How To Save Money at Fairs, Carnivals and Exhibitions

How to save money at fairs, carnivals and exhibitions

One look at the price they’re charging for a hot dog – seriously, we’re all in the wrong business – is enough to make you think twice about coming back to a carnival or exhibition next summer.

But it doesn't have to be a painfully pricey experience to watch your child delight over the merry-go-round, watch a horse show, and pet a friendly goat…

Fairs, carnivals, and exhibitions can be wonderful places to spend time with your family – and they don’t have to cost you a kidney.

Here are a few tips that will make it more affordable to hit up your local fair, carnival, exhibition, or any other outdoor event that’s trying to charge $10 for an order of cold french fries...

Plan ahead

We’re all for spontaneity, but events like this probably shouldn’t be a spur-of-the-moment decision. An impromptu outing is sure to cost you more, so I recommend planning ahead.

Check the schedule

Friday nights and Saturdays tend to be the priciest times to hit these events, since that’s when everybody wants to be there.

Check the schedule before planning your day. Find out if there is...

  • a day where children get in free?
  • a family day with reduced rates?
  • a cheap night with BOGO admission?

Choose your day

If there’s a certain event or performance you want to see, make sure it’s happening when you plan to be there.

Weekday crowds are sure to be smaller, especially during the day, so you’ll get on the rides faster than during peak days/times.

Pack carefully

Every venue has its own rules, but generally you’re allowed to bring purses and backpacks into these family-friendly events. After all, what parent of a toddler doesn’t need to carry snacks, bottles, diapers, and wipes everywhere they go?

So make a list: what should you bring along?

Related: Babies Are Free??

Lots of cash

Wait, what?! It sounds counterproductive – bringing cash to save cash – but it’s actually the smartest move.

These events are almost always “cash-only” and they’ll be happy to provide a sketchy ATM that will charge you a $5 service fee. Then, of course, you’ll likely pay your bank another few bucks for their own service fee. Ouch.

Calculate how much cash you think you need for the outing, and your bank account will thank you. Not to mention, you won’t risk getting your debit card skimmed in the circus-themed ATM that’s seen better days.


Paying $4 for a bottle of water is just wrong – and can easily be avoided.

Either pack enough water bottles for your family, or bring a single bottle with a filtering cap so you can refill it throughout the day.


Most of the food at a carnival isn’t that good – it’s the once-a-year carnival treats that you remember longingly.

Those dried-out hamburgers and limp french fries? Not worth the $15 you might pay for them.

Stock your bag with snacks that won’t go bad quickly during a hot day. Some snack ideas to start:

  • Apples,
  • oranges,
  • bananas,
  • baby carrots,
  • crackers,
  • granola bars,
  • raisins,
  • nuts,
  • frozen yogurt tubes,
  • peanut butter sandwiches,
  • pretzels,
  • tortilla chips, and
  • energy bites are all easy to eat on the go.

(No egg salad sandwiches, please.)

Plan to buy a few treats when you’re there...But make sure it’s something special that you can’t get just any day – like a crisp red candy apple or a bag of fluffy cotton candy.

Handy helpers

Plan ahead for the little annoyances that could make everybody want to throw in the towel and leave early. Make sure to bring:

  • band-aids in case someone skins their knee,
  • extra clothes for a little one who’s potty-training,
  • wet wipes to clean off sticky hands or tables,
  • hand sanitizer for after you visit the petting zoo, and
  • sunscreen for everyone.

Marathon it

Any time you’re paying for admission, the best way to maximize every dollar is to stay for a good, long time.

Plan to stay as long as your family can, so you can see all of the sights and not miss a thing.

Dress for comfort

You’re not going to want to stay for more than an hour if your toes are pinching and you feel a sunburn coming on…So dress for a long day out in the sun with:

  • comfortable shoes,
  • layered clothing (it’ll get cooler in the evening),
  • a hat, and
  • sunglasses.

Bracelets over tickets

Rides are often the biggest expense at a carnival or exhibition.

You need to choose between buying a bracelet that lets you ride an unlimited number of times – anywhere between $20 and $35 depending on the venue – or buying individual ride tickets – which are often $1-$2 each.

Since rides usually require 3 or 4 tickets per person, you can wind up spending as much as $8 just for a couple of minutes of zipping around...

But a bracelet can wind up costing as little as a few cents a minute – hey, just like one of those old cell phone plans! – if you have children that will ride non-stop from noon until 8 p.m.

Tickets are only a good idea if you plan on sticking to a single trip on the ferris wheel – the views really are amazing.

Game over

The rides are expensive, but it’s the midway games that can really separate you from your hard-earned cash.

My tip? Just say no to all of them. No exceptions.

Walk by the games and don’t respond to the whoops and calls from the operators, other than a polite shake of your head.

If you have young children begging to win the giant stuffed animals, explain that almost nobody wins them – they just win the lame stuffed snakes they keep hidden under the counter.

Related: How To Score Cheap Movie Tickets

Final thoughts

When your big day (or night) finally wraps up and everyone is shuffling tiredly towards the car…

You can all feel good about the time you spent together – and the questionably-cooked chicken burger you decided not to spend $9 on.

Disclosure: Some links in this article may be affiliate links. We're letting you know because it's the right thing to do. Here’s a more detailed disclosure on how HTS makes money.

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Susan's picture

We used many of these tips during our time at Disneyworld in February. Saved a lot of money not buying the expensive park offerings. We often promise a trip for ice cream after we leave a venue. Much better value and everyone is happy.

August 08, 2017 @ 9:03 pm
Adriana @MoneyJourney's picture

We're also all about saving when it comes to such outings :) We always plan ahead, bring snacks and bring extra cash (you never know what might happen, it's best to be prepared).
Another great way to save when visiting exhibitions or themed parks is buying tickets online ahead of time. I've noticed some offer discounts if you do, so it can't hurt to check this out.

August 10, 2017 @ 3:49 pm

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