Which? Money-Saving Monday: Cheap and free things to do over the school summer holidays

For most schools in the UK, the summer holidays begin this week – and many parents are planning how to keep their children entertained over the six-week break.

With the cost of living crisis adding pressure to household finances, costs for families with two children have risen by an annual rate of 13 per cent, faster than the current 9.1 per cent rate of inflation. Data also suggests that basic goods and services for a typical family with two young children are about £400 a month more expensive than they were last year.

Finding fun, affordable activities to keep the kids busy is therefore a priority for parents, and Which? has found many ways for families to save money over the summer holidays.

Take advantage of restaurant discounts
When dining out as a family, it is worth checking if nearby restaurants offer discounts for children. Which? found several popular chains and supermarkets are offering discounts during the school holidays. For example, Asda is offering children across England and Wales a hot or cold meal for £1 across all Asda cafes from July 25 until September 4, irrespective of what accompanying adults spend. Bella Italia and Sizzling Pubs offer £1 meals for children when you order an adult main, but only at certain times.

Visit a local adventure playground
Many parks around the country have adventure playgrounds that are free to visit, offering much more than your standard slide, swings and roundabout. Which? found a number of these impressive free playgrounds around the UK, so it’s worth searching online for any nearby. The free adventure playground at Heartlands, in Redruth, for example, is the biggest in Cornwall, featuring subterranean tunnels and a shipwreck. It’s worth checking your local authority website for a list of parks and playgrounds in your area.

Try geocaching or make your own scavenger hunt
Geocaching has gained popularity in recent years – it is essentially a treasure hunt where players use a smartphone or GPS device to discover hidden stashes of objects in their local area. To get involved, users download an app or sign up to a website that lists geocache locations around the UK – such as geocaching.com, opencache.uk and terracaching.com.Once they’ve chosen a geocache nearby, players are given a set of coordinates and you can use your GPS to find where it is hidden. Alternatively, DIY scavenger hunts might be an easier option for younger children.

Paint rocks for others to find
The Kindness Rocks Project, a trend started in the US in 2015, invites people to paint a stone with a feel-good message, then hide it for someone else to find in the hopes of brightening up their day. The project has grown and spread throughout the world. Families can get involved by searching for ‘rock painting’ on Facebook to find a nearby group. Then get the children to find a stone and buy some paint and brushes. Which? found a pack of ten paintbrushes for £1 at Poundland, and a set of six acrylic paints for 50p.

Explore the countryside
Exploring the great outdoors is a free and easy way to entertain the family. You could try walking to a local landmark nearby, or visit one of the many National Trust and English Heritage sites around the country. Many sites are free to visit, for example, English Heritage has more than 250 free-to-enter historic sites, from medieval monasteries and castles, to prehistoric stone circles and grand manor houses, although visitors will usually need to pay for parking.

Visit a farm, zoo or aquarium

Many farms around Britain are free to enter and give kids the chance to get close to animals and pet smaller creatures. Some will charge a fee for entry, or some – such as Vauxhall City Farm in London – will ask for a small optional donation instead. Some city farms run special activities during school holidays, so it’s worth checking local farm websites to find out more.

Zoos and aquariums can be expensive attractions to visit, but you can keep costs down by looking out for deals similar to those for theme parks. Kellogg’s cereal ‘adults go free’ offer includes all Sea Life aquariums in the UK, and Tesco Clubcard points can be used to pay for certain tickets.

It’s also worth searching for children’s zoos, which are usually smaller and more affordable, and can be much more manageable for younger kids. Which? found that the children’s zoo at Walton Hall and Gardens near Warrington in Cheshire is free to visit – just pay for parking, which is £3 on weekdays and £4 on weekends and bank holidays. Battersea Park in London also has a children’s zoo that is smaller but cheaper than ZSL London Zoo. Adult entry is £10.95, and children over two cost £8.95.

Visit a free festival
There are many free family friendly events set to take place around the UK over the summer holidays, including Notting Hill Carnival in London (Sunday is especially for families), Stockton International Riverside Festival, Bristol International Balloon Fiesta (though you’ll need to pay for a car parking ticket if you drive), Aldeburgh Carnival in Suffolk and the Edinburgh Fringe festival.

