With the weather warming up (allegedly) and more school holidays on the horizon, more and more of us are heading off for family trips and days out. But the cost can soon mount up, so here are my top tips to save money.
Research your choices
There's no greater waste of money than forking out for somewhere your family isn't going to enjoy, so make sure you check out the venue or attraction first to see if it's somewhere you're going to have fun. Sites like Away With The Kids have lots of suggestions with helpful information such as opening times and entrance prices. Do also check out other parent's reviews and recommendations both on the site, and through word of mouth among your friends.
If you're fans and regular visitors to a particular type of attraction consider whether it's cost effective to get an annual membership. The National Trust; Forestry Commission and English Heritage all offer annual membership which will give you various benefits and discounted or free access. Look out for special offers like X amount of months free, or free gifts. Alternatively, family memberships are great gifts - you could always put it on your birthday or Christmas list!
Individual and independent attractions also may offer membership cards and in the past I've found that this can sometimes even be worthwhile for just one trip.
If you do have a membership card - remember to take it with you! Put the card in your purse or the sticker in your car, that way if you pop in somewhere on the spur of the moment you'll always have it with you. If you do manage to forget it, it's worth still mentioning it at the entrance. I've done this before and they were able to look me up on the database and still give me free entrance. In fact, even if you're visiting a different attraction, it's worth mentioning because there may be reciprocal arrangements - for example, our English Heritage card got us in free to Welsh properties too.
You may also find that membership gives additional benefits like money off in the cafe or gift shop.
Search for money off
Before going anywhere, it's worth doing a quick online search to see if there's a discount code available. You might be able to use supermarket loyalty points towards entrance fees or meals out. Follow the venue on social media too - often places will offer discount codes on Twitter or Facebook and don't forget to check their own site too for any special promotions they are running that day. In October half term a quick check of a theme park showed that they were giving free entrance to any kids in fancy dress and offering money off for 'green travel' so if you arrived by bus or cycle you got a discount!
Don't forget old fashioned paper vouchers too. Local newspapers or flyers often have coupons in and tourist board leaflets are generally crammed with vouchers.
Be prepared for the weather
The elements are so unpredictable in the UK, and there's nothing worse than a day being spoilt because you've had to run for shelter.
Sun cream in mini handbag size containers is a huge waste of money, so keep hold of small squeezy bottles from hotels or gift packs and decant from a larger, cheaper bottle.
I've been caught out before and had to fork out on expensive sun cream/umbrellas/gloves and even a coat once while out! Make sure you check the forecast, and then pack everything anyway! It's much cheaper to stock up on wet weather gear at home rather than in a tourist shop, and look out for deals in outdoor shops.
Food and drink
This can be a huge expense on a day out. By far the cheapest way of tackling this is to take your own. We generally pack a picnic lunch and a flask/cartons of drink. Taking a flask of coffee and a tin of cake also prevents indulgent afternoon visits to cafes too! Remember to check that it's allowed at the place you are visiting - some sites do not permit you to bring your own food.
If you do decide you'll be eating out, again check for special deals and discounts online. With some chains you can get special apps so you can do this on the go and simply show the code to your server. It's worth also signing up to mailing lists in advance if you know where you'll be eating - a quick sign up and print out of an email at the weekend gave me 2 free glasses of wine in a local restaurant!
Meal deals can sometimes work out to be cost effective - but not always! If you only want a sandwich, only buy the sandwich and don't be seduced by the extra offer of crisps and snacks. Ditto kid's meal deals. I tend to find that children's meal deals are so massive we end up bringing food home with us - often it's a sandwich, drink, crisps, snack, biscuit and a piece of fruit. If you have 2 children you can often split this between them both.
Don't be embarrassed to ask for tap water, and never be afraid to say "I'll have one slice of cake and two plates please/One bowl of ice cream and two spoons please"!
Pack extra fun
Make the most of your day out and prevent boredom setting in by packing a few extra items to enhance your trip. For example, if you're going to a zoo or a safari park, take a pair of binoculars so little ones can see more. Make or print activity sheets for the kids to tick off things they spot. If you're visiting a wildlife or country park, you could take a magnifying glass and a field guide book so you can do some bug hunting. Take a bucket and spade to the beach for treasure hunting and sand castle building and maybe you could even make some flags at home beforehand. We have had literally hours of fun with a fishing net from a pound store and a jam jar, paddling about in a stream and catching tiddlers.
Exit via the gift shop
This is a tricky one, and most places now have a deliberate policy of forcing you through the gift shop before you leave. If you can't avoid it, it's best to have an agreed strategy. You might simply be able to say "we paid a lot of money to come out today so I'm afraid we won't be buying a treat from the shop as well", or you could agree a set amount beforehand "You have £2 each to spend, you can pick whatever you want for that amount" or you could encourage them to bring their pocket money/birthday money and take ownership of their own finances.
Do you have any tips for saving money on family days out? I'd love to hear them.
Disclosure: This post is brought to you in association with Away With The Kids.