Forget the luxury resorts on distant beaches. You don’t need to travel far for an affordable island vacation! From tropical destinations a quick flight away to hidden gems you can drive to, and laidback islands that prohibit cars altogether, there are plenty of islands in the US for a memorable island vacation.
In this ultimate guide to the best islands in the US to visit on your next vacation, we share their favorite islands in the United States that they keep coming back to when in need of a great getaway on a budget. The best island vacation spot might be closer to home than you think!
Islands in the US
1. Outer Banks, North Carolina
There are plenty of places to embark on a memorable vacation on an island in the US, but one of the top choices is the Outer Banks in North Carolina. While lodging in the Outer Banks is not the cheapest, almost everything else is!
The Outer Banks is a stretch of barrier islands running from Eastern Virginia into North Carolina. They are known for their wild horses, unparalleled beauty, and delicious food.
After paying for accommodations, travelers don’t need to spend much money per day to have a great time. Some of the best things to do in the Outer Banks include going on a wild horse tour (around $60/pp), kayaking through the salt marshes, and scouring the small beach towns for the tastiest seafood.
Lighthouses up and down the North Carolina coast are worth a stop, and entrance is either free or very little.
Other free things to do in the Outer Banks are to visit Jockey’s Ridge State Park (the largest sand dune on the east coast), hang out at Duck Boardwalk, and visit Roanoke Island and The Lost Colony. To visit the information center and the area is free, but you will need to pay to see a performance.
One less-known place to visit without charge is Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The North Carolina refuge doesn’t get many tourists, but it is home to the largest concentration of black bears on the East Coast. It also is the northernmost point for the American alligator in the states.
An Outer Banks tip for travelers is that the further north you go in the North Carolina Outer Banks, the more expensive it is. The further south you go, the cheaper! The Outer Banks is one of the best affordable island spots in the United States if you plan your trip accordingly!
2. Molokai, Hawaii
If you are interested in a vacation to Hawaii but are nervous about the cost, consider the authentic island of Molokai. You will have beautiful beaches all to yourself to spend the day snorkeling or enjoying the spectacular Hawaiian sunsets.
Molokai is a perfect option for a budget-friendly Hawaiian vacation. You can even find cheap beach-front hotels like Hotel Molokai, where the average nightly cost is $215, or you can rent an entire condo with a full kitchen for less than $200 per night. If you have ever dreamed of spending the holidays in Hawaii, December is an affordable time to visit Molokai.
Molokai is an outdoor lovers’ paradise, with endless empty beaches, a spectacular waterfall in the rain forest, and the biggest plate of pancakes you have ever seen at Kualapuu Cookhouse. Molokai has the tallest sea cliffs in the world and some of the best hikes in Hawaii, all free for travelers.
Get away from the crowds and explore Molokai, known as the friendly isle in Hawaii.
3. Wellesley Island, New York
Located in the vast Saint Lawrence River in northern New York State, Wellesley Island is a perfect summer getaway for vacationers looking for sun, watersports, and nature. One of the Thousand Islands, Wellesley Island is one of the islands in the US portion of the region.
Wellesley Island is among the more popular islands in the Thousand Islands Region of the Saint Lawrence River for its ease of access: Interstate 81 crosses the island, and the Thousand Islands International Bridge connects the island to both the United States and Canada.
Where neighboring islands like Grindstone Island are only accessible by boat, anyone can drive to Wellesley Island for vacation.
While renting a cottage along the water and enjoying time spent with family and friends eating, swimming, and enjoying bonfires and s’mores is the best way to enjoy a trip to Wellesley, there is plenty to do nearby as well. Camping in Wellesley Island State Park is a great way to enjoy nature while saving money on accommodations or rentals, and the campgrounds are well-equipped.
Visitors also love checking out Boldt Castle on Heart Island just off the shore of Wellesley, a monumental estate constructed between 1900-1904 and now open to visitors.
4. Dauphin Island, Alabama
Island vacations are typically luxurious affairs, with travelers spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars to stay in one of the exclusive resorts in tropical destinations. But what if you want to take a vacation to an island in the US? Dauphin Island, Alabama, is an excellent option for budget-minded travelers.
