You need a vacation but your budget is tighter than your swimsuit after the holidays. No worries, we’ve got you covered. The Gulf side of Florida is home to some of the most affordable beach destinations in the country with soft white sand, swaying palm trees and sunsets that’ll make you swoon for under $100 a night. From the natural beauty of Sanibel Island to the retro cool of St. Pete Beach, you can soak in the laid-back beach vibe without soaking through your savings.
Get ready to ditch your worries, slip on your flip flops and dive into 5 Cheap Vacations on Gulf Side of Florida that’ll leave you with money left over for a cocktail (or two!) to toast the sunset. Staycation schmaycation, a beach getaway is calling your name.
5 Cheap Vacations on Gulf Side of Florida
Panama City Beach: Affordable Fun in the Sun
Looking for an affordable beach getaway? Panama City Beach should be at the top of your list. With 27 miles of white sand beaches and an average of 320 sunny days a year, you really can’t go wrong.
Staying on the beach doesn’t have to break the bank either. You’ll find reasonably priced resorts, hotels, and vacation rentals along the shore. For under $100 a night, you can get a room with beachfront access, a pool, hot tub, and tiki bar. Or rent a beach house or condo for under $200 and split it with friends.
There’s no shortage of free and cheap activities to keep you entertained. Go shelling, build a sandcastle, or just relax in the sun. Check out the scenic beach boardwalk or historic pier. For some adventure, go boating, fishing, or snorkeling in the warm Gulf waters.
When you get hungry, you’ll find casual seafood joints, food trucks, and walk-up spots with budget-friendly fare like grouper sandwiches, coconut shrimp, and fish tacos. And you can’t leave without trying some key lime pie!
With an exciting nightlife, kid-friendly attractions like WonderWorks and Shipwreck Island Waterpark, and nearby state parks for enjoying nature, there really is something for everyone in Panama City Beach. For an unforgettable Florida getaway on a budget, this coastal paradise can’t be beat.
Fort Myers and Sanibel Island: Seashells and Sunsets
If you’re looking for an affordable beach getaway, Fort Myers and Sanibel Island should be at the top of your list. Just a few hours west of Miami, this area offers over 100 miles of coastline along the Gulf of Mexico and Sanibel Island’s famous seashell beaches.
Once you arrive, head to Sanibel Island and its neighbor Captiva Island. These barrier islands are renowned for beachcombing, especially at low tide. You’ll find sand dollars, conchs, and maybe even the elusive junonia, one of the rarest shells. The best spots are Bowman’s Beach, Lighthouse Beach, and Blind Pass Beach.
In the evenings, catch the sunset along the beach or at one of the island’s casual beach bars like The Mucky Duck, Doc Ford’s, or Traditions on the Beach. For dinner, grab some fresh seafood like shrimp, crab cakes, or grouper sandwiches.
If you want to venture off the islands, visit the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses over 6,400 acres of mangroves, marshes and submerged sea grass beds. It’s home to over 220 bird species, so bring your binoculars! You can hike, bike, or drive the scenic road.
In Fort Myers, see the winter estates of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates. Admission includes access to the botanical gardens, Edison’s laboratory, and a museum detailing their lives.
With an abundance of natural scenery, outdoor activities, and Old Florida charm at wallet-friendly prices, Fort Myers and Sanibel Island make the perfect budget-friendly beach getaway. Leave your worries behind and soak in the laid-back island vibe.
Naples and Marco Island: A Taste of the Tropics
Naples and Marco Island offer a taste of the tropics without the high price tag. These neighboring beach towns on Florida’s Paradise Coast have the same sugary white sand and swaying palm trees as more expensive destinations, but at a fraction of the cost.
Naples Beach and Pier
Take a stroll down the historic Naples Pier, first built in 1888, which extends 1,000 feet into the Gulf of Mexico. Soak in the picturesque sunsets and you may spot dolphins swimming by. The beach along the pier is postcard-perfect and open to the public, so you can swim, sunbathe, and build sandcastles at no cost.
Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park
This undeveloped barrier island north of Naples Beach has over a mile of secluded shoreline and mangrove estuaries teeming with wildlife. Kayak or canoe the tranquil waters, then set up camp at one of the park’s secluded beach campsites with gorgeous waterfront views. Entrance to the park is only $6 per vehicle.
Marco Island Beaches
The powdery white sand beaches of Marco Island, like Tigertail Beach and South Marco Beach, offer a quieter alternative to Naples Beach with amenities like playgrounds, picnic areas, and hiking trails. Rent a bike to explore the island’s 15 miles of beaches and mangrove forests.
With an abundance of natural beauty and outdoor activities at lower price points, Naples and Marco Island are ideal for an affordable beach getaway. Ditch the tourist crowds, high rise hotels, and resort fees in favor of these small beach towns brimming with Old Florida charm. Your wallet will thank you!
Tampa Bay Area: From Beaches to Bush Gardens
The Tampa Bay area offers an appealing sunny getaway without maxing out your budget. You have gorgeous Gulf coast beaches, thrilling theme parks, and a vibrant city to explore—all at lower costs than other Florida destinations.
St. Pete and Clearwater Beaches
Some of the best beaches in the U.S. line the Gulf in St. Petersburg and Clearwater, with soft white sand and clear turquoise waters. St. Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach offer an idyllic beach escape with swaying palm trees, beach bars, and sunbathing. You can find good deals on hotels, especially if you avoid peak season from January to April. Or for a budget-friendly stay, check out the many beachfront vacation rentals and Airbnbs.
When you need a beach break, head to John’s Pass Village & Boardwalk in Madeira Beach for shopping, dining, drinks and entertainment. This historic fishing village has been transformed into a popular attraction with waterfront restaurants, bars, trinket shops and boat charters. Admission to the boardwalk is free.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
For a thrill-packed theme park adventure, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is a must. This African-themed park is home to some of the wildest rollercoasters in Florida, including the 200-foot drop from SheiKra. Busch Gardens frequently runs sales on single-day and multiday tickets, especially for Florida residents. Or look for bundled deals that combine your park ticket with a hotel stay. The park’s location in north Tampa means you can find good value lodging nearby, rather than paying resort prices closer to Orlando.
With exciting rides, live shows, animal encounters and themed areas representing Egypt, Congo, and more—Busch Gardens packs a lot of adventure into one place. It’s no wonder it’s rated as the #3 theme park in the U.S. by TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Awards. An affordable way to experience the thrills and save on tickets is going after 5 pm when admission prices drop. You can easily fill an evening here watching the live shows, riding a few big coasters and enjoying a meal at one of the dining locations.
Sarasota: Culture and Nature on the Cheap
Sarasota offers an appealing combination of culture and natural beauty at budget-friendly prices. Located on Florida’s Gulf coast, it’s home to stunning white sand beaches, as well as a thriving arts scene.
Some of the best beaches in the U.S. line Sarasota’s 35 miles of coastline. Siesta Key Beach is a local favorite with soft white sand and turquoise waters. It’s perfect for swimming, sunbathing or sunset strolls. Lido Key Beach and Longboat Key Beach are also scenic spots to soak in the sun and sea. Beach parking is affordable, around $8 per day, or take advantage of free street parking on some roads.
Sarasota is known as Florida’s cultural capital, with a strong arts community. Visit the Ringling Museum of Art, the state art museum of Florida, which offers free admission on Mondays. View European paintings as well as contemporary art exhibits. The Ringling Circus Museum documents the history of the American circus. Admission tickets are under $15.
The Marietta Museum of Art and Whimsy features quirky outdoor sculptures and whimsical indoor art. Admission is by donation. The Sarasota Classic Car Museum has a renowned collection of antique and classic cars, with tickets around $10.
Stroll along the Sarasota bayfront or visit St. Armands Circle, an outdoor shopping and dining area on Lido Key. Rent kayaks or paddleboards to explore the bay’s mangroves and coastline. Tickets are around $30 for two hours.
Visit Myakka River State Park, one of Florida’s oldest and largest state parks. Explore woodlands, wetlands and prairies via hiking and biking trails. Airboat rides provide opportunities to spot birds, turtles and gators in their natural habitat. Admission to the park is $6 per vehicle. Airboat tours are around $12 for 30 minutes.
