Christmas is upon us and with the kids off school on their festive break, they'll need entertaining once again. There’s no need to break the bank though, our guide is jam-packed with free and cheap activities to keep the little ones entertained, plus deals and tricks for cheap family days out.
Ideas include free winter wonderlands, ice skating, Christmas baking ideas at home, Ripley's £42 family ticket, plus 2for1 theme parks, attractions and zoos. 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.
100+ tips for school holiday fun, including...
Visit the park
If it snows, why not go to the park and build a snowman? Even if it doesn't, there's plenty of fun to be had. Here's a handy page where you can search for award-winning parks near you - and they are free. See Green Flag awards to find your nearest park.
Free Star Wars snowflake patterns
Whilst we'd love a white Christmas, if it's not looking likely but the weather outdoors is frightful, you can make your own at home with a Star Wars theme. You could even cover them with sticky-back plastic or sellotape to hang outside. See free Star Wars snowflake patterns to get yours.
Become a nature detective
Complete totally free Woodland Trust activities from a choice of about 100 from its website for outdoor and indoor fun with nature. Activities include downloadable guides for outdoor fun making ice lanterns, pinecone baubles and more. Fr bad weather, there are craft activities such as paper snowflakes and colouring sheets. See Woodland Trust for the full info.
English Heritage kids go free
If you’re already an English Heritage member, you can get free entry for up to six children (up to 18 years and within the family group) accompanied by an adult. See English Heritage for the full details.
Paid outdoor rinks have sprouted up all around the UK this Christmas, including:
Wembley, London. If you're living in London or just visiting for shopping, you can get two 'free' 45 minute ice-skating sessions if you spend £50+ at London Designer Outlet. Tickets are normally £25 each for adults, spectators can watch for free - if you get them to hold your bags, you'll also save on the £2 locker charge. See London Designer Outlet ice skating for more details.
Somerset House, London. Open until Sun 15 Jan, £10.65 for children (£9 plus £1.65 booking fee) or £19.35 for adults (£17 plus £2.35 booking fee). See Somerset House for more information.
Royal Pavilion ice rink, Brighton (see image above). Open until Sun 15 Jan, from £8.50 per person (£36 per family). Children under five go free at 10am sessions. See Royal Pavilion for details.
Eden Project, Cornwall. Open until Sun 19 Feb, from £3.50 per person on special days, £7pp normally (valid Eden Project ticket is also required). See Eden Project to plan your visit.
If you were looking to skate at Winterville, it's taking a break this year and will be back in 2017.
Tis the season where winter markets and fairs descend upon the UK and what's best is that some of them are free to enter.
- Hyde Park, London. Includes an ice rink (from £34 per family), magical ice kingdom (from £23 per family) and a giant wheel (from £23 per family) See Hyde Park Winter Wonderland for details.
- Manchester, England. Includes rides, shows, Christmas circus, and meeting Santa (from £70 per family). See Manchester Winter Wonderland for information.
- Cardiff, Wales. Includes ice skating (from £30 per family) and an alpine village attraction selling sausages. See Cardiff Winter Wonderland for details in Welsh and English.
- Glasgow, Scotland. Includes shopping at Christmas markets. It's worth noting there isn't any ice skating this year as the rink has been replaced with a Christmas market. See Glasgow Loves Christmas for more information.
- Ballygawley, Northern Ireland. Includes sleigh ride, animal village, Christmas treats such as a present from Santa, Christmas activities including arts and crafts, and most importantly - free tea and coffee for parents. Costs from £46 per family, under-ones go free. See Todds Leap for further details.
Winter wonderlands have also popped up around the country, some are free to enter, but of course activities such as rides and ice skating cost extra.
Want more ideas?
See the Winter Wonderlands and shopping centre Christmas entertainment forum thread for more ideas.
Days out deals
Get 10% off when you book at least one day in advance online and a 'free' one-year pass when you choose to donate your entry fee to the Eden Trust when booking. So you’d pay £22.50 per adult, £12.60 per child and get entry to the Eden Project in Cornwall for a year. The Christmas at Eden event includes festive activities such as light shows, festive crafts and ice skating.
For more information, see Eden Project.
It's Christmas trail season at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in London's Piccadilly Circus and it's offering discounted family tickets to the attraction. This means a family (two adults, two children or one adult, three children) can visit for £42 (saving £18-£38ish) until Mon 2 Jan.
Ripley's is an interactive museum with more than 700 exhibits, suitable for all ages. The Christmas-themed activities will include a Christmas trail with a treat at the end.
For the full details see Ripley's Deals.
From Sat 17 Dec until Christmas Eve, each paying adult to The View from The Shard can take up to two kids free of charge.
See The View From The Shard for the full details.
