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This post may rub against the grain, but that’s my point. It’s in response to the following conversation, which I’ve had at the bus stop/Little League game/Girl Scout meeting at least a hundred times over the last 10 years:

Mom: “Going anywhere this summer?”
Me: “Why yes, we’re headed to (Portugal, Japan, Chile, Ireland, Hawaii). I can’t wait!”
Mom: (deep sigh) “I wish I could do something like that, but I can’t afford it. We’ll probably just go to the beach again.”
Me: “You know, it’s actually the same price to go overseas as the Outer Banks during the summer if you plan it right.”
Mom: (blank stare)

The August mid-Atlantic beach vacation is one of my strongest pet peeves because it offers so little bang for the buck. Because I live in DC, many of my friends plan annual August East Coast beach vacations, specifically from the New Jersey shore south to somewhere like the Outer Banks or Hilton Head, South Carolina.

There’s nothing wrong with those destinations, and I get the importance of having your family’s “spot.” However, I challenge you to think outside that box for this summer’s trip — and the time to start is now.

Instead of just renting a beach house in the Outer Banks because it’s what you do every summer and you think it’s too expensive to fly anywhere, I’m asking you to challenge your assumptions with real information.

Here’s What $3,000 Will Get You This Summer

The Outer Banks of North Carolina are the gold standard for a DC family’s beach vacation. I did some research on Airbnb and found that on the Outer Banks, the average three-bedroom, two-bath property with air conditioning costs $387/night in August. That’s $2,709 before taxes and fees for a week, with a final price of about $3,500. Let’s assume you are trying come in a little below that number, so I’ll set your budget at $3,000, including taxes and fees.

Almost every single listing I found in the $3,000 price range was in the same development: Cambridge Cove. I’m sure a family would have a lovely time there: the townhomes look fairly new and there’s a nice pool area. However, there are no sea views and being in a townhome community means you’re sharing amenities with every other family there on vacation. While for some that may be a plus, peace and quiet is one of the things we personally treasure about a beach trip.

image via airbnb
Photo via airbnb

Here’s What $3,000 Gets Us This Summer

My family’s summer beach week this year is thanks to last year’s Iberia promotion: We are going to the Algarve in Portugal. My husband and I each spent $350 to net 180,000 Avios points. That got us four round-trip tickets in Premium Economy from JFK to Madrid with a 20k top-up transfer from American Express Membership Rewards points. Including taxes, our cash outlay to get there was just over $1,000. With miles, I think most of you could get four plane tickets for under $1,000.

Beach in Lagos, Algarve, Portugal. (Image by M Swiet Productions / Getty Images)
Beach in Lagos, Algarve, Portugal. (Image by M Swiet Productions / Getty Images)

I like being as transparent as possible when talking about how much things cost. I am not a fan of the “I got a $50,000 vacation for $50” mentality as I don’t think it works for most families. So I’ll add another $500 to that to account for our travel within Europe. (Our trip is actually five weeks long so I could amortize transport to make our daily cost lower. However, the purpose of this post is to compare apples to apples: a one-week beach vacation, in this case.)

With $1,000 off the table for airfare and $500 for other transport, that gave me a $1,500 budget for lodging. My house requirements were three bedrooms, two baths, air conditioning and access to a pool. Everything else was gravy. Here’s what I found. I could go into detail describing the villa I booked, but instead I’ll let the photos tell the tale.

Photo via Airbnb
photo via airbnb
Photo via airbnb

That’s a private pool, just for us. Our villa on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean could be an HGTV shoot. The total cost for a summer week, including taxes and fees? $1,782, or $254/night.

That said, I didn’t spend the $1,782 I was charged by Airbnb. I had $300 in Airbnb gift cards I had bought at 10% off and also charged a portion to my Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard so I could use Arrival miles to deduct another $300 — so my total out of pocket was actually $1,452, or $207/night. I earned 1,782 Delta miles (worth $21 by current TPG values) by using the Delta’s Airbnb link and 4,356 ($87) Chase Ultimate Rewards points by using my Chase Sapphire Reserve. I used the Chase Sapphire Reserve because of its travel benefits and 3 points per dollar earning rate on travel charges.

So there you have it: my total cash outlay for a week at the beach was $1,500 in transport and just under $1,500 in hotel, for a total of $3,000. We could have gone much lower than $250/nightly: I saw three-bedroom properties that I would have happily slept in for $150/night. I don’t foresee being able to afford a private pool elsewhere, however, so I decided to go big this time.

This experience isn’t unique to Portugal: You will find many of Europe’s beach areas cheaper than peak season on the East Coast. (Asia would be cheaper still, but I’d personally take at least two weeks if I were doing that flight with kids. Some Asian beaches are also in typhoon season in August, which would not make for a restful vacation.)

While my comparison focused on house rentals, the same premise holds true if you want to use hotel points for your vacation. For example, a basic Hilton Garden Inn in the Outer Banks will cost 70k points per night on peak summer nights. For just 10k additional points per night, you could stay at the luxurious Conrad Algarve in Portugal.

Image courtesy of the Conrad Algarve

An August Mid-Atlantic Beach Vacation Could Get Blown Away

I did some research about historical hurricane patterns with this handy site from NOAA. Since 1860, 48 named storms have hit the Carolinas in August. That means that on average, every one in three years people somewhere along the coast will have to cut their vacation short due to the weather. The vast majority of the time, those folks are stuck having paid thousands of dollars for a house that they can’t use. Even if they do get their money back via trip insurance or similar, they still end up without their beach vacation. Don’t believe me? Check out the map:

Screenshot courtesy of noaa.gov
Screenshot courtesy of noaa.gov

While the chances of a major storm get slightly lower as you go farther north, they certainly don’t disappear. European beaches are happily hurricane-free.

Bottom Line

If you wish your family could do something different this summer but think you can’t afford it, take a closer look. With strategic use of miles and points, you can stretch the limits of the possible and enjoy your dream trip for less than that regional beach rental.

Who’s with me?

Looking for a beach vacation — near and far? Here are some possibilities:

Featured image of Algarve by © RAZVAN CIUCA / Getty Images

Know before you go.

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