Free & cheap summer activities / trips for families with kids

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Looking for more tips on saving money?

The News & Observer’s service journalism team is putting together a free

with tips to cut costs across several categories. We’ll be adding new stories often.


With inflation rising, we’re all looking for ways to save a little money and keep our budgets in check.

The News & Observer’s service journalism team is putting together a free Money-Saving Series with tips to cut costs across several categories.

In this installment, we’re offering up tips for saving money as a family (or on activities involving children) during summer break. We’ll update this story with good tips we get from readers.

1/ Free bus rides for kids

Use the bus: Gas prices are tough right now. Did you know Triangle residents can ride the bus free through the end of June 2022? And even after that, children under 12 ride free on regional buses. That includes GoTriangle, GoDurham, GoRaleigh and GoCary (as Chapel Hill Transit is free for all ages.)

The Youth GoPass allows riders between 13 and 18 to travel fare-free too. Without a pass, these riders can ride the buses at half-price. To learn how to get your pass, visit gotriangle.org/youthgopass.

(Plus, which kid doesn’t want to pull the yellow cord when it’s time to get off?)

For our full guide to public transit in the Triangle (including e-scooters, bikeshares and Amtrak), visit newsobserver.com/news.

2/ Free events, books for children

Enjoy Summer Reading at the library: Now’s the time to get your library card, if you don’t have one yet! Sign up for Summer Reading programs, and come back often for books, movies and more — at no cost. (Many of our local libraries have Summer Reading programs for adults too, such as the Wake County Public Libraries and the Chapel Hill Public Library.)

Be sure to stay up to date with your library’s calendar of events. Many local libraries have stacked schedules, filled with storytime, crafts, bird-watching, scavenger hunts, concerts and much more.

For our full guide to taking advantage of the free stuff at Triangle libraries, visit newsobserver.com/news.

3/ Saving money on food

Make cooking a family affair: Restaurant meals can eat through a family’s budget quickly. Instead of dining out, use summer break to turn making meals and snacks into an adventure. YouTube is a treasure trove for kid-friendly cooking videos, and your kids can use their library cards to check out kids cookbooks.

Take it a step further and have fun, themed dinner nights:

  • Play Italian music as you whip up a simple pot of spaghetti as a family.
  • Turn your home into a restaurant, complete with cloth tablecloths, nice glasses and formal attire.
  • Try your hand at baguette baking and learn some French words along the way.
  • Is your family competitive? Turn your kitchen into a Food Network cooking competition and see who can turn Tuesday night ingredients into a decadent meal (and enjoy all creations together after).

Color Me Healthy has free recipes, a guide to preparing more meals at home and more. Color Me Healthy is a partnership between NC State Cooperative Extension and the NC Division of Public Health. (Info: colormehealthy.com/eat-smart)

And stay tuned: we’ll have a story with tips on saving money at the grocery store coming soon.

4/ Discounted or free movie theater deals

Go to a (daytime) movie: These theaters make family summertime movies incredibly cheap — sometimes totally free.

  • AMC Theatres: Tickets are 30% off if you see your movie before 4 p.m. (Info: amctheatres.com/offers)

  • Cinemark: Summer Movie Clubhouse has $1.50 tickets for select movies throughout the summer. Get $1 off kids’ snack packs or any size popcorn and drink combo, too. (Info: cinemark.com)

  • Stone Theatres: Admission, popcorn and drinks are all $1 every Wednesday and Thursday at 10 a.m. from June 6 to July 28. (Info: stonetheatres.com/summerkidshows)

  • Regal Cinemas: Summer Movie Express tickets are $2 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. (Info: regmovies.com)

  • Marquee Cinemas: The Wakefield 12 theater in Raleigh has free admission to select family films at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. (Info: marqueecinemas.com)

(Did we miss any local movie theater summer deals? Let us know by emailing [email protected].)

5/ Day trip, vacation by train with discounted tickets in NC

Take a day-cation by train: Amtrak’s $5 kids fare special lets customers pay $5 one-way fare ($10 round trip) for children ages 2 through 12 with the purchase of a regularly priced adult ticket. The deal runs through Aug. 31.

A day trip by the Carolinian or Piedmont trains can take the family to Selma, Charlotte, High Point and other destinations. To purchase tickets, visit amtrak.com/kids-summer-fare-nc.

