The weather is improving, lockdown is easing and after months of staying at home, many of us are raring to get out and about. For families in England, half-term has arrived but even if you haven’t got children to entertain, you may be considering a day trip or two over the next few weeks.
If you want to treat yourselves to a trip to a paid-for attraction, the good news is that you may not have to shell out for the advertised fee – there are a range of vouchers and offers you can use to cut the cost.
Money woes, plus a need to keep numbers down for physical distancing, mean that some of the usual offers have been stopped. For example, ZSL has suspended most promotions at London and Whipsnade zoos, with the website saying this is so it can “control numbers more effectively and ensure that visitors have a safe and enjoyable experience”.
Jasmine Birtles of the website MoneyMagpie says: “I don’t think there are a huge amount of offers at the moment, so you have to do a bit of digging.”
Fortunately, Guardian Money has done some of the spadework for you, and here’s our guide to where to look before you book.
Be aware: currently most attractions insist that you book in advance. You can still be a bit spontaneous, as lots of the offers can be booked online and tickets quickly downloaded, but in most cases you cannot just turn up.
People enjoy a ride at Legoland Windsor. Photograph: J Hordle/Legoland Windsor/PA
For some of the UK’s biggest attractions, including Legoland, Alton Towers and the London Eye, Kellogg’s is running its annual offer on cereal packets and packs of snacks including Fruit Winders and Rice Krispie Squares.
Its free adult ticket vouchers can be used at more than 40 places – sites owned by Merlin Entertainment in the UK, plus several attractions in Ireland.
The vouchers can be used by an adult accompanying either another adult or a child and typically mean you get two tickets for the price of one charged at the gate price. This is generally more expensive than the online price you are offered if you book direct. At Legoland Windsor, tickets the gate price is £53 per person, whatever day you want to go. The offer buys two tickets for that price. Booking direct costs £29 outside peak times such as half-term, and £39 in them. There are some special offers if you book direct, such as a £25 ticket for an adult and a preschooler during school days through much of June.
Off- and on-peak, the voucher works well for two adults or an adult and a school-age child at £26.50 each. You can book via the Kellogg’s website, either well in advance or on the day.
The London Eye. Photograph: David Cliff/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock
National Rail’s two-for-one deal offers a second ticket for free if you are travelling by train. The scheme usually has a long list of attractions but many are not offering the deal currently, so make sure you check online before you travel. For example, the deals for the Tower of London and the London Transport Museum are currently unavailable.
Legoland is, again, an option, and for the same price as with a Kellogg’s voucher. You need to book via the National Rail site. For Cadbury World the offer is 30% off the standard price but you get access to the online prices. For tickets after half-term, two adults can visit for £26.60 rather than the £36.10 they would pay if they booked directly.
If you have an annual gold card that goes with an Oyster card season ticket, or a paper season ticket, you can use the deal. If you don’t, for attractions in London it can be worth seeing if you can buy an overground ticket for the last leg of your journey to secure the offer. Hampton Court Palace, for example, isn’t currently running the deal but when it is, buying a paper ticket for the last stretch of the journey is cheaper than paying £24 for a second visitor ticket.
Tesco Clubcard vouchers are another option. “A lot of people will have got really good Clubcard balances now as they’ve been buying all their food there over the past year,” Birtles says.
Some of the partnerships have been put on hold but there are still deals with attractions around the country. Clubcard holders exchange 50p worth of points for £1.50 towards the ticket price – and you can use them in part payment and top up the difference, meaning you can reduce the cost even if you do not have a stack of points.
Youngsters learn about the Jorvik Viking Centre in York. Photograph: Charlotte Graham/Rex/Shutterstock
Each £1 spent at Tesco earns you one point, and 150 points earn you £1.50 worth of vouchers – so for every £150 you have spent you can save £4.50 on a day out. There are other ways to earn points, including doing online surveys.
The vouchers do have an expiry date. Those that were due to expire on 31 May have been extended for another six months, so if you have already got some, you now have the summer to use them.
For £15 worth of vouchers and a fiver you could meet the £50 it costs to get a family of two adults and two children into the Black Country Living Museum on the Thursday of half-term.
For the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, an adult and a child could visit for £7 worth of vouchers.
Make sure you check when you need to use your vouchers – with the Eden Project, for example, you need to redeem them by midnight the day before your visit.
Conwy Castle in Wales. Photograph: John Davidson Photos/Alamy Stock Photo
Sometimes, an annual season ticket, or membership, is a good option – if you plan your visits well, by the end of the summer your days out could be free. At the National Trust, membership costs £72 a year for an individual, £120 a year for a couple and £126 a year for a family with two adults. How quickly it pays for itself depends on which attractions you visit. Tickets for some of the big country houses are £15 each for adults, so trips to five of them would mean you more than break even on an individual ticket. Family prices at the same attractions are £37.50, so on your fourth visit you will be in pocket.
It is the same at English Heritage, where annual membership is £64 for one person and £111 for two, family tickets are priced the same and up to six children go free with each adult. A family visiting Scarborough Castle, Whitby Abbey and Rievaulx Abbey over the course of a week’s holiday would pay £79.80 for standalone tickets.
