Free electric car charging and where to find it

On the hunt for free electric car chargers but don’t know where to find them? Read on to discover where to look to cut your charging costs

By James Wilson

Increasing energy costs have been a real pain for those who have recently switched to an electric car, resulting in higher costs per mile. Fortunately, sky-high petrol and diesel costs still make battery-powered cars comparatively cheap to ‘fuel’. That said, with the cost of electricity on the up, it pays to take full advantage of the range of free electric car chargers available, to minimise the amount you need to charge at home, or at paid charging points.

To benefit from free public chargers, you need to know where they are located and how to use them. Keep reading to get to grips with the different types of free chargers available and the typical places where you can find them.

There are other methods you can try to minimise the impact of rising energy costs. One of the most obvious is to drive more economically - which in general involves picking up speed slowly, driving smoothly and making the most of any 'regenerative braking' features when slowing down, which can help to recoup energy that would otherwise be wasted. Another thing to bear in mind is that electricity rates can be less expensive at night, so if you charge at home, doing so at night could prove cheaper than doing so during the day if you manage to find a suitable tariff.

Sadly the option of ‘borrowing’ electricity from your neighbours - which requires their outside plug (assuming they have one) and some ninja-like sneaking - is considered illegal in some countries, including the UK, so is best avoided.

What is a free charger?

A free charger can mean one of two things. Number one is a charger that is free to buy and install - these are sometimes used as an attractive promotion to draw drivers into purchasing particular new cars. In recent times, offers like these have become increasingly rare as demand for a number of electric cars is outstripping how quickly they can be supplied, so manufacturers have less need to offer deals.

The second type of free charger is the one that we are focused on here; public chargers that are free to use, so there's no requirement to pay for topping up your battery. Often these are tied to businesses or attractions which want to entice customers to their premises - so they may only be available to you if you're purchasing something from the business with the charger.

Some free charging points are better than others, because they can supply batteries with electricity at a faster rate. The greater the 'kW' rating of a charger, the faster it can top you up. The best current electric vehicles can handle ‘rapid chargers’ with power supplies rated at more than 150kW. Free chargers, however, tend to be in the 7-22kW range, which classes them as ‘fast chargers’ - not as fast as rapid chargers, but faster than using a normal three-pin plug.

Two things to watch for when using free car chargers are time limits and idling fees. These are costs that can be incurred for overstaying the maximum charging period allowed or leaving your car plugged in despite it being fully charged. These might sound harsh but free chargers can be very popular, with many drivers wanting to use them, so it is important for providers to make sure that a minority of drivers aren’t hogging the free chargers.

It is also important to watch for any criteria drivers must meet in order to use free chargers. It is common for organisations to expect something in return for providing free electricity, such as an in-store purchase or paying to enter the attraction. To avoid any costs or fines, we recommend checking the terms and conditions of any free chargers carefully before plugging in. Regardless of fees for electricity, it might be necessary to pay for parking separately in some cases, so don’t assume that plugging in makes you exempt from paying for parking.

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Where are free chargers found?

Free chargers are typically located in places that businesses or organisations want to draw people to, or those that drivers have a necessity to visit. The most common examples of these are listed below, along with any key considerations to keep in mind:

  1. Hotels These may be reserved for guests only but hotels with cafes, restaurants and/or public gardens may be more relaxed about who can plug in.
  2. Shopping centres Not all shopping centres offer free charging but those that do are often proud about it and typically advertise this. In return, you might be expected to spend money in one of the shops or restaurants inside.
  3. Supermarkets Some of the biggest supermarket chains offer free electric car charging, although such spaces can get busy at peak times such as Saturdays and Sundays.
  4. Tourist attractions Depending on the type of attraction you may find that there are free electric car charging points. Attractions that guests visit for longer periods - such as theme parks - may have poor availability of spaces, as cars may be parked up for many hours on end, potentially even after they're fully charged.
  5. Car dealerships Some car dealerships offer free charging points, although these can be reserved for customers or drivers with the brand of car that the dealership sells.
  6. Places of work If you are lucky enough to work at a company that provides free chargers, you are in the minority. This could be a valuable perk, though, if available.
  7. Gyms Although rare, some upmarket gyms and leisure centres include free electric car charging at some of their sites - but expect this to be for members only.
  8. Restaurants Depending on the type of restaurant and where it is located, there may be free charging available. A certain fast-food chain has a healthy number of McChargers spread across the country.
  9. Hospitals Should you be unlucky enough to need a hospital visit, you can at least top up your batteries in some cases. However, you will need to visit one of the select number of NHS sites with free car chargers; the North East and North West regions appear to have the most.

The good news is that free chargers are spread all over the country and it is relatively easy to find them through websites and smartphone apps like Zap-Map. Platforms like this come with plenty of other handy features, such as showing feedback from other electric vehicle drivers that have used the charging point.

Information like this can help drivers to avoid turning up to a charger that is regularly out of order, potentially wasting a trip and even ending up away from home and with very little charge left.

Guide to maximising free charging cars

So you like the sound of saving money on free charging but want a way to turn your money-saving up to 11? You have come to the right place. Below is an easy-to-follow step-by-step guide on how to get the most from free public electric car charging.

Step 1: Find a map showing all the free charging points in your local area and either print it out, download it as a PDF if possible or take a screenshot. We recommend referring to the interactive map on a platform such as Zap-Map to do this. This will also allow you to make sure any potential charging points are compatible with your car. Find out more about the different types of electric car charging stations here. It can be helpful to establish what kW rating each compatible charger offers, but if that is not easily possible, move to step 2.

Step 2: Make a note of all the places you regularly visit and park up for a while, where you might want to charge. We’re talking the supermarket, gym, favourite restaurant and even the office.

Step 3: Identify any of the locations in Step 2 that have free chargers. If none of them have these, see if there are any other similar places from Step 1 that do. For example, if you shop at an Asda with no free chargers, then see if your local Tesco has them.

Step 4: Start connecting dots. If you use most of the available range from your electric car each day, it would be beneficial to visit as many free chargers as possible, as regularly as possible. As a result, if your gym, supermarket and place of work all have chargers, then going food shopping after work on your way home from the gym might be a waste, as you can top up more of your range at the weekend. Likewise, if you don’t travel too much you might only need to use the best free charger available once a week.

Step 5: Rake in the savings - which will increase as the cost of electricity goes up. You may also want to occasionally check whether any new free chargers have opened up or avoid certain chargers that prove to be unreliable or overly popular.