Stay cool with a paddling pool
For many parents, investing in a paddling pool is worth every penny for the hours of entertainment it will provide over the summer holidays. Which? found that 7ft inflatable ones are available for about £25, but could be cheaper on second-hand sites such as eBay. Many local parks also have water play areas or ‘splash parks’. Some towns and cities have outdoor pools and lidos usually costing less than £10 for an adult, and under-fours often go free.

Visit a theme park for less
Visitors should check the prices at attractions in advance, to save money. Which? found an adult day pass bought on the day at Alton Towers costs £65, but from £36 when bought in advance – a 45 per cent saving. Shoppers can also save money on days out at theme parks and attractions up and down the country when purchasing groceries at the supermarket. One of the most common offers is found on packs of Kellogg’s cereals, letting adults go free when you buy a full-price child or adult ticket to a Merlin Entertainments theme park, such as Alton Towers and Legoland. Just use the code printed on the inside of the packet when you book online. Tesco Clubcard holders can convert points into Tesco Reward Partners Vouchers, which can be used for as much as three times the saving at theme parks, wildlife parks and more.

Learn something new at a free gallery or museum
Many UK national galleries and museums are free to enter and are an easy way to entertain the family for a day out – they are also often air-conditioned oases on a hot day. Lots of museums have dedicated exhibitions and activities for children during the school holidays, so it’s worth checking your nearest museum to see the events they have on offer.

Visit the theatre for less
Although sometimes an expensive outing, it is possible to save money on theatre tickets. For example, throughout August, some theatres in London let children aged 17 and under go free when accompanied by a full-paying adult, plus an extra two children can attend for half price.

Some theatres also offer cheaper tickets for those under 30. For example, the National Theatre offers £5 and £10 tickets if you’re aged between 16-25.

Every Monday at noon, a number of tickets for Disney shows (The Lion King/Frozen) are available for £25 through DisneyTickets and some shows, including Hamilton, run daily lotteries to enter, with winners able to purchase tickets for between £10-£35 for a performance that week.

Apps such as TodayTix can save visitors up to 66 per cent on certain shows. Which? found tickets for Wicked for £22 throughout July and £25 throughout August.

Often, seats at the back of the theatre cost less, but it is worth checking if the view is obstructed. Seatplan allows visitors to check out the view before purchasing tickets.

Some theatres, including The Nottingham Playhouse and Harlow Playhouse, also offer ‘pay what you can’ performances. They’ll usually be on a specific date in a show’s run, and will have limited availability, so you may need to be quick to book.

Watch the latest movies at a discount
Some cinema chains offer discounts for family films at certain times. For instance, Cineworld’s ‘Movies for Juniors’ screenings cost £2.50 for a child, Odeon Kids’ run a deal where the adults pay the same price as a child, with the deal running every day during the school holidays as well as every Saturday and Sunday, and Vue has ‘Mini Mornings’ screenings from 10 am during the school holidays with both adult and child tickets cost just £2.49 each.

Film fans can also get cinema discounts with Gourmet Society and Tastecard dining cards. Both offer up to 40 per cent off some cinema chains and currently offer 60-day free trials.

Anyone who buys a policy through the price comparison website Compare the Market will get 2 for 1 cinema tickets on a Tuesday or Wednesday for a year – those who have bought a policy recently should check if this offer is available to them.

It is also worth checking if your phone provider offers cinema discounts. O2 customers have access to O2 Priority and can often claim free Odeon tickets to use on Sundays and Mondays. Three Mobile customers can claim £3 adult cinema tickets for Cineworld or Picturehouse using the Three+rewards app.


Reena Sewraz, Which? Money Expert, said: 

“If travel chaos or sticking to a tight budget is putting you off a holiday abroad, there’s still lots to do to keep your children entertained at home, and you don’t need to break the bank.

“If you’re lucky enough to have a garden or outside space, a paddling pool could be worth the investment for the hours of fun they’ll bring. Getting outside and exploring the countryside is a great way for kids to burn energy and potentially see somewhere new. Some National Trust and English Heritage sites are free to enter and so are lots of museums and galleries.

“When it comes to eating out, lots of restaurants offer deals for families during the summer, with £1 meals for children at places like Asda and Sizzling Pubs.”


 Notes to editors:


  • Over the coming months, Which? will be highlighting free and useful money-saving advice every Monday to help consumers manage the ongoing cost of living crisis. The series will cover a range of topics, from how to save money on household bills, to childcare and travel.


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