How to have a beach vacation on a tight budget

It’s that time of year! All winter I dreamed of a beach vacation and I finally got to have a short one over the weekend.

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It was great. While it was rushed because of various work commitments both from me and my family, we had a lot of fun. I got to introduce my toddler to the beach!

Our family split the various costs. A couple of family members very generously gifted us some of the cost of food, ice and a mini golf fee since my husband and I have recently had a lot of medical bills, but I paid for our gas, the rest of our food, and a few other little expenses.

Toddler girl plays with a shovel and pail on the beach. Nearby text says, ""
My daughter was a little too scared to want to touch the waves, but loved digging in the sand and filling, emptying and re-filling her bucket.

Camping vs. hotel stays

I have a big family, so getting a hotel room or beach vacation house would be expensive. Growing up, we almost always camped anytime we traveled. Not only is it cheaper, but it’s just more fun.

You can read about my ideas for safely camping with babies and toddlers here.

It requires a little more work, but to us it’s worth the time and effort. While booking a hotel is sometimes tempting, we try to plan ahead.

I packed fairly lightly since that made less work in setting up and unpacking. There were some things I brought that we could have done without, but I trimmed down a lot of the extras.

I brought our Field & Stream four-person tent. It’s much larger than I needed for just my toddler and I, but since we weren’t backpacking out and we had plenty of space on the site, the extra size didn’t matter. My husband and I bought that tent well before I was even pregnant. We knew that we wanted to have space for our future children.

I also brought our Coleman camping cutting board and a sleeping bag. It was too hot to use it as anything but a padded “mattress” to sleep. My toddler and I shared a pillow and blanket. I also packed a straw sun hat for both of us, a cotton sun hat with a chin strap for her, sneakers and my Keens sandals. (They were SO COMFORTABLE.) I also grabbed a spatula, toddler plate, fork and spoon, our diaper bag, a lantern and a few other little things.

You can read about my favorite items for camping with a toddler here. 🙂 Most of these items are perfect for a beach vacation, camping in the mountains, or going on another adventure.

Since my entire family already the necessary gear, we really just paid for the tent site fee, food and minor miscellaneous costs.

Cutting down food costs

Normally we enjoy cooking over a camp fire, but at this particular location we were limited to cooking with just our camp stove.

No problem!

We brought Thomas’ English Muffins, eggs, Canadian bacon for my family and veggie burgers for me, and cheese for easy breakfast sandwiches. We also brought bowls, spoons, cereal and milk.

Whole-wheat bread, condiments, lunch meat or Tofurky, lettuce, tomatoes and whatever else you want to add make quick and cheap sandwiches– perfect for beach picnics! Add your favorite fruit if you like. Just make sure to store everything in a good cooler. My family had a two or three good Coleman coolers like these. My cheaper cooler is good for day trips but even with extra ice didn’t keep my food cool enough for the trip. 🙁 A better cooler is on my shopping list!

We did split up a bit– for example, my brother and sister-in-law purchased coffee drinks on their own– but for the most part we ate together. After mini-golfing, we had a pizza dinner at a restaurant and had tons of pizza left over for the cooler. We actually had more left over than expected, since I looked online and found a free coupon for an appetizer AND the restaurant messed up on my mom’s gluten-free order and gave us the non-GF pizza for free.

That was the only meal we ate out. The rest of the time, we had meals, plus snacks and drinks, at the campsite. We packed food that was quick to make since we were on a beach vacation and didn’t want to spend a lot of time cooking. My mom did do some cooking before coming, since my family wanted sloppy Joes. (I had a veggie burger.)

We used my parents’ trusty Coleman propane camp stove, but I could have brought our equally durable Coleman butane camp stove. Theirs was the better option for this particular trip since it had two burners and we were cooking for several people.

While I didn’t use it this time, my husband and I normally stave off coffee run temptations by bringing a camp kettle and silicone pour-over (similar to this one).

Beach vacation gear

I got a new pail and shovel at a local consignment store for $1.50 and a sand castle mold for $0.50. I bought those and some cute toddler Keens I found for about $7, plus ADORABLE navy-and-white Garanimals canvas sandals for $1.50, both at consignment shops. (While there, I also got a pair of Converse for my toddler for later this summer.)

I brought her sun hat with a chin strap to keep it from blowing off. We also packed her little beach tent, the diaper backpack with fresh swim diapers and an extra bathing suit, a towel, snacks in little stacking snack cups, and lots of water.

A toddler girl strolls on a garden path wearing a floral dress and sunhat. She is seen from behind.
My daughter and I enjoyed a walk in a free-admission public garden to help break up our drive from the beach. Her sun hat came from a dollar store, her dress was part of a $15 trash bag full of clean, lightly-used clothes we purchased from a mom on Facebook Marketplace, and her shoes were $1.50 at consignment.

I wore a suit I bought on sale a few years ago and my daughter wore a rash guard I got at consignment. Since our shoes, her swim top and her beach toys were lightly used (or consigned but unused), they were very inexpensive. The rash guard helped protect her from the strong rays. She also wore Blue Lizard Kids sun screen while I used the adult Blue Lizard body and Blue Lizard face sun screen. I very rarely burn, and if I do it’s only slightly red, but I still wear sunscreen as often as I remember to. My daughter wears it a lot. Neither of us burned at all using Blue Lizard.

