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Haven’t booked a place at the beach yet? The outlook is cloudy

A beach rentals sign in Lewes, Delaware.
Delaware Public Media
A beach rentals sign in Lewes, Delaware.

If you’re thinking about spending lazy hours on the beach this summer or enjoying the beach nightlife, you may be out of luck. Higher rental costs haven't kept people from booking at the beach, leaving availability limited and expensive.

Contributor Eileen Dalalbrida breaks down the beach rental landscape this week and what can you do if you still want some fun in the sun in the First State.

The start of summer vacation season is three months away, yet many would-be renters at Delaware beaches have not secured their place in the sun.

With demand for lodgings outstripping supply, some vacationers are pivoting to Plan B with such strategies as renting further from the beach in such locales as historic Milton and Ocean View, where the only glimpse of the Atlantic is by drone.

“We are seeing the beaches expanding,” says Jessica Welch, director of the Delaware Tourism Office. “People who can’t find a place in Rehoboth or Lewes are looking at Fenwick Island, or South Bethany, even Millsboro. You might have to drive to the beach, but it’s more affordable.”

The tourism office doesn’t keep statistics on rental rates in the state. AirDNA, an analytics company providing data for the short-term rental industry, cited a 5.6% increase in the price of a nightly stay. Those figures don’t take into account the premiums commanded in seasonal resort markets.

Statistics do show that higher prices are not a widespread deterrent for travelers. Last year, First State innkeepers welcomed 10 million visitors, defined as lodgers staying in a hotel for more than two nights. That’s a 27% increase over 2020. More than 1 million visitors consulted Visit Delaware, the state tourism website, for travel information. At a recent tourism conference in Chicago, Delaware’s beaches emerged as a popular destination.

“An amazing number of people from the Midwest are planning trips to Delaware, some driving campers 12 hours and camping,” she says.

When Welch was growing up in Kent County, her family enjoyed getaways at Pickering Beach on the Delaware Bay, just north of Kits Hummock, sharing a small sandy stretch with greenhead flies. There’s no boardwalk, no restaurants, no hotels. The annual highlight is a blessing of the horseshoe crabs by Buddhist monks. “We watched the monks bless the horseshoe crabs from our deck,” she recalls.

Delaware Seashore State Park camping
Abby Shepard, Delaware State Parks and
Delaware Seashore State Park camping

Other off-the-beaten-track beaches are being discovered by visitors who are more interested in wildlife than nightlife.

Slaughter Beach, founded in 1681, is enjoying a new wave of popularity as a destination for ecotourists, who come to spot horseshoe crabs and migrating red knots who feast on their eggs. On many days in summer, 900 tourists pay a visit to the sleepy enclave, outnumbering the 301 residents three-to-one. The mayor, Bob Wood, notes that 16 of the 155 homes in the community are rented to vacationers during the summer months.

Near the Wildlife Sanctuary at Prime Hook, the owner of a recently updated three-bedroom beach-front house has listed the property on VROB (Vacation Rental By Owner). There’s still some availability in June at $1,325 per night.

The press for rest and relaxation also is benefitting local property owners in better-known resort communities, as well as their municipalities. Private home rentals in Lewes have grown so much that the city passed an ordinance effective Jan. 1 mandating that anyone who rents their property must obtain a license and show proof of paying rental tax. Residents who lease short-term rentals, defined as 30 days or less, must provide a local contact to respond to concerns within a two-hour time frame.

Many waterfront properties in Lewes, Rehoboth, Dewey Beach, and Bethany Beach have been booked solid for months. Still, that doesn’t mean a seaside retreat is unattainable, although vacationers might have to settle for accommodations that are smaller and stays that are shorter. Here are a few options:

  • In Dewey, a bayfront two-bedroom, two-bathroom penthouse condo with access to a pool rents for $798 a night or $5,586 a week. There's still availability for four days in July and a week in August. 

  • In Rehoboth Beach, a three-bedroom, three-bathroom multi-level townhouse offers a washer-dryer and a wooded view. There’s a futon for an extra guest in the small home office. It’s a short drive or a 30-minute walk to the beach. It’s available for a week in July for $3,721.

  • Three blocks from the Ocean in Bethany Beach, a six-bedroom, three-bathroom house sleeps 16 guests and boasts a screened porch and deck. A week in August is available at $7,327. Linen and towel rental is an extra $331.

At the tony Bellmooor Inn and Spa in Rehoboth Beach, most guests stay for two to four days during the summer, says Kylie James -Smith, the general manager. In addition to booking rooms early, the hotel staff encourages visitors to plan transportation and meals ahead, too.

“Leave home earlier if possible as the traffic picks up around 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., especially on Thursdays and Fridays. Plan ahead about what you want to do and make reservations for dinner as early as possible,” she says.

Hotel Bethany Beach, with on-site mini golf, is popular with families, who typically stay three to five days. Booking volume is trending ahead of last year, says Garth Huffman, the general manager.

“We are seeing a pick-up from June to August of about 1,200 room nights,” he says.

The rental market is so competitive that even vacationers who tried to reserve lodgings early had to make compromises. Johanna Bishop of Hockessin enjoyed the house she rented at the beach last summer so much that she decided to book it again. But she waited until fall to lock it in and discovered her preferred week already was gone. “We had to adjust our vacation schedule,” she says.

“If you find a place at the beach you love, talk with the owner right away about renting it next year. Don’t wait until the season is over.”
Jessica Welch, director of the Delaware Tourism Office

Carol and Glen Mayhart of Greenville booked two cabins for themselves and their grandchildren at Massey’s Landing, which offers campsites, RV hookups, and cottages on Rehoboth Bay in Millsboro. When they are in the mood for nightlife, they will take their boat across the bay to Dewey Beach. “We are glamping,” she says.

Joyce Dawley isn’t worried about finding a place to stay at the beach. She is hitching a camper to her SUV and heading south to visit relatives, where there’s always a welcome place in the driveway.

Trend watchers expect that some travelers who can’t find a rental at their preferred destination will take their disposable dollars and head somewhere completely different. This could be the year to explore the Grand Canyon or cruise to Alaska. A four-bedroom villa near the Falls of Dochart in Scotland is going for $2,800 the second week in July. By comparison, a four-bedroom house in Rehoboth with a pool is renting for $15,000 that same week—and it’s an entire block away from the beach.

Welch suggests vacationers who are priced out of the beach explore notable sites closer to home. Folks in New Castle County might be happy to hear Wilmington was recently named a top city to visit by the travel publisher Conde-Nast.

“There are so many great restaurants in Wilmington. I went to Merchant Bar on Market Street and to a show at the Queen last week,” she says. “I also love the du Pont mansions. You can visit Mount Cuba, you can visit Winterthur, and get a different experience than you would find at the beach. You can take a ride on the Wilmington and Western Railroad.”

Travelers enjoying a seaside vacation this summer shouldn’t count on rentals becoming more abundant or less expensive next year. Welch recommends buttoning up a reservation for Summer 2024 as you’re packing to head home from your 2023 getaway.

“If you find a place at the beach you love, talk with the owner right away about renting it next year,” she says. “Don’t wait until the season is over.”

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Eileen Smith Dallabrida has written for Delaware Public Media since 2010. She's also written for USA Today, National Geographic Traveler, the Christian Science Monitor and many other news outlets.