Budget beaches: 5 places for sun and sand

Summer is in full swing, and you know what that means — beach vacations! My Instagram feed is flooded with photos from swanky beach resorts, cocktails by the pool and balconies overlooking swaying palm trees — all which seem out of reach to a budget backpacker like me. But even if you can’t fork over the money for a luxury holiday, you can still have a relaxing getaway at these 5 budget beaches!


1. Dahab, Egypt


Dahab lies in the foothills of the mountains
Dahab lies in the foothills of the mountains


Budget beaches on the Sinai Peninsula? Yes, it’s a thing! While the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh pulls in luxury travelers, Dahab, just an hour and a half down the road, is a backpacker paradise.


The beach is perfect at low tide, when you’ll have plenty of room to spread out your towel. Unfortunately, as the tide comes in it eats up most of the sand — so you may have to relocate to the beach chairs at any of the seaside restaurants. Life is so hard.



Spend your days lounging on floor pillows in the Arabic-style cafes, eating cheap and delicious sushi, and soaking up the desert-mountains-spill-into-the-sea views. If you’re looking for a more active holiday, book a dive or snorkel trip at any of the Red Sea’s spectacular dive sites (certified divers should head for Ras Mohammed National Park). Dahab also makes a convenient base for the hike up Mount Sinai (if it’s safe).




Dahab is best visited in the northern hemisphere summer, but anytime outside of the rainy season, October-February, will work.


The best way to get here is an overnight bus trip from Cairo. Alternatively, fly to Sharm el-Sheikh and take a bus the remaining hour and a half. Check the security situation first — the British FCO currently advises against air travel on this route and all but essential travel in the region (July 2017).


Dahab’s best hostel is Deep Blue Divers. Dorms start as low as $6 a night. If you dive multiple times with their highly recommended on-site shop, you may be able to negotiate your room for free. Cheaper still is Penguin Divers ($2.50 for a dorm bed), but it’s a lot quieter.


While Dahab is more relaxed for solo women than the rest of Egypt, it’s best to cover up when you’re not on the beach. You’ll still get plenty of unwanted attention.


Dahab is one of the world’s cheapest budget beaches — you could get away with a budget of $10-$15 a day if you don’t splurge on food. Add $30 per dive (or $50+ for a trip to Ras Mohammed).


2. Jiquilillo, Nicaragua


Sunset over Playa Jiquilillo
Sunset over Playa Jiquilillo


Nicaragua is chock-a-block with perfect budget beaches. The downside is they get really crowded. So if you want a beach holiday without the masses of people, head to Playa Jiquilillo.


I loved Jiquilillo so much that I wrote an entire post about it here, but the short version is: a long stretch of soft, gray, volcanic sand. Unbelievable sunsets. Good surfing. Charming fishing village where you can connect with the locals through community-driven activities. Great places to stay. Lots of active day-trip options.


While you’re here, don’t miss kayaking through Central America’s largest mangrove reserve. These incredibly biodiverse ecosystems are disappearing fast.




December to April is the ideal time to visit Jiquilillo. January and February get very, very hot. It may be occasionally inaccessible during the heavy rains between May and October.


Jiquilillo’s remoteness is part of its appeal, but also makes it difficult to get to. The gateway is León, from where you’ll have to take a minivan to Chinandega, followed by a chicken bus down the dirt road to Jiquilillo.


Stay at Rancho Esperanza, where dorms start at $8 a night. They can organize activities where your money goes directly back into the community — as well as day-trips like kayaking through the mangroves or trekking up a volcano. The on-site restaurant is excellent, if not the cheapest.


Jiquilillo is generally safe, but leaving valuables on the beach or walking on the beach with anything but a water bottle is asking for trouble.


When it comes to budget beaches, Nicaragua isn’t the cheapest country. You’ll need at least $25 a day for Playa Jiquilillo, and day-trips cost about $20 each.


3. Palolem, India


Beach bungalows in Palolem
Beach bungalows in Palolem


Goa is very much on the Indian backpacking circuit, and with good reason. The budget beaches here are stunning and the value for money is possibly the best in the world. There is a party scene here, but if you’re after something quieter, Palolem is the beach for you.


The sand at Palolem stretches for more than a kilometer, dotted with swaying palm trees that provide cover from the sun. The small town has every amenity a backpacker could possibly want — including the best book exchange I’ve ever found. If you want to dip your toes into some nightlife, there are “silent discos” on the beach regularly.


And when you get bored of lazing around, rent a motorbike and explore the jungle-clad mountains and further-afield beaches nearby. The streets are nearly empty and even novice scooter drivers will feel safe.




The best time to visit Palolem is during the dry season, between November and March.


Margao, an hour and a half away, is the most convenient rail gateway to Palolem. It’s an overnight trip from Mumbai — book your tickets well in advance, as this route sells out fast. You can also reach Palolem by bus from many places in Karnaktaka (I got through to Mysore in a day with a few bus changes), but you’ll have to deal with private operators.


It’s not worth booking accommodation in advance, except around Christmas. You can negotiate room rates and get incredible deals. I found a no-name beach bungalow owned by a friendly local family for $4 a night.


