How to keep the kids happy on a budget

David Prosser gives parents a guide to the best-value days out for children
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The Independent Online

Britain's luckiest children are those who are at schools breaking up for the summer holidays this weekend. But even for the rest of the nation's kids, the end of term is just a few days away.

However, while families look forward to summer, the school holiday does present parents with a couple of headaches.

Working parents have to arrange childcare, which can prove expensive. And even if this isn't a problem, keeping children entertained throughout the long vacation can be a challenge - the cost of days out soon begins to add up.

A survey by one bank has suggested that the average family spent a total of £210 per child on entertainment last summer.

The good news is that there are many ways to keep costs down, irregardless of which part of the country you live in, and whatever the age of your children or their interests.

Look out for free attractions and cheap family deals, and even if the kids really want to visit expensive theme parks, you still may be able to get in cheaply.

10 CHEAP DAYS OUT FOR YOUNGER KIDS

National History Museum, London.

Even if you don't pay to get into the Dino Jaws exhibition, London's best museum for children still has an amazing array of fantastic exhibits, including plenty of dinosaurs on public display. Free. 020 7942 5000, www.nhm.ac.uk

Barleylands Farm Centre and Craft Village, Essex.

Enjoy your picnic surrounded by chickens, rabbits and turkeys and then continue on to visit the ponies, cows and pigs. The craft village features glass-blowers and blacksmiths, and if the kids get bored, there's a bouncy castle and activity playground. Family ticket £10. 01268 532253, www.barleylands.co.uk.

Diggerland, Kent.

Drive the JCBs and trucks, use the ride-on toys or retire to the enormous sandpit. Just try to remember to let the kids have a go. Entry £2.50, plus £1 a ride. 08700 344437, www.diggerland.com.

Kew Gardens, London.

Climbers Creepers is Kew Gardens's latest interactive exhibition. Find out what it's like to be eaten by a Venus fly trap, or to slide down a giant pitcher plant. Adults £11.75, children free. 020 8332 5655, www.kew.org.

Oswaldtwistle Mills, Accrington.

Be mean to your kids by telling them you're taking them to a shopping village - before revealing its best attraction, Stockley's Sweet Factory. They can watch sweets being made and, naturally, sample the produce. Adults £1, children 50p. 01254 871025, www.o-mills.co.uk

Alice in Wonderland Centre, Llandudno.

An "indoor walk-through Wonderland Rabbit Hole" with life-sized animated displays of some of the most colourful and well-known scenes from Lewis Carroll's Alice stories. Adults £2.95, children £2.50. 01492 860082, www.wonderland.co.uk.

Edinburgh Festival

In addition to comedy, books and film, the festival feature hundreds of shows for children. 6-28 August, prices vary. 0131 226 0000, www.edfringe.com.

Eden Project, Cornwall.

Astonishing eco-park that kids of all ages will love. £23 for a family ticket, or £9.80 per adult, £4 per child. Children under five free. 01726 811911, www.edenproject.com.

Centre for Life, Newcastle.

A museum that wants to "inspire curiosity and encourage you to question and uncover new things about life", the Centre for Life claims. It features interactive demonstrations, displays and shows. Family tickets cost £19.95. 0191 243 8210, www.life.org.uk.

National Railway Museum, York.

Great fun with opportunities for hands-on play and even a miniature train to ride. Turn them into a trainspotter early. Free. 01904 621261.

Bekonscot Model Village, Buckinghamshire.º

Feel like Gulliver at the oldest model village in the world, founded in 1929. Adults £5.80, children £3.50. 01494 672919, www.bekonscot.com.

10 CHEAP DAYS OUT FOR OLDER KIDS

Big Pit National Mining Museum, Wales.

Don a helmet and lamp before taking the lift 300ft down the disused mine, with a former miner. Free. 01495 790311, www.museumwales.ac.uk.

Tall Ship, Glasgow.

Moored in Glasgow harbour, the Glenlee, built locally, travelled round the world four times between 1896 and 1969. Now it serves as a museum and is open to the public. Family ticket £9.95. 0141 222 2513, www.thetallship.com.

Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle.

Boscastle, Cornwall, was at the centre of national attention when flash flooding hit the town in 2004. But its main attraction survived the storm - possibly due to the supernatural powers of the largest collection of witchcraft items in Britain? Adults £2.50, children £1.50. 01840 250111, www.museumofwitchcraft.com.

