I've Lived in Florida for 27 Years — and These Are the Best Affordable Beach Vacations in the State

A local weighs in on the best cheap beach vacations in Florida without the high price tags.

<p>Sean Pavone/Getty Images</p>

Sean Pavone/Getty Images

Hundreds of miles of coastline keep Florida top of mind for a beach vacation year-round. And despite the Sunshine State's perpetual popularity, you might be surprised by how much terrain there is for a cheap beach getaway filled with fun.

After 27 years in Florida, I’ve done my fair share of poking around for the finest sandy stretches the state has to offer.

When friends come to visit from across the country or around the world, I always point them to a few places they’d likely never discover on their own — all the better for having a unique Florida experience while saving some money. With that in mind, here are some of some of my favorite places for a cheap beach vacation in Florida that doesn't skimp on sun and fun.


<p>Lynne Buchanan/Getty Images</p>

Lynne Buchanan/Getty Images

Famous for its oyster bars and seafood shacks like LongBill’s, this friendly community along Florida’s Panhandle is prime for an affordable beach vacation, especially when you stay at a historic property like The Bowery Inn or Taranto House, both of which date to the early 1900s, or the lovely Gibson Inn, another historic hotel with a breezy wraparound porch.

“This community captivates the heart and soul of Old Florida charm with a relaxed vibe, incredible fishing, one-of-a-kind boutiques, and the liveliest locals slurping down fresh oysters and plenty of libations,” says Jason Bogan, general manager of The Gibson Inn. “So, come on down, pull up a stool, and immerse yourself in some genuine Southern hospitality.”

Among the many unspoiled white-sand beaches in Apalachicola and the Forgotten Coast are stretches lining the beautiful barrier island of St. George. Laura Byrne of Tampa Bay Parenting says she first fell in love with the island’s beaches while living in Tallahassee some years ago (Florida’s state capital is about 80 miles northeast of St. George Island).

“I’m from Tampa and was used to the beautiful sugar-sand beaches of Clearwater, and St. George Island State Park did not disappoint,” says Byrne. Grab a kayak or canoe from Island Outfitters and paddle in the Gulf of Mexico or along the Apalachicola River Paddling Trail System, or rent a golf cart to explore Apalachicola’s historic district, home to many interesting buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Cocoa Beach

<p>Valerie de Leon/Travel + Leisure</p>

Valerie de Leon/Travel + Leisure

Cocoa Beach was always my preferred destination for an affordable beach weekend when I spent a few years after college living in nearby Orlando. Just about a one-hour drive east of Orlando puts you along these dune-backed beaches where pro surfer Kelly Slater grew up shredding waves. You can rent a board at Ron Jon Surf Shop and paddle out near the Cocoa Beach Pier, or sign up for surf lessons at the School of Surf. Budget-minded hotels in the area include Beach Place Guesthouses — one of my favorites in all of Florida for a low-key stay — strung with hammocks and fronting a quiet stretch of sand with loaner surfboards at the ready. Rise early from August to September for a beach walk here, and you might even see baby sea turtles hatching. Also be sure to check the rocket launch calendar for a free show in the sky. "The Wizard of Oz" fans will want to shell out a few bucks to pop into the quirky Wizard of Oz Museum, home to a private collection that spans decades of memorabilia. With all this and more, it's no wonder Cocoa Beach is one of the best beaches near Orlando.

New Smyrna Beach

<p>VisionsbyAtlee/Getty Images</p>

VisionsbyAtlee/Getty Images

New Smyrna Beach, another popular option not far from Orlando, is a safe and beautiful bet for an affordable beach vacation in Florida. Oceanfront condos for rent line the packed sand, plus you can consider a riverside stay at one of my favorite bed-and-breakfasts in the state — Black Dolphin Inn, which fronts the Intracoastal Waterway. A quintessential Florida feed awaits on the river at JB’s Fish Camp, a local favorite for its fabulous grouper sandwich and fish dip. You can rent kayaks and paddleboards here, too, and paddle out into the surrounding river. Florida’s largest stretch of undeveloped coastline also awaits at Canaveral National Seashore, with 24 miles of pristine sand for sunbathing, shelling, and swimming.

Panama City Beach

<p>Jacqueline Anders/Getty Images</p>

Jacqueline Anders/Getty Images

This former party-heavy destination has pivoted in recent years to become a favorite among families seeking an affordable and cheerful beach vacation in Florida. Panama City Beach’s unpretentious vibes pair with gorgeous Gulf of Mexico beaches, making it a top Panhandle destination. Scuba divers like me flock to the area to blow bubbles underwater at five shipwrecks that are part of the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail. And you only need a mask and snorkel to fin out from the beach and explore the rock jetty and artificial reef attracting tropical fish, rays, and more at St. Andrews State Park. Book an affordable room at the beachfront Flamingo Hotel and Tower; hit Shrimp Basket for a budget feast of oysters, wings, and shrimp; and simply bask in the mellow beach vibes.