The seafood in Goa is phenomenal. Keep your eye out for fish thalis. If you’re on a tighter budget, the funniest and friendliest man in town operates a street stall just off the beach. He sells omelettes in the morning and fried rice at night for $0.25-$0.50 per meal.


Palolem is safe and easy for solo women. You may get some stares in your bikini, even on the beach — if it makes you uncomfortable, renting a beach chair instead of spreading your towel on the sand seems to make it stop. Definitely cover up off the beach.


Palolem is the cheapest of budget beaches. You certainly don’t need more than $10 a day here, even if you rent a motorbike.


4. Tulum, Mexico


At the budget beaches in Tulum, you get views of Mayan ruins
In Tulum, you get views of Mayan ruins with your beach


If your idea of a beach vacation is incredibly soft sand and turquoise water, Tulum has you covered.


Tulum is most famous for its eco-chic luxury beach bungalows, but backpackers still have a place here. You’ll have to sacrifice beach views and stay in the town, but trust me, it’s worth it.


The beaches are divided into north and south sections. The south sections are more beautiful, but more resort-dominated — you’ll have to purchase something at one of the restaurants if you want to use the beaches. You don’t sacrifice much beauty if you head north, and you get it for free. The best public access point is just past Mezzanine.


Tulum makes a good base for day trips around the Yucatan Peninsula. You’re two hours from Chichen Itza, an hour and a half from the Mayan ruins at Coba, a stone’s throw from the ruins of Tulum, 45 minutes from snorkeling with sea turtles at Akumal, and surrounded by cenotes (caves formed by underground rivers). Just make sure you leave yourself time to enjoy the beach itself!




Visit Tulum between December and May, before hurricane season starts.


You can get to Tulum on a first-class bus directly from the Cancun airport or from any other major city in the Yucatan. Buy tickets in advance for the return trip to the airport.


The beach is about 6 kilometers from the town, connected by well-maintained bike path. You can rent bikes from any hostel or bike shop. Alternatively, colectivos run this route, but they charge an outrageous 35+ pesos. Cycling is also the best option to reach the ruins (take the back road along the beach). To get to other attractions in the area, use the minibuses that run up and down the road to Cancun.


The best hostel in Tulum is Mama’s Home. It has a courtyard, nightly activities, and a generally social vibe. If you are traveling in a group, you can get a good deal at Villa Matisse — a well-managed guesthouse with free bikes for guests to use. Book well in advance wherever you stay.


Tulum is the safest of budget beaches. It’s still probably not the best idea to leave valuables on the beach while you swim, but otherwise even solo women are unlikely to encounter any problems.


Tulum, and Mexico in general, is a little pricier than the other budget beaches on this list. It would be tough to keep costs under $30 a day, especially if you’re taking part in activities like visiting ruins or snorkeling in cenotes. Add about $100 per dive trip if you’re diving.


5. Pulau Perhentian Kecil, Malaysia


My top pick of the budget beaches — and my favorite beach in the world — is on Little Perhentian Island, Malaysia.


The crescent-shaped strips of sand here are absolutely perfect. Cool breezes blow in from the sea. You can join a pick-up volleyball game, hike through the tiny island’s jungle-clad interior, enjoy some of the world’s cheapest (but still incredible) diving, have a barbecue on the beach, or just lie in a hammock. There is little technology (read: no guarantee of wifi).


In short, this is the desert island you’ve been dreaming of — and it’s well within your budget.


Long Beach is the island’s top beach, but Coral Bay is nearly as beautiful. There are smaller bays scattered around the island — some with good snorkeling — that you can hike or take a water taxi to. Alas, my photos of this little slice of paradise disappeared in Vietnam, so I have nothing to show you here.




The Perhentian Islands follow the east coast Malaysian monsoon. Between October and March, you may not be able to get there at all. I visited at the tail end of monsoon season in March, which was perfect — the boat ride was terrifying, with huge waves and high winds, and none of the accommodation on Long Beach was open yet. But once I made it there, the island was very quiet and peaceful. I had Long Beach to myself one afternoon.


The only way to get to Little Perhentian is by speedboat from Kuala Besut, an hour outside Kota Bharu. It’s an hour-long, white-knuckle boat ride. Protect your electronics — everything on this boat will get drenched.


Fatima Chalet has good, cheap beach bungalows (from $5 a night) right on Coral Bay. You’ll even get a little balcony with sea views. The manager is super-friendly and whips out his ukulele most nights.


The Perhentians are very safe. Women alone won’t face any issues here and you can get away with wearing a sarong off the beach. The biggest risk is getting there and away — the speedboat operators put money before safety and some of them drive drunk.


Little Perhentian will fit into any budget beach vacation. It’s easy to keep costs below $15 a day. If you’re diving, add $30-40 per dive.


These five beaches prove that even if you’re traveling on a budget, you can go on a relaxing beach holiday. So don’t scroll wistfully through your Instagram feed — book plane tickets! You won’t regret it, even if you have to settle for cocktails in the sand instead of by the pool.


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Did I miss your favorite budget beaches? Have you visited any of these? Leave a comment!


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