Beach Vacation Clothes: Basics, Essentials, & 3 Things You Can’t Forget

I recently had the good fortune to travel to Nevis in the Caribbean for a few days of R&R. Because it was winter where I live, I found it a bit difficult to turn my brain toward packing for sun and surf. It took me a bit to determine the perfect list of beach vacation clothes I wanted to take with me. This gave me the idea to craft a post around what clothes to pack for a beach vacation, just in case winteritis has given you brain freeze!

Traveling to a warm beach destination is so much easier than packing for cold-weather climates. Beach vacation clothing requires several thin layers, rather than the bulky sweaters, heavy coats, knit scarfs, and boots needed for cold, rain, or snow.

For me, I look for pieces that are simple, easy, and versatile. Let’s take a look at the basics you’ll need to pack for a beach vacation.

Beach Vacation Clothes: The Basics

Heading to a sunny, warm destination with a beach (be it lake or ocean) requires a few basics.


Whether you are just hanging at the pool, lounging in the sun, or out on a sailboat, you are going to need swimwear. Your bathing suit may never get wet—and that’s O.K.—but you should be prepared to meet the sun head-on in a suit that is stylish and meets your beach vacation needs.

The amount of swimwear to pack for a beach vacation will depend on your length of stay and your need for change. I have friends who pack only one pair of bikini bottoms and two bikini tops and make them last for a week. Others pack several bikinis, a tankini, and at least a single one-piece bathing suit (for variety).

I am of the opinion that you should mix and match and have your pieces be versatile. I will typically bring two to three bikini bottoms, two to three bikini tops, and a one-piece bathing suit. I make sure that both bottoms and both tops are interchangeable. They can be string bikini, tankini, ruffled, strapless…whatever you feel comfortable in. By mixing and matching, you have much more bathing suit combos plus your one-piece.

The one-piece suit is perfect for scuba or snorkeling, as well as the beach, and can serve as a top paired with a maxi skirt, shorts, capris, or another bottom.

For some great swimwear ideas, check out these Beachwear Essential Cute Bikinis.

Beach Coverups

Coverups are essential easy-to-wear pieces that you can pull on over your bathing suit(s). I like to have one dedicated beach coverup and then one or two other options that do double duty. (Makes for fewer clothes to pack and a lighter suitcase!)

I will typically take one long lightweight coverup. It can be boho chic, a simple and stylish textured lace coverup, tunic, sarong, or one of the myriad choices I wrote about here: Why Beach Cover-Ups are a Beach Essential. Let your style dictate this coverup choice.

I also bring a lightweight (non see-through) dress in a quick-drying material like cotton. The white dress in this shot is a great example. It slips on easily to hide my bathing suit and allows me to go from beach to shopping, a restaurant, or straight to the spa. I can also wear it as a regular dress, with simple flat sandals for daytime, or a colorful pair of wedges and some statement pieces of jewelry for a dinner date.

If you’re not a dress person, you can opt for flowy, lightweight tops that you can pair with shorts. Lightweight tops, like this oneBeachwear Essential Cute Bikinis, are perfect. You have the added benefit of wearing shorts, which is helpful if you go on a bike ride, need to hike to your beach destination, or like a bit more coverage. I like to wear vibrant colors at beach destinations, but if you don’t feel like standing out, opt for neutrals like white, navy, tank, or khaki.

Beach Shorts/Pants

Shorts are an essential item in your beach vacation clothes. There are times when pants are too hot, dresses are not appropriate, and you need more coverage than a bathing suit. They come in handy for hiking, biking, golfing, and other physical activities. They are appropriate for breakfast, lunch, even bar-hopping.

The type and length of shorts are certainly up to you and your personal style. To get maximum use, steer clear of short-shorts or athletic shorts. Walking shorts, fitted cargo shorts, even Bermuda shorts are good options, as are skorts. Cotton and linen are natural materials that dry quickly when wearing your shorts over your bathing suit (or should you be caught by a rogue wave or sudden downpour!).

While solid, neutral shorts will provide you with the most versatility, think about adding in a pair with personality, like white crochet shorts I am wearing above or a pair with a floral pattern or ruffle detail. Just make sure you are comfortable, and the pair fits you well.

Pants are usually not a necessity when packing for a beach vacation. That being said, I recommend wearing a pair on the plane to ward off the cold drafts, and that way you have a pair should the weather turn cold. A pair of white denim jeans, ankle-length cotton or linen pants, or a wide-leg sailor-style pant are all good options here. And, if you are not a dress-wearing person, you can certainly pack a pair of silk or dress pants to wear for fancier occasions.

Beach Tops

Tops are also an essential when packing beach clothes. I like to plan for various weather contingencies (sun, overcast, rain), so I recommend packing several tops to cover any possible needs.