Pensacola Beach

<p>mrolands/Getty Images</p>

mrolands/Getty Images

With accommodation options that range from camping at Fort Pickens to the beachfront Pensacola Beach RV Resort and chain hotels to the gorgeous Pensacola Beach Resort, this is another affordable Panhandle destination in Florida. You can explore the area on a budget aboard the 145-passenger Pensacola Bay City Ferry, which connects downtown Pensacola, Fort Pickens, and Pensacola Beach. But you’ll want to jump in the car to visit other gorgeous area beaches, too, like Johnson Beach at Gulf Islands National Seashore and the dune-backed white strand at Perdido Key State Park. From April through October, free bands play at Pensacola Beach, and people bring lawn chairs and settle in for the evening.The U.S. Navy Blue Angels are at home in Pensacola, so you might even be treated to a free show in the sky. Lastly, don’t miss Atlas Oyster House for a lively brunch in town plus cheap bloody marys and bottles of bubbly.

Bradenton Beach

<p>DIANETTE GARCIA/Getty Images</p>


A vacation in Bradenton Beach along Florida’s Gulf Coast puts visitors within a quick drive of some of the region’s most gorgeous beaches along Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key — all for a fraction of the price. You can still find old-school properties like Beach Dreams and BridgeWalk fronting the white sand and historic district here. You can also explore the area for free aboard the Island Trolley, which makes a loop from Bradenton’s Coquina Beach north to Anna Maria Island’s City Pier. Weekends boom with families descending for all-you-can-eat pancakes served with Gulf of Mexico views at the beloved Anna Maria Island Beach Cafe. And the lively Coquina Beach Market, next to Longboat Pass and with all kinds of crafts and handmade items for sale, always makes for a fun, free outing on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

St. Augustine Beach

<p>Valerie de Leon/Travel + Leisure</p>

Valerie de Leon/Travel + Leisure

St. Augustine may be one of Florida’s most touristic (and historic) cities, but you can have a surprisingly affordable beach vacation here, too.

Tour St. Augustine offers free historic walking tours of the downtown attractions every Saturday and Sunday, as well as other options. My kids love riding the free passenger ferry to Rattlesnake Island to play pirates at Fort Matanzas National Monument, which has gorgeous views overlooking the Matanzas River. There’s also a playground that kids love at Lighthouse Park, where you can picnic under the oaks and take in the lighthouse views. When it comes to beach time, there’s no better free activity than bodysurfing and searching the sand for shark teeth at St. Augustine Beach or Vilano Beach, where you'll still find affordable, mom-and-pop properties like Magic Beach Motel.

Lake Worth Beach

<p>Karl Weatherly/Getty Images</p>

Karl Weatherly/Getty Images

Just south of tony Palm Beach, Lake Worth Beach is a great option if you’re looking for an affordable vacation along this notoriously pricey stretch of South Florida. The City of Lake Worth Beach pier is a favorite spot among surfers and has a buzzing breakfast joint — Benny’s on the Beach, where the kids can fill up on French toast and pancakes, then scoot down to the sand, while the bloody marys and mimosas flow for adults. Between Lake Worth and Lantana, just south, there are plenty of mom-and-pop hotels within a short bike ride of the beaches, including Beachway Inn and Barefoot Mailman Inn & Suites. The Lake Worth Beach Waterside Farmers Market is a lively place to spend a Saturday morning from October through April, with coffee, music, and dancing in the street. Free concerts and festivals with lagoon views often play out at the bandshell at Bryant Park Pavilion, too.

Indian Rocks Beach

<p>Joel Waldrop/Getty Images</p>

Joel Waldrop/Getty Images

Beloved by locals, but often overlooked where it sits between busier St. Pete Beach to the south and Clearwater Beach to the north, Indian Rocks Beach is one of my go-tos for an affordable beach vacation in the Tampa Bay area, where I live.

Sign the family up for surf lessons with Sister Jo’s Surf School (the waves are almost always ideal for beginners) and stroll the boardwalk through a marshy forest at the small but beautiful Indian Rocks Beach Nature Preserve. “I love that you can enjoy paddleboarding, kayaking, and snorkeling here, and the white sand is perfect for building castles and finding unique shells,” says Karimah Henry of Crafting a Fun Life.

When I visit with my own family, I love staying just south of Indian Rocks Beach, in Indian Shores, at the affordable Legacy Vacation Resorts. A certified B Corp property, it fronts the Intracoastal Waterway and has an outdoor grilling area where we cook hot dogs and hamburgers to save on dining out while enjoying some of the best waterfront views around.

Bonita Springs

<p>dosecreative/Getty Images</p>

dosecreative/Getty Images

Just north of flashy Naples, Bonita Springs offers an affordable Florida beach vacation with access to equally lovely Gulf of Mexico sand. Make the Hyatt Vacation Club at Coconut Cove your base, and enjoy the 1,000-foot lazy river, fire pit, barbecue area, and tiki bar. Nearby, Lovers Key State Park's two miles of undeveloped sand beckons for shelling and boogie boarding. Dive into more of the area’s singular tropical nature at Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, where you can stroll along a boardwalk through the largest old-growth bald cypress forest in North America. When hunger strikes, follow the neon to Mel’s Diner, which serves comfort foods like pot roast melts and pulled pork sandwiches that won’t break the bank.

Related: I've Lived in Florida All My Life, and These Are the Most Beautiful Places in the Sunshine State

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