New Study: This Is the No. 1 Most Affordable Beach Town in the U.S.
The little-known beach town is about to become your new favorite vacation destination
Finding fabulous but cheap places to travel has required a bit of creativity over the past year, as people try to make up for lost vacations during the pandemic and rising costs have crunched travelers’ budgets. At the start of this summer, hotel prices were up 11%, according to booking app Hopper, and prices for lodging at top vacation destinations were spiking as high as 51%. Ouch!
Lucky for you, a new study has a few ideas on where you can go for sun, fun and savings. Travel site Upgraded Points analyzed the cost of staying in dozens of the nation’s best beach towns and compiled a list of the cheapest (and most expensive) places to visit in 2023. And while you may have never heard of the city that earned the top spot, you may want to do a little research ASAP so you can book a surprisingly affordable weeklong getaway or a quick trip before word gets out.
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Which factors determined the best cheap beach towns?
Upgraded Points devised its list of the cheapest beach towns in America by looking at the nightly and weekly cost of Airbnb rentals in some of the nation’s most popular beach hot spots—specifically, the 75 best beaches as identified by Travel & Leisure and Southern Living. The goal was to find the places where you could get the best ocean view for the least amount of money over the course of a seven-night stay.
Spoiler alert: The Hamptons, Malibu and Key West were among the priciest.
But the study also revealed some great beach destinations that won’t break the bank, starting with an island off Florida’s Gulf Coast.
What is the cheapest beach town in the United States?
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Cedar Key, Florida, is the beach destination with the cheapest beach accommodations, according to the study by Upgraded Points. In this tiny town, located about three miles off the West Coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico (and about an hour southwest of Gainesville), you can expect to pay an average $189 per night for a vacation rental home, or $191 per night for a hotel. For the whole week, average costs ring in around $1,330.
Compare that with the $6,400-plus you’d pay for a week in Montauk, New York, according to the same study. But is it worth it? What, exactly, will you find when you arrive in Cedar Key, and is it truly one of the best beaches in Florida?
What does a vacation in Cedar Key look like?
If you haven’t heard of Cedar Key, Florida, you’re not alone. Described by its chamber of commerce as a “tranquil village” and a “quiet island community,” the municipality has just 800-plus full-time residents and one road into town: Highway 24, which crosses over marshes and waterways on the way out to the island.
In contrast to densely packed beach destinations found up and down much of the nation’s East and West coasts, you won’t find towering hotels and bustling boardwalks here. Instead, you’ll be treated to a community of quaint cottages, single-family homes and waterfront properties, so your best bet will likely be a home rental, though you can also find some options for motels, hotels and camping spots.
Of course, there are a lot more than 800 people in Cedar Key on any given day—particularly during peak vacation seasons, when thousands of guests stream in to enjoy the beach and so much more. The island is known for its annual festivals centered around seafood, pirates and the arts, not to mention being a prime location for bird watching, nature trails, kayaking and coastal tours.
Looking for a day trip? Responsible, eco-minded tourists can visit Cedar Key Wildlife Refuge, a federally protected haven for wildlife that’s reachable only by water.
Other affordable beach towns
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If a trip to Florida’s Gulf Coast isn’t in the cards for your next trip, the Upgraded Points study laid out nine other comparably inexpensive beach destinations. Rounding out the top 10 are:
- Ocean Springs, Mississippi
- Ocean Shores, Washington
- Port Aransas, Texas
- Galveston, Texas
- Ocean City, Maryland
- Pawleys Island, South Carolina
- San Juan Island, Washington
- Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (which has its fair share of affordable beachfront hotels)
- Bar Harbor, Maine
Whether you’re visiting one of those beach towns or found another that suits your travel hopes, you can often tailor your booking to your budget. For instance, according to vacation rental management company Vacasa, non-oceanfront properties are around 26% cheaper. So if you can sacrifice the most coveted real estate along the beach itself, booking a hotel or rental property a few blocks inland can make your trip a lot more affordable. For more savings, find out the best time to book a hotel—and a flight.