Budget-Friendly Summer Fun: 20 Free or Low-Cost Family Activities

It’s easy to see why people are searching for free or inexpensive things for families to do this summer – summer isn’t cheap!

Mass Mutual reports, “Nearly half of Americans plan to travel this summer – a ten-point increase over last year – but an astounding 36% say they cannot afford to.”¹ 

As a result, many Americans may find themselves in debt at the end of summer.

Consider the results from last summer’s NerdWallet survey, which found, “More than a quarter of 2023 summer travelers using a credit card to pay for those travel expenses (26%) say they won’t pay off the balance within the first billing statement, meaning they will likely incur interest.”²

Experts are also predicting that car rental rates and hotel rates will climb in the summer of 2024.³

Given that inflation is still hitting hard, and Americans are stretched thin, it is not just wise but necessary to look for free or inexpensive things for families to do this summer.

Here are 20 ideas for inspiration. 

#1 Take a Staycation

Instead of going into debt or not being able to continue meeting your savings goals, plan a staycation for the whole family.

Take the days off work, but instead of spending tons of money on an out-of-town adventure, stay home and explore your area.  

Use it as an opportunity to visit some of your family’s favorite spots or find some new ones. 

If you take a day trip or a quick overnight trip, don’t spend money on tourist traps.

Instead, download a free city explorer map. 

There are many available that offer narrated audio tours and plan curated itineraries.

#2 Visit National Parks

It is relatively inexpensive to visit our National Parks. 

Most are free, and the ones that do charge entrance fees are not too expensive.

Even better, there are free entrance days and passes available that make it affordable for all.

According to the National Park Service, “The annual $80 America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass allows unlimited entrance to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas, including all national parks that normally charge an entrance fee. There are also free or discounted passes available for senior citizens, current members of the military, families of fourth-grade students, and disabled citizens.”⁴ 

#3 Take the Family Camping

It is significantly cheaper to go camping than it is to stay in a hotel. And it gives the family a chance to disconnect from technology and reconnect in a profound way.
If you don’t have gear, you can find inexpensive camping gear at secondhand stores or rent it for cheap.
If your crew likes to hike, use apps like All Trails or Gaia GPS to find hiking trails wherever you go.

#4 Get a Membership to a Community Pool

Depending on where you live, you may be able to enjoy a free community swimming pool.

If there are no free pools in your area, get a membership to one. Some pools offer swim classes or the opportunity to join the swim team. 

If your children love to swim, the cost is well worth it.

#5 Explore Local Museums

Use your days off to check out some local or nearby museums. Many offer free days, so check ahead for times and dates.

#6 Get Library Cards

The best place for free or cheap things for families to do this summer is the local library.
Libraries are not simply buildings full of books.
Modern libraries offer free digital products, crafts, and more.
Plus, summer reading programs tend to include several free events for all ages – everything from water wars to yoga to concerts.

#7 Embrace a Summer Reading Challenge

In addition to summer reading programs through your local library, there are many businesses that offer rewards for summer reading.
Head to Barnes and Noble for a free book or Pizza Hut for a free personal pan pizza (upon completing your summer reading challenge, of course).

#8 Volunteer as a Family

Why not grow closer as a family and volunteer this summer.

Contact an organization you support and see what needs they have.

Families can volunteer together at outdoor gardens, animal shelters, soup kitchens, and more. 

An added bonus to this is that it teaches kids the importance of giving back.

#9 Explore with a Scavenger Hunt

Spend a day on a scavenger hunt in your town or somewhere close by.
Check out Where’s Waldo Local to find which cities are hosting this unique scavenger hunt.
You can also download the app Let’s Roam for a gamified scavenger hunt for more than 3,500 cities.

#10 Hunt for the Best Ice Cream

Make this the summer your family discovers the best ice cream.

Create a list of all the businesses selling ice cream in your town. Then, make your way to each one over the summer.

#11 Become a DIY Family

Instead of splurging on expensive summer toys, make some fun things together.

For example, find a recipe for DIY sidewalk chalk and giant bubbles. Fix a piece of furniture instead of giving it away. Try canning preserves. 

Pinterest has a ton of ideas if you’re at a loss.

#12 Have a Themed Movie Night

Take advantage of free streaming services (or free digital movie rentals from the library) and watch a classic with your kids.

Introduce them to a classic like Swiss Family Robinson and enjoy tropical punch and seafood.

#13 Head to the Movies

Major movie theater chains offer discounted movies throughout the summer.

For example, in the summer of 2023, Regal Cinemas offered the Summer Movie Express program that included $2 showings of family-friendly movies.

#14 Go Bowling for Free

Did you know your kids can bowl free all summer long? They may get in enough play time to turn pro!

Check out Kids Bowl Free to see if a bowling alley in your area participates in this program which provides kids with 2 free games of bowling each day during the summer.

#15 Have a Family Yard Sale

Work together as a family to declutter and make some money in the process.

Have a yard sale and include your kids in the entire process.

This is a fantastic way to teach kids financial skills.

#16 Go Stargazing

Download a free astronomy or stargazing app and head somewhere that your kids can see the stars.

Pack a blanket, some snacks, and your phone.

In addition to astronomy apps, you can track the phases of the moon with apps and even the location of the International Space Station.

#17 Take Advantage of Free Local Events

When you feel the itch to take your family somewhere and spend money, do a little research.

Look online to see what free events are happening in your area.

Many communities offer free summer concerts or free outdoor movies.

#18 Play Games

When was the last time your family played a board game or card game together?

Pull out your old favorites or introduce some new ones.

Our family even takes our card games with us on vacation!

#19 Challenge Each Other to a Physical Competition

Rather than being bored indoors on a beautiful summer day, gather the family and head outdoors for some friendly competition.

Play a round of kickball, capture the flag, or hide-and-seek.

#20 Hit the Roller Rink

Like Kids Bowl Free, many skating rinks also offer Kids Skate Free.

Skating rinks offer free skating for children during certain hours.

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