With crystal-clear water at Dauphin Beach, white sand beaches lining the island, and plenty of activities to keep you busy, Dauphin Island offers a beach getaway at a fraction of the cost. So, pack your swimsuit and put Dauphin Island at the top of your list for your next island vacation!
There are so many things to do on Dauphin Island, from beach hopping to hiking and taking the ferry to Fort Morgan. Visitors can find beach bungalows to stay in or even a campground near the beach. Dauphin Island is known as the sunset capital of Alabama, so be sure to catch a sunset and a sunrise!
5. Puerto Rico
Looking for an unforgettable tropical island in the US? Ditch the continental United States for Puerto Rico. You won’t need a passport to visit this tropical paradise, where you’ll enjoy stunning beaches, lush jungles, delicious food, and plenty of things to do.
While you’ll find plenty of expensive luxury resorts all around the island, there are plenty of ways to enjoy a budget vacation to Puerto Rico without sacrificing the experience. Choose a destination closer to an international airport – for many travelers, this will mean sticking closer to San Juan.
If you’re looking for a beach vacation in San Juan, stay in Condado or Ocean Park, where you’ll be within walking distance of beautiful beaches, plus great cafes and restaurants. Or, staying in Old San Juan is a great choice for a mix of great food, cool bars and cafes, and all the historical sites.
Puerto Rico is much more than just San Juan, so if your budget allows for it, make sure to get out of the city and visit El Yunque rainforest, visit some of the island’s other beautiful beaches, and even the neighboring islands of Vieques and Culebra, both islands in the US that are among the best (underrated!) islands in the Caribbean.
6. Lake Erie Islands, Ohio and Michigan
In the fourth largest lake in the Great Lakes, you will find plenty of islands with quaint lake towns, and many of them are worth putting on your island bucket list. These hidden gems are an excellent choice if you’re seeking a vacation to an island in the US!
While there are many islands throughout Lake Erie, most belong to the state of Ohio. Among the most famous are Pelee Island, the Bass Islands, Kelleys Island, Erie Island, and more. One of the more obscure Lake Erie Islands is Gard Island, one of the most undiscovered places to visit in Michigan at the northern end of the Maumee Bay and off the tip of the “Lost Peninsula.”
On Kelleys Island, the largest Lake Erie island in Ohio, you will find plenty of greenery and nature throughout, and one of the best free activities on the island is birdwatching.
Fortunately, there is plenty more than just birdwatching, as the state park there has miles of hiking trails, and you can even find Native American petroglyphs throughout the island carved into limestone rocks! This island has various accommodation options ranging from budget motels to resorts (and more).
A fantastic way to enjoy the Erie islands at a discounted price is to obtain a Shore Savings Card, which gives you lodging packages and discounts on attractions and food while traveling there. If you’re really up for a cheaper trip, opt to visit in the off-season and not in the summer!
Read More: 22 Stunning Clear Lakes in the United States
7. South Padre Island, Texas
Looking for a tropical getaway without an exotic price tag? South Padre Island is a tropical island in Texas (yes, Texas!) and one that visitors can easily drive to. This makes it an affordable option for many vacationers looking to avoid the added cost of plane tickets when budgeting for a getaway.
South Padre Island is an especially popular getaway for those who live in the southern part of the US and are looking for warmer weather without having to travel as far as most other international island vacations may require.
Summer is the busiest time to visit the island, although bargain hunters may find great deals on vacation rentals in the shoulder season or the winter months. While the ocean may be too cold to swim in, you can still book activities like a boat tour to see the dolphins or a sunset dinner cruise.
Other island activities include the annual sand castle contest, bird watching from the 5-story watchtower at the Birding and Nature Center, and visiting the sea turtle refuge, a favorite for travelers of all ages.
8. Cedar Key, Florida
For an affordable island in the US full of historical charm, head to Cedar Key, the second-oldest town in Florida. This hidden gem location is not as well known as other beach towns in the United States, making it the ideal place to escape crowds and enjoy a slower pace of life.
Since it’s not oversaturated with tourists, hotel prices remain low, and vacations are extremely affordable. There’s also an abundance of free things to do in Cedar Key, so you can keep your expenses to a bare minimum.