Fruitstock Music Festival, London.

There will be a variety of bands for the parents plus loads of activities for the kids, including face painting and a mini fair. There's a farmers' market too, so you can buy picnic food. Free. Regent's Park, 5-6 August, midday to 9pm. www.fruitstock.com

Museum of Science and History, Manchester.

Entrance to this marvellous museum is free and it is currently running the Mars Quest exhibition, a special feature that focuses on the ever-fascinating red planet. 0161 833 0027, www.msim.org.uk.

London Kids Week.

Free entrance for one child with a paying adult to many of the best West End shows. 18 August to 1 September. See www.kidsweek.co.uk.

Tour Old Trafford, Manchester.

If your kids' sporting tastes are more conventional, Manchester United offers tours of the club's ground. Get an inside look at the dressing rooms, stand on the famous pitch and walk up the tunnel. Just don't mention Cristiano Ronaldo too loudly. Many other clubs offer similar tours. Family ticket £27 (including entrance to the museum). 0870 442 1994, www.manutd.com.

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

Home of the renowned shrunken heads, the Pitt Rivers features a weird and wonderful collection of artefacts from around the world. You can check out the mummified cat or, for children brought up on violent video games, there is the African weapons section. Free. 01865 270927, www.prm.ox.ac.uk.

British InlineSkating Championships, Birmingham.

Encourage your kids to get into sport, by taking them to see the British championships of what is currently one of the fastest-growing participation sports in the country. www.inlinespeed.co.uk.

Summer camp

Not strictly a day out, but if your children would like to escape from you for a few days, or even longer, www.summerfun4kids.co.uk has a complete directory of camps all over the country. It features everything from art camp and IT programmes to football and horseriding.

How to cut the cost of more expensive days out

While there are plenty of affordable ways to entertain the kids this summer, it's inevitable that you'll also end up on some more expensive outings. But even here, it may be possible to save money by planning ahead.

* Days Out UK ( www.daysoutuk.com) is one possibility. It markets itself as a "days out club" and, for a £14.95 annual fee, you get access to discount vouchers for attractions around the country.

* Alternatively, see www.whattodowiththekids.co.uk, a site that does not require you to subscribe or pay a joining fee. It has ideas for days out but also carries a wide variety of vouchers that you can print out and use to save money on entrance fees. A deal offering £5 off for up to five people at Legoland, for example, is typical.

* Remember that theme parks and attractions go on making money out of you once you're inside. Consider giving children a set sum to spend on ice cream or in the gift shop, rather than running the risk of being held to ransom. Taking packed lunches will enable you to avoid expensive food outlets.

* The obvious way to get to attractions is by car, but public transport may prove cheaper. Contact your local train company to find out whether it is running any special offers over the summer.

* Group Save is a scheme operating in the South-east that enables groups of three or four - any combination of adults and children - to travel for the price of two adults. Up to four more five- to 15-year-olds can travel for £1 each. Group Save is operated by several train companies (see www.daysoutguide.co.uk) and travellers can also claim cut-price entry fees at many tourist attractions.

Affordable childcare

For parents who work, the school summer holidays are almost certain to mean higher childcare costs. The average family in the UK paid about £75 a week for childcare last summer, though the figure in certain areas of the country was much higher.

* Holiday play schemes may be the most cost- effective option for parents who don't have a support network of friends or family able to help out throughout the summer. If your employer does not offer a scheme, contact your local Children's Information Service (0800 096 0296, www.childcarelink.gov.uk) for details of what may be available locally.

* Alternatively, Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Daycare Trust, the national childcare charity, says childminders can be a particularly good solution during the summer. "Most are willing to work flexible hours, depending on your needs, so they are a perfect option for the summer," she says. A list of registered childminders in your area is also available from the Children's Information Service. Don't use unregistered care.

* If you pay for childcare, be sure to claim any financial assistance you can. If your employer is signed up to the childcare vouchers scheme, you can use this to pay the first £243 of each month's childcare costs. The money is taken out of your pre-tax salary, which is the equivalent of receiving tax relief on the cost of care at your highest marginal rate.

* In addition, make sure that you are getting what you are due in child tax credit or working tax credit. Call 0845 300 3900 or see www.inlandrevenue.gov.uk for details.

* Your employer is legally bound to consider requests for flexible working - you may be able to rearrange your hours, so less paid-for childcare is required.

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