From the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from New England to Southern California, America’s beaches stay open long after Labor Day. It’s the same sun and surf—oh, except the crowds are gone and hotel rates have come back down to earth.
To tell the truth, here at Budget Travel we’ve never signed off on the notion that beach season ends on Labor Day. Balmy beach breezes, warm sun, and lobster rolls remain available well into October. And one of the benefits of hitting the shore in autumn is affordable hotel rates, putting dream destinations like Hilton Head, Montauk, Laguna Beach, and even Nantucket within your reach. Here, 10 of our favorite American beach towns with fall rates that say, “Welcome!”
1. HILTON HEAD
Warm beaches, warm welcome—plus pirates!
With fall temperatures in the 70s and 80s, miles of pristine lowcountry beaches, and the utterly unique Gullah culture, Hilton Head is truly like no other beach town in America. Learn more about what makes the island special at the Coastal Discovery Museum, or discover it for yourself on a quiet beach. If you’re traveling with kids, don’t miss Pirates of Hilton Head Island, with its ride aboard the Black Dagger ship. Or take a deep breath and explore the island on ZipLine Hilton Head’s two-hour sky-high tour!
Step back in time in this sleepy Lake Michigan town
Picket fences, a 19th-century vibe, and not a chain restaurant in sight. Saugatuck is one of the places savvy Chicagoans go to get away from the big city. Before you can plant yourself on Oval Beach, you’ve got to hop a hand-cranked ferry across the Kalamazoo River.
Live the SoCal beach dream
No, you don’t have to surf just because you’re on an iconic seven-mile stretch of Southern California sea and sand, but you can take a group surfing lesson for $75 with a guarantee that you’ll “get up” on your board. Nearby Laguna Village offers excellent art galleries and shops, a nod to this gorgeous beach town’s roots as an artists’ colony.
4. BAY ST. LOUIS
Gulf beaches, fresh seafood, and art galleries
One of Budget Travel‘s Coolest Small Towns in America 2013, Bay St. Louis was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 but has done more than recover since then. Explore Historic Old Town, go fishing, and take a walking tour of 19th-century homes, Creole cottages, and galleries, or just take Main Street straight down to the beach.
5. POINT PLEASANT BEACH
The lines for the roller coaster and zeppoli are way shorter in September!
One of Budget Travel’s Coolest Small Towns in America 2018, Point Pleasant Beach is, well, pleasant enough in summer if you enjoy being part of a major scene, rubbing elbows with in-the-know New Yorkers, Philadelphians, and Jersey girls and boys who love Jenkinson’s Boardwalk and the lovely stretch of beach here. But come September, the rides stay open, the cotton candy is just as sweet, but rates for hotel rooms just a block from the beach can be literally a third of the summer price.
6. PORT TOWNSEND
Old-timey seaport in the Pacific Northwest
We love the harbor and the foodie scene in this Victorian-era Olympic coast seaport, which was one of our Coolest Small Towns last year. A sea kayaker’s dream town, Port Townsend also boasts nearby mountains for hiking and biking, and is an especially great place to cast for fish.
7. KEY WEST
You can’t go any farther—or ask for a more beautiful location—down the East Coast
Well-known as one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite locales—with a party reputation to match—this gorgeous spot at the waaaaaaaaaay bottom of the U.S.’s East Coast boasts a much wider variety of activities, including tours of Victorian homes, nature kayaking, and unique art galleries. Sunset-watching here is not mandatory, but thoroughly recommended. No matter how cliché, it never gets old.
Parkland and board shorts at the very end of Long Island’s East End
Sure, this dreamy beach town at the tip of New York’s Long Island has gone a bit more upscale over the years, with some classic motels closing and serious eateries moving in. But with only 17 square miles bounded by water and 40 percent of the land devoted to state and county parkland, this place is still pretty wild, and one stop at the Ditch Plains beach and its surfing scene will make you feel as if you’ve traveled back to the days when trekking the 100+ miles from NYC kept most folks away.
A hoppin’ main street in paradise
For some people, the words “beautiful beach” and Maui are synonymous, and it’s difficult to argue. But you’ll also find a beautiful town—Hawaii’s former capital, Lahaina—on the unparalleled island, with one of the U.S.’s most thriving main streets, the result, in part, of the 19th century whaling industry, for which Lahaina served as something of an unofficial capital as well. Nearby Kaanapali Beach, mountains you can almost reach out and touch, and a tranquil harbor make Lahaina a perfect town for kicking back.
Eighteenth-century architecture meets 21st-century style
“See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse,” wrote Herman Melville about Nantucket in Moby-Dick. This charmingly whale-shaped island still holds its lonely position off the coast of Cape Cod, but of course these days the whaling captains, sailors, and harpooners who made the island home two centuries ago have been replaced by captains of industry who can meet the sky-high summer rates. But things cool down literally and figuratively come September, when you can have perfect beaches, 18th-century cobblestone streets lined with contemporary galleries—and a table with a view—to yourself. (And don’t miss the Nantucket Historical Association, with its beautifully designed whaling exhibits and exceptional docents, in the heart of downtown.)