Fuel for free - where you can charge without being charged

Matt Allan

19 Feb 2024

​One of the big draws of electric vehicles has always been the potential for low running costs thanks to cheap charging. Any savvy EV owner will already be using an EV-specific tariff to keep home charging costs down, and seeking out the best value locations on the road. Using apps and network subscriptions can help unlock cheaper charging but the holy grail for any driver is being able to charge for free.

In these days when it’s hard to get something for nothing,such an idea might seem like a fantasy but around Britain there are still thousands of places where you can charge an EV for free - if you know where to look. 

One of the most convenient spots for some free watts is your local supermarket. Tesco led the way on charging for customers via its tie-up with Volkswagen and Pod Point and until last year it gave it away for free. It has since started charging for charging but some of its rivals still offer free access to their customers. Sainsbury’s, still offers free fast charging at some of its stores, but these will undoubtably disappear now the company has its own chargers. Selected Aldi, Lidl, Co-op and M&S Food stores also have free-to-use devices. Costco members can also enjoy free charging while they shop at some of its sites.

Tesco was the most generous of the supermarkets when it comes to charging, but now, er, charges

Supermarkets aren’t the only providers of free charging. The Zap-Map charging point finder app reckoned that nationwide some 3,500 of them don’t want your money, but it's shrinking all the time - that’s down from more than 5,300 in September 2021.

Scotland used to offer thousands of free charging devices via the government-backed ChargePlace Scotland operation. In recent years many devices have become paid-for, particularly the rapid ones, but Zap-Map reports that almost half (870) are still free and it’s still the most generous part of Britain for cost-free charging. Free chargers are usually at the slower end of the scale and mostly found at train stations, park and ride sites, council locations and college and university campuses.

According to Zap-Map the South East is the second most generous place for free chargers, with almost 500 of them, followed by Greater London (355). With just 108 freebie posts, it seems the North East is Britain’s stingiest region. Some local authorities that are keen to clean up the air in their areas have free charging posts, which can sometimes be found in public car parks or at the kerbside. Brighton seems to be especially keen on this, where there are almost 150 free devices.

Brighton Council electric car charge point on street Brighton is great for charging, and some points are free to use

Some hotels and leisure centres and so called ‘entertainment venues’ like theme parks also offer free charging facilities, but generally these are used as incentives for paying customers or guests. Just turning up and plugging in is unlikely to work, or go down well. It’s a similar story with retail parks, which are the country’s fourth biggest provider of free charging, and where you can boost your battery while you get your shopping fix.

For a combination of amps and culture you could do worse than join the National Trust, which has charging points at 58 of its English and Welsh properties as part of its plan to become a net zero operation by the end of this decade. The charging points were installed five years ago, and the Trust concedes that they’re not the most modern or the fastest, so are best used during extended stately home visits followed by leisurely cream teas. Trust members can use its charging points gratis, but are asked to make a voluntary donation. 

The next category of free ride may require you to smile sweetly or put up with a sales pitch. Many car dealers have charging facilities which they will use to power up demonstrators and check faulty cars.If you ask nicely, they might let you use one too. Nissan dealers used to be obliged to let any Leaf driver top up their car on a 50kW DC rapid. Those days are over but some Nissan dealers do still offer free charging to Nissan owners or customers visiting their showroom. There also aren’t many dealers who would turn away a potential customer in a pickle, so even if it’s not offered, it doesn’t hurt to ask

National Trust Charger Culture volt-ure: the National Trust lets you recharge while perusing a portcullis

The next category is a place where you wouldn’t expect to get anything for free – transport hubs such as airports, railway stations and even the Eurostar Terminal. You may have to pay a small fortune to park, however. Heathrow’s now-dead PodPoint chargers, for example, were in the short term parking areas where a space is £11.40 for an hour. They earn more than some of the people working at the airport. However, most of these points are notoriously unreliable and if you do find a working one, there’s a good chance that the owner of the car in the space is off somewhere sunny for a week.

The final place you might be able to get a free ride could also be the most profitable – at your workplace. Many employers will allow staff to plug in at work, either at dedicated points or simply using a 3-pin socket. Unlike fuel supplied by your employer, this power is not a taxable benefit either. Just check you have permission, as taking the power without it is technically stealing and you could find yourself with a P45 instead of a full battery. 

Do you know of any other free places to get a charge? Let us know!

Some workplaces will let you plug in for free, and it's not a taxable benefit

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