It may feel as though the kids have only just gone back to school after the October half-term, but Christmas is almost upon us. There’s no need to pull your hair out though, as our guide is jam-packed with free and cheap activities to keep the little ones entertained.
We don’t want parents to miss out on the fun, so we also have plenty of deals and tricks for cheap family days out.
Ideas include free activities, 2for1 theme parks, attractions and zoos and inspiration for rainy days. There is also cheap train and bus travel during the holidays - plenty to keep your munchkins occupied until school starts again, whether they're toddlers or teens.
If you spot any more cracking deals or have other ideas, please let us know in the Free ways to keep kids entertained forum discussion thread.
In this guide
Theme park entrance fees are often just as scary as the rides themselves. Buying tickets on the day could set you back £50, enough to make you scream for the wrong reason.
But there are a few tricks to bag discounts off entry, such as buying rail tickets en route or swapping Tesco or Nectar points for rewards.
Don't let them take you for a ride - here's a list of the top theme parks and attractions open through the winter and the best way to get a buzz for less.
2for1 with a valid on-the-day National Rail ticket
Buy a National Rail ticket, register with Days Out Guide and print vouchers. You need to print a voucher AND have a valid rail ticket with the closest station to the theme park as the final destination, bought from National Rail on the same day.
It's worth doing this even if you’re not travelling by train – a cheap single ticket is available for a few quid, far cheaper than the entry price for the following:
Up to 75% off theme parks and attractions with Tesco Clubcard
If you shop at Tesco and collect the points using your Clubcard, then there's a way to get up to three or four times the value on your points by converting vouchers to Clubcard Boost*, which can be redeemed at these parks:
See the Tesco Clubcard page for the full details on how to convert points to rewards.
Use your Nectar card and get double points
Usually, 1,000 Nectar points get you £5 off shopping at Sainsbury's, Argos, Homebase and a few more stores. But at participating theme parks, Nectar card holders can use their card to pay for entry and get double points. So 1,000 points becomes £10 to spend at these theme parks and attractions:
Simply hand over your Nectar card when paying for entry at the park.
See the Cheap Theme Parks page for a list of all the attractions and deals.
Believe it or Not!
Through the Christmas break, Ripley's Believe It or Not! in London's Piccadilly Circus is offering discounted family tickets to the attraction. This means a family (2 adults, 2 children or 1 adult, 3 children) can visit the attraction for £42.
Ripley's is an interactive museum with more than 700 exhibits, suitable for all ages.
For the full details see Ripley's Deals.
Get your skates on
Outdoor rinks have sprouted up all around the UK this Christmas.
Somerset House, London. Open until 11 Jan, from £17pp.
Royal Pavilion ice rink, Brigton. Open until 18 Jan, from £7pp.
Eden Project, Cornwall. Open until 22 Feb, from £3pp.
- Winter Wonderland, Cardiff. Open until 5 Jan, from £6pp.
Tis the season where winter markets and fairs descend upon the UK and what's best is that most of them are free to enter. Here's a few you can find near you.
Winter Wonderland Hyde Park, London - 21 Nov to 4 Jan
Winter Wonderland SnowDome, Tamworth - 21 Nov to 31 Dec
- Winter Wonderland, Nottingham - 20 Nov to 4 Jan
Growing in size and number of vistors each year, Winter Wonderland is London's go-to place for mulled wine (for the adults), fairground rides and a huge ferris wheel.
Inside the huge SnowDome, this wonderland includes a snow trail, Santa show and real reindeer. Tickets are £12.95 if bought in advance.
Settled in the Old Market Square, this wonderland has a big emphasis on gifts, with a huge Christmas craft market. There are also rides and an ice rink to keep the kids entertained.
You don't need to splash the cash on the biggest and best scooters, swings or slides. There are loads of activities you can get involved with for free, such as:
Build a snowman
You've all heard the Frozen song, so let's build a snowman. Weather permitting of course...
Treasure hunt with small treats
With a few packs of sweets, little toys or another clue, you can bury them round the garden, hang them off tree branches or stick 'em to the fence for your kids to find.
