Featured photo: Open play at the Pickleplex in Punta Gorda, FL.
After I took up pickleball about two years ago, it was a nice perk if I traveled to an area that had courts. Even while visiting family for Christmas, I found myself researching nearby places to play in order to sneak out for a few games. My mentality started to change as restrictions began to wane and travel became easier in a post-pandemic world. Pickleball was no longer a fun addition to the trip- it was the main reason for the trip! What are some tips for planning a pickleball getaway?
Do Your Research
The worst part of planning a trip revolving around pickleball is the excited drive to the courts to throw your paddle into the open play rotation….and the courts are EMPTY! This happened to my husband and I recently on a trip to Charlotte, NC. We found absolutely beautiful designated pickleball courts and no one was there. After asking some others in the park that morning, we found out that this particular area has the exact opposite problem from our town; they have so many courts that people spread out all over to play. We just happened to be at one of the parks that was not being used that day. Luckily, there were other courts nearby that we were able to transfer to and play.
How exactly do you research courts? I’ve stated before that I’m obsessed with the sport, so researching is fun for me. This may seem like a daunting task to many. The pickleball communities as a whole are composed of the NICEST people in the world, so try to find someone who knows a lot about that area. Each and every pocket of pickleball players has a “Mayor” (as I like to call them), this is the go-to person who knows every court, the times people play there, and the level of play. Once you do your research and find your desired area to travel to- find the “Mayor”. Don’t worry, this person usually wants to be found because he/she loves nothing more than to educate others about his/her pickleball community.
Obviously, courts are abundant in states like Florida. If you want to travel there, you won’t have to research much. You’ve probably heard of the amazing 64 court East Naples Community Park in Naples, FL or the smaller, but just as fantastic Pickleplex in Punta Gorda. You can show up at these venues with friends, or solo, throw in your paddle and play game after game. If you want to avoid a big crowd, most neighborhood parks in Florida have courts. You can arrange your own group and meet there. Both of these parks have fees associated with playing there, but they are minimal for the amount and level of play you will get. If you are more budget conscious, check out their websites for free days/hours of play.
If you’re going to an area that isn’t as well know as Florida for pickleball, a simple google search of the area will usually return results pointing you in the right direction. Find the pickleball park and go to their site- usually hours are listed. I just got back from a trip to Savannah, GA and St. Simons Island. The SSI (St. Simons Island) pickleball community has an informative website that lays out open play hours, tournaments, and social events. We had to search a little harder for play in Savannah. I was able to find the public pickleball parks pretty easily, but no hours of play were available. This boils down to common sense- it gets HOT in the south (especially in July), so we knew people wouldn’t be playing mid day. We went to the park at 6:30pm and sure enough found a crowd to play with. They then gave us the “lay of the land” as far as other days and times that people congregate to play.
Facebook has many active groups for pickleball. If you search the area you are traveling to, there will usually be an online community. You can inquire about open play hours, or try to set up some competitive recreational games based on your rating. This can be especially helpful during the planning part of your trip. Reach out to these online communities to find out the best parks to play at and then you can book your lodging based off of that location.
Some cities are becoming known as pickleball hubs due to the addition of more venues like Chicken N Pickle. Never heard of them? Go check out their site! It’s a restaurant and bar meets pickleball. They have six locations nationwide, with three more currently in the works. I NEED to get to one of these soon. Although I’m expecting the play to be a newer crowd coming to see what pickleball is all about, they do offer an option to pay a little more for “challenge play”. In addition, several pros have a relationship with Chicken N Pickle and will stop by to give lessons and clinics from time to time. This is one of the more widely known pickleball franchises, but more are popping up on a regular basis as the sport continues to grow.
If you do your research and it doesn’t pan out like you anticipated (like the time we excitedly drove to an empty park), be ready with a plan B. That day, we were able to drive about 15 extra minutes to find play. Most communities have play daily in the mornings and in the evenings. Planning gets even easier if you are going to a venue where you have to book your play. You usually reserve online and then you KNOW people will be there at that given time. We had great success with this in Charlotte at the Sports Connection.