A tank top or two are good basics and can be worn alone with shorts, skirts or pants, or be layered with a long-sleeve shirt or cardigan. I’ll also throw in at least one short-sleeve and one long-sleeve tee. These are good for shopping, colder morning forays, and can be worn over a tank and removed when the day heats up.

I also like to have one button-down shirt with long sleeves. On really hot days when I am in the sun for long periods of time, it will protect my arms from the strong rays of the sun. It can also be layered over a tank or tee, worn with the sleeves buttoned or rolled up. You can even knot it at the waist over a dress for a lightweight jacket.

If you have the room, and the need, a lightweight beach coverup to wear with shorts is also a good option.

Beach Dresses

Dresses are a versatile item and an essential you can’t forget on your list of beach vacation clothes. You can dress them up, dress them down, and wear them as a beach coverup. I recommend at least two dresses. One simple cotton dress, like the white one above, which covers beach, daytime, and evening (based on accessories) and one for fancier occasions. These can be short or maxi in length.

Stick to dresses that are in natural fibers, so heat and humidity don’t make you uncomfortable. Choose ones that you feel comfortable in and that flatter your figure, whether that is an A-line, sheath, shift, wrap, halter, or other fashionable style.

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Beach Shoes

Shoe essentials for your beach vacation would include a pair of tennis or athletic shoes, flat sandals, and a pair of heels or wedges. Athletic shoes allow you to explore, take hikes, ride a bike, and make it down steep paths to remote beaches. Flat sandals will probably be on your feet 80% of the time and you can wear them with bathing suits, shorts, pants, and dresses. Make sure they are comfortable, won’t be ruined by sand or surf, and complement the clothes you pack for your beach vacation.

For fancier occasions, you’ll want a pair of heels or wedges. I prefer a wedge, as it is more stable on cobblestones, sand, and other uneven surfaces and often pair well with shorts and cover-ups, as well as dresses.

Beach Vacation Clothes Based on Destination

Going to a beach in Ibiza or the French Riviera is decidedly different than one in Cancun or Jamaica. Heading to Southern California means a more laid-back vibe, while South Beach Miami is a bit more upscale and colorful. So you’ll need to take your destination into consideration when packing your suitcase.

When heading to destinations like San Diego, Cancun, Koh Samui, or a mountain lake resort, the basics mentioned previously are all perfectly acceptable. There will be little need for anything more.

What About Beaches in Europe or Fancy Beaches?

However, European beaches, the Hamptons, and even Miami call for taking it up a notch. For beach destinations such as these, you’ll need to make a few adjustments. You can stick with the bathing suit options listed in the basics, as well as the coverups, but all other categories will require some refinement in style.

Leave the denim shorts and cutoffs at home and stick with cotton or linen shorts that hit mid-thigh (with or without cuff). Similarly, cargo shorts are not the best options as they are just too casual and pedestrian for these classier locales. You can still wear white denim, fitted ankle pants or wide-leg trousers. Silk pants or flowy palazzo pants are also good options.

Your tops will also need tweaking. Nix the Old Navy tanks and replace them with cotton or silk scoop-neck tanks with wider shoulder straps, or go for a refined halter. Classic long-sleeve button-downs are still a good option, and sleeves can be rolled for warmer days. Try and add a bit of personality with your tops, utilizing lace, unique cutouts or a subtle print.

When it comes to dresses, you’ll probably need to pack several more. High-end destinations tend to have fancier restaurants, a wealth of nightclubs, and even shopping areas that are better suited to wear a dress with heels than your shorts and tees. So throw in a classic little black dress, maybe something body-con for the clubs, and a maxi for casual daytime wear. You’ll be glad you did!

You’ll need different shoes to go with these different clothes, as well. It’s unlikely you’ll need tennis or athletic shoes, so swap those out for some cute flats. Leave the flip-flops at home and go for a nice slip-on or fancier flat sandal for daytime and beach wear. Detailing on the sandals go a long way to dressing them up, so think fringe, beads, and other embellishments. You can keep the wedges, but add it a nice pair of strappy heeled sandals for evenings out and dancing at the clubs.

Ideas and examples of a classier beach style can be found: What is Dressy Beach Style & What Should You Wear.

Don’t Forgest These 3 Beach Essentials!

In addition to the basics, or alterations based on your beach destination, you’ll want to remember at least one hat, your sunglasses, and sunscreen. These three things are must-have items. The hat will not only keep the sun off your face and neck; it will protect color-treated hair.

Sunglasses protect your eyes, can add a stylish panache to your look, and make it easier to read that Kindle at the beach. And as for sunscreen, well you know the drill. The last thing you want is to get a sunburn and be stuck indoors in pain. After all, you’re at a beach to enjoy all it has to offer!

For short vacations, be sure to check out the Essential 3-Day Weekend Beach Checklist!

Enjoy your beach vacation and stay stylish!