Read our guide to swapping pricey trips for fun days out at discount prices – or, better still, for free. You’ll be amazed how much you can save on anything from live musicals to walking tours
Family days out can be painful on the pocket if you’re shelling out for entry fees, and you can easily wave goodbye to £200 with a trip to a theme park.
But there are ways to save on family outings and even get free days out.
Sneak in via the ‘secret gate’ at Blenheim Palace
Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire is a stunning place to visit, but even if you don’t pay for entrance to the palace and just want to picnic in the grounds, you’ll pay £43 for a family ticket.
However, if you avoid the main entrance and walk in through the secret green gate, you can enjoy the grounds for free. Some public footpaths cross the Blenheim estate (pictured above), so you’re legally allowed in – though stick to the footpaths and do not enter the house.
You can walk for miles around the grounds for free, plus there is free parking nearby in Woodstock village. Find out where to get in at Freeblenheim.com
Anyone for tennis?
Lots of tennis clubs open their gates to host free events, coaching sessions and open days. There are also Great British Tennis Weekends on 18 -19 May, 20-21 July. and 28-29 September. Pop in your postcode to find your nearest event at Clubspark.lta.org.uk/Events.
You can also get free entry at Eastbourne’s Devonshire Park to watch the qualifying matches ahead of the Nature Valley International, which is the tournament before Wimbledon.
Free tickets are available on Friday 21 June, so get there early. Prices start from £10 the next day. For more information, visit Lta.org.uk.
Watch live highlights of the best musicals
West End Live takes place in London’s Trafalgar Square and showcases the best of West End musicals. This year it takes place from 22 to 23 June, with live performances all day long. The full line-up is still under wraps, but last year the cast of Wicked, Mamma Mia, Aladdin, Chicago and Kinky Boots all took to the stage. Watch out for updates nearer the time at Westendlive.co.uk.
Take little ones to Open Farm Sunday
Hundreds of farms open their gates for free with special events, activities and rides on Sunday 9 June.
For example, Uncle Henry’s farm in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, has tractor and trailer rides, while Tregullas Farm in Helston, Cornwall, has ferret and snail racing, traditional crafts and sheep shearing. Activities at other farms include safaris, nature trails and mini farmers’ markets. Pop in your postcode to find a farm near you at Farmsunday.org.
Take a city walking tour
Why use a guidebook when you can enjoy a tour from one of the locals?
Sandemans has free walking tours in 20 cities around the world including Edinburgh, Liverpool, Dublin and London. All tour guides live and work in the city – they show you round and you’ll get a two- to three-hour tour for free, although tips are welcome. The company also runs other tours with prices from £10. Search for a tour at Neweuropetours.eu.
Save around £40
Swap The Shard for the Sky Garden
It costs £80 for a family to go up The Shard and get the highest view of London.
But you can get great views for free at the Sky Garden. It’s London’s highest public garden with landscaped gardens, an observation deck and open-air terrace. And all tucked away at 20 Fenchurch Street in the heart of the City.
You can book your free tickets up to three weeks in advance and there is also a limited number of walk-in spaces on the day. To find out more, visit Skygarden.london.
Visit National Trust and other unusual properties
Heritage Open Days, which run from 13 to 22 September, offer the chance to visit more than 2,000 places across England for free.
Some are usually closed to the public, such as lighthouses and breweries, while others – including more than 100 National Trust properties – waive their admission fees. A family ticket to the Shugborough Estate in Staffordshire costs £45 but wait till September and go for free. Visit Heritageopendays.org.uk.
Take in a West End show
Kids can get in free to around 40 West End shows including The Lion King, Matilda and Mamma Mia in August as part of Kids Week. Tickets go on sale in June and you can get a kid’s ticket for free with every full price ticket.
A family of four can save almost £90 as the cheapest ticket we found for a mid-week matinee of Mamma Mia in Officiallondontheatre.com/kids-week.
Watch artists at work
You can chat to local artists, visit their studios and see everything from ceramics and jewellery to sculpture and photography.