Here’s where some of the flexibility comes in- in both of our recent trips, we made connections in open play that then branched out into playing with different groups at parks we weren’t planning on going to. We tapped into local knowledge and that turned into some amazing recreational play. This was all from trying to find those “Mayors”. In Charlotte, we played some great competitive games with a man equally as obsessed with pickleball as we are. He then invited us to meet up with him and a different group of players later that evening at a local park. We couldn’t turn down that offer! A similar situation arose in Savannah. We played three times at the same courts and made some friendships over those days. One of our new friends advised us to go to a different location on Saturday morning due to the fact that there were more courts and we would get in more play. WOW! Was he right. 8 designated courts. The winners of each game went to the “1st Place” paddle pile and split when the next court opened. Non-stop, fantastic play for 3 hours: a dream come true. If you’re ever in the area- check out Richmond Hills.
Both of these were unplanned events. We had a loose schedule and were glad that we could take advantage of these opportunities. We also know that when we visit these areas again, we will immediately contact our new friends (aka the “Mayors”) for some REALLY fun play. A note to you in your pickleball community: be an advocate. If you are taking the time to read about a pickleball vacation, you most likely already are. Maybe you are the “Mayor” at your courts. Helping out of towners find good play near you will only help grow the sport. In our area, we are waiting for funding from the city for new courts. Proving that pickleball brings tourists to the area will only help our cause.
You Don’t Have to Go Far
Maybe you’re thinking that pickleball travel sounds expensive. It certainly can be. There are expeditions to some very cool and far away places. Pickleball Getaways, started by Ben Johns himself, is not a cheap date. However, you are traveling to incredible venues and playing the sport that you love. Their destinations this summer included Croatia, Portugal, Costa Rica, and Mexico. Not only do you get to see these places, you get daily play and clinics from pros. I am not affiliated with Pickleball Getaways in any way, nor have I joined them on a trip (yet), but I have been intrigued by the idea since I first started following them on social media.
What does that have to do with not going far? Getting back on track: you can plan a one night or even day trip to a nearby area to explore their pickleball scene. Within a two hour drive of where I live, there are at least 5 places that I can think off of the top of my head with thriving pickleball communities. Those make for fun day trips with different players. I whole-heartedly believe that the only way to get better is to play people outside of your “bubble”. Crashing a somewhat close-by pickleball court and rotating in will give you exposure to diversified playing styles. I find myself getting used to my regular partners’ shots. I know what balls they will go for. When I play with new people, I can brush up on those shots and communication on the court. The idea of rotating in and playing with strangers used to terrify me, but it has increasingly become one of my favorite ways to play.
Explore OFF the Courts
You are going to have some down time on your trip where you aren’t playing pickleball. Pick a destination that appeals to your other interests: are you a hiker, a beach-goer, a foodie, a brewery or winery lover, a history buff? You want to investigate those interests as well. For me, it ALL comes back to the courts, and that’s a great place to gather intel about local favorites. Ask your new pickleball friends about the best sites to see and places to be. On our last trip, we had a good idea of the places we wanted to explore, but some must dos were added to our list by fellow players. One of the “Mayors” in Saint Simons Island thanked us for spending our money in their community because some of that would funnel back into expanding their pickleball courts. That was a neat way to look at it and gives a whole new meaning to shopping local.
I’ve said before that pickleball is an incredibly inclusive sport. You see young kids learning the sport on a court next to 80 year olds who have been playing for 10 years. You see newcomers taking lessons nearby the 4.5 players. If you have not taken much time to explore pickleball through travel, I highly recommend it. It’s easy to pack for these trips- throw your shoes, paddle, and a ball in your bag and you are ready to set off to explore the world of pickleball!