Beach on a Budget: Tips to Save in Pensacola
Updated: Feb 17, 2020
It’s easy for beach vacations to get expensive quickly. Depending on where you go, a domestic flight alone can put you back over a thousand dollars for a family of four. Then, add lodging, dining out and recreational activities, and you’ve blown your annual travel budget. We love the beach, but we also like to save money to spend on smaller trips throughout the year to visit family, go skiing etc.
We had two weeks to spend at the beach during Rhett’s military leave and our move from Tennessee to Texas. We knew we had to keep it cheap in order to stay that long, as well as move on to New Orleans and Houston for smaller portions of our “move-cation” before reaching our new home of San Antonio.
We chose to visit the Pensacola area, which is in the Florida Panhandle, and the destination exceeded my expectations. I’ll admit, I was expecting a spring-break like experience I wanted to avoid, with lots of chain restaurants, not a ton of culture and beaches clad with seaweed.
What we found was a city rich in history with a welcoming community and some of the most pristine white sand beaches we’ve ever seen – which is saying a lot since I lived in Hawaii in my 20’s and my husband is from near Clearwater Beach in the Tampa Bay Area. The best part about Pensacola was all the FREE activities for families to take it all in. See below for a list of tips on how to tighten the budget belt on a beach vacation and still enjoy it!
#1: Visit the beach in the off-season (roughly between Labor Day and May).
Aside from Spring Break and the week of Christmas, it’s guaranteed that you will save up to hundreds of dollars on flights, lodging and activities when you avoid the peak season. Of course, the weather is always more of a gamble, but if you time it just right, it’s a steal. It’s tricky because these are the times that school is out and holidays are offered at most jobs, but if you can swing it, consider it! We traveled to Pensacola in June because we had to, but I checked rates of the same lodging in the fall, and it was half the price.
#2: Road trip when possible.
If you live within 8 hours of the coast, it’s worth it financially to drive versus fly. I prefer to get there quickly on a 1-2-hour flight versus an 8-hour drive. However, when trying to be budget-conscious, it’s undeniable that driving is the best choice. Our drive from Nashville to Pensacola cost roughly $50, when it would have been about $800 to fly (paying for three tickets + free infant on lap). For tips on road tripping with babies, click here.
#3: Get creative with lodging.
I imagined us staying in an awesome condo on or near the beach. But in June, anything beachfront was well over $200 per night and our budget was $120. Our kids don’t do well with hotels, so we looked into airbnb’s and found a gem in the middle of a trailer park – to be politically correct, a mobile home community. I never thought we’d be staying in a mobile home in the Panhandle of Florida, but there we were. To my surprise, the community had some double-wides right on the Bayou that were well-kempt with expensive boats in their backyards. The mobile home community had friendly neighbors, a pool our kids loved and what I felt was a safe running route, even in early morning and at dusk.
The best part about the neighborhood was that we were only 10 minutes away from Perdido Key Beach (where we drove every day!), but we were paying a fraction of the price. Warrington is a coastal, inviting community full of locals on all walks of life from aging veterans to young families. Our favorite spot for a post-beach beer was the kid-friendly Gary’s Brewery & Biergarten with plenty of room for the kids to roam and explore the gardens. We spoke to families who lived in the area while our toddlers played and discovered lots of great tips for family-friendly, yet hip restaurants, coffee shops and parks to visit in downtown Pensacola.
#4: Cook/prepare your own meals as much as possible. Yes, it’s okay to splurge a night or two!
I’m not going to lie, I could not eat ramen noodles for months after this trip. Our mobile home had a full kitchen, and we went grocery shopping a few times to cook breakfast and most of our dinners. Some nights, we were so exhausted from dealing with two toddlers at the beach (or at the end of driving days) that we resorted to college food like ramen noodles, but usually we whipped up something more sophisticated. We usually bought or made our own cold cuts or wraps in the morning to bring to the beach with us.
We chose our dining out meals carefully and were pleased with the places we tried. We had one fancy brunch at Jaco’s Bayfront Bar & Grille in historic downtown Pensacola, which is right next to fountains and a splash pad on the pier with a view of the marina.
Next, we had heard from everyone to try Flounder’s Chowder House in Pensacola Beach, known for its tropical atmosphere on the bay with a full playground on the sand for kids. My grouper and key lime martini were delicious, but our 2-year-old threw a fit while we were there, making it miserable for us all. I’d recommend the playground there for kids 3 and up…I think she’d enjoy it a lot more now as a 3-year-old. To me, this restaurant was fun, but had a tacky tropical vibe that just isn’t our style. The prices seemed steep to me as well, reminding me of beach restaurants in Hawaii.
A few days later, we were pleasantly surprised during a quick stop at Brothers Barbecue off Gulf Beach Highway near our place in Warrington (amazing southern BBQ dinner for four under $20).
On our last night, we realized couldn’t do a trip to the Florida-Alabama line without a pilgrimage to the famous bar, Flora-Bama, a staple honky tonk on the beach in the Perdido Key region for over half a century. There are several different bars where you can sample each atmosphere to feel at home, and we chose the kid-friendly Flora-Bama Yacht Club on the river/bay side of the Perdido Key Drive. The historic business is the home of the Bushwhacker drink, of which we just had to indulge. When in the Panhandle! We capped off the evening with an impromptu takeout pizza from Lillian’s Pan Pizza on the beach at sunset. Sometimes it’s worth it to stay up past the kids’ bedtimes.
#5: Research free and inexpensive activities.
This one sounds obvious, but there are some fantastic free activities that families can take advantage of in Pensacola. If a pristine white sand beach and emerald shores is what you’re seeking, it might be worth your time and budget to visit Opal Beach on the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Fees vary, but it costs $7 per person up to $25 per vehicle. Our second favorite was Perdido Key Area, also on the National Seashore.
However, you won’t be sacrificing any natural beauty if you visit the public beach accesses along Perdido Key Drive and into Alabama at Orange Beach, where we spent a lot of our beach days. We mixed it up every day so our beach experience was always fresh for us and the kids.
Beyond the beach, there are other ways to cool off in the city of Pensacola – and you won’t have to look hard to find a park with fountains or a splash pad. We liked the fountains at the end of Palafox at Plaza de Luna and the splash pad kids’ park located in the mobile location of Pensacola hipster java joint, Bodacious Brew Coffee, where we sipped delicious lattes while the toddlers thoroughly explored the modern urban pocket park. We didn’t even mind getting caught in the rain during the hot summer temps!
To take a break from the sun, we spent one day visiting the National Aviation Museum, where the admission is FREE for everyone, not just veterans or active duty military. As a former U.S. Navy civil servant and my husband active duty Army, we truly enjoyed the experience and “nerded out” on all the retro aircraft on display. I had the pleasure of flying with the Blue Angels on a media during my tenure with Pearl Harbor, so it was incredible to come full circle nearly a decade later. You can also visit the museum’s website to plan a trip to view the Blue Angles’ bi-weekly practice sessions.
We unfortunately ran out of time, but I did want to check out the campus of University of West Florida, which I heard from locals has some stunning botanical gardens and hiking trails open to the public (and also free of charge 😀).