American Beaches: What Brits Should Know

(Photo: Fotolia)

(Photo: Fotolia)

If you’re vacationing in the U.S. in the summer, it might well involve a beach. Not only are there beaches around the edges (and off the mainland in Hawaii), but because this country has thousands of inland lakes, there are tons in the middle too. Chicago, for example, is situated on Lake Michigan’s shores and with very popular city beach right downtown.

No, it's not downtown Miami: this is Chicago with the raging Lake Michigan nipping at its hemline. (Photo: Fotolia)

No, it’s not downtown Miami: this is Chicago with the raging Lake Michigan nipping at its hemline. (Photo: Fotolia)

And yes, American beaches can be a little different from what we’re used to in the U.K. Some of them, like the one above, are on fresh water lakes, so while it doesn’t quite smell like a real beach, you also don’t get salt in your eyes and mouth, and while there are freshwater jellyfish, there’s a merciful lack of the type that sting like a you-know-what.

Many beaches are staffed with lifeguards, and beach-goers are expected to abide by the (usually) posted rules. On some beaches, you may only swim when lifeguards are present. You will also find you’re often not allowed to swim with flotation devices other than Coast Guard approved flotation devices; airbeds, gigantic blow-up animals and anything else that can take you out onto the open water are often banned.

If the lifeguards tell you not to go in because of rip tides, you should heed the warning if a) you don’t want to get yourself arrested, and b) you want to live to see another day. According to the Red Cross, rip tides are responsible for most lifeguard rescues each year, and lead to many deaths.

Many U.S. beaches are regularly tested for contamination, and if the water is found to contain yucky stuff, the beach will be closed until further notice. Obviously, it’s in your own interests to check that your beach isn’t on this list and to stay away if it is.

One thing you won’t see, unless you’re on a specifically designated beach, is nudity or toplessness. Unlike down on the Med or the Greek islands, you won’t see mothers doling out sandwiches and a generous eyeful of boobage. Even toddlers running around flashing bare bottoms are rare. On public beaches (as opposed to resort beaches), you’re usually not allowed to consume alcohol.

Although most states have adopted some form of Public Trust Act, defining public rights of beach access, the definitions are not universal. In some states, like Florida and California, people owning houses on the beach can also own most of the beachfront (depending on mean average tidelines), and you’re not allowed to plonk your towel down there. In other states, such as Oregon and Texas, the public has been granted permanent public access to the beaches.

Not all “No trespassing” signs are legal though, and private beachfront homeowners (e.g. in Malibu) have been known to erect fake signs or hire security guards to shoo the commoners away. To be on the safe side, check with the locals (but not beachfront homeowners) or on the town’s web site if you’re worried about trespassing.

Some beaches, particularly in New Jersey, allow public access for a fee. You can purchase a daily or seasonal beach token or tag, which must be displayed to the official beach patrollers. If you don’t purchase one, you will be asked to do so or leave the beach.

In places with cold winter weather, many beaches close for the winter. Chicago’s beaches, for example, are only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day (roughly end of May to beginning of September), and many are fenced off during the winter. Despite it still being hot and sunny in the U.S. in September, the Debbie-Downer powers-that-be often deem it the end of beach season!

What’s your favorite U.S. beach? See more on American beaches at BBC Travel.

See more:
Summer in the States – Keeping Your Cool
Exploring the Americas: 10 Holiday Spots Outside the U.S.
10 Affordable U.S. Travel Destinations – and How to Experience Them on a Budget


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • gn

    I live in California, which has absolutely gorgeous beaches. There is one problem, however: the water is significantly colder than you would expect. This is a result of cold currents coming down from Alaska.

    For example, today’s sea temperature in San Francisco is no warmer than in Falmouth in Cornwall — even though the air temperature is far higher.

    San Diego is warmer, but still not comparable to the Mediterranean.

