National Trust, English Heritage or Historic Houses - which should you join?

Sherborne Castle
National Trust, English Heritage or Historic Houses - which membership is best? Then there is the National Trust Overseas Visitors Touring Pass, membership of a National Trust Overseas Organisation or the English Heritage Overseas Visitor Pass. Confused yet? Each membership gives you access to different attractions, has different pricing structures and different rules, some of which are clear and some of which are hidden in the fine print and downright sneaky.

National Trust vs English Heritage vs Historic Houses - which is best?

On different visits to the UK we have held most of these memberships and discovered their benefits and limitations the hard way.  As someone who was once a lawyer (several lifetimes ago) I should tell you to 'read the fine print' before you hand over your hard earned cash - but let's face it, who's got the time. You are planning your holiday, excited to be headed for that great overseas trip, organising flights, accommodation, visas and how to persuade foreign ATM's to hand over your own money without crushing your budget with bank fees. So I have done the work for you. I have researched the passes and listed the cost, benefits and disadvantages of each. I can't categorically recommend a single membership because which one you go with depends on how long you will be in the United Kingdom, what kind of heritage properties you are most interested in and how great your capacity is to wander around and stare at old buildings.  With a bit of luck, and armed with the information below, you'll choose the right one. See the last paragraph for my recommendations.

The fabulous gardens of Stourhead: A National Trust property

National Trust UK

The National Trust was founded in 1895. It has grown to become one of the UK's largest charities caring for historic houses and gardens throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland. More recently it has also become the custodian of more than 775 miles of unspoilt coastline.

What do you get?

With more than 500 historic houses, castles, ancient monuments, gardens, parks, nature reserves, lighthouses, entire villages, pubs and a gold mine, as well as reciprocal rights to National Trust sites in Scotland and Overseas Organisations it is impossible here to list everything you gain access to as a member of the UK National Trust. To search a complete list of the UK sites go to the interactive map or searchable list on the National Trust's website.

A few examples of what you get include: 
  • Stonehenge - Although the stone circle is managed by English Heritage, the National Trust manages much of the surrounding land. Both English Heritage and National Trust UK membership gives you entry. If you aren't a member of either and don't want to pay the outrageous individual admission price you can get a great view of  Stonehenge for free from a public footpath which runs right past it.
  • Giant's Causeway, Bushmills, Northern Ireland - You can walk to the stones for free without a National Trust membership but if you want the the full Visitor Experience it is included with your National Trust membership.

Where do you buy a National Trust UK membership?

The easiest way to join the National Trust is to buy a membership online. The card will be mailed to you but according to the FAQs can take up to 21 days so try not to do this the night before you fly out. You can also purchase your membership at the first National Trust property you visit.

How much does it cost?

  • Adult (26+ years)  -  £72 per year 
  • Young person (18-25 years) - £36 per year
  • Junior (0-17 years) - £10 per year
  • Joint (two adults ages 18+ with the same address) - £120 per year
  • Family 2 adults (with the same address and up to 10 children or grandchildren) - £126
  • Family 1 adult ( with up to 10 children or grandchildren) - £78 per year
Note: You can choose to pay monthly but you must sign up for at least one year.

How much do you save?

How long is a piece of string? There is no common pricing structure. Some properties cost a lot more to visit than others. You really have to do your own homework on this one - sorry! Work out what you want to visit and add up the cost. Does it come to more than the value of a membership? If it is a close run thing then ask yourself how much you value the ability to gain entry without weighing up whether each individual attraction is worth the price.

As a rough guide the more significant National Trust sites such as Stourhead, Mottisfont, Cliveden House and Gardens cost in the order of £16 - £19 per adult, while less well-known sites such as Clouds Hill, the rural retreat of T. E Lawrence, and Max Gate, the home of Thomas Hardy, cost less than £10 per adult.

National Trust Overseas Visitors Touring Pass

What do you get?

