Saving Hacks For Summer Fun with Kids

One way to save: vacation during hurricane season!

Are other mom’s fun-filled Facebook posts leaving you feeling lame? Maybe you can’t—or choose not to—afford all the most expensive children’s attractions and high-end vacations this summer. That certainly doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with your kids and make great memories.

We strike a balance somewhere between a zero entertainment budget and heedless spending on all things fun. We also fall between the extremes of a frenzied death march of “fun” outings, and confining ourselves to the backyard.  Here’s what we spend on summer fun by employing the art of the alternative plus a few hacks. And don’t miss my tips on the children’s museum membership you must get.


Nothing says summer vacation like swimming. I was beyond lucky to have grandparents with a pool who lived just a few miles away. If you’re not so blessed, there are often many wonderful alternatives to expensive pool memberships. Believe me—I’ve found them all because 1. Our city doesn’t have a pool and 2. The closest private pools cost $400 or more to join!

For the little ones, check out local splash pads and wading pools. We frequent neighboring cities who have these amenities. My kids also love playing in the sprinkler, kiddie pool, playing with the hose, creating a slip and slide from things we already have, and water balloon fights.

We’ve also been known to sign up for a free 2-week trial at local fitness centers that feature a pool in order to get a few swims in. If each parent does this at different times, you could get more free visits.

When my son took swim lessons, I was able to take the toddler in the pool at the same time. Our local library also offers free story times at a local pool throughout the summer. After the story time you can swim for as long as you want. This year the library reading program also featured a prize of a free family pass to this pool.

The last two years, we signed up for a pass to a local lake. This year we actually received our passes as a Christmas gift. The kids love the lake and the sandy beach, and it costs one fifth of what a pool membership would.

We’ve also received free or discounted water park tickets from friends.

So that’s how we swim. Here’s how we zoo.


Let me just confess that I hate the zoo. Maybe because growing up, my family only ever went to the Tucson Zoo in July.

Maybe it’s because you walk and walk and walk and walk, pushing a stroller with no kid in it, chasing kids who are complaining about all the walking. Only to have them look at the animals for five seconds before going to smell fake animal poop (true story). Or watch other kids walk by. And then ask for snacks. Again.

Maybe it’s because when you leave the zoo you’re always so hungry, thirsty, tired, sweaty, and have to pee sooo bad, and the kids are in a similar state, except they might wear diapers.

Nevertheless, I take my kids to the zoo. I have two great hacks for buying zoo passes at this zoo. I don’t know if they’ll work at your zoo, but it’s worth looking into.

  1. Buy a companion pass instead of a family pass. We buy a pass for two named adults and a specified number of unnamed children. The twist is that the adults aren’t my husband and me. Instead, a friend and I are on the pass, plus 7 kids (random). Then, we pay $5 extra for an unlimited one guess pass. So with each visit, we can bring a guest. We don’t have to go together, and if we bring our husbands they are covered by the pass. And if I want to bring a friend and her kids, they’re also covered by the guest pass. For this we each pay $50 for the year.
  2. Buy a pass every other year. At the beginning of last July I purchased a pass that is good until the end of this July. It covers the better part of two summers. Which is fine for me, because did I mention I actually hate the zoo? So I’ve spend $50 on zoo passes in the last four years.

Most zoos offer reciprocal memberships wherein you can visit other zoos (fml) for half-price. We’ve done this sparingly, but our $50 zoo pass has saved us close to that much on admission at larger (fml) zoos.

Museums and Science Centers

Now we’ve come to the real gem. Here it is: buy a membership to a podunk museum like this one, and inherit the most amazing reciprocal museum and science center admission benefits. Check the list of reciprocal memberships to determine 1.) if there is a closer museum to you with inexpensive membership prices and 2.) if there are museums/centers near where you live OR near where you plan to vacation.

We have visited the museum we hold the membership to exactly once in the last year. We have saved around $200 on other museum and science center admissions, mainly while on vacation.

The bottom line: find the cheap museums and zoos with awesome reciprocal benefits.


We are able to take more family vacations because we travel affordably by camping. It means we drive instead of fly, cook instead of going out, and pay $100-200 per week instead of per night for lodging. We tend to camp near beaches—oceans or Great Lakes will do—and bike, hike, swim, do campfires, and visit local attractions. And my kids are still excited by playgrounds.

We also use travel rewards for flights and hotel stays, but with a family of four who has fairly low expenses, we don’t rack them up fast enough to be jaunting off to the Caribbean regularly.

There you have it–all my best tips and tricks for saving on summer fun. Now it’s your turn:

What are you tips for saving on summer fun? What are the best value memberships or passes that you hold?


