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4 Hidden, Cheap Beach Destinations on the Gulf Coast

SmarterTravel

Last summer, when you were sitting in Miami traffic or laying down a month’s pay for a family trip to Maui, you may have wondered if your relaxing beach vacation was all worth it. There must be cheaper beach vacation alternatives, you think—and you’re right, there are.

Hidden and Cheap Beach Destinations

Look to the Gulf of Mexico for ultra-soft sand, crystal-clear waters, and surprisingly cheap beach vacations. The following Gulf Coast beach destinations are still unmarred by development, with opportunities for adventure, culture, great food, and, yes, even reasonable prices. Whether you’re looking for cheap beach vacations in Florida or in other lesser-known states for tourism, this list of hidden and affordable beach destinations on the Gulf Coast will satisfy your desire for sun and sand—without breaking the bank.

Anna Maria Island, Florida

anna maria island

The hidden beach destination Floridians escape to, Anna Maria Island has somehow managed to keep condo towers, fast-food chains, amusement parks, and glitzy mega-resorts off its shores. In fact, no construction on this seven-mile long barrier island on Florida’s Gulf Coast is more than three stories tall, and 60 percent of its land is open beach. And it’s affordable, especially in the summer. You can rent vacation homes with water views and pools for under $1,000 per week and get seafood entrees at beachfront restaurants for less than $20.

“My trip to Anna Maria made me feel in a nostalgic sense what beach vacations must have been like 20 or 30 years ago,” says Tim Leffel, author of Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune, who visited the island with his family. “It has something other destinations have lost. It’s an old-fashioned place where you can just relax and hang out on the beach with your kids, without arcades and other distractions.”

While doing nothing is the island’s prime pastime, there are plenty of options when you want something to do. You can snorkel, kayak, or fish in the Gulf’s clear waters, or explore the island’s three small communities: Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach, and the town of Anna Maria. A free trolley runs up and down the length of the island, making it easy to check out the island’s boutique shops or restaurants. For dining, you can try affordable local favorites such as the Anna Maria Island Beach Cafe, which is known for its all-you-can-eat pancakes for $5.99, and Star Fish Company, whose dockside restaurant serves up the local catch at surprisingly cheap prices.

Where to stay: Most accommodations on Anna Maria are vacation rentals or small condo resorts. TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company) has Anna Maria Island rentals priced well below $1,000 per week. If you’d prefer to stay at a hotel or condo resort, reasonably priced options include Tradewinds Beach Resort and Pelican Post.

Getting there: A pair of bridges connects the island to the mainland. Anna Maria is about an hour’s drive from the Tampa airport and 45 minutes from St. Petersburg.

Gulf Shores, Alabama

gulf shores beach
Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism

When most Americans think of Alabama, sugar-sand beaches and palm trees aren’t the first things that come to mind. Many forget that Alabama’s heel nudges onto the Gulf of Mexico, its coastline a natural extension of the Florida Panhandle. In fact, this region, Gulf Shores, has miles of enviable waterfront real estate. The ignorance of others is a boon to the enlightened traveler.

The area has tried to make itself into a laid-back beach destination for families and outdoor enthusiasts, without the flash of theme parks, swanky resorts, and college spring break action. Most visitors come to spend a week relaxing on the beach with occasional forays out to visit the attractions. Nature lovers can explore Gulf Shores’ protected wilderness areas including the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge and Gulf State Park. Those interested in learning about Alabama history can check out Fort Morgan State Historic Site, a Civil War-era fort. Playing golf at one of Gulf Shores’ championship golf courses and fishing are also popular pursuits.

Where to stay: The vast majority of accommodations in Gulf Shores are rental homes and condos. TripAdvisor lists hundreds of options. I found weekly rates in August starting under $1,000.

Getting there: Gulf Shores is located about an hour’s drive from the airport in Pensacola, Florida, and about 90 minutes from the airport in Mobile, Alabama.

Ocean Springs, Mississippi

ocean springs mississippi
Fotoluminate LLC / Shutterstock

Just five miles east of Biloxi is the quiet coastal community of Ocean Springs, where small-town charm meets gorgeous white-sand beaches for an affordable Gulf Coast getaway. Outdoor activity options include stand-up paddleboarding, fishing, kayaking, and canoeing. The town is popular with art lovers, too, thanks to its many shops and galleries, as well as the Walter Anderson Museum of Art downtown.

The town is near the Davis Bayou section of Gulf Islands National Seashore, where visitors can go fishing, hiking, or bird watching in a protected marshland area. Admission is free.

Where to stay: There were dozens of vacation rentals on TripAdvisor under $1,000 a week for the dates I checked, and hotels are equally affordable. Most of them are familiar chains, such as the Holiday Inn Express Biloxi-Ocean Springs, but you can also stay in independent properties like the Gulf Hills Hotel & Conference Center.

Getting there: Ocean Springs is just a 10-minute drive from Biloxi and about 90 minutes from New Orleans.

Santa Rosa Beach, Florida

Rotorhead Aerial / Shutterstock

Tucked away on the Florida Panhandle between Pensacola and Tallahassee is a beach town where the waters are a perfect turquoise and the sand feels like soft, finely ground flour between your toes. Visit Topsail Hill Preserve State Park to try your hand at freshwater fishing, hike through well-preserved wetlands, or relax on quiet white sand beaches. You can hike or bike on the trails at Point Washington State Forest, which protects a range of coastal ecosystems.

You’ll find numerous shops and restaurants in the historic downtown area, including plenty of cheap eats. One local favorite is The Meltdown on 30A, a food truck specializing in grilled cheese.

Where to stay: Hotels in Santa Rosa Beach are relatively limited, with most visitors choosing vacation rentals instead. TripAdvisor has numerous listings, with summer rates starting below $1,000 a week. For budget hotels, your best bet is to stay in nearby Destin, which has a variety of affordable chain properties such as the Home2 Suites by Hilton Destin.

Getting there: The closest airports to Santa Rosa Beach are Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport and Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in Panama City, each about an hour away.

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Editor’s note: Sarah Schlichter contributed to this article.

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