I just bought plane tickets for our family of four to visit my parents in Florida (we live in California) and it pretty much gobbled up our entire vacation budget—ouch! So, aside from hoping for a grandparent-subsidized trip to Legoland while we’re there, we’ll be searching for free kids activities we can all enjoy. Here are three of my top hints for finding free fun.
Get outside: Whether it’s a visit to the neighborhood playground, a trip to the local beach or a hike in a nearby park, looking to the great outdoors for adventure is almost certain to be cost-effective. It’s also a great way to feel connected to the “real world” if you are staying in a resort or hotel. The National Park Service offers several free entrance days throughout the year, and the local parks district may have similar offerings. There may be free outdoor music or street festivals going on during your visit; check local media outlets for information or use your social media networks to ask friends for advice and pointers.
Take an inventory: If you have museum memberships, check to see if you get reciprocity with other museums around the country. For example, membership to our local Chabot Space & Science Center comes with free or reduced admission to more than 250 science museums via the ASTC Member Passport. A similar organization, the Association of Children’s Museums, claims more than 140 member entities around the U.S.
If you are a Bank of America customer, you can take advantage of its “Museums on Us” program. Another way to find free events doesn’t require any special membership, just a visit to the Target website. Many museums offer free days to the community on a recurring basis. Call around or check websites in advance so you can plan to attend on a free day, if possible. (Get there early, as it’s almost sure to get crowded!)
Are you eligible for discounts or freebies through your employer, or because you’re a teacher, a member of the military, etc.? Do your research before your trip so you can take advantage of these often-hidden perks. Finally, as AAA members, we always visit the branch near my parents for free maps, local information and discounted tickets to many local attractions.
Visit the local library: Even if you can’t check materials out (which your local relatives could do, if you have any in the city you’re visiting), today’s libraries are often attractively laid out for browsing and can be a great resource for local information. The library near my parents has a café, a bookstore run by Friends of the Library and a fun playspace my kids really loved when they were younger. The play space features pretend kitchens and tool benches, toddler sensory tables, giant building blocks and more, and is a nice respite from outdoor playgrounds when the weather is too hot. The library also features story times, sing-alongs and more, for kids of all ages.
The idea for this article was actually inspired by last year’s trip to Florida, where we basically did all of the things I just described. We also spent a fun, but exhausting, day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. I think my kids actually had more fun playing in the hotel pool with my mom, enjoying the free breakfast buffet at Residence Inn (where I let them eat WHATEVER THEY WANTED—very exciting for a 4- and 6-year-old), and spending the following day at Downtown Disney.
We got a lot of “Disney Magic” at the sprawling outdoor food, shopping and entertainment complex (which does not have an admission charge) with much less stress and certainly less cost. We visited the massive Disney Emporium gift shop and got treats at Goofy’s Candy Company. My mom and I were thrilled to discover Marketplace Fun Finds, which sells souvenirs at fixed bargain price points. We spent over an hour at the signature Lego store, where my kids played with Legos and gawked at the amazing Lego sculptures on display, including a giant sea serpent in the adjacent lake! It pays to be mindful of your family’s size, ages, and interests, and to remember that sometimes the best things in life really are free!
Karen Witham is the mother of two great kids, ages 5 and 7. She works full-time as an editor and writer in San Francisco and lives in Oakland. A transplant from the East Coast, she spent ten years living in Boston and also loves New York and, most of all, Paris. Karen has a B.A. from Brown University and an M.A. from Emerson College. She blogs at Thoughtstream. Connect with her on Twitter at. @kewitham