how to take a beach vacation on a tight budget

We recently returned from a trip to Destin, Florida, inspired but otherwise uninterrupted by Hurricane Irma. We decided we ought to practice what we preach, and got a group of friends from church together to donate supplies to Hurricane Irma victims. We planned out our trip the week before Irma was supposed to hit, not really knowing what we would get when we arrived the following weekend.

We drove to an evacuee shelter and met several victims of Irma from the Florida Keys and listened to their stories about losing everything. It was humbling to say the least and definitely made us feel guilty about spending lazy days on the beach during the rest of our trip. Florida holds a special place in our hearts—having spent summers in Destin as a child and living in both the Miami and Tampa areas together after we were married. I’d do practically anything for that crazy state.

Anyway, it might be surprising that we take vacations while we are still paying off six figures of debt– but when you are in as much debt as we are, you have to be in it for the long haul. Small, inexpensive vacations rejuvenate us and are important family bonding time in our view. For us, we have resolved that it is not that we can’t take a vacation– it is just that we have to do it on a budget. Obviously, the more expenses you can cut out of your life, the faster you will be able to pay off debt. So be smart about your indulgences, that’s all I’m saying.

Here is exactly what we did to spend five days at the beach for a family of 3, for less than $1000.

(1) We used VRBO. (or AirBNB).

You can find some seriously amazing deals almost anywhere in the world on both VRBO and AirBNB. We paid $65 per night for a studio condo practically on the beach in Destin. It was clean and small and perfect for us. But in addition to being able to find good deals, you can actually earn credit to both companies by referring your friends! Earn up to $5000 on AirBNB when your friends use your referral link, and the sky is the limit with VRBO. With either site, it’s a small commission you earn, but over time it can really add up and help reduce the costs of your own vacation. Having your accommodations paid for is a HUGE off set when it comes to vacation costs! (PS: note that we have listed our referral links here. Help us take next year’s vacation by starting out with our links! 😉

(2) We planned ahead and cooked (most) meals.

Before we left, I made a few of our meals that were a little more involved so that we were not spending precious vacation time cooking. Knowing that the meals were already cooked also reduced the temptation to go eat out. So don’t spend your vacation time cooking and premake those meals so that you aren’t tempted by all the convenient touristy grinds and dines. On this trip, we budgeted to eat one meal out. We scored some delicious coconut shrimp for $7.99 each for our meal out. If you do opt to eat out, look for places that aren’t total tourist traps that cost way more than they should. Local is where its at!

(3) We entertained ourselves.

In the evenings, or when we otherwise weren’t at the beach, we entertained ourselves. We didn’t go to movies or take extravagant excursions (we will, when the debt is paid). We desperately wanted to rent a boat or some kayaks– we did’t. Instead, we hung out at our hotel playing games (have you heard of Sushi Go??, Mexican Train is also a favorite) or hunting for night crabs on the beach or enjoying amenities at our condo including tennis, pickle ball, and the pool.

(4) We drove instead of flying.

We spent a total of $142 on driving when plane tickets to our destination were $450 each. This also wiped out the expense of renting a car or hiring an Uber every time we wanted to go somewhere. We drove about 13 hours to get there. Of course, if you use credit card rewards points you could potentially score free flights. But where we are in life, any credit card rewards points get turned into cash and go straight to loans.

(5) We traveled off season.

When we were traveling through Asia, we learned quickly how much it pays to travel off season, when less people are willing to.  I’m not saying that you have to travel during a hurricane like we did to score awesome deals. But if you can avoid peak season, you can get better rates on almost everything– car rentals, accommodations, activities, etc. And as a bonus, you’ll also avoid the crowds.

What things have you done to save money on a beach vacation? We’d love to hear from you! 

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  1. New reader from Frugal Girl!
    We are going to the Tampa area next week and I am going to pay more attention to what we spend. We do choose to eat at restaurants for lunch and dinner, but that could mean Chick-Fil-A or a street taco. We’re in a different stage of life than you, but can always learn and apply what we learn!
    We are mostly self-employed, and our friends spend much more than we do for most everything, but I think we have at least as much fun and can use what we save for other things we want! Thanks!

    1. says: Reply

      Hi Jenny! Ah I love the Tampa area! Hope you get to hit up Honeymoon Island and Clearwater beach! And I agree– you can look for little savings no matter what phase of life you are in! PS- do you have the Chick Fil A app to earn free meals there?? Have a great trip!

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