Not to be the bearer of bad news, but travel isn’t getting any cheaper. Hotel costs are on the rise, last summer saw some of the highest month-over-month airfare price jumps in history and many travelers are adjusting their spring break travel plans to save money.
Throw a few kids in the mix and your vacation costs can quickly grow out of control faster than your kids grow out of their shoes. Even in the face of rising prices, there are still ways to keep your family vacation budget under control. One of the best ways to save money on your next family trip is to visit attractions and destinations that are 100% free for kids.
From theme parks and zoos to all-inclusive resorts, here are nine places kids can go for free.
Related: 13 best family attractions in the US
Most U.S. national parks charge entrance fees. This fee covers use of the land and its amenities during your visit.
For most parks, expect to pay a per-car fee that covers everyone in your vehicle, but know that some charge per person. Those that do charge per person only require an entry fee for anyone older than 15. Children 15 and younger are always free.
The National Park Service also hosts a series of five free entrance days each year where all guests, regardless of age, can visit for free. The 2023 dates are as follows:
- Jan. 16: birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.
- April 22: first day of National Park Week.
- Aug. 4: anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act.
- Sept. 23: National Public Lands Day.
- Nov. 11: Veterans Day.
If you happen to have a fourth grader in your household, you can register for a free one-year pass to all NPS properties and other federal lands through the “Every Kid Outdoors” program. All you need to do is register on the Every Kid Outdoors website, print out your voucher (digital vouchers won’t be accepted) and get outside.
Smithsonian Institution museums
The Smithsonian Institution museums in New York City and Washington, D.C., are some of the most visited in the country. There are 21 in all, plus the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, and nearly all of them are free to all visitors (the only exception is the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City).
At the National Air and Space Museum, kids can see exhibits on everything from the early days of flight to humankind’s first voyage to the moon. Next door at the National Museum of Natural History, they can view artifacts from ancient Egypt and observe skeletal remains of all sizes in the Bone Hall, as well as other wonders of our natural world.
Although tickets are free, you’ll have to pay for metered or lot parking if you drive to the National Mall. Keep in mind that a few of the Smithsonian Institution museums require timed-entry tickets. They include the following:
- National Museum of African American History & Culture.
- National Air and Space Museum.
- Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.
Holiday World is located just one hour west of Louisville, Kentucky, in Santa Claus, Indiana. The park has been owned and operated by the same family since it opened in 1946 and has lands themed to Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, Halloween and Christmas. There’s also a water park called Splashin’ Safari.
The park is well known for its thrilling, award-winning coasters, but it is also one of the most kid-friendly theme parks in the country. There are two lands with rides exclusively made for kids, including a child-size coaster called The Howler, where ride attendants will let you go around twice if you howl like the Holiday World mascot Holidog.
Regular one-day ticket prices start at $39.99 per person, but 4- and 5-year-olds can visit for free all season long with a Pre-K Season Pass. All you need to do is register on Holiday World’s website, print the pass or save it to your phone and present it at guest relations with proof of your child’s age (a photo of their passport or birth certificate will suffice) on the day of your visit.
Children ages 3 and younger are always free, so the Pre-K Season Pass buys you a couple more years of free entry to Holiday World.
The last day to register for the 2023 season is Sept. 4, 2023.
If you’ve never been to Dollywood, 2023 is the year to visit. This spring, the park is opening a family-friendly roller coaster called Big Bear Mountain. Later this year, Dollywood’s HeartSong Lodge & Resort will also open its doors.
You can enjoy Dollywood’s current offerings and everything new coming to the park this year for less with the free Pre-K Imagination Season Pass. This pass allows any child born in 2018 or 2019 to visit Dollywood and Dollywood’s Splash Country water park free for a full operating season. Children 3 and younger are always free.
To register, sign up on Dollywood’s website and bring a photocopy of your child’s birth certificate or passport to the front gate to activate the pass on your initial visit. Afterward, your little one can enjoy unlimited admission all season long.
No matter what your reason is for visiting Southern California, you’ll find a whole world of family-friendly activities beyond the beaches and theme parks. One that is totally free to all guests is Griffith Observatory. Perched at the top of Mount Hollywood on the Griffith Park grounds, Griffith Observatory is said to be the most-visited stargazing spot in the world.
You can peer at the night sky through telescopes and view exhibits related to our observation of the sky and space in addition to attending daily programs and special events. (You can also visit the on-site planetarium for an additional fee.) On a clear day, you may even see the iconic Hollywood Sign from the observatory.
Once a month, Griffith Observatory holds a free public Star Party event, where visitors can view the sun, moon and planets through telescopes and learn from the amateur astronomers who provide the telescopes for the party.
Saint Louis Zoo and nearby museums
It’s rare to find a zoo or museum that does not charge for admission, but those that you’ll find in St. Louis’ Forest Park are among the few that welcome all guests for free.
Forest Park is a historic public park that hosted the 1904 Olympic Games and the 1904 World’s Fair. It spans 1,300 acres and attractions more than 10 million visitors every year. Many of them flock to the park for its five major cultural institutions, all of which are free to all visitors. These include the Missouri History Museum, The Muny theater, the St. Louis Art Museum, the Saint Louis Science Center and the Saint Louis Zoo, though free admission to some of these does have stipulations.
Most seats at The Muny require a paid ticket, but in the spirit of making musical theater accessible to all, the last nine rows of every performance are available for free on a first-come, first-served basis. Most exhibits at the science center and zoo are free, though certain attractions, such as the museum’s IMAX theater and the zoo’s railroad, require an additional fee.
Lincoln Park Zoo
Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo is among the U.S. zoos that do not charge a fee for admission, regardless of your age. Situated just minutes from downtown Chicago, this free attraction is open 365 days a year.
Related: 8 things to do in Chicago with kids
From aardvarks to zebras, the Lincoln Park Zoo is home to hundreds of species of animals. It also holds daily demonstrations on seal training and feeding, plus African ape cognition and care. Certain activities, including riding the carousel and train, do require a small fee.
Club Med resorts
Even though guests at all-inclusive resorts can eat, drink and play as much as they like for one price, that rate can be expensive when you have kids in tow. That’s because most all-inclusive resorts charge per person rather than per room.
However, at Club Med resorts — which can be found in Mexico, Brazil, the Mediterranean, Africa, Asia, Canada, the Alps and the Caribbean — kids younger than 4 can stay for free. As a result, you won’t have to pay extra for dining, childcare, activities or accommodations for kids 3 and younger.
As an added bonus, Club Med also charges discounted rates for kids 4 and older. Expect to receive 50% off the adult price for children ages 4 to 11 and 20% off the adult rate for teens between 12 and 15 years of age.
Palace Resorts operates all-inclusive resorts in tropical locales like Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, Mexico.
At almost all of the brand’s family-friendly locations (the only exception being Moon Palace The Grand — Cancun), kids and teens ages 17 and younger stay for free. This offer is currently available for stays through Dec. 23, 2023, and certain dates require a minimum length of stay.
Rate inclusions range from all-day dining and snacks — including 24-hour room service and freshly made purees for babies — to beach activities, daily age-appropriate entertainment and use of supervised playrooms for kids and teens.
All Palace Resorts also have large pools and kid-friendly features like splash pads and waterslides.
Even the small tweaks that you make to your vacation budget can add up to big savings. Visiting these destinations and attractions where kids can go for free means you’ll rack up vacation savings and family memories on your next trip.