    • expatmum

      I remember a few years ago, sitting at the beach in Chicago on a warm May day. The beach wasn’t “officially” open but there were lots of people playing volley ball etc. An older English couple happened to be sitting next to me and so, we got chatting. They couldn’t believe that no one was in the water – until I told them that it had been frozen over for months in the winter and probably wouldn’t get to a decent temp till some time in the middle of July.
      My kids used to say – “Oh, you get used to it”, to which I would respond “Yes, that’s because yer feet go numb.”

  • Linda Edwards

    Wrong about the nudity part. Here in New Jersey, at Sandy Hook, Gateway National Park in Monmouth County, there is Gunnison Beach. It’s a clothing optional/nude beach, has been for years, and is the only beach of it’s type on Federal lands.

    • brazildj

      Well, the writer did write “unless you’re on a specifically designated beach.” Unless this was added after your comment.

    • alkh3myst

      The Fire Island National Seashore, off the south shore of Long Island, NY, is also a Federal nude beach.

    • CuriousTraveler66

      Yeah, I’m still not sure why anyone thinks a nude beach is ever a good idea, other than for lewd leering. There are more than enough less-than-perfect bodies whose images I don’t want branded onto my eyeballs (Boris Yeltsin in a tiny Speedo is one). More exposed skin just means more area for sunburn, and there’s places you really don’t want sand or insects to get into. Ouch. Really: on examination, public nudity is a bad idea.

  • Jen C.

    i wouldn’t know about California, but have been to many different cities and towns in Florida and all of them had free public access beach areas that were clearly marked. I would recommend St. Augustine for a holiday. Lovely sandy white beaches, lots gorgeous Spanish architecture downtown. There are lots of nice shoppes, you easily steer clear of the big gaudy beach stores & the grocery & clothing stores are well away. All in all, not a horrible tourist trap. My British husband’s favorite. Pensacola if you like more of natural beach check out Gulf Islands National Seashore. The Perdido Key bit has a low entry fee, but if you want quite and nature it’s the best. There were times we had the beach all to ourselves. They also have beach camping available. You do have to complete a free registration, but there are some restrictions Pensacola Beach on the other hand has a bit of the touristy stuff. There’s s $1 toll to get on the island. But they also have Fort Pickens bit of the National Seashore. There is a low entrance fee. There’s an old fort and nice little natural history museum free of charge. You can pay a little to take a guided tour, but they also have brochure guides and you can tour it on your own. Once you enter the park there are tall sand dunes that look like sand dunes and beach access along with paid camping sites with showers. Daytona Beach also has free beach access the only trouble is finding an open parking place. But you can park on the beach for a $5. This is a very touristy place. Expect it to be crowded and loud and no dogs. Always check specific beaches for their policy on animals. But it very hot if you’re in the midsummer heat so it’s best to leave the animals at home or put them in a kennel for the day no matter where you are. Lots of big tourist super stores, horrible traffic. Also, be very careful of the sun, even if you are well tanned. Florida heat is different from most of the country and very different from England. It takes about 15 minutes to burn with no protection, worse if you are fair skinned. My son got a sunburn so bad he had blisters and he was wearing sunscreen, he just wasn’t applying it enough. The doctor said you should take it slowly getting used to the sun there, start with short periods on the beach and work your way up. But as most people only have a limited vacation they don’t have the time. Try mid morning to early afternoon which is very convenient as there is usually heavy rain EVERY late afternoon in the summer months. Get a GOOD beach umbrella, we had two wrecked the first lasted quite a while but the second one didn’t even last a day.

  • Erik

    i love horseneck beach in eastern massachusetts because it has great waves if you enjoy things like surfing

  • CuriousTraveler66

    Chicago isn’t the only place on Lake Michigan that has great beaches. There are beaches in Wisconsin, there’s Indiana Dunes, and there’s all of the Michigan shoreline, though the southern end from the Indiana border to about Saugatuck is better than further north, where it stays colder longer.