Pensacola is a family-friendly (and budget friendly) destination

I love to travel. I was fortunate enough to log a lot of hours travelling the United States as a child, and I get excited about sharing those same experiences with my own kids. Unfortunately, like many young families, we don't have thousands upon thousands of extra dollars laying around for lavish vacations. I, however, am determined not to let this keep us from seeing the country (and the world) as a family. Now that our kids are old enough for longer car trips and sightseeing, we're doing it.

Last year was a crazy year, and by March, I was already ready for a vacation. The bad news was, my business had a couple slow months, so our budget was minimal. Like $1000. (Ideally less.) I was worried we wouldn't be able to leave the state (living in Texas, it would take forever to get out of the state in the first place). However, with some planning, we were able to pull it off! Initially, I thought a Florida vacation would be far out of our reach, but as I began to plan it became a reality. Here are some tips for an affordable Florida vacation.

  1. Drive
    This is a huge money saver. I know that planes are quicker, but here's the deal... even if I could've afforded to fly, I wouldn't have. We saw so many cool things on our drive, and we got to experience some other great places in addition to our destination -- Mobile, Biloxi, New Orleans, and so much more! The cost of this will obviously vary based on your point of origin, but Texas to Pensacola, we only spent about $250 on gas!
  2. Lodging
    There are two options here. The most affordable is to camp. This was our original plan. With numerous Florida State Parks all over the coast, you can camp for around $20/night! Plus, you can do your own cooking, and save even more money. Our plans changed last minute, however, when the vehicle we were taking was wrecked three days befor our departure. Fortunately, we were able to book hotels very affordably via All told, for 5 nights in hotels, we spent about $425 -- one night somewhere in Louisiana, three nights at a fantastic motel in Pensacola, and one night in New Orleans. (Tip: Book hotels that offer free breakfasts and free parking to save even more money!)
  3. Food & Attractions
    Do your research on these things before you go. If you wait until you get there to decide what you're going to do, you'll be overwhelmed by an onslought of brochures and advertisements and shiny things and your money will be gone before you know it. Check out sites like Trip Advisor to find out what attractions (and restaurants) are worth your time and money.

Here is our family's list of favorite things:

Pensacola Beach SignCredit: Breanna PowersPensacola Beach, Gulf CoastCredit: Breanna PowersA Day on the BeachCredit: Breanna Powers

Pensacola Beach - It really is a beautiful, scenic drive. When you're in the town of Pensacola Beach, be sure to visit the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier (less than $10 for the whole family) and take a walk down to the end. Our kids loved being able to see the fish and jellyfish from the pier. Some travellers have even spotted dolphins from the pier. The beaches in town are nice, but if you keep driving through town (going east), it's wide open and the white sandy beaches are beautiful. We went a few miles down and had the beach almost to ourselves! (P.S. Keep going and you'll end up in Destin.) And they're free. We could've spent our whole time here and not spent a penny. Our kids played in the water all day and totally wore themselves out.

National Naval Aviation MuseumCredit: Breanna Powers

Pensacola - The first thing we did was visit the National Naval Aviation Museum. I had put it on our list because it was free and I figured it'd kill some time, but let me tell you, we all loved it! The museum is huge and incredibly interesting. Don't miss this! Just around the corner is the Pensacola Lighthouse, which is beautiful. We went and walked around it and went into the house, but it cost to go up into the lighthouse and we declined since the visibility was low. There are also a number of forts in the area that are worth checking out. Our favorite is in the next section. As far as food goes, a friend recommended we visit McGuire's for food and we were happy we did. The food was delicious, portions were huge, and the atmosphere was fun. On the way out of town, we also stopped by the Happy Pig for a giant sandwich called "The Porkinator". We were able to split it between the four of us. Yummy.

Fort MorganCredit: Breanna Powers

Gulf Shores/Dauphin Island - we took one day and drove west with the intent of catching the Mobile Bay Ferry and doing some sightseeing along the way. Ferries are a cheap (and sometimes free) way to sightsee on the coast. I heard this was a nice ferry ride, but it ended up being closed when we arrived (note to self: call and check before making the drive). Just about the time we turned to drive back, we noticed Fort Morgan and decided to go, and I'm so glad we did. This historic fort was different than any fort I'd ever seen. We spent several hours there walking in and around the fort, playing on the beach, then exploring all the abandoned out buildings. 

What are your favorite attractions or restaurants in the Pensacola area? Do you have a favorite family (and budget) friendly destination?