Frugal Family Fun: Making the Most of Your Local Museum Membership
Visit museums all over the country for free or reduced admission when you purchase a local museum membership.
If you’ve visited a local museum or zoo, surely you’ve seen the “membership” sign or office off to the side of the entrance. And perhaps, in the past, you’ve brushed over the idea of purchasing a membership for whatever reason. Maybe you work full time and don’t visit museums during the day, or perhaps your kids are older and you think children’s museum memberships are most applicable to the season of life when young kids are at home before entering school. We’d like to introduce you to an added benefit to having a museum membership that you may not even be aware exists.
Without someone explaining this to me, I surely would not have understood how reciprocal museum benefits work. But once my museum “coach” walked me through it, I realized it made so much sense for our family to try this out. Our kids are still young, at 5 and 8, but old enough that they are in school daily and I am past the season of visiting a children’s museum during the daytime or on any kind of regular basis. But once I was introduced to the two separate nationwide museum reciprocal programs, known as ASTC (Association of Science-Technology Centers) and ACM (Association of Children’s Museums), I began sharing this best kept secret with all my friends!
Let me walk you through the basics. You purchase a membership to one museum. In many cases, the most basic membership level does not include reciprocal program benefits, but the next “tier” does. If you want to visit other museums with your pass, you must make sure you purchase the appropriate membership with the ASTC and ACM benefits. Not only does the membership you purchased allow you unlimited entry into the museum where you are now a member for a year, but you have a golden ticket to visit other museums around the country at a free and reduced rate. Let’s break the two programs down separately.
ASTC Travel Passport Program
This program qualifies you for free or reduced benefits when you travel *outside* of your local area. This is key information for this program. You must 1) check the ASTC website to make sure the museum you wish to visit participates in the program, 2) make sure the science center/museum you wish to visit is located more than 90 miles from the museum at which you are a member AND 3) make sure the science center/museum you wish to visit is located more than 90 miles from your home residence. Both of the distance requirements are measured “as the crow flies”, not driving distance. When in doubt, call the museum you plan to visit to double check before visiting.
ACM Reciprocal Network
This program covers many (but not ALL) children’s museum, all around the country. The “perks” vary from museum to museum, but in many of the cases I found, a museum membership entitled you to 50% off admission for up to six people in your group. Not a bad deal if you’re visiting somewhere and have out-of-town family or friends joining you!
This sounds confusing. How does it actually break down?
Our family likes to get the most bang for our buck, so to speak, so the year we purchased a museum membership we called it “the year of the museums”. We planned trips and excursions around the museum benefits that were available in that particular destination. Champaign-Urbana (and surrounding communities) are a great home base to utilize a museum membