/ Travel & Leisure

Taken for a ride – the cost of a free day out

A brightly lit fairground ride

The thought of a free day out is very tempting, especially if you get to spend the day at an attraction that usually costs more than £100 for a family of four. But that free day out can quickly become rather expensive.

I love theme parks, so when I moved to London it felt like the right time to fulfil one of my life-time ambitions – owning an annual pass. I bought a Merlin Pass to get easy access to Thorpe Park, Chessington, Sea Life Centres, the London Eye and the London Dungeon.

Annual passes, whether for theme parks, heritage sites or museums, aren’t for everyone. The upfront cost can be quite high and you need to be pretty confident that you’ll be able to visit the attractions frequently enough to at least recoup the price of the pass. Even with the excellent transport links at my disposal, I still haven’t used my Merlin Pass as much as I expected.

I do feel I’ve got my money’s worth, though. And when I recently received an invitation to a ‘free preview event’ at Thorpe Park for pass holders, I thought ‘hooray, another free day out!’ and promptly signed up.

White-knuckle prices

In my excitement to visit the theme park ahead of its official opening, I hadn’t thought about the real costs involved. I still had to get to Thorpe Park, and it cost about £10 each for a return ticket to Staines using a Network Rail card.

On arrival at Staines a shuttle bus was waiting and I was very pleased to see it. It was absolutely freezing and I was starting to dread queuing for rides in such cold conditions. I’d forgotten how much the shuttle bus costs (and I can’t find the prices on Thorpe Park’s website either). An adult return ticket was £3.50, while return tickets for children cost £2.50. A mum with two children who got on the bus after me clearly wasn’t expecting the prices to be quite so high either.

Once we got to the park it was so cold that we could only bear to wait for one ride before we went in search of somewhere warm to sit down and eat. As you may have guessed, theme parks are optimised for people visiting on warm, sunny days (about 10 days a year, I guess) when people are happy to sit outside. Even the indoor eating areas were cold because the doors were wide open or draughty.

Full stomachs, empty wallets

We ended up in the park’s pizza buffet restaurant. After trying to seat us outside, our waitress (who must have been frozen herself) ended up putting us next to the only available table – right next to the exit door. To make matters worse, this restaurant didn’t offer the usual 20% food discount that pass holders receive. When I asked why, the waitress replied ‘because it’s a buffet’. Not the most convincing argument.

So, our ‘all you can eat’ pizza and fizzy drinks cost just under £20! The price of our free day out was rapidly rising.

I imagine visitors with children had much higher costs than we did. If you drive to Thorpe Park it costs £4 to use the car park. To top it all off, the water rides were running. For anyone brave or silly enough to be tempted by these rides, their only hope was using the £2-a-go drying booths that were doing a roaring trade all day.

Have you been stung by the promise of a ‘free’ day out? How do you keep the costs down when you take your family on adventures?


I’m not sure you can complain if you don’t get free transport, free car parking or cheap food. Presumably the rides were free? Can you not take your own food and drink to Thorpe Park?

you should know theres nothing free today