Big days out: are they worth the hassle?

This week parents across the country will breathe a sigh of relief as children return to school and they can finally give their feet and brains a rest from desperately trying to find affordable days out to fill the time.

As the reviews and tourist mags like to point out, family days out can have a huge benefit: you bond as a family unit, they are hugely educational and so much of it is free!

Free farms, free museums, free family days.

Free in theory, but while the entrance fee may have been waived, it’s hugely difficult to actually have a free day out.

It only takes a few trips out to realise that cafe ‘kiddie lunches’ which charge you a fiver for a quarter of a cheese sandwich, 5 grapes and one bite of a muffin are an absolute rip off, but are still infinitely better value than the adult ones. In many museums you’re facing a good £7+ just for a sandwich. I don’t care that you’ve replaced the lettuce with rocket, I’m not even sure what sourdough bread is – never mind why it’s so expensive – and I’m not a mug: just because you’ve chosen a cheese I can’t pronounce instead of cheddar doesn’t mean I’m willing to bankrupt myself to buy it. At the end of the day, it’s just a cheese sandwich. It might be a bit fancy, but it’s just a cheese sandwich. I shouldn’t have to remortgage my house just to eat. Whatever happened to cheddar, pickle and normal sliced bread?

A real sceptical parent soon realises the importance of getting up that bit earlier to pack up a lunch, not just to save yourself from the workhouse but to avoid those hideous cafe queue arguments: 20 minutes repeating the phrase ‘no you can’t just eat chips’ is not my idea of a fun day out.

Then of course you have to get to one of the free attractions. If you live in a big city, you can get away with a short bus ride. If you’ve had the audacity not to live in Manchester, London or another urban centre, you’d better hope you remembered to book your train tickets 3 months in advance. On a Tuesday morning. Using only credit cards which end on the number 5. Wearing socks. Otherwise you’ve no chance of getting the early-bird-super-super-saver ticket you can actually afford.

If you finally make it to one of these ‘free’ museums you’ll then be confronted by the strangest ‘free’ entrance in the world. On a recent visit to the Science Museum I panicked as we entered and were confronted by barriers. ‘I thought it was free’, I whispered. It was, but instead of relying on children to throwing spare change into swirly donation boxes, museums have gotten canny and guests are now of shepherded through formal gates where a smiling worker chirps ‘Good morning. Would you like to give a donation today?’ Giant signs loom over you suggesting a minimum of £5. No cash? Don’t worry, they take cards. For all it’s a free space, you’d have to have balls of steel to actually go in there without paying.

All that said, I’ve not even touched on the enticing activity books beaming at small children on the way in, the bright shiny gift shops on the way out and the expensive coffee which, let’s face it, is basically a necessity if you’re going to get through a full family day out with all the noise and energy that involves!

This summer I’ve had an amazing time with my son, with many amazing days out.

Summer holiday 'to do' list

Summer holiday ‘to do’ list

I can’t possibly regret it as I’ve had so much fun, and I have become an expert at cutting cost corners to have as close to a free day out as you can (my boy has no idea what the inside of a gift shop even looks like, believe me!).

Still, there have been one or two extravagances.

A few weeks ago I travelled an hour across London and paid £9 entrance fee to go to Battersea Park Children’s Zoo based on one raving online review and a desperate desire to do something new. As my son decided that meerkats were not so interesting after all and instead spent 30 minutes running up and down the disabled ramp next to a closed cafe terrace, I began to realise that my ‘big day out’ plans were wasted on him.

Thinking logically, I should give up. Big days out and all the effort the entail are clearly not worth it when a packed lunch down the park would provide just as much fun for him.

Still, it’s not all about him is it? I’ve spent all summer honing cheap day out skills and love a big day out. Plus, regardless of what he says, I know he does too…

A big day out at the Museum in Docklands

A big day out at the Museum in Docklands

What do you think? Are big days out worth the hassle and cost? Can you really do it for free? Or should you just stay at home and enjoy the simple life?


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