With appealing beaches, an artsy vibe and natural attractions, Sarasota offers an affordable island getaway on Florida’s Gulf coast. The city has a relaxing charm that will make you want to return again and again.
St. Petersburg and Clearwater: A Beach Lover’s Paradise
The St. Petersburg and Clearwater area on Florida’s Gulf Coast offers an affordable beach getaway with a laid-back vibe. You’ll find miles of white sand beaches, beachside activities galore, and sunsets that will take your breath away.
St. Pete Beach
One of the most popular beaches is St. Pete Beach, with its old Florida charm and resorts right on the sand. Check out the beach scene along Beach Drive, then head to the historic Corey Avenue district for dining, shopping, and nightlife. The beach itself has picnic areas, volleyball courts, and beach rentals. You can go paddle boarding, jet skiing or just lounge the day away.
Just north of St. Pete Beach, you’ll find the iconic Clearwater Beach with its colorful sunsets and pier. It’s a very walkable beach town with restaurants, attractions and beach activities within easy reach. Take a sunset stroll along the beach or the Memorial Causeway Bridge. Dolphin watching tours and pirate ship cruises depart from the marina. For a fun photo op, head to the Pier 60 Park and playground.
Caladesi Island State Park
For a natural beach experience, visit Caladesi Island State Park, accessible only by ferry. Its pristine beaches and mangrove forests are ideal for hiking, kayaking, and bird watching. Pack a picnic lunch, beach chairs, and your swimsuit for a relaxing day enjoying the secluded island vibe.
You’ll find resorts, motels, vacation rentals and campgrounds to suit any budget in St. Pete/Clearwater. For extra savings, visit in the shoulder months of April-May and September-October. Some good budget options include:
• Red Roof Inn Clearwater Beach – Clean, basic rooms a short walk from the beach. Free Wi-Fi and parking.
• Tropic Shores Beach Resort – Family-friendly resort with kitchenettes and private balconies. Two pools and beach access.
• Fort De Soto Park campground – Beautiful beach campground with amenities like showers, picnic areas and playgrounds. Tent sites for around $30/night.
With natural beauty and an easygoing vibe at wallet-friendly prices, St. Petersburg and Clearwater offer the perfect budget-friendly beach escape. Leave your stresses behind and enjoy all the sun, surf and savings this little slice of paradise has to offer.
Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach: History and Adventure Meet
Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach offer an appealing combination of history and outdoor adventure at budget-friendly prices. Located in the Florida Panhandle along the Emerald Coast, these Gulf Coast towns have soft white sand beaches, historical attractions, and natural areas teeming with opportunities for fishing, boating, and other recreational activities.
Pensacola Bay Area
In Pensacola, you can tour the National Naval Aviation Museum, which houses over 150 restored aircraft and is free to explore. Climb aboard historic naval ships at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. For some beach time, head to Pensacola Beach with scenic dunes and fishing piers.
Nearby Gulf Breeze has beautiful beaches and the Gulf Island National Seashore. Here you can kayak, canoe and spot birds along the Santa Rosa Sound. Don’t miss the Blue Angels practice show, held most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings at the Naval Air Station—it’s a thrilling free event.
Fort Walton Beach
Just an hour east of Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach offers a more laid-back beach vibe. It’s a popular spot for watersports like parasailing, jet skiing, and kayaking in the Santa Rosa Sound and Choctawhatchee Bay. For history, visit the Air Force Armament Museum to see vintage aircraft and missiles.
Outdoor activities also abound at Okaloosa Island, with opportunities for swimming, sunbathing, sailing, and dolphin watching. Nearby Destin is a major fishing hub, with chartered deep sea fishing trips available.
With an abundance of public beach access, free museums, and waterside parks, Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach have plenty to offer budget travelers and outdoor enthusiasts. The natural scenery and slower pace of life along this stretch of the Gulf Coast create the perfect setting for an affordable beach getaway.
Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach: Secluded Shores
Nestled along Florida’s Forgotten Coast, Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach offer a quieter beach getaway. Less developed than nearby Panama City Beach, these neighboring towns have an old Florida charm with their soft white sand beaches, small beach towns, and secluded surroundings.
