Updated on 07.07.11

Eight Inexpensive Family Outings

Trent Hamm

A few weeks ago, I put out a call on Twitter and on Facebook for detailed posts that people would like to see. I got enough great responses that I’m going to fill the entire month of July – one post per day – addressing these ideas.

On Twitter, Robert asked “How about “Family outings that dont cost and arm and a leg” ?”

This is obviously a major goal for our family, too. We have three young children that have a need to explore the world, but many excursions outside of the house are expensive, particularly with five people in tow. Even a simple trip to a movie theater can easily set a family of five back $60 to $100. That’s painful!

Because of that, my wife and I have strived to come up with family outings that won’t cause our budget to explode. Here are some of our most-loved ideas.

State parks
There’s an abundance of state parks within a fifty mile radius of our home. Even within a twenty-five mile radius, there are several such parks. We make an effort to visit all of them, often once a year. We’ll pack a picnic lunch, drive to the park, and explore what’s on offer there. Different state parks offer vastly different things: lakes, forests, prairie land, fishing, hiking, canoeing… they’re all on offer at different state parks. The best part is that most state parks are free for day trips.

Bicycle rides
When we have an hour or two to kill, we’ll go on a bike ride near our house. When we have several hours to kill, we’ll load up our bikes and take them to a bike trail elsewhere. We’ll park in one place, ride the trail a bit in one direction, then ride back. Usually, we’ll stop for a while at this point and have a picnic lunch, then we’ll ride in the other direction for a while, then ride back. The rides are leisurely and there’s a lot of nature observation involved in the process. We don’t ride like we’re Lance Armstrong, just a family leisurely enjoying the day together.

Volunteer experiences
This is something that’s limited due to the youth of our children, but we still find ways to do it. We’ll spend a day or a part of a day involved in a volunteer activity of some sort. Not too long ago, we helped package canvas bags full of food that were to be delivered to shut-ins, then went around and delivered them to those shut-ins. Not only is it a very inexpensive way to spend a day, it also gives our children a chance to see how our actions can positively affect other people.

City passes
This is probably the most expensive option on our list, but it’s a good one. Many cities offer “city passes” which provide entrance to a number of cultural spots around the city over a period of time (a month to a year, usually). This is a great one-time pickup for your family, as it gives you a chance to fill quite a few outings with stops at such places. For a birthday gift, for example, my wife received two adult “city passes” to Seattle for the next time we visit there, since we’ll be visiting family there and will have several days to explore.

Community festivals and fairs
We tend to hit a lot of these on weekends during the summer. They can be expensive if you don’t go to them with a little bit of advance planning. First, we try to hit them during the day so we can see the free activities, demonstrations, and parades that are going on. To avoid the overpriced fair food, we usually pack our own lunch and snacks. These moves turn such an excursion into a fairly low-cost affair for the whole family.

Outdoor games
All you need for this is a park with some open space and maybe a bit of simple equipment, such as a frisbee. Just take over some space and play some games with your family, like simply tossing a frisbee around, playing ultimate frisbee, playing touch football, or anything else that you can think up. We spend a lot of afternoons and evenings doing this, usually accompanied (again) by a picnic meal.

Potlucks and round-robins
If you have other parents in the area that you’re friends with, engage in some meal exchanges with them, either one-on-one or as a larger group. You can either have one family “host” and provide the meal and the location each week, or do it “potluck” so that each family brings something each week. If you plan this with families that have children your age, not only do you get some time to socialize with people with overlapping life experiences (being a parent in that area), but the children have a chance to play with their peers, too.

Cultural events
Always check the community calendar in your area for free cultural events, many of which are happening without your notice. We try to enjoy a diversity of such events, from going to a free classical concert in the park to watching a chess tournament. There are all kinds of things happening in your community if you just take the time to look for them, and almost all of them are perfect for a rich, new experience for you and your children.

Between all of these things, our calendar is as packed as we allow it to be. Simply put, there are more opportunities to do low-cost things than there is time to do them in.

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  1. valleycat1 says:

    Not just state parks, but city or county parks. When we lived in Austin TX years ago, even the city swimming pools were free, well staffed & maintained. Where we live now, during the summer the city sponsors ‘dive-in theater’ nights – they keep the pool open until sundown & then show a movie – admission isn’t free but it’s really inexpensive.

    Even just camping out overnight in the backyard is fun for most kids – with or without parents outside with them.

  2. Cheryl says:

    Geocaching and letterboxing

  3. krantcents says:

    As a family, we loved to go to the Children’s Museum. It was very hands on and our kids loved it.

  4. Marinda says:

    Every first Sunday, the museums downtown are free. I see the exhibits and parking is free too.

    We do alot of camping, the city parks in Texas are wonderful and so are the state parks.