Tesco Clubcard points can be used towards annual membership for English Heritage, the Royal Horticultural Society – which means you can visit its gardens for no extra fee – and Cadw, which looks after Conwy Castle and other historic buildings in Wales. Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, and Oakwood Theme Park in Pembrokeshire also have season tickets that can be used with the points. The membership for English Heritage through the offer is £110 for a family, so you will need £37 worth of vouchers to cover it in full.
There are several schemes that offer discounts for an upfront fee. The LittleBird website runs a Family Pass that offers discounts on days out, among other things. The pass costs £1 for a month’s trial, then £3.49 a month, and you can cancel at any time.
In June, offers include Go Ape and KidZania – although the site does not publish how big the discounts are on those. For Africa Alive in Suffolk it is offering 20% off all entry tickets – a saving of £4 for adults and £3 for children. The attraction offers 10% off to NHS workers without a voucher.
The London Pass is expensive but if you are planning to visit more than one place, it might save you money. Passes are priced according to how many days they last. For one day, an adult pays £54 and a child’s pass costs £34. If you could manage London zoo and the Tower of London in the same day, you would save £4.90 on off-peak tickets and £10.90 on peak prices as an adult. But you might prefer to spend the whole day at each one to get your money’s worth.
Half-term headache: is it all sold out?
P-P-P-point at a penguin: London zoo is a popular attraction during half-term. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA
If you are reading this and haven’t yet booked tickets for your May half-term day trips and attractions in England, now’s the time to act. When Guardian Money checked on Thursday, some popular attractions such as Chester zoo had already put up the sold out sign for the entire week. There, Monday 7 June was the first available date to book.
Others such as London zoo and Whipsnade only had availability on some days, and the slots were almost disappearing before our eyes. At Legoland Windsor there were some days where there were only afternoon tickets left. Alton Towers still appeared to have good availability, although there was one day where you could only buy a twilight pass, for entry after 4pm.
We had to queue to get on to the website for The Making of Harry Potter tour at Warner Bros Studios in Hertfordshire and then it appeared to be booked up for families until 6pm on 19 July, although there were tickets for individuals and couples available before that.
However, if the attraction you want to visit has no slots available on the day you wanted to go, don’t give up hope. Many are letting people switch their booking to another date if someone in their party is showing symptoms of Covid-19, if they are isolating or there are restrictions on travel in place (although refunds are typically a no-no).
For example, at the London Eye, you can move your ticket up to five times up to the end of 2021. So it is possible that last-minute tickets will pop up as a result of people having to change their plans. If you have the flexibility to go on the same day, it may be worth checking the same morning.
If getting into central London is a possibility, this could be the week to check out some of the capital’s attractions. A lack of overseas tourists means some of London’s biggest draws could be a lot less busy than normal.
The London Eye – where you get 30 minutes riding in one of its 32 pods – had good availability for all days up to and including Sunday 6 June when we looked. Meanwhile, the Tower of London had either medium or high availability for all days.
Blue Peter badges bring benefits
Architectural seating at Kew Gardens. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock
Blue Peter badges are an achievement in their own right but they come with the bonus of free days out for their holders. More than 200 attractions around the UK will let Blue Peter badge winners in for free in normal times. Some of these, for example, London zoo, have suspended the promotion but at others such as the Black Country Living Museum, you can book a free ticket for a child.
Badges are given for a range of achievements, including sending in written creations and pictures to the BBC show or taking on sporting or environmental challenges.
Christina Davis’s daughter Hermione earned her badge two and a half years ago for designing and building a shelter out of recycled materials for the programme’s tortoise.
The footballer Marcus Rashford wears his Blue Peter badge. Photograph: BBC/PA
“I was surprised when I got the letter about the badge – I thought you might need to do something really amazing to get one,” Hermione says. “I put it on straight away when I finally received it. I was definitely proud.”
Christina says: “The children want the badge – they don’t want it for the free entry. It’s the parents who that’s a great thing for.” Hermione won a diamond badge as well as the traditional blue one. “It’s the normal one that she wants to wear out – and people recognise it and comment.”
Hermione has used it a few times, including on trips to Kew Gardens and, her favourite so far, London zoo. “I like the reptile house,” she says.
The family is planning a trip to the New Forest soon, and Christina has found places they can visit if the weather is bad. The National Motor Museum at Beaulieu in Hampshire will let Hermione in for free with her badge and the photocard that goes with it to prove that it is hers.
Last year was a bumper year, with more than 113,000 badges awarded
These were introduced after the badges began to be traded online as people realised the perks of having one. The badges can be won by anyone aged between six and 15, and there are details of the requirements for each one on the BBC website. It can take a while for the applications to be processed but if you apply now, you may be set for the summer holidays.
The BBC says everyone who writes in to the programme receives a letter, and the majority also qualify for a badge. Last year was a bumper year, with more than 113,000 badges awarded. Blue Peter’s editor, Ellen Evans, says the badge is “about so much more than just being able to get into attractions. Viewers can write in to Blue Peter and receive a personal letter and badge back in the post, and in a digital age there’s something quite special about that.”
Badge winners are also part of a “unique club”, she says – current holders include the astronaut Tim Peake, the writer Malorie Blackman and the footballer Marcus Rashford.
“Blue Peter is all about being taken on an adventure, and what’s great about the badge is that once kids earn it, they can then enjoy their own adventures with their families in real life, too.”