The beaches here seem like private escapes with their sparsely populated shores. St. Joseph Peninsula State Park has over 9 miles of undeveloped beach and sand dunes. It’s a popular spot for camping, hiking, biking, and bird watching in addition to beachgoing. Nearby Constitution Convention Museum State Park and St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve also offer natural scenery and outdoor recreation away from the crowds.
Mexico Beach itself is a peaceful beach community with a wooden pier, local shops, and beachfront restaurants along Scenic Highway 98. Neighboring Port St. Joe, only 15 minutes away, has a picturesque marina, historic downtown, and laid-back vibe. You’ll find locally owned stores, galleries, and eateries along Reid Avenue.
Lodging and dining in this region won’t break the bank. Motels, beach rentals, RV parks, and campgrounds offer budget-friendly rates, especially compared to Florida’s more touristy beaches. You can get beachfront rooms for under $100 a night or fully equipped beach houses for under $200.
As for dining, the seafood is fresh and affordable. Grab fish tacos or shrimp po’boys for under $10. Or get a dozen Apalachicola oysters for $15. Several beachfront restaurants have $2 drink specials and casual fare for under $20 like grouper sandwiches, seafood gumbos and fried green tomatoes.
Between the peaceful surroundings, outdoor activities, affordability and fresh seafood, Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach deserve a spot on your list of cheap Florida beach getaways. Their quiet shores offer an enjoyable and budget-friendly escape from the hustle and bustle.
Cheap Vacations on Gulf Side of Florida: FAQs
So you want to take a cheap beach vacation on the Gulf side of Florida? You’ve come to the right place. Here are some frequently asked questions to help you plan an affordable Gulf coast getaway.
What are the best cheap destinations?
Some of the most budget-friendly spots along the Gulf include:
- Panama City Beach: Miles of white sand beaches and attractions like Shipwreck Island Waterpark. Hotel rates are very reasonable, especially in the off-season.
- Fort Myers Beach: A lively beach town with an old Florida vibe. You can find deals on motels, vacation rentals and camping.
- Bradenton Beach: On Anna Maria Island, with a chill beachy atmosphere. Look for bargains on motels, cottages and condos, especially if you go in the shoulder months.
- Naples: High-end but outside of the winter season, you can snag good deals on hotels and experience the stunning beaches and sunsets.
What’s the best time of year for deals?
The summer rainy season from June through October typically sees the lowest hotel rates and smallest crowds. September and October can be especially affordable after the kids go back to school. Spring months like April and May also offer pleasant weather and smaller crowds at lower prices. Winter from December through February is usually the most expensive time with bigger crowds.
What’s the cheapest way to get around?
The most budget-friendly options for getting around the Gulf coast include:
- Renting a car: Cheapest if you drive down and split between a group. Shop for deals from rental car companies.
- Ride-sharing: Use services like Uber or Lyft to get around locally without a rental car. Fares are typically very reasonable.
- Public transit: Some beach towns like Fort Myers Beach, Bradenton Beach and Panama City Beach have trolleys and busses to get you to major attractions. Fares are just a couple dollars.
- Biking: Many beach communities are flat and bike-friendly. Rent bikes to cruise around for just $10-$15 a day.
What are some free or cheap things to do?
There are plenty of free or low-cost activities to enjoy on the Gulf coast like swimming, sunbathing, building a sandcastle, beachcombing for shells, watching the sunset, and more. You can also go kayaking or paddle boarding, visit local parks, check out museums with free admission, go hiking at state parks, and dine al fresco on a budget. Have a great trip!
So there you have it, five of the most affordable yet exciting beach getaways on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Any of these spots would make for an amazing quick trip without breaking the bank. Pack your bags, grab your sunscreen and a good book, and head to the beach. Leave your worries behind and soak in the sun, sand, and surf. Build a sandcastle, go shelling, take a catamaran cruise, or just pull up a beach chair and chill. However you choose to relax, you really can’t go wrong with a sunny escape to Florida’s Gulf Coast on a budget. Your wallet and your soul will thank you.