Kids Pass members get access to over 5,000 offers, including kids eat free and up to 40% off cinema tickets. We've blagged a 100-day pass for £1 (usually £7.50/mth) until Tue 17 Jan 2017. You'll need to download an app but can use it right away - great for the half-term holiday.
Warning: After 100 days you'll be automatically enrolled into a year's membership for £29.99 (usually £75), but you can cancel before that.
It's a closed group so we can’t share the specifics of most deals, but we've seen a preview and decent savings include: Free child meals at 1,300 restaurants, eg, Giraffe, TGI Fridays and Handmade Burger Co (with a paying adult); up to 40% off cinema tickets, including adult and child tickets at 420 cinemas; up to 50%ish off theme parks, including adult and child entry; and 2for1 bowling at 32 MFA bowling centres.For the full details, see Kids Pass 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:
Get a free kids' (8 and under) main meal when one adult spends £10 or more. See La Tasca Deals.
One child can have a free kids carvery when a full-price adult carvery is bought on Sundays. See Crown Carveries Deals.
A kid eats for free when an adult buys a main, saving £6ish. See Las Iguanas Deals.
The Real Greek
A kid eats for 'free' on Sundays when an adult spends £10. See The Real Greek Deals.
Kids eat for for £1 when an adult orders a main meal every Thursday from 3pm-7pm. See Flaming Grill Deals.
There are loads of other restaurant offers and vouchers on the Cheap Restaurant Deals page.
Lego offers a free toy build on the first Thursday of every month for 4-14-year-olds in official stores. See all Lego deals.
Pets at Home runs small animal workshops during school holidays. See Pets at Home for more details.
If your kids are into crafts, Hobbycraft runs free workshops and demonstrations at weekends and throughout the school holidays in some of its stores, all supplies are provided. See Hobbycraft for the full details.
The National Gallery is offering free art workshops and drawing sessions on Sundays. See The National Gallery for more info.
Dobbies Garden Centre is offering free workshops for 4-10-year-olds at its centres, including planting seeds and learning about nature. See Dobbies for the full details.
Flora has a free tips and inspiration section packed full of ideas for family fun during the holidays, including recipes and activities. Ideas include:
Homemade glitter snowflake window stickers
Button star ornament
Tissue paper wreath
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:
Get creative in the garden
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:
If your garden's safe and secure (and the weather isn't too cold), then why not wrap up warm, camp out in the garden and star gaze? Hopefully you'll be able to wish upon a star too.
Get their hands dirty with gardening
Kids will enjoy helping out in the garden or planting things of their own, if it's frosty or too chilly, try growing cress on the windowsills.
Try more ideas
See the great Free activities to do with kids forum thread for more inspiration and to add your own ideas.
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.
Chessington Zoo £27 (norm £47) Closed Christmas Day.
20% off Bristol Zoo when you cycle Closed Christmas Day.
Edinburgh Zoo kids go free with ScotRail ticket. Open every day.
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 major zoos:
ZSL London Zoo Closed Christmas Day.
Sea Life Centres in Blackpool, London, Brighton and more. Closed Christmas Day.
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:
Amazon World Zoo Park Closed Christmas Day.
Banham Zoo Open every day.
Blackpool Zoo Closed Christmas Day.
Colchester Zoo Closed Christmas Day.
Drusillas Park Closed Sat 24 - Mon 26 Dec.
Exmoor Zoo Closed Sat 24 - Mon 26 Dec.
Longleat Safari & Adventure Park Closed Christmas Day.
Woburn Safari Park Closed Sat 24 - Mon 26 Dec.
Whipsnade Zoo Closed Christmas Day.
Even more offers
2for1 regional attractions
You can save a packet with 2for1 vouchers to regional attractions such as these through Visit Heart of England:
Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. Voucher gives 30% off entry.
Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, West Midlands. Voucher gives 12 months free entry after paying for one day.
Museum of Transport in Greater Manchester.
Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Buckinghamshire.
You can also use the rail ticket trick to get 2for1s. See 2for1 attractions with National Rail for more info and how to get your vouchers. Here some examples:
Free Junior Parkrun
Free tennis court usage throughout the year
Children aged 4-14 can take part in weekly timed 2K runs in parks all over the UK on Sunday mornings.
Children any age are also welcome at the weekly timed 5K runs on Saturday mornings, but these are usually busier - the advantage is the whole family can run (even the dog) and prams are welcome, too.
For the full details, including other free outdoor classes kids can get involved in, see Outdoor fitness.
Tennis for Free also works with councils to provide free 'walk on and play' court access throughout the year, so your serving won't suffer through the colder months.
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.
There are currently three main deals for cheap days out: voucher for free adult entry with child or adult ticket on £3ish cereal, 2for1 with National Rail tickets and exchanging Tesco Clubcard vouchers for attraction tickets.
