How to Plan an Emerald Coast Road Trip

USA road trips are a big thing right? There’s usually at least one route on most people’s travel bucket list – the usual suspects are Route 66 or the Pacific Coast Highway. Well, let me tell you about a cheeky little US road trip that not that many people have heard of, well, not many Brits anyway, the Americans are all over it.

The Great Emerald Coast Road Trip.

Emerald Coast Road Trip

Our little secret…

The beach road going along the Emerald Coast flanks one of the most glorious stretches of beach I have ever seen. White sands, crystal blue waters twinkling under the hot December sun and lovely, wide roads that make driving a breeze.

I drove from Pensacola Airport to Northwest Florida Beaches Airport – around 100 miles away – over one week, with a good few detours in between. You could extend the trip by starting in New Orleans, just 200 miles and 3-hours drive to the west, and going onto Orlando, 3.5 hours and 360 miles to the east, if you’d like to travel further.

Between my start and finish airports I passed over bridges, through little villages, down the famous 30A stretch, sand dunes and most importantly, for almost all of it, I had the beach by my side. I had a great time.

How to Plan this
Emerald Coast Road Trip

Emerald Coast National Park

Choosing Your Route

The Emerald Coast stretches from Pensacola to Panama City Beach. Along the way you can pop into destinations like Destin and Miramar Beach easily.

Emerald Coast Road Trip

I landed at Pensacola Airport, hired a Nissan Accent from Hertz, and drove to Panama City Beach. I dropped the car off at the airport, 7 days later.

The Emerald Coast road trip route options are pretty limited, as in, there’s a clear beach road that you should follow. You can’t really go wrong. I wanted to include as many bridges as possible and stay hugging the beach as much as possible – the scenic route.

Emerald Coast Road Trip

Pensacola > Destin > Fort Worth > Okaloosa Island >
Villages on 30A > Panama City Beach

Along the route you’ll find shopping malls, harbour walks, water sports, cute shopping villages, interesting looking shops and many chances to pull over to admire the beach views. Don’t rush yourself. Leave plenty of time to have a few hours on a part of the beach if you’re taken by it.

Driving the bridges

Emerald Coast Road Trip

– I’ve got a friend called Mike Hayes, very exciting

The Emerald Coast has a lot of peninsulass – you’re going to experience some cool bridges connecting them all together!

Make sure to hook up your Go Pro or camera so you can get the best of them. You can pick up a car mount from Walmart or Target pretty cheap – they’re dotted along the route.

If you type ‘Emerald Coast’ into Google you’ll see amazing images of bridges and emerald waters. The best way to get this view is by going out on a helicopter or microlight trip, or buy a drone.

Cost of an Emerald Coast Road Trip

Me on my Emerald Coast Road Trip

– Doesn’t help if you can’t resist the malls!

My Emerald Coast Road Trip worked out cheaper than I thought. I booked the car just three days in advance, on the Hertz app, and it cost £195 with extra all-in insurance and fees included. I was travelling solo, but say if you had friends or family – that’s great value!

I did exactly 700 miles according to my trip report from Hertz, and d’ya know how much that cost me in ‘gas’? *$22.87 – just £18.45!*. That’s it. So. Cheap.

Emerald Coast weather

Emerald Coast Road Trip Hertz

The Emerald Coast proudly boasts over 225 days of sunshine, and it’s a popular place for north Northern Americans to escape the cold winters. But trust me to arrive on the day it rains. ‘Rains’ is putting it lightly.

After picking up the car at Pensacola Airport I just popped to the Mall a 5-minute drive away to pick up some lunch, and a few bits from Best Buy to record what I thought was going to be an amazing journey over the Pensacola Bay Bridge to start my Emerald Coast road trip. By the time I emerged from the Cordova Mall (loads of great shops in there) the storms had set in.

You won’t have to worry about that though, doesn’t happen often.

Choosing your car

Emerald Coast Road Trip

If you can, always go for the convertible. The route, as I’ve said, is incredible and seeing as you’re there you might as well go all out and feel the wind in your hair. Expect to pay about a grand a week for a fancy soft-top car.

If a convertible is just a pipe dream for your crying bank account, don’t let that put you off. I had a great time with the windows open…

For all you nervous drivers

Emerald Coast road trip

If you’re nervous about hiring a car in the USA for a road trip around the Emerald Coast, I can say this for sure, don’t be.

The route is easy. Finding your way is easy. Other drivers are easy. Driving automatic is easy. Driving on the right is easy. It’s all just so easy.

If you’ve never been to America you won’t believe the size of roads, or of the car parks. All you need to do is practice a few moves in there and you’ll be ready to rumble. The speed limits around the Emerald Coast were super conservative, giving you more time to admire the views and relax in your wheels.

Eating on the Emerald Coast

Exploring the Emerald Coast

There are some excellent restaurants on the Emerald Coast. Here are all the ones I ate at, plotted along the Okaloosa Island and Destin route. Make sure to schedule in enough time to eat at them, and recover from the portion sizes afterwards.

Don’t forget to load the car up with some all-American road trip snacks from the gas stations, and make sure to sample all the drive-thru opportunities too!

Where to stay

I stayed at the Henderson Park Inn, which I awarded ‘VickyFlipFlop’s favourite hotel for 2016’ (I stayed in 114 to test!). So, obviously, I can’t recommend it enough. Book a few nights here, the beach is amazing, trust me. Check out my review video on YouTube here.

It’s not really that far from the Henderson Park Inn, but I stayed at the Azure Condos for the next few nights. I had a huge condo all to myself. Check it out in video 4 of the YouTube series.

Road tripping the Emerald Coast

Road tripping the Emerald Coast

I loved the freedom of having a car to road trip the Emerald Coast, and was surprised at how cheap it worked out. If you’re a group or family of four, it’s an absolute bargain!

This is a great route whether it’s your first or 51st time driving in the States. Stunning views, plenty of interesting places to pull over, and a relaxing journey wherever you decide to end up.

As always, just let me know if you have any questions. The Emerald Coast features some of the best beaches I’ve ever seen!

*I was in Florida as a guest of VISIT FLORIDA and the Emerald Coast, with car hire provided by Hertz.co.uk. See loveflorida.co.uk for more on Florida. 

More on the Emerald Coast



*I was in Florida as a guest of VISIT FLORIDA and the Emerald Coast, with car hire provided by Hertz.co.uk. See loveflorida.co.uk for more on Florida. 

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