Head to Dock Street for the best attractions in town. Entirely walkable, it’s the central activity hub for Cedar Key, with shops and restaurants sandwiched in between the beach and scenic pier. The restaurants are built directly over the water and provide the best spots in town to dine outdoors with ocean views.
Cedar Key Beach is a free place to swim and spot dolphins. For a small fee, you can also rent a kayak or book a boat tour to take you a half mile away to Cedar Key’s original settlement – the abandoned Atsena Otie Key – where a 145-year-old cemetery has become one of the most popular places for tourists to explore.
If you’re feeling adventurous, stay at the Island Hotel. Dating back to 1859, it once housed soldiers during the Civil War and is rumored to be haunted by the spirits of thirteen former guests and employees.
9. Folly Islands, South Carolina
The barrier islands surrounding the historic city of Charleston, South Carolina are known for long beaches that stretch as far as the eye can see. While visiting these unique islands can get pricey if you’re not careful, an affordable island vacation in Folly Beach is a perfect choice for budget travelers.
Folly Beach is known for its casual, less-developed atmosphere, one of the reasons it’s considered an affordable island vacation in the United States.
Still present among the large beach homes are bungalows that mirror Folly’s laidback surf culture and recall a different Folly Beach era. You’ll find the most affordable vacation rentals in these beach bungalows.
The heart of the island is appropriately named Center Street. It’s filled with an array of restaurants and surf shops before ending at the fishing pier. The east side includes a popular surf spot called The Washout and the Morris Island Lighthouse, a classic Folly landmark with a lot of history.
On the island’s west end is the Folly Beach County Park, a wide expanse of beach that curves towards the Folly River. Nearby, you can enjoy a cocktail while watching the sunset at Sunset Cay Marina to round out your island vacation at Folly Beach, South Carolina.
10. Oahu, Hawaii
Hawaii is always considered an expensive option, but with endless outdoor (free!) adventures, you can have a fantastic time without breaking the bank, especially if you can find a deal on airfare by using reward points.
Oahu can be an affordable island in the US for savvy travelers on a budget – are you surprised? There are plenty of affordable Airbnbs or even hostels on Oahu, especially in the Honolulu area.
Beyond the accommodations, your entertainment on the island can be completely free. For example, consider heading to the North Shore for some of the best snorkeling in Oahu, such as at Shark’s Cove or Three Tables.
There are also plenty of amazing hikes that will allow you to drink in the island’s incredible scenery. Hike to the Lanikai Pillboxes, old bunkers from World War II built into the hillsides overlooking Lanikai Beach, routinely ranked as one of the most beautiful beaches on the planet. For a different vibe, hike to Lulumahu Falls, where you can swim at the base of a 50-foot waterfall.
While travel hacking might be the only way to score a room in some of Oahu’s luxury resorts on a budget, don’t count out Oahu as a great destination for travel, even on a budget.
11. Key West, Florida
Sitting at the southernmost end of the Continental United States, Key West, Florida is just a stone’s throw from Cuba and can even be a fantastic island in the US for an affordable getaway! With a few easy travel tips, Key West can be an affordable island destination and is a popular destination for snorkeling in the Florida Keys.
Make sure to book a flight to Miami, not Key West, since direct flights into the island can be quite expensive. From there, enjoy a fun Miami to Key West drive! Just make sure to stop in Little Havana on the way for delicious Cuban road trip treats from Versailles.
Once you arrive, you can save money by renting a bike and exploring free things to do like West Martello Tower & Botanical Garden, White Street Pier, and sunset at Mallory Square.
While it’s not free to visit, the Ernest Hemingway House is an absolute must while you’re in the area. After all, it’s a historic local landmark that served as the famous author’s residence from 1931 to 1939. It also features beautiful architecture and artifacts from the author’s life in Key West and Havana, in addition to a 20 or 30-minute tour that is included with the price of admission.
You can also avoid crowds and save even more money by avoiding peak season and visiting during the fall shoulder season instead. It typically extends from September through November, and you’ll see hotel prices drop by as much as 50%.
12. Block Island, Rhode Island
When you think of islands in the US found in New England, posh vacation spots like Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket might come to mind. But just 50 miles south, you’ll find a much more affordable and equally beautiful option.
