the undulating trails and shady forests amid 200-foot-tall dunes at Saugatuck Dunes State Park. For exercise, tackle the 350 steps up and down the path to crowd-free Laketown Beach. Rent a kayak ($25 an hour at Third Coast Paddling) to explore the Kalamazoo Lake — just a few dunes east of the Great Lake — and tie up to stroll around downtown and browse through art galleries, boutiques, restaurants and even an old-fashioned drugstore soda fountain.
Where to stay: A handful of midcentury motels have been revived to contemporary standards, including 1958-vintage The Pines Motor Lodge with cheerful rooms and Adirondack chairs placed around the property.