Date night, girl's night out, rainy day antidote for the family – name an occasion, and a trip to the movies seems like the perfect way to spend it. In fact, cinema attendance is the most popular cultural pastime in Australia, with 67% of us catching at least one flick in 2010. But the cost of a trip to the cinema has steadily increased – profits are bumped up through pricier extras, and the traditionally cheaper independents are shutting up shop.

Crunching the numbers

Seeing a 3D movie on a VMAX screen at Event Cinemas in Sydney suburb Bondi Junction will set an adult back $26.50 and a child $21.50. Add in a large popcorn and soft drink and you'll be spending more than $110 for a family of four. Be prepared for even more purse pain if you forget to bring your own 3D glasses.

NSW consumers are not alone – Event Cinemas Innaloo (WA) charge a couple of dollars less for a family, while consumers in Marion (SA) and Brisbane (Qld) also pay only a touch less. Hoyts charges similar prices – $23.50 for an adult watching a 3D film on an XTREME screen at Chatswood NSW, Melbourne Central, Vic, and at Norwood, SA.

So, it's not surprising that when CHOICE asked our members whether they still thought of the movies as a cheap thrill, the response was a resounding no.

"I don't take the kids anymore," says Sue Brooks. "Last time I took them it cost me $90 for tickets and food!"

Leah Anderson agrees. "With prices the way they are and four kids, it's a special day. We can't do it often, maybe twice a year."

But with some forward planning and a willingness to do without the add-ons, there are ways of reducing the cost.

Planning is everything

Going to the movies doesn't have to blow the budget if you're flexible enough to attend during off-peak times.

Most cinemas offer discounts on particular days of the week – usually Mondays or Tuesdays – when adult tickets can cost as little as $6.50. Event Cinemas also have $8 Mondays for students, and some Hoyts screen selected "Matinee Movies" before 5.00pm for between $9 and $15.

But as with most special deals, make sure you read the terms and conditions before getting too excited. Many cinemas charge extra for premium screens and 3D, while others don't discount these sessions at all.

Break the chains

While they may not have the huge screens or the variety, the local independent may well be a cheaper way to take the family to the movies.

CHOICE readers reported their satisfaction with several local cinemas. There are savings to be had at Brisbane's Cineplex chain (up to $8.50 adults, $4.50 child), Sydney's Dumaresq Street Cinema (all tickets $6), Adelaide's Odeon Star Semaphore Cinemas ($9 all tickets), and Melbourne's Australian Cinemas Croydon (up to $12 adult, $9 child for 2D), among others.

"I now almost always go to a small community cinema," says CHOICE member Peter Christie. "It is old and dusty and plays only a selection of latest releases. However, tickets are good at $8 to any session. I still think that the cinema is a thrill and have gone to the odd midnight premiere and totally enjoyed the experience with a group of complete strangers, some of whom still like to dress up."

Outdoor cinemas and drive-ins are also seeing something of a resurgence, with some CHOICE members happy to watch from the comfort of the car, or from a picnic blanket or beanbag. Some are seasonal, but most are comparatively better value.

Forget the extras and enjoy the movie

Even 3D pioneer and director James Cameron admits that seeing movies in 3D doesn't always add to the quality of the experience, but it almost always adds to the price. Similarly, while it can be nice to watch films on larger screens, they often come with a fee. If you're happy enough to watch 2D movies on traditional-sized screens, stick to these cheaper sessions.

For those on a budget, avoiding the concession stand is also a must. The heavenly smell of buttery popcorn has long been associated with the movie experience, but is it really worth $10 a tub? Do you really need that sugary soft drink if it's going to cost you $5? Save your cash (and maybe some kilojoules) by bringing your own drinks and snacks with you.

It's particularly easy if you're going to a cinema that's in a shopping centre. "We buy our snacks from the supermarket near the cinemas as it's much cheaper," says member Mel McDonald. Many cinemas will allow you to bring food with you, within reason – just don't try to sneak in a curry, or any other hot food. What you're really paying a premium for at the candy bar is convenience – or in other words, a pretty massive "lazy tax". Coming prepared will really bring your costs down.

Do the maths

A family of two adults and two concession-card carrying students seeing a standard movie on a Saturday night in at Hoyts Broadway (NSW) in 2014 paid $74 for tickets alone ($20 adults, $17 concessions). A trip to the candy bar adds to the expenses – a bag of Starburst Rattlesnakes (180g), a packet of Red Rock Deli chips (90g), two small cups of soft drink (600ml) and two Magnum ice creams, and their evening out tops out at over $100. Not that they would necessarily know how much they had each been charged – receipts are only provided on request, aren't itemised, and snack prices aren't displayed in plain sight.

A family of four can save dosh by going to the same cinema on a Tuesday, when tickets to standard screenings are $25 less for the group. Downstairs at Coles, they'll pay far less for identical snacks, for an overall saving of over $35.

Join the club

In an effort to encourage return business and brand loyalty some cinemas offer cheap days, discounted or free tickets and cheaper snacks for members. In some cases, like Event Cinema's Cine Buzz, joining up costs nothing. In others, like Palace Cinemas' Movie Club, you may have to fork out an annual fee, but this often pays for itself in the form of gift vouchers upon joining and on your birthday.

Some cinemas also have dedicated seniors, kids or parents clubs, and in some cases is may be well worth joining – members of the Event Cinemas Seniors Club pay $8 for movies (excluding Saturdays after 5.00pm).

If you're unwilling or unable to join up at the cinema, a third-party discounter may do the trick. Members of some motoring associations, telcos and health funds – including NRMA, RACQ, Telstra, Optus, BUPA and Medibank Private – are eligible for discounted tickets. The downside is that they generally need to be bought in advance from the third party. Discounts are also often available through university bookshops, though you may need to be a student or on faculty to take advantage.

Another option is to purchase a Kare Kard or Entertainment Book, sold by charities, community organisations and clubs for fundraising throughout Australia. Kare Kards, which are sold online, cost $49.95, with $10 going to an organisation of the buyer's choice. Tickets bought with a Kare Kard are up to 35% off. Entertainment Books, available through third parties only, cost between $50 and $65, with 20% of earnings going to the seller. Tickets bought with vouchers from the book are up to 50% off.

How much does going to the cinema cost overseas?

  • $US7.13 average cost of a movie in the US in 2013*.
  • £6.53 average cost of a movie in the UK in 2013**.
  • $13.75 average cost of a movie in Australia in 2013***.
  • $9.34 average cost of a movie in Australia 2002***.

* source National Association of Theatre Owners (prices updated since this article was originally published).
**source The Cinema Exhibitors' Association Ltd (prices updated since this article was originally published).
*** source Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia (prices updated since this article was originally published).