Block Island is just 7 miles long and 3 miles wide, but it’s packed with plenty to do. Even better, many of the activities are free!
The best way to explore the island is to bring or rent a bike. Visit the Southeast Lighthouse to see the Mohegan Bluffs — 200-foot-tall cliffs with spectacular ocean views. Then head to the North Lighthouse and check out the maritime museum. If you prefer to go by foot, there are 32 miles of hiking trails through nature preserves and along picturesque bluffs.
If you’re an ocean lover, head to Mansion Beach for one of the best beaches on the island. Or hit up Baby Beach if you have kids in tow. You can also rent kayaks, try your hand at sailing, or catch some fish.
After soaking up the sun and surf, stroll through downtown New Shoreham for window shopping, antiquing, and art galleries. Wondering where to stay? You won’t find any expensive chain hotels here. Take your pick from the many affordable and adorable B&Bs and inns.
13. Lopez Island, Washington
Lopez Island is a dream island in the US for hikers, bikers, and those seeking an affordable coastal destination without crowds. If you’re looking for a low-key adventure that includes rest and incredible views without being too touristy, this island in the US is a great choice.
One of the smallest of the San Juan Islands, a rugged archipelago in Washington’s Puget Sound, Lopez Island blends island vibes with the iconic PNW wilderness. Seemingly a world away from urban Seattle or tourist-centric Orcas Island, there are so many budget friendly things to do on Lopez Island.
After arriving by ferry, hike to the wind-swept cliffs of Iceberg Point, explore the tide pools at Shark Reef Sanctuary or watch bald eagles on Spencer Spit. These and many more free activities are available year-round on this small bicycle-friendly island.
14. Anna Maria Island, Florida
Anna Maria Island is a little slice of heaven located off the west coast of Florida, perfect for your next affordable island vacation in the US. With white sandy beaches, palm trees and lush vegetation, and the warm, clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico, you will never believe that you aren’t in the Caribbean.
But the best part is that you don’t need an expensive overseas plane ticket to vacation in paradise! Most travelers can visit by planning a simple road trip. Once you arrive on the island, a free trolley system runs from 6 AM to 10:30 PM for all your sightseeing needs.
Most of the best things to do on Anna Maria Island are free! The breathtaking public beaches, with calm turquoise waters and powdery soft sand, are a must-see. Visitors can also launch a boat, paddleboard, or kayak into Bimini Bay and see wildlife such as manatees, dolphins, and tropical birds.
Plus, the Anna Maria City Pier is a perfect spot for fishing and has a great restaurant with fresh seafood right on the water. No matter how you spend your vacation, Anna Maria is a little island in the US with a lot to offer!
15. Mount Desert Island, Maine
Home to some of New England’s most popular destinations like Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, Mount Desert Island is an excellent choice for a unique and affordable island in the US for your next vacation. Whether you’re looking to travel in style and nosh on lobster rolls or enjoy one of the most popular national parks in the country, there is plenty to love about Mount Desert Island.
While you’ll find a bit of everything on this island, most of it is covered by Acadia National Park. It’s known for its stunning, craggy shores, endless hiking paths through rolling hills and mountains, and stunning ocean views.
For an affordable vacation on the third-largest island on the East Coast of the United States, consider skipping some of the expensive summer vacation spots and heading off backpacking through Acadia National Park.
In addition to being one of the most popular national parks in the country, Acadia National Park is also one of the very best national parks for camping, so you’ll find plenty of spots to enjoy.
Mount Desert Island is accessible for cars, and the best way to access and explore the island at your own pace is in your own vehicle. Bring a car, camper, tent, or rent a room in a bed and breakfast for an unforgettable island vacation close to home.
Carley Rojas Avila is a bilingual New York-based travel writer, editor, content marketer, and the founder of the digital travel publications Explorers Away and Home to Havana. Carley is an expert on all things Latin America, the Caribbean, and Cuba, having lived and worked in four different countries in the region. Her writing has appeared on the Associated Press wires and in Travel + Leisure, Yahoo, MSN, Euronews, The Weather Channel, and more. When she's not writing about her travels, find her front row at a Bad Bunny concert, befriending street cats, and taste-testing every pizza in Havana.