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Saving sand dollars: How to plan an affordable beach vacation

SmarterTravel

If you’ve decided to go to the beach this year, you may be worried about spending a lot of money. But you don’t have to liquidate your savings account to afford a waterfront vacation. Here are some strategies to help you plan an enjoyable, inexpensive trip to the beach.

Getting started

Before going to the beach, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What beach do I want to visit?
  2. How much do I want to spend?
  3. What type of accommodations should I choose?
  4. Do I need a rental car?
  5. Would a vacation package save money?

1. What beach do I want to visit?

The U.S. has a plethora of beach options on both coasts, plus the Hawaiian islands, and no two regions are alike. Decide if you want a beach packed with people and of nightlife options, like Miami’s South Beach; one with boardwalk activities, like Ocean City, MD; or a more remote, private beach, like Wells, Maine.

To help find a beach that’s perfect for you, visit a beach guide site such as SurfSun.com or the Travel Channel’s America’s Best Beaches listings.

Finally, before you finalize plans, make sure to check that the beach you’ve picked is clean and open for public use. Check beach water quality at Earth 911 or overall quality ratings on the EPA website.

2. How much do I want to spend?

Take into account all transportation expenses, including airfare or train tickets, gas for your car or rental car fees, and public transportation costs (if applicable) once you get to your destination.

Factor in miscellany: shopping at seaside boutiques, beauty treatments, entrance fees at boardwalk attractions, or drinks and cover charges at clubs. If you’re active, consider the charges of renting surf boards or bicycles, or the cost of acquiring car equipment (roof racks, tows for boats and Jetskis) if you’re bringing your own gear.

Other expenses may come up: Some beaches charge parking and entrance fees, particularly for nonresidents. To find out if such charges will apply, call the local tourism bureau of the beach town you plan on visiting.

3. What type of accommodations should I choose?

As your accommodations choice could mean the difference between being thrifty or extravagant, this decision requires some legwork. Do you want resort accommodations, a vacation rental, a simple hotel, or a campsite?

For example, if you’re traveling with friends, a vacation rental (with the cost shared among many) may be an affordable option. Or, if you want everything taken care of for you, an all-inclusive resort might be your best bet. Also decide whether you want to stay right on the beach, as this may be pricier, or in a more affordable spot that’s not as close to the water.

Determine how much you want to spend for meals each day and whether you plan on eating out, preparing meals in your vacation rentals, or picnicking. Depending on your preference, you can spend as much or as little as you want.

4. Do I need a rental car?

If you decide to rent a car, determine the vehicle size youÃ?’d like to rent, how many days you will need it, and if you are eligible for any discounts (AAA, AARP, or other club membership; coupons; etc.). Always make sure you book well in advance and read the fine print in your contract. If you are attempting to book a promotional rate, double-check availability dates to make sure the sale is valid for when you need your car. And, if you’re outdoorsy, remember to add in the extra cost of getting equipment to accommodate boats and Jetskis, or consider renting a larger vehicle such as an SUV or minivan with extra space for all your gear. Check car deals on SmarterTravel.com for current offers.

5. Would a vacation package save money?

Consider an air-hotel-and-car vacation package if you prefer the convenience of one-stop shopping, which can often save you money over booking trip components separately.

Vacation packages for popular beach destinations can be researched on major travel websites such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity. You can also check SmarterTravel.com for the latest vacation package deals. However, if your destination is off the beaten path, youÃ?’ll find the best deals on the town or regionÃ?’s visitor bureau websites, or you can call them directly. DonÃ?’t forget to check CVB sites for major tourist destinations as well, as they may offer exclusive deals not found on popular travel sites.

Be flexible

If you’re not finding good prices for your first-choice travel dates, consider cheaper off-peak dates or discounted last-minute fares. For example, FloridaÃ?’s low season is in the summer, as the majority of its tourists visit in winter to escape snowy weather back home. In addition, last-minute fares, even for the beach, are available, usually on a weekly basis. You can check last-minute hotel and car deals on the websites of leading hotel and rental car providers. Or, search SmarterTravel.com for the latest last-minute deals, updated each week.

In planning your dream beach vacation, try to be as flexible as possible. Give yourself ample time to research and book, as popular beach destinations such as Cape Cod fill up quickly. Once youÃ?’re there, youÃ?’ll be able to relax fully, knowing your vacationÃ?’s memories will last a lifetime, and the bills will not.

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