Mini crazy golf circuit
Find pipes, trays, wood and anything in the garden to make your own mini golf circuit - just make sure you have a set of clubs!
Get their hands dirty with gardening
- See the great Free activities to do with kids & forum thread for more inspiration and to add your own ideas.
Winter fun at home
There's plenty of Christmas fun to be had at home on the cheap or even for free.
- Paint pinecones
Cheap spraypaint can be found in shops like Poundworld or Poundland. Silver or gold will look great for Christmas and afterwards you can even hang them on the tree.
- Make a sleigh
No idea what to do with all those spare boxes from Christmas gifts? Why not make them all into a cardboard sleigh. Get the kids creative with colouring pens and paint.
- Create your own Christmas cards
For classmates or friends, Christmas cards can be made cheaply. All you need is card, scissors (careful, kids), glue and a good imgaination.
Paperchains are so easy to make and can brighten up any bedroom.
Zoos, including 2for1 tickets
If your kids are flapping around for something to do, why not take them to the zoo to see some real little monkeys? As tickets can be costly - up to £30 (more if it's a combined zoo and theme park ticket, such as Chessington) - we've compiled roar-some deals and discounts to make a family day out cheaper.
2for1 with a valid National Rail ticket
Buy a National Rail ticket, register on Days Out Guide and print vouchers. You need to print a voucher AND have a valid rail ticket with the closest station to the zoo as the final destination, bought from National Rail on the same day.
It's worth doing this even if you’re not travelling by train – a cheap single ticket is available for a few quid, far cheaper than the entry ticket price for the following:
Up to 75% off zoos with Tesco Clubcard
If you shop at Tesco and collect the points using your Clubcard, then there's a way to get up to three or four times the value on your points by converting vouchers to Clubcard Boost*, which can be redeemed at these zoos:
Everyone knows Christmas is the perfect season to stuff yourself silly with great food. Why not try your hand at baking one of the following:
B&Q free kids' DIY classes
Halloween treat tub
'Santa stop here' sign
Christmas advent calendar
Once you're signed up, find your nearest Kids Can Do It class and you'll be able to see a list of weekend dates on offer.
Go for a walk
Around the block or down to your village, the possibilities are endless for the after-dinner stroll.
Paddington Bear Trail
London only, but heaps of fun. 50 bears have descended upon the London streets until the end of December. Find your trail and print a map.
2for1 regional attractions
You can save a packet with 2for1 vouchers to regional attractions such as these through Visit Heart of England:
There's also a nifty trick of buying rail tickets to get 2for1s. See 2for1 attractions with National Rail for more info and how to get your vouchers. Here's some examples:
Free audience tickets
Rather than sitting at home in front of the box, you can get behind the big screen yourself with free audience tickets for big shows such as:
Stars in their eyes (16+)
Games Changers (8-12)
Keep it in the Family (12+)
Britain's Got Talent (16+)
Register your details with Applause Store. They tend to operate a reserve list system where you register your interest and if you're chosen, one of the site's researchers will be in touch with show dates.
Plus, SRO Audiences offers free tickets:
The Cube (12+)
The Voice (14+).
Some of the bigger shows have a waiting list, so you might have to wait for a cancellation to get a seat at a very popular show.
Always make sure you check out the lists for these free ticket shows, so you never end up paying money for them on eBay or other ticket sites.
Depending on availability, you should always be able to get them for free. See a full list of free audience ticket websites out there and find out how to grab them.
If you're heading to an attraction, a forest or to visit the family then there is a way to avoid the kids asking "are we nearly there yet?". Speed up car journeys legally with simple games (or even try them at home or on the train). Ideas include:
I-spy - easy-peasy.
Martin's favourite - Scrabble
Take turns picking letters then buzz when you have the longest word.
Great for country roads. When you see a post box, shout "rat-a-tat", for a church it's "ting-a-ling" and for a phone-box it's "ding-dong". Thanks to forumite justanna for the rat-a-tat suggestion.
Count upwards and when there's a number which divides by three, say "fizz" and when a number divides by five, say "buzz". If a number divides by three and five, you have to say "fizz buzz". Thanks to JayW for the suggestion.