A National Trust Touring Pass allows entry to National Trust properties in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. There are some properties where you can't use the pass. Click here for a list.

Where do you buy a National Trust Overseas Visitors Touring Pass?

The passes are only available to non-UK residents. They can't be purchased from National Trust properties but must be purchased online and then collected when you arrive in the UK. There is a list of locations at which you can collect your pass on the website.

How much does a National Trust Overseas Visitors Touring Pass cost?

The passes are valid for either 7 or 14 consecutive days. They do not include parking - see  'Important Information' under the 'Overview' section when you order your pass online.

7 day pass

  • Admit one - £33
  • Admit two - £58
  • Admit family - £64

14 day pass

  • Admit one - £38
  • Admit two - £69
  • Admit family - £81

How much do you save?

See my advice above under the heading National Trust UK 'How much do you save?' 

Do not underestimate the additional cost of parking! Parking charges at some sites border on the extortionate. The charge to park at Avebury Stone Circle, for example, is £7.00.

National Trust Overseas Organisations

Are you a member of your own country's National Trust?  A cost effective way of obtaining entry to National Trust UK properties has, until now, been to join an overseas organisation and take advantage of reciprocal visiting rights. While reciprocal rights do not extend to every UK National Trust site (Stonehenge being a notable example) they do extend to most.

However, in what appears to be a recent change, members of overseas National Trust organisations are now required to pay for parking at UK sites, notwithstanding that members of the local organisation are entitled to park for free. Again do not underestimate the cost of this.

Reciprocal Organisations

Each state in Australia has its own National Trust organisation, all of which have reciprocal rights with each other and with the UK.

In the USA the UK National Trust's affiliate organisation is the Royal Oak Foundation.

For a list of other reciprocal organisations throughout the world click here.

English Heritage

English Heritage is the custodian of more than 400 historic monuments, buildings and places throughout England. Many English Heritage properties seem to be ruins or near ruins. There is a fair smattering of castles, both ruined and intact.  Personally, I love ruins but if you are looking for a pass to give you access to the greatest number of restored and intact historic houses then you should consider instead a National Trust or Historic Houses membership.

  • Special events can incur a charge, although members may receive a discounted admission price. 
  • A reader has told me that some English Heritage properties now limit free entry to once a year. 

What do you get?

To search for English Heritage sites go to the interactive map or searchable list on the English Heritage website.

A few examples of most popular sites are
  • Warwick Castle - (50% discount on pre-booked Castle Only entry) If I was asked to name one property in Britain which you just shouldn't miss if you have children in tow, it would be Warwick Castle. It conjures up all the fairy tale images of a medieval castle. 
  • Apsley House - This was the London Home of the Duke of Wellington.
  • Tintagel Castle - The ruins of Tintagel Castle evoke King Arthur, Queen Guinevere and the knights of the round table. Legend or reality - it  doesn't much matter when you are there.

Where do you buy an English Heritage Membership?

Like National Trust passes the easiest way to buy an English Heritage Membership is online. Your membership card will be mailed to you. Alternatively you can join at any staffed English Heritage property.

How much does Membership of English Heritage cost?

  • Adult (18+ years) - £60 per year
  • Joint Adult (2 adults 18+ years) - £105 per year
  • Family 1 Adult (and up to 6 children) - £60 per year
  • Family 2 Adults (and up to 12 children) - £105 per year
  • Senior (one adult 65+ years) - £51 per year
  • Adult and Senior (2 adults 65+ years) - £93 per year
  • Joint Senior (2 adults 65+ years) - £78 per year
  • Young Adult / Student ( with NUS card) - £48 per year

How much do you save?

How many ruined castles do you want to see? Like National Trust membership, you have to do your own research on this question. Bear in mind however that many English Heritage sites are inexpensive or free. The larger intact sites charge to enter, but many smaller or ruined sites do not. You can search for free English Heritage sites on the organisation's website.

English Heritage Overseas Visitor Pass

What do you get?

English Heritage Overseas Visitor Passes are valid for either 9 or 16 consecutive days. They are only available to overseas residents.

They are valid at more than 100 sites. There is a clickable link to a map under Frequently Asked Questions on the website.

Where do you buy an English Heritage Overseas Visitor Pass?

Buy your pass online or by telephone at +44 (0)3703331181 and collect it at any staffed English Heritage property or buy it in person at any staffed property. You must show your booking confirmation email/voucher (if you ordered the pass online), proof of overseas residency in the form of a passport, ID card or driver's licence and the credit card you used to make the purchase.

Note: Special events can incur a charge.

How much does an English Heritage Overseas Visitor Pass cost?

The passes are valid for either 7 or 14 days. They do not include parking - see  'Important Information' under the 'Overview' section when you order your pass online.

9 day pass

  • 1 Adult - £35
  • 2 Adults - £60
  • Family (2 adults and 4 children living at the same address and under 18 years) - £65

16 day pass

  • 1 Adult - £42
  • 2 Adults - £70
  • Family (2 adults and 4 children living at the same address and under 18 years) - £75

Historic Houses Association

The Historic Houses Association represents Britain's largest collection of independently owned historic houses and gardens, many of which still have people living in them or part of them. Some of Britain's most significant privately owned historic properties are represented by the Historic Houses Association - properties such as Beaulieu, Knebworth and Longleat House and Grounds.

What do you get?

Members of the Historic Houses Association gives entry to more than 300 historic houses and gardens across the UK. A map of Historic Houses properties is available here.

Where do you buy an Historic Houses Association membership?

Membership can be purchased online.

How much does membership cost?

  • 1 Adult (16+ years) - £54 per year
  • 2 Adults (16+ years) - £86 per year
  • Junior (3-16 years) - £25 per year

How much do you save?

This is another 'do your own research' answer - sorry! We purchased 3 adult memberships for our recent trip to the UK and, to be honest, I don't think it worked out cost effective but we were only in Britain for a couple of weeks, and the truth is I am not crazy about historic houses - give me a half ruined castle any day. David (hubby) on the other hand thought the passes were worth every cent he paid for them - mainly, I suspect, because I couldn't use cost as an excuse for not visiting any of the houses he chose.

Scottish and Welsh Passes

The Scottish Explorer Pass gives admission to more than 70 historic Scottish attractions. The pass is valid for either 5 days (£35 for one adult and £70 for a family) or 14 days (£45 for one adult and £90 for a family).

The Scottish Heritage Pass gives admission to more than 120 sites in Scotland. It is a 7 day pass valid only between 1 April and 31 October. An adult pass costs £55 and a child pass costs £35.

The Welsh Explorer Pass gives admission to dozens of historic attractions in Wales. The 3 day pass can be used for 3 days in any 7 day period (£23.10 for one adult and £47.25 for a family) and the 7 day pass can be used for 7 days in any 14 day period (£33.60 for one adult and £65.10 for a family).

Which pass is best?

Putting aside the Scottish and Welsh passes, which pass will be best for you depends on two things. Firstly, how long you will be in Britain and secondly, which historic sites you are most interested in.

If you will be in Britain for no more than a couple of weeks then look seriously at the National Trust Overseas Visitors Touring Pass (bearing in mind its limitations in relation to parking charges and the exclusion of some properties, and the English Heritage Overseas Visitor Pass. Although on a per day basis they work out much more expensive than yearly membership why pay for a year's membership if you can't use it. The Historic Houses Association doesn't have an overseas visitor pass.

If you love ruined castles, prehistoric sites and ancient battlefields then an English Heritage pass is by far the best. If you are more interested in intact historic houses then go for a Historic Houses membership. For a bit of both but with an emphasis on significant historic houses join the National Trust.

