The sand, the waves, the water temperature, the shells, the views, the yachts, the swimming, the surfing, the wind, the crowds, the rocks, the seaweed, the jellyfish, the riptide, the volcanic lava…. It’s hard enough to choose the right beach, let alone plan an entire beach vacation. Yet those of us who have been buried in snow for weeks are craving one. Fortunately, TripAdvisor’s 2015 Travelers’ Choice list of the best beaches—in the U.S. and in the world—has just come out. And it’s not too late to make a sunny beach trip happen this winter. Here’s how to pull it together:

Focus on top beaches nearby.

If you live where most of the snow is, seven of the top ten U.S. beaches are relatively accessible to you: six are in Florida, and one is in California. What makes a top beach, anyway? Given that half of the top ten are on Florida’s Gulf Coast, which has the whitest sand in the U.S., clearly sand color is important. Certain Gulf Coast strands—particularly those of Florida’s Panhandle and southwest coast—are known for their pure-white-quartz-crystal “sugar sand” that is so soft it feels like you’re walking on baby powder. But there are dozens of factors that make for a great beach—and dozens of top beaches. So check out TripAdvisor’s lists of the best in the Caribbean and Mexico too.

Find an affordable airfare.

You’ll find the best airfares to those destinations that have the most airline service. There are so many big Florida airports—Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Fort Myers, Jacksonville, Palm Beach International—that, when flights are too pricey into one of them, you can often find an affordable fare into another, and from there rent a car or take a bus. As for Southern California, there are many cheap flights into LAX, and from there you can easily drive or ride to the San Diego area. The #2 beach in the world, Grace Bay, on the Caribbean island of Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos, is also relatively nearby and accessible via several U.S. airlines. And, of course, there’s plenty of airline service into Mexican hubs such as Cancun, Cabo, and Puerto Vallarta. Use TripAdvisor Flights and AirfareWatchdog to search for deals and set up low-fare alerts to these destinations.

Choose the right beach hotel.

For each of the top ten U.S. beaches, TripAdvisor has pinpointed a hotel that represents great value and has availability over the next two months. For example, at the #1 beach in the U.S., Siesta Key Public Beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast, The Capri at Siesta can be booked on TripAdvisor. At the country’s #2 beach, Saint Pete Beach (also on Florida’s Gulf Coast), Coconut Inn is bookable on TripAdvisor for typically less than $200 per night. In case southern California is easier for you to get to, the #6 beach in the U.S., La Jolla Cove near San Diego, also has a hotel bookable on TripAdvisor for typically less than $200 per night: Empress Hotel of La Jolla. Here’s the full list of great-value beach-hotel options. 

Avoid the worst of the spring-break crowds.

Spring breakers tend to congregate on large beaches with a plethora of inexpensive hotels. Only one of the top ten Travelers’ Choice U.S. beaches—Clearwater Beach, Florida—gets a ton of spring-breakers; Clearwater has the most hotels (60) and the lowest average nightly rate of all the beaches in the top ten. Other spring-break magnets are Daytona Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Fort Walton, and Miami Beach will be very busy too, of course, though with a ritzier clientele.

Plan a vacation activity you’ve never tried before.

When I ask my husband and kids what they remember most fondly about our beach trips, what pops into their minds first is the activities they did for the first time. What they remember most vividly about The Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, was learning to surf. What they remember most clearly about Rosewood Mayakoba in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, was snorkeling in a cenote. What they remember about The Sandpearl on Clearwater Beach was playing beach volleyball on sand so soft it was like diving into powdered sugar. Doing something for the first time makes a vacation more memorable, and it doesn’t have to be exotic or expensive. My kids’ advice for the perfect beach trip? “Rent a boogie board. Or get a Waboba ball.”

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