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Are you being ripped off by annual memberships?

EAST COWES, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 13: Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, Queen Victoria's holiday retreat, whose private beach, Osborne Bay, which will open to the public for the first time ever later this month, on July 13, 2012 in East Cowes, England. English Heritage, who own the property, have returned Queen Victoria's original wooden bathing machine to the beach and restored The Queen's Alcove, where she sat and sketched the coastal views. The general public will be able to enjoy access from Friday July 27, 2012. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought Osborne House on the Isle of Wight in 1845 which they extended to create a large private home as an escape from court life in London and Windsor. Osborne Bay was often used as a landing for both the royal family and visiting dignitaries and where the royal children collected shells from the shore. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Have you done many day trips this summer? For many of us the good weather was a chance to finally take the family on some trips, from the zoo to theme parks to stately homes.

And I got to feel smug when we went to Chester Zoo last weekend, as that trip meant we’d broken even on our annual membership. We paid £118 in January for joint membership (our kids are young enough to get in for free), meaning we needed to visit at least three times each (well, seven in total) to break even.

So any more trips we make before the end of the year are, in effect, free.

No pressure pastime

With a young family, paying for annual membership to the zoo really takes the pressure off. Entry is normally £16-£18 for an adult, so before we were members we were desperate to get our money’s worth and would power round the zoo until we were all dropping from exhaustion.

However, with membership, we know we’ll be back again soon and we haven’t just paid £30-odd to get us all in. So we can relax and see just a few animals before leaving in time for a toddler nap – it’s much less intense.

But does it make financial sense? I’ve been taking a look at some annual membership schemes to see how often you’d have to visit for the cost to be worth it…

A Merlin Pass

Have you been to one of the big attractions this summer? Madame Tussauds, LEGOLAND, Alton Towers? How about the London Eye, Warwick Castle or SEA LIFE?

With a Merlin Annual Pass, you get 12 months entry into 31 of the country’s top attractions, as well as perks like discounted food and ride photos.

The maths
You can buy premium or standard membership, although a standard pass doesn’t give you unlimited access. For example, you can’t use it in London during August.

A premium pass costs up to £732 a year for a family of five, or £658 online. That means that you’d need to make at least five day trips to start saving.

So if a family of five took five trips to Alton Towers over a year, they’d pay £787 in total. So buying a pass online for under £660 would save some serious money.

If you don’t need a premium pass then the cost falls to £535 for a family of five. That’s not cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than five or more full-price days out!

National Trust membership

By becoming a National Trust member, you don’t just get free access to stately homes and parks, you support a charity that’s preserving the nation’s heritage (including an historic pub or two). And you can save some serious cash – as long as you use it.

Membership gets you free access to more than 300 historic homes, gardens and parks, as well as the Member’s Handbook which is a guide to the various attractions and a regular magazine.

The maths
Family membership including two adults costs £97 a year, although new members currently get three months free if they sign up now.

Entry prices vary but take Hardwick Hall as an example. Standard entry to the whole estate costs £27.25 for a family. Four days out there or to a similarly-priced exhibit and you’ve already started saving.

We’ve found National Trust membership to be really good value, as there’s such a wide range of places to visit.

English Heritage

Of course, you might prefer membership to English Heritage, giving you access to more than 400 historic sites.

The maths
Individual adult membership costs £48 for a year, while joint membership is priced at £84 a year. Adult members can take up to six children aged 18 or under for free, so this is good value for larger families.

Entry prices do vary, but take Wenlock Priory as an example. It’s £4.10 for an adult and £2.50 for a child, so a family of two adults and three kids would pay £15.70. At those kinds of prices, you’d start saving on your sixth day out.


I’m consistently astonished at how much the cinema costs. When I was growing up, this wasn’t an expensive trip, but now it can easily cost £30 to take two adults and three kids. And that’s before you’ve bought popcorn.

But there are ways to potentially save. Cineworld, for example, offers an Unlimited Card, allowing the holder to visit the cinema as much as they like.

You can pay monthly or buy a year’s membership. But would you save?

The maths
For one adult, an annual subscription to Cineworld is £190.80, or £226.80 if you want to include London West End.

Ticket prices vary, but ‘Kick Ass 2’ at Chester tonight costs £6 a head. At that price, you’d need to go to the cinema at least 32 times a year to make it worthwhile. That’s not quite once a week, but it’s 2-3 times a month.

Cineworld doesn’t offer a family card, so you’d potentially need to pay £954 a year for two adults and three kids. Unless you’re a family that’s seriously into cinema, this is probably only a way to save on adult tickets, where you can see any certificate film.

[How to cut the cost of your cinema tickets]

Working out what’s right for you

Annual membership will almost always save you a fortune – if you actually go. Don’t buy an annual pass unless you’ve already worked out the number of times you need to visit to at least break even, otherwise you risk wasting cash.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t buy membership as an incentive to go more often. We bought zoo membership and pledged to go at least every two months and it’s really encouraged us to visit.

When you’re working out whether an annual pass makes financial sense for your family, don’t forget to factor in any extra benefits.

For example, our zoo pass gives us free access to other zoos and 20% off in the shops and restaurants, which all adds to our annual savings. Of course, even with all the discounts and trips in the world – these trips aren’t necessarily cheaper than a lot of other things you could do instead for free.

What do you think? Are annual memberships a rip-off or a way to save some serious money? Have your say in the comments below.

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