Adults 2for1 with £3ish cereal
Look for promotional packs of Kellogg's cereal and snacks, including Rice Krispies, Frosties, Crunchy Nut and Squares, to get a "Grown-Ups Go Free" voucher for 28 UK Merlin theme parks and attractions. Effectively this is a 2for1, as you must buy a full-price child or adult ticket to get the free adult entry.
See Kellogg's deals for the full details.
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.
Exchange Tesco Clubcard vouchers for theme park and attraction tickets
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*. See the Tesco Clubcard page for the full details on how to convert points to rewards.
Participating theme parks and attractions
Here's a list of the major theme parks and attractions included in the deals, we have noted where they don't apply to all. Some attractions may exclude special events, so always phone ahead to check first.
Legoland Windsor Open until Christmas Eve.
Alton Towers Closed until spring 2017.
The Blackpool Tower Kellogg's deal only. Open Sat 17 Dec Sun 8 Jan. Closed Christmas Day.
Sea Life centres and sanctuaries Closed Christmas Day.
Drayton Manor Clubcard only. Closed Sat 24 - Mon 26 Dec, open Thu 15 - Fri 23 Dec for Magical Christmas.
Legoland Discover Centre Closed Christmas Day.
Madame Tussauds Closed Christmas Day.
Cadbury World National Rail only. Closed Fri 23 - Mon 26 Dec and Sat 31 Dec.
Warwick Castle Closed Christmas day.
Kew Gardens National Rail only. Closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Chessington World of Adventures Open for pre-booked 'Winter's Tail' event from Fri 16 to Sat 24 Dec. Closed until spring 2017.
The London Dungeons Closed Christmas Day.
Blackpool Pleasure Beach Clubcard only. Open for Christmas grotto and ice skating until Sat 24 Dec.
Thorpe Park Closed until Thu 23 Mar 2017.
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:
The Voice Kids (14+)
Britain's Got Talent Judges Auditions (16+)
Catch Phrase (12+)
Register your details with Applause Store. It tends 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 for shows such as:
Tonight at The Palladium (12+)
Harry Hill's Alien Fun Capsule (16+).
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.
Free car games
If you're heading to an attraction, an ice rink or to visit the family 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:
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:
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. See TransPennine Express for details.
Plus £2 unlimited bus travel & moreWe've got a comprehensive list of the cheapest ways to get around in Cheap Train & Coach Deals.
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.
£1.60 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 £1.58 (or £1.75 on-the-door) each with the Movies for Juniors offer. Recently released films you can watch include The Angry Birds Movie and The Secret Life of Pets as well as the Christmas classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Vue school holiday £1.99 tickets
Children aged 2-12 can get £1.99 tickets to select morning movies at weekends and in school holidays with the Kids AM offer. What's more, accompanying adults get in for £1.99 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.
2for1 cinema tickets
2for1 tickets valid Tue/Wed at most cinemas across the UK for Compare The Market customers. See Meerkat Movies.
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 180 free museums and galleries. These include:
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
House of Marbles between Exeter and Plymouth, Devon.
See marbles and glass being made, with handmade artisan glass marbles and trinkets on display. Enjoy interactive marble runs including the largest in the UK.
There's loads to see and do, including watching the artisans at work. There's a restaurant but also space outside to eat, and the gift shop is mesmerising for kids.
- Jamie M
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 archaeology 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.
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:
Make a Dolls' house
Build a Pinata
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.
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.
Free craft packs
Fancy a free £5 craft box for your kids? Toucan Box is a subscription service that delivers arts and crafts kits to children aged 3-8 years old, either fortnightly or monthly. We've got a code that allows new customers to get their first box for free, and then you've the option to cancel at no cost.
Boxes include activities and craft materials such as stencils, stickers, pens and paper.
For the full details see Toucan Box Deals.
£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 nine 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.
The local council-run pool here has free swimming all through the holidays - we have taken great advantage of this.
So pop along to see what's on near you with this local library finder tool.
- Bad weather is to be expected in winter, however libraries usually set a reading challenge over the holidays, so why not try a good book for free. See the Reading Agency for the full info.
Get crafty indoors
We asked for free ways to keep the kids entertained on a rainy day, and you came up with some right corkers, such as:
Make your own play-dough
Collages or mosaics
Make a kite
Fancy dress costumes
Cut childcare costs
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 £73,000 for larger families or families with a disabled child), should check if they're eligible via the Childcare Tax Credits guide.
This Government scheme saves many parents £100s a year. You get them through your employer, 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 around £700 in your pocket. In return, you're given £1,000 of childcare vouchers, so you're approximately £300 per £1,000 better off.
It's worth noting that the Childcare Vouchers scheme will end in 2017, and will be replaced by Tax-Free Childcare. Some will win under the new scheme, but some will be better off sticking with vouchers. Check Childcare Vouchers for a full rundown of how the current scheme works, and the full details of the new scheme.