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  1. If you throw into the mix the state run organisations it gets even more confusing. We joined last year CADW, the Welsh Heritage Organisation. As seniors the membership was cheaper than individual entry to 3 of their 4 World Heritage castles. In the first year of CADW membership you get 50% discount at both, English Heritage and Scottish Heritage; in the second year access to both will be completely free.

    1. Thanks for that. I did look briefly at CADW but I was primarily looking at passes valid in England. The benefits of regular membership in any of the organisations are great if you are a resident or slow tourist, as in your case. My problem is we only go for a couple of weeks which really puts us on the borderline of whether we save money. I do like not having to think about the cost of each individual attraction though.

    2. Ironically the annual membership as seniors came cheaper than their 14-day pass, which has no senior discount.
      We had thought we were done with the pass last year, but then returned to the UK earlier this year, with over 6 weeks left on last year's membership. This was honoured at places like the Edinburgh Castle.

    3. I am not sure if we can get the seniors discount. I will have to have a look at it. Thanks.

  2. Thanks Lyn for fabulous information. We will be visiting the UK next year for several months. The choice is rather confusing. I will Pin your post for further reference. But thanks again for the great breakdown of the facts and figures

    1. My pleasure. Feel free to ask if you have any questions.

  3. This is a great tip and information. It's always great to save money when traveling. I'm a fan of using passes like this as you don't have worry about pulling out your wallet every time arrive to a site. We'll have to think about this when we finally get across the pond. #WeekendWanderlust

    1. I know what you mean about worrying about pulling out your wallet all the time. I much prefer a pass if I can get one that is cost effective. I don't even mind if it just breaks even.

  4. Wow, this analysis looks quite complete. I wish I had known about the differences several years back when I was in the U.K. for over a month. I could have saved a bit of money.

  5. This is SO helpful and valuable! Saving for when we move to France - that's when we'll have time to visit lots of these wonderful sites in England.

    1. France is on our list for next year. Except for Strasbourg we haven't been there for several decades.

  6. I bought a National Trust membership because I admired their work preserving monuments and sites.

  7. Though this run-down of each pass is well done, it still makes my head spin. I am of the opinion that I will only go to a few sites on each trip, so I'll just pay the admissions. Much easier to deal with, even though it might wind up costing me more money.

  8. I’ve never had a Historic Houses membership, but I bought life membership of English Heritage and the National Trust some years ago. They have paid for themselves many times over!

    1. The number of times we have been to Britain that would have been a smart move - pity we didn't think of it.

  9. Im a Brit and have all three! finding the time is my problem - The UK has so much to see, even in my home county of Essex....Suffolk and Norfolk have amazing places to see - usually less crowded giving you more time to wonder and wander !

    1. If I lived in Britain I think I would probably go for all three too!

  10. Hi there, great attempt at trying to make sense of it all. I’d just like to point out so you can change it in your text - Warwick Castle is not free with English Heritage membership. It is privately owned, but as an English Heritage member you can get tickets online ahead with 50% off (I don’t think you can do this in person on the day.)
    Also, with HHA membership some of their properties have now limited the number of times you can visit for free to just the once in the year like Castle Howard in North Yorkshire. This is quite a recent update. I let my HHA membership lapse 2 years back and they brought it in about then for Castle Howard. Just another small print thing to check out... There are many.
    It’s also worth noting that with membership for one place, you often get reduced entry offered in one of the others too. It’s taken me many years to get my head round all the different offers. All great membership schemes however depending on what you’re looking for.

    1. Thank you. I hate getting things wrong. I will make the changes you suggest. I'm glad you liked the post - of course with COVID-19 there are probably a few other things which may have changed as well.

  11. The unfortunate thing about HH is you can only pay annually, not monthly like EH and NT. I was super keen to sign up this year, but when I checked out and saw I had to pay the full year up front for a large family, I didn't proceed.

    I suspect many others have done the same, which is a pity. HH would grow their membership a lot better.