Of course, I brought my sunglasses. I also brought my daughter’s baby/toddler sunglasses in their hard case.

I found an Eddie Bauer monkey child harness at consignment, but didn’t get to get it before the trip since it was missing the strap. My husband went back to the store to get it, but accidentally bought a different one. (He didn’t get to go with us to camp with my family due to work obligations.) Funnily enough, he thought he was getting the one I wanted but they had a different monkey one than they’d had two days before when I visited. He found the similar one for $4.50.

Child harnesses are difficult for me. I don’t like them, but sometimes they’re almost necessary. My daughter isn’t a runner, but once in awhile she will bolt. She nearly ran in front of a truck as soon as I got her out of our car a couple of weeks ago and it scared me. I normally use my Ergo 360 (which she loves even now that she’s almost 2) or her Graco ClickConnect stroller (like this in a slightly different pattern). They’re great and I did use both, but the harness would have been helpful for the holiday beach town crowds when we were out. She is busy exploring her independence, which sometimes means running.

Inexpensive entertainment

Our whole group went mini-golfing. My family found a good Groupon deal that significantly cut the cost. It was a lot of fun.

Golf balls and silhouettes on a mini golf green.
My family spent part of our beach vacation playing mini-golf with two different teams.
It was fun, but mini-golfing with a toddler in an Ergo is a bit of a challenge. I put her forward-facing so she could see, and it worked out, but I SHOULD have put her in the back carrying position.

I elected to not join them on a guided river kayak ride since I had our toddler and the waves were a bit choppy. It was also a little windy, and of course quite deep. But my family found a good deal on it and went out together. They really enjoyed it. It was the perfect activity for a beach vacation and I wish I could have gone. Canoes were available for those who were uncomfortable with kayaks.

We knew there was a chance of rain during the trip. Luckily, we had clear skies the whole time! But just in case, I packed Apples to Apples, You Gotta Be Kidding!, Bezzerwizzer and Super Mario UNO. My family loves games like those and Cranium, Star Wars Catchphrase, Munchkin and others. It didn’t rain and we stayed busy outside, but if it had the games would have come in handy. We’ve spent many other camping trips with one or more days in the tent playing games.

My toddler busied herself putting sand and seashells in and out of her pail. The older kids and adults sunbathed or used boogie boards. Most of us hunted for seashells, coral and pretty rocks. If you do that, you might want to check when the tide will be low/high so you can plan accordingly.

While we didn’t do it on this trip, on other beach vacations we’ve visited museums, toured historical sites, window-shopped, etc. My brother and his wife went to a local aquarium. Often, you can search for free or cheap entertainment in the area online and find a lot of listings. Local visitors’ centers sometimes have brochures with ideas, as well.

On the way back home, my daughter and I visited a free, gorgeous public garden. They had a lot of beautifully landscaped gardens, aquatic plants, plant information, seating areas and more, all for no admission fee. That gave us a good break for a walk and snacks before we went home.

And if you’ve been reading here awhile, you have to know what I’ll suggest next: hiking and biking. They’re so cheap! And both are great to do with kids. Just pick an easy to moderate trail that you know you’ll be able to carry your baby/toddler on and encourage kids who can to walk themselves for part of the way. Biking with kids can require a bit more planning but is still very doable. I couldn’t squeeze my bike and trailer in with everything else on this trip, but next time I plan to take them.

Many places have areas you can rent bikes. Unfortunately I haven’t seen anywhere that rents bike trailers yet (though they probably exist). While the trailer is my personal favorite for very young children, you could consider a baby/toddler bike seat, or a tandem bike for older kids.

Woman rides a bike with a yellow-and-blue bike trailer attached
You can take a bike trailer on a multi-use path at a park, on a safe street or anywhere else you feel comfortable. Wherever you ride, both the rider and child passenger(s) should have good helmets, even if the child is inside a trailer.

Final thoughts

Most of us had decided to keep our beach vacation on a smaller budget, but we all still wanted to have fun. We also had a variety of ages ranging from a young toddler up to the 60s, so we wanted to do things that everyone would find fun (hence the beach time and mini golf).

Camping instead of staying in a hotel or beach house meant we had to share a bathhouse and forgo air conditioning, but it was worth it. Once you start camping regularly, the cost per-use of your camping gear goes further and further down. Even though it can be a bit pricey to get your initial gear, it’s generally worth it. Just try to research before you buy so you get quality gear, even if it’s not the most expensive brand. You also get quicker at setting up and breaking down the more you camp.

I also recommend looking at online reviews of camp groups to make sure the bathhouses are nice and that you won’t be plagued by sand lice or other pests.

Our biggest expenses as a group were food and gas, by far. With work, you can reduce those costs by packing your own meals or using Groupons, and by traveling when gas prices are lower and comparing routes to find the one that uses the least amount of gas.

I’m already planning my next beach vacation with my daughter and husband!

What are your budget-friendly beach vacation tips? Let me know below!

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