Think of five or 10 things to find - for example, a horse, pub, or yellow car - and then try to find them. First person to cross everything off wins. Thanks to mummypops for the travel bingo idea.
Instead of playing with balls, play with cars. Just make sure you get the order right. Thanks to maidmarion44 for the car snooker tip.
See the Free car journey games forum thread for loads of other free and imaginative car games to keep them, and you, entertained while on the road.
You can streamline the cost of travelling by booking in advance, snapping up discounts or swapping Tesco points for rewards. Here are the best ways to get bottoms on seats for less:
Family & Friends Railcard £30 per year
These can be bought from the Railcard website and typically cost £30 per year. They cut a third off off-peak travel, so spend over £90 a year (even in just one trip) and you save. An added bonus is that they're valid on all tickets bought in advance, and all standard class tickets.
Megabus from £1 each way, to UK cities plus Paris, Boulogne, Amsterdam, Brussels
Coach fares can cost from £1 (plus 50p booking fee) when travelling on Megabus*, but there are usually more available for advance bookings. So it's best to go quick, especially if you're looking to go across the Channel.
Buy train tickets with Tesco Clubcard Boost
Get 50% off First TransPennine with 16-25 Railcard
Anyone with a 16-25 Railcard can get half price advance fare tickets when they book online.
We've got a comprehensive list of the cheapest ways to get around in Cheap Train & Coach Deals.
Kids eat 'free'
Just as familiar as "are we nearly there yet?" is "I'm hungry!" Keeping the kids fed, especially in restaurants, can soon add up for families. Fear no more, you can still enjoy a meal out for the adults and feed the kids for a fraction of the price.
With some offers, you can walk in - with others you'll need to register and print a voucher off first:
Up to two children can have a free breakfast when a full-price adult breakfast is bought. See Beefeater Deals.
One child can have a free kids carvery when a full-price adult carvery is bought. See Crown Carveries Deals.
Kids eat 'free' when an adult buys a main after 4pm weekdays, saving around £2.99. See Morrisons Deals.
Slug and Lettuce
Kids eat for £1 (usually £5ish) on Sundays when an adult dines from the main menu. See Slug and Lettuce Deals.
Plus there are loads of other restaurant offers and vouchers on the Cheap Restaurant Deals page.
A night at the movies can have you seeing stars for the wrong reason. A ticket plus a snack and drink can leave you reeling from the cost. But, there are ways to make going to the flicks more affordable.
£1.50 adult/child tickets to Cineworld on Sat/Sun mornings
Buy online for selected Sat/Sun and school holiday morning screenings and both adults and children pay £1.35 (or £1.50 on-the-door) each with the Movies for Juniors offer. Recent films include The Polar Express and Frozen.
Vue school holiday £1.75 tickets
Children aged 2-12 can get £1.75 tickets to select morning movies at weekends and in school holidays with the Kids AM offer. What's more, accompanying adults get in for £1.75 as well.
Odeon Kids' screenings for £2.50
On weekends and holiday mornings, for selected films, adult and kids tickets at Odeon cinemas are £2.50. You can either just turn up at the cinema on the day and trust there'll be seats available or book online (though you'll pay 50p booking fee per ticket).
EE/Orange Wednesdays 2for1
Until February 2015, Orange & EE PAYG and contract customers can get 2for1 cinema tickets at Cineworld, Odeon and Vue venues as part of Orange Wednesdays. Just text FILM to 241 from your Orange/EE phone and it will send you a code to show to the cinema staff.
Plus loads more - for a full list of offers, see Cheap Cinema Deals.
Culture vultures can stroll through the history of art, find out about forensics or see the evolution of toys at more than 190 free museums and galleries.
RAF Museum in Hendon, north London.
Walk through five buildings with aircraft, artefacts, aviation memorabilia and photos of the history of aviation.
This is a fantastic museum. It is very child-friendly with lots of interactive things for children to do. There are picnic areas both inside and outside the museum if you want to bring your own food and snacks. Great for families and all ages.J McEntee
Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.
Explore the city's industrial and scientific history through its collections.
Be a part of Welsh history from early periods to the present day, including archaelogy and geology.