Note: Though this discount can’t be combined with any other offers, groups traveling with four or more members can receive significant discounts on train tickets. For more information, visit ncbytrain.org/deals.

6/ Free parks, splash pads, playgrounds in the Triangle

Spend time outdoors: And visit some of the Triangle’s many parks, playgrounds, historic sites, greenways and more.

Here are some of our favorite Triangle parks with playgrounds:

  • Pullen Park (Raleigh) — In the mood for a carousel ride? If not, there are paddle boats and train — plus a playground, aquatic center, arts center, athletic fields and more at this historic Raleigh park. Location: 520 Ashe Ave, Raleigh Info: raleighnc.gov/places/pullen-park
  • Chavis Park (Raleigh) — Another carousel!? While you’re there, visit for the playground (complete with a water feature in warm months), art exhibits, community center, athletic centers and more. Location: 505 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, Raleigh Info: raleighnc.gov/places/john-chavis-memorial-park

  • Kids Together Playground (Cary) — Kids Together Playground at Marla Dorrel Park assures ease of mobility for everyone. Landscaping and playground equipment provide multi-sensory stimulation. Restroom facilities include adult-size changing tables and extra room for wheelchairs and strollers. Location: 111 Thurston Drive, Cary Info: kidstogethercary.org

For a full guide to parks with playgrounds (and other outdoor activities to check off your summer bucket list), visit newsobserver.com/living.

Dig up your bathing suit and head to a splash pad in the Triangle. Here are some free ones:

  • The Taylor Street Park Sprayground is located at 416 N Taylor St. in Wake Forest. It’s free and open to the public. For hours and more information, visit wakeforestnc.gov.

  • The Eva E. Ennis Splash Pad is located at 502 Martin Luther King Jr Dr. in Smithfield. It’s open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, and play is unsupervised. For hours and more information, visit johnstonnc.com.

For a full guide to public pools, splash pads and spray grounds, visit newsobserver.com/living. Not all of these activities are free, but many are only a few dollars.

7/ Free and cheap bowling

Lace up your bowling shoes: And enjoy free or cheap bowling this summer. Check out these programs:

(Did we miss any local summer bowling deals? Let us know by emailing [email protected].)

8/ Free or cheap museums for the family / children

Go to a museum: And time your visit so your tickets are free.

Here are some museums that are always free:

Some museums have free or discounted admission from time to time:

  • Durham Museum of Life and Science: On Durham Community Days, Durham residents can get into the museum for free with proof of residence. (Info: lifeandscience.org/visit/durham-community-days)
  • Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh: Through the Museums on Us program, cardholders with Bank of America, Merill and Bank of America Private Bank can receive one free admission ticket on the first full weekend of each month. (Info: marbleskidsmuseum.org/BankofAmerica)
  • Kidzu Children’s Museum in Chapel Hill: Kidzu has a number of free children’s activities throughout the month. Garden Parties are on the third Friday of each month, Junior Gardeners takes place every Thursday morning and After-Hours Sensory Friendly Nights take place on the third Wednesday of each month for children with developmental or intellectual disabilities. (Info: kidzuchildrensmuseum.org/calendar)

(Did we miss any local museum deals? Let us know by emailing [email protected].)

9/ Free live music, summer concerts for the family in NC

Add family-friendly concerts to your calendar: And keep checking websites for updated lists of shows and events.

Here are some concert series happening all summer:

To keep the evening free, pack sandwiches and snacks so you’re not purchasing food truck bites. Just remember your bug spray!

(Did we miss any free summer concert series in the Triangle? Let us know by emailing [email protected].)

10/ Free kids activities in Raleigh this summer

Head to Dorothea Dix Park: And take advantage of all the free activities taking place there all summer. There are walking tours, fitness classes, arts and crafts events, sky-watching evenings and more.

Check out the calendar for a full list of events: dixpark.org/calendar.

11/ Free outdoor summer movies for the family in NC

Pop some popcorn and pack lawn chairs: For a night under the stars… and in front of the projector. There are outdoor movies taking place all over the Triangle, and many are free.

Here are a few outdoor movie series in the Triangle:

Share your money-saving tips with us

Have a tip for saving money? Share it with us in the form below, or try accessing the form here.

We might use your tips in a future story.

This story was originally published June 16, 2022 1:59 PM.

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Kimberly Cataudella (she/her) is a service journalism reporter for The News & Observer.