16 Responses to “Saving Hacks For Summer Fun with Kids”

  1. Oldster says :

    We do similar things. We live in the greater Pittsburgh area, and the museums are all one system. We have spent many a hot summer day in the cool of the Science Museum or the Warhol Museum. Very reasonably priced passes. We also are regular (and voluntary) zoo visitors. You are right about the hot, sweaty, thirsty thing, but when your kid wants to be a veterinarian, what are you going to do? City park picnics are also big, and for variety, go to another city’s park. Sometimes a change of venue is all you need.

    • Kalie says :

      I don’t think we have city park picnics around here, though we sometimes organize them with our friends. I agree that visiting neighboring city parks is nice.

  2. Brian says :

    We’d frequently the library during the summer. Free A/C, children programs, story time, book reading clubs which usually involved rewards. Often we’d run into friends there too. Ours also offers free membership to a local children’s museum.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, we go to the library a lot. Although maybe less in the summer since we are busy outside. It is a great place to enjoy free A/C, and the summer reading program has some fun prizes.

  3. David says :

    I’ll never understand how anyone can prefer swimming in a pool over a lake. Coming out of the water smelling like chlorine is bad enough but I’m not sure if it’s the worst thing about a pool. The limited space might be worse. Hundreds of acres of water beats a 60 foot long pool any day. Swimming in rivers can be more fun that swimming in a lake. A moderate current can be a force to be enjoyed.

    • Kalie says :

      I see where you’re coming from. Crowded pools are no fun. I think growing up swimming with a heated private pool kind of spoiled me! But I’ve learned to appreciate lakes and oceans. Never swam in a river.

    • David says :

      The lake where I live has a great beach for small children. They can be 100 feet from shore standing in two feet of water. Five miles away there is a good river swimming hole for older kids and adults with a 17 foot rock ledge to jump or dive from and a rope swing. Other local rivers and streams have natural waterslides and places you can get under a waterfall.
      I don’t know if it’s possible where you live but around here other free summer activities include panning for gold and prospecting for precious stones. I haven’t seen many children who don’t get a thrill from finding crystals.

    • Kalie says :

      Sounds fun! No, I don’t think we have any gold panning or prospecting for precious stones around here. People do paint rocks and hide them around the area for others to find. That’s about as good as it gets in our neck of the woods.

  4. Linda Sand says :

    Our regional parks often have programs for kids with nature themes.

    Pick it yourself farms. There’s nothing like a kid with a bucket in a berry patch.

    Youth sports. Our daughter played soccer when she was about six. None of the kids cared what position they were supposed to play; they all chased the ball and had great fun doing it.

    Scout day camps. Usually a pretty cheap way to learn survival skills. I still remember making a sit-upon about 60 years ago. And our niece made one about 10 years ago. Some things never change.

    • Kalie says :

      Great ideas! Our metropark system has so many free kids programs we couldn’t even think of attending them all! We’ve down pick it yourself farms on vacation, but I know there are some around here.

      We’ve also done soccer and my son had a lot of fun. The league was very low-key which was nice.

  5. Josh says :

    Been there and done that twice during hurricane season at the beach. We have also had other times when the weather was beautiful during on different years.

    Our oldest turns three next summer and we will need to begin looking for “activity hacks.” We plan on trying to stay away from the big amusement parks and waiting for local deals advertised on social media to attract the local residents and also frequenting our local library and parks.

    • Kalie says :

      During both of off-season beach trips, the weather was beautiful until the last day or two when a hurricane or tropical storm blew in. Overall we thought it was a great trip and worth it.

      The library and parks are go-tos for free summer fun!

  6. Hannah says :

    We’re all about the pool this summer! My gym has an indoor pool which isn’t quite as fun as an outdoor pool with a million kids, but I’m fine with that. It keeps us cool, and the older folks doing physical therapy love having my kids splash around.

    One thing we aren’t doing this year is a Staycation. I think that’s a great option if you have somewhat older kids, but I think with our kids it would just serve to create too high of expectations for everyday life. There’s no way I want them to expect to eat junk food or visit their favorite places every single day.

    • Kalie says :

      A less crowded pool is perfect when you have two little ones to look after. And it’s nice that you can swim in any weather.

      Great point about Staycation. It’s not really our style either, at least for now. We’d rather drive a couple hours and camp. That makes it feel different and special, without having to spend a lot. Plus we like to visit new places.

  7. Fruclassity (Ruth) says :

    Ah, I miss the days of having young ones at home to entertain through the summer. In our city, museums are free every Thursday afternoon from 5:00 on. So a good frugal outing involves a bus ride downtown during rush hour (not so bad since most traffic is leaving downtown) and a free museum visit. This actually works for older kids as well as younger ones.

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