Looking for a quaint, relaxing beach town or a trendy island getaway? MONEY can help you find the best waterfront escapes. (For more travel ideas, check out all 17 of the top destinations named in MONEY’s 2017 Best in Travel.)
To make the following selections, we weighed more than 3,500 data points for over 100 of the most popular beach destinations worldwide. Then we ranked the top five U.S. and international beach cities that scored highest on overall cost factors, giving the most weight to the price of airfare, lodging, and food, as well as the biggest year-over-year price drops. We also considered the number of beaches each city offered, as well as tourist activities and experience factors like low crime rates, pleasant weather, and ease of access to public transportation.
Only one international winner was chosen per country; domestically, we limited winners to one city in each state. Read on, and pack your sunscreen.
Best U.S. beach destinations
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Total Cost of a Week for Two: $2,297
There are 23 miles of Atlantic beaches around this South Florida city, located about an hour north of Miami. Hotel costs have dropped 4% over the last year, bringing nightly rates down to an average of $150, Hotels.com found, while round trip flights will set you back about $220, according to Hopper.
Those looking for a relaxing getaway should try the Deerfield Beach area, home to award-winning cove-like beaches, or Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, a half-mile-wide hamlet with beach village charm—and one of the few spots in the state where you can swim out to a three-tier natural coral reef system. Fishermen and swimmers should opt for Pompano Beach, home to the annual Pompano Seafood festival and Fishing Rodeo: A bend in the Gulf Stream gives this spot some of the clearest and warmest water in the region.
Gulf Shores, Ala.
Total Cost of a Week for Two: $2,482
Warm green waters and soft, white-sand beaches greet you in this destination, situated at the top of the Gulf of Mexico, and a MONEY overall pick for Best in Travel 2017. Check out Gulf Shores’ main public beach for a pickup game of volleyball or beachfront bar hopping. For a less crowded option, visit Gulf State Park Pavilion, where there’s plenty of room to spread out your gear among the dunes and sea oats.
Scuba divers can visit The LuLu, a nearby sunken freighter, and also see the largest artificial reef program in the U.S. Kids can get up close with the wildlife from the prow of one of the area’s many bottlenose dolphin cruises (around $20).
Santa Cruz, Calif.
Total Cost of a Week for Two: $2,574
Located at the northern edge of Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz is a quintessential California beach town. Wander along Santa Cruz’s main beach to see surfers in action and swimmers braving the cold Pacific waters. Then turn into the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, where you can ride a vintage wooden roller coater or a carousel featuring 73 hand-carved horses built in 1911.
Visit Natural Bridges State Beach to see the area’s most photogenic and famous rock bridge, thousands of migrating monarch butterflies, and beautiful tide pools full of crabs, sea anemones, starfish and mussels. Or if you want to seem like a local, try Sunny Cove beach, which is sheltered by coastal cliffs.
Virginia Beach, Va.
Total Cost of a Week for Two: $2,464
Just south of the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia Beach offers six major beaches, as well as a three-mile boardwalk. First Landing State Park’s Chesapeake Bay Beach is a public beach with calm waters, perfect if you have small children. If you’re looking for a quiet getaway, Sandbridge Beach is located just 15 miles south of downtown Virginia Beach. Rent one of the many beachfront vacation homes as a base to enjoy about 4.5 miles of beach, or explore the area’s marshes and fishing spots.
Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Total Cost of a Week for Two: $2,360
The most popular beach in South Carolina, Myrtle Beach is home to a 60-mile stretch of fun and sun is known as the Grand Strand. This beach city is popular for both family vacations and getaways with friends—offering a variety of beach activities, as well as restaurants, amusement parks, and live shows. And make sure to take a ride on the eye-catching SkyWheel, a 187-foot ferris wheel situated right on the Oceanfront Boardwalk ($14 for adults, $9 for kids).