    We do early movies only and it’s got to be a must see movie to go into the theater. The library has wonderful programs and there is the music every Friday downtown, free on the plaza.

  5. Bellen says:

    We have several city parks that are on the water – we like to watch sailboats, powerboats, fishermen and ask questions, we almost always get good information and have lots of fun.

    We also check, on-line, what free events the local malls have. One open-air mall offers free concerts Wed at noon and Friday night 5-8. Another often has animal programs – cat & dog shows, wild animal rescue groups, etc.

    Our local college branch offers free nighttime telescope viewings – bring your own or use theirs, lots to learn about the stars and many people there to help

    We also go to local churches for free concerts – not all are of religious music and more often than not have instruments like harps and oboes, not the usual guitar and piano.

  6. Michele says:

    I have to agree with #2Bellen- lots of Churches offer great free events.
    My town has a ‘downtown’ event called “Third Thursdays”.
    This is a free downtown event with music, entertainment groups, free snacks, children’s activities, wine and food tastings once a month. If you have a ‘downtown’ area you should check it out! Lots of places and local colleges have free outdoor concerts and fun things for families!

  7. Here we are in the land of the free and things to do should be free. Interestingly, Cornell University professor Tom Gilovich conducted a study showing that experiences, not material possessions or material purchases, are what leads to greater long-term enjoyment. Isn’t it gratifying that the good things in life don’t have to be the most expensive? Keeping more of your money keeps you LIQUID.

  8. Genny says:

    Our Metro Parks department has a lot of cool programs in the summer…last year they had a family program where we got in a local stream and looked for wildlife using small nets. Messy but my daughter loved it! They also sponsor evening hikes with naturalists, etc. Even now that she is ten, my daughter’s (and her friends) favorite free outing is a visit to the pet store. I always tell the pet store employees we are just there to look, and not in the market for another pet.

  9. Allie says:

    Genny, how about taking them to volunteer at an animal shelter instead? They still get to look at cute animals while doing something wonderful.

  10. bogart says:

    Our town has an (indoor) swimming pool, an annual family pass to which costs a pittance (OK, not an actual pittance, rather, $500, but for as much as we use the pool — easily 4 times/week year round — it works out to a pittance).

    I recently bought an inflatable Sea Eagle kayak (no affiliation but am very happy with the product, I got the cheapest, about $250, which is an SE 330) and now 1 or 2 days a week we go to a nearby lake that is accessible with no launch fee. The inflatable boat collapses easily to fit in the back of my Matrix. I prefer the kayak to trying to bike with my (one preschool-aged) kid because in the kayak I don’t have to worry about him heading off in some other direction or into traffic.

    Besides parks, we go to our public schools in the summer and use their playgrounds — the nearest playground to our house happens to be a school’s rather than a park’s.

    The library.

    For bigger outings, the beach, the mountains (we live a ~3 hour drive from each). Closer by, any lake creek or river, especially in this hot weather, and fling rocks into it or dam it.

  11. JS says:

    I was on the light rail in Phoenix this spring and there was a little boy who was so excited to be on the train and to see everything outside. Not the most conventional of outings, but an all-day pass on the train is $3.50 for adults and $1.75 or free for kids, depending on age, and there’s stuff to see and do along the line. Plus, I would think it has the additional benefit of normalizing public transportation for the child- many peopleI meet are afraid of trying it.

  12. Katie says:

    JS, along the same lines, when I was a kid, my mom would sometimes take us to the airport to watch the planes land and take off. Might be harder now that you can’t go through security, but there might also be places where you can get a decent view in the unsecured places.

  13. Tanya says:

    I think cultural events and festivals are great fun! Our city has an event they called “Summer Nights on Seventh” (Seventh St.) downtown. There’s always live music, stores are open later, people can walk around and enjoy the music or choose to shop, eat downtown, etc. It’s a huge hit – and you don’t have to spend a lot to have some fun.

  14. Maggie says:

    If we took the kids to a fair or carnaval, we would go in the evening after dinner so the kids would not be expecting dinner. But we would get one treat – usually a funnel cake or two (about $5 each) and share that along the way. Kids love being up late and getting a special treat really makes it extra fun.
    Also, we loved the children’s theatre that was in the outdoor amphitheatre in our community. When my daughter got older, she would be in some of the plays and it was neat to see her perform.
    We live near Washington DC where lots of museums are free and nothing is better than a cool museum on a weekday when everyone else is working. Our house is not air-conditioned so we loved the air-conditioning. My husband and I still visit the museums when I have vacation days.
    Finally, an ice cream cone at the local park cannot be beat. I have brought my own cooler and ice cream to the park. Kids love popcycles and who cares if they are from home.

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