A Travel Guide for how to Visit Panama City Beach on a Budget

High-rises mark a busy section of Panama City Beach in Florida.
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Mark D. Kahler

 For about six weeks in the late winter and early spring, Panama City Beach is the focus of spring break visitors. But it would be unfair to view this area as simply a spring break party town. At other times of the year, it is quiet and family-focused. The winter months can be downright chilly, with temperatures in the 30s in the evenings and cold, blustery afternoons that won't thrill beach-goers. Bear in mind that some attractions and businesses close during this time to retool for the busy months ahead.

Among the best times to go is from the end of the spring break period (mid-April) until the summer crowds arrive in June. Fall is another great opportunity. You'll find warm weather and less traffic.

Where to Stay

Beachfront accommodations here tend to be far more affordable than in many other resort destinations, but it still pays to shop carefully for not only the best deal, but the best location. As you shop for hotel rooms, don't forget to consider vacation rentals by owner, especially if you're planning to spend more than 1-2 days. It is usually possible to negotiate weekly rates, which can come in at prices competitive with hotel stays.

Among the larger places is Laketown Wharf, which provides a location within a short walk of the ocean and commanding views of the area. At first glance, places such as this do not appear to be a budget properties.The top price for a unit (during March) can approach or exceed $300/night, but some of these apartments easily accommodate two medium-sized families who could split the cost. Remember, even at $150/night per family, you're gaining the advantages of a beach location and a kitchen in which economical meals can be prepared.

In low season, it's possible to book this sort of accommodation in Panama City Beach for under $100/night. 

Airbnb searches can turn up beach bargains. One search for properties under $70/night showed 125 properties. Although your results will vary, it is fairly easy to find a variety of affordably priced properties here.

Getting Around

Unless you'll be spending all of your time at the beach, a car rental is essential for visiting the area's attractions, which are spread out along the Bay County coast. Baytown Trolley operates several routes in the area. It will cost $1.50 for ride, but a day pass is available for $4, and monthly passes are $35.

A Full Dining Scene

Panama City Beach offers some fine dining alongside a few quirky favorites. This is a place where forsake the rat race and open restaurants with names like Andy's Flour Power at 2629 Thomas Dr., and Liza's Kitchen, 7328 Thomas Dr. If you're looking for a big splurge or two, there are places to enjoy a top quality meal without paying big-city prices.

Saltwater Grill at 11040 Hutchison Blvd. serves some great seafood dishes, but also has a local reputation for quality steaks and salads. Most entree prices are in the $18-$30 range.

Boar's Head at 17290 Front Beach Rd. specializes in prime rib and traces its beginnings to 1978. Entrees are $18-$35 and include bread and side salad. The restaurant offers multiple specials, including a fried whitefish offer on Tuesday-Friday for $10.95. Note that it is closed on Mondays.

Firefly is a Mediterranean bistro at 535 Richard Jackson Blvd. that might be near the top of the local list for special occasions. Entrees are priced in the $25-$40 range, so it might not be the first choice of budget travelers. But the quality more than matches the prices, making Firefly a good value. The ribeye filet from Firefly is pictured above. Head Chef Paul has served two sitting U.S. presidents, and was chosen to provide cuisine for U.S. Olympians at the 2012 London Games.

More about Spring Break

Although Panama City Beach is a popular spring break destination, much of the partying is limited to stretches of public beach and several popular nightclubs. It's possible to visit here without feeling like an extra in a spring break movie extravaganza. Panama City Beach has made an effort to market itself as a family destination, and it's possible to come here with young children and avoid the problems one might associate with a heavy party scene. Don't make the mistake of striking the area from your list because it caters to college students a few weeks a year.

St. Andrews State Park

Beyond the beach itself, St. Andrews State Park might be among the most treasured attractions in the Panama City Beach area. It attracts numbers of visitors large enough to compete with Florida parks in far more populated areas. In addition to its beaches, the park offers trails where you'll observe wildlife in a natural setting. It's possible to rent bicycles, kayaks and canoes, and there are camping facilities available, although they're usually in high demand. Plan on setting aside at least one day to fully appreciate what it has to offer visitors.

 

This sugar-white sandy beach appeals to sunbathers, children with aspirations of sand castle construction, and anyone else who enjoys the merging of sand and surf. The park also has its own 500-ft. pier extending into the Gulf.

These sands front about 1.5 miles along the Gulf of Mexico and the Grand Lagoon. Admission to the park is $8/vehicle, with 2-8 people per vehicle. The charge for a single-occupant vehicle is $4; pedestrians and cyclists pay $2.

About 700 acres of the park lie on undeveloped Shell Island, a barrier island connected to the mainland by shuttle boat tours in spring and summer. Tickets are available at the park concession.

Discount Scams and Other Foibles

Florida is famous for its billboards and fliers that promote "deep discounts" and "cheap rooms." Not all of these offers are misleading. But there are many times when a coupon or a discount simply lowers the cost of a product that was overpriced from the start. Other offers will save you money, but come with strings attached. Be careful.

Panama City Beach is largely a safe destination that poses very few crime-related threats. But any destination with large numbers of visitors will invariably attract a criminal element looking for crimes of opportunity. In a beach setting, plenty of people will stick keys and a wallet in their shoes and consider them secure. It only takes a few seconds to lose your valuables.

More Panama City Beach Tips

  • Consider Some of the Area Attractions. The beach obviously is the main attraction here, and much of your day could involve sand, surf, and sunshine. But the area has developed a host of other attractions. You'll need to decide which merit your time and money. Consider 10 attractions in Panama City Beach.
  • All Florida Beaches are Open to the Public. While you can't cross private property to enter a beach, the state of Florida provides public access points. Once on the beach, you're free to walk anywhere you like. Along a 27-mile stretch of coastline, you'll find 100 public access points in Panama City Beach. They're numbered and clearly marked. Keep that in mind as you book accommodations. You don't need a beachfront room for daily access to the beach.
  • Sunburn Ruins Vacations. Many a Florida vacationer has eagerly run to the beach, spread out a towel, and ruined his trip within an hour or so. Florida sunlight is direct and will bring sunburn quickly, especially in the summer months. Invest in quality sunblock and use it regularly. It's the cheapest form of Florida travel insurance available over the counter.