It has loads of different things to see, including a brilliant geology and dinosaur section, as well as a hands-on room where you can handle exhibits. The art collection is superb too with lots of impressionist paintings and pieces by very famous artists.Rebecca M
Went with the family (10yr old & 3yr old) and can't fault it! Staff were friendly and well informed and the activities, exhibitions and demonstrations were fantastic.>Irene Djan
See the Free Museums & Galleries guide to find your nearest.
If you or your little 'uns fancy yourselves as the next tennis champion, then see if your nearest tennis court offers:
Hours of fun with cereal boxes
Who knew there were so many different things to do and make with a cereal box? Well, MSE forumites were brimming with ideas in the forum thread What to do with an old cereal box, including:
Also, why not raid the household recycling bin for even more ideas to keep the kids entertained? They can re-use all the plastics, paper and cardboard to make animals, robots, planes plus much more.
I told my 3 children, aged 9, 8 and 6, they could raid our recycling bin (papers/cartons/empty bottles) and make a spaceship - or whatever they wanted. I couldn't believe how much fun they had.Supermaw
If you've got a GPS device, try geocaching for a cheap way to put a smile on kids' faces. It's a great way to educate the whole family about your local area and beyond, and have fun searching for goodies.
This real world outdoor treasure hunt hides 'geocaches' at specific locations, essentially plastic tubs containing hidden toy stashes.
To get started, sign up for a free membership on the Geocaching website, then enter your postcode to find geocaches near you. Enter the co-ordinates of your chosen site on your GPS, and off you go!
After you've found one, put it back as you found it. The rules of the game state you can take an item from it if you wish. If you do, leave something of equal or greater value for the next person. Discuss your finds in the Geocaching tips forum discussion.
£10 Book bundles
Get the kids flicking through the paperbacks with The Book People bundle sets costing £10 or less (plus £3.95 del). These bundles come as sets of 9 or 10:
Check out libraries/local tourist info & council sites
Your local council's website or magazine may list lots of free or cheap activities for children to do over the school holidays.
Check your local libraries for activities. Yesterday we went to a reading of The Gruffalo, complete with toys, followed by singing. We're out somewhere else tomorrow, otherwise we would be at a different library making crafts from around the world.Kingfisherblue
The local council-run pool here has free swimming all through the holidays - we have taken great advantage of this.Sweetme
So pop along or go to the website to see what's on near you.
Get crafty indoors
We asked for free ways to keep the kids entertained, and you came up with some right corkers, such as:
Make your own play-dough
Collages or mosaics
Make a kite
Fancy dress costumes
The cost of ensuring kids are safe and supervised while you work can be prohibitive. Luckily, a host of childcare schemes can help. People often think these only apply to babies, not strapping 15-year-olds - but that's not the case.
Free and subsidised holiday clubs
Some schools, community centres and youth groups offer clubs for children during the school holidays, with activities as diverse as motor quads and archery. Kids aren’t restricted to their own schools - ask local councils for details.
Sometimes they're free, sometimes not. If they're not though, holiday clubs are often eligible for payment with childcare tax credits or childcare vouchers (see the Childcare Costs Help guide for more). Speaking of which...
Childcare tax credits
Even if you only pay for childcare in the school holidays, you may be eligible for childcare tax credits (cash paid into your bank account) for kids up to their 15th birthday (or 16th if they're registered blind or disabled). The name sounds complex, but it simply means you can get cash to cover the cost of childcare.
Single parents working 16 hours plus per week, or couples both working 16 hours plus per week, with an annual family income less than £46,000 (or £72,000 for larger families), should check if they're eligible via the Childcare Tax Credits guide.
This Government scheme saves many parents £1,000+ a year. Your employer may offer them, and many companies take part.
The vouchers let you pay for childcare from your pre-tax and national insurance income. It mightn’t sound like much, but the benefit’s huge.
Most employers use a salary sacrifice scheme. Here, you give up £1,000 of salary, but if you're a basic taxpayer that's only worth £700 in your pocket. In return, you're given £1,000 of childcare vouchers, so you're £300 per £1,000 better off. Check Childcare Vouchers and the Childcare Help guide for more.
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