Open studio events take place across the UK from Cornwall to the Isle of Arran and from Belfast to Norfolk. Each area organises its own events; search online for events near you.
Walk on the wild side
Get your walking boots on and explore the great outdoors with free guided walks across the UK.
The Isle of Wight festival is just one example and it runs from 4 to 19 May. You don’t have to be a hiker to tag along: there is a variety of walks for all ages and abilities from one-mile flat strolls to 20-mile hikes over the hills. The four-mile ‘wildlife walk’ ends with afternoon tea at a local beekeeper’s house and there is a two-mile tour of Newport run by local food experts who will show you the best places to eat. Isleofwightwalkingfestival.co.uk.
See behind the scenes of your favourite TV show
TV production companies dish out free tickets if they need an audience. TV ticket outlets send out far more tickets than they have seats as they don’t want empty spaces, so get there early for a better chance to get in.
For BBC shows, sign up to the mailing list at Bbc.co.uk/showsandtours or follow @bbcshowstours on Twitter.
Shows including Britain’s Got Talent and The Greatest Dancer are advertised on Applausestore.com. For The Graham Norton Show, The Jonathan Ross Show or The Voice, it’s Sroaudiences.com.
Get ‘two for one’ deals with train tickets
Travel by train and you can get ‘two for one’ deals on days out including Kew Gardens, the London Dungeons, Manchester United Museum and Tour and Royal Pavilion, Brighton.
Check the website to find where to go, download a voucher and when you buy one full price admission ticket, you can get another for free when you show your train ticket. Daysoutguide.co.uk.
Save £21.50 (ONE FREE adult+child ticket to Royal Pavilion)
Have an adrenaline-packed day out
Swap Tesco Clubcard points for tickets to theme parks such as Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, Legoland, Chessington and Drayton Manor.
Pay on the gate at Alton Towers and tickets cost £56 for adults and £48 for children. Booking online will cut the price to £33 and £27.50, but if you swap Clubcard points you can get three times their value. This means you’ll need to swap just over £40 of points to get the family in for free. Tesco.com/clubcard.
Go behind closed doors
Open House London takes place from 21 to 22 September and offers a rare chance to visit more than 800 places that are usually closed to the public. These incude the US Embassy, New Scotland Yard and Wandsworth Prison Museum. With other venues, such as the Royal Albert Hall, you can usually only enter with a concert ticket.
The list of locations for 2019 will be released in August. Find out more at Openhouselondon.org.uk.
Enjoy some movie magic
A family ticket to a multiplex cinema usually costs around £40. But spend just over £1 and you can get free tickets every week for a year with the Meerkat Movies deal from Compare The Market.
You need to buy a ‘qualifying product’ from the website. So if you buy a one-night travel policy for the UK for £1.01, you can then snap up ‘two for one’ cinema tickets every Tuesday or Wednesday for a year.
Another idea is to swap Nectar points, which are accepted at Vue cinemas. Every 500 points is worth £2.50, so you can save enough to get a free ticket. Visit Comparethemarket.com/customer-rewards/meerkat-movies or Nectar.com.
Total Saving: £807
“I’ve been to West End Live and the Sky Garden with its amazing views”
Jewellery designer Leah Bryan, 47, lives in London and regularly goes to free events and open days.
“I always look for special events in magazines and websites and sign up to mailing lists for offers and promotions”.
“West End Live was a great event, I went with my sister and a friend and we saw performances of Kinky Bootsand Jersey Boys. With the Sky Garden, we did have to book three weeks in advance, but as the tickets were free we treated ourselves to a glass of fizz at the top and enjoyed amazing views across London”.
“Open House London is a great chance to go inside some amazing buildings that are usually closed, like Battersea Power Station, which I went in before it was renovated, and all for free,” she adds.
NB: Savings based on two adults and two children unless specified. Prices correct, March 2019.
SUE HAYWARD is a personal finance journalist who writes for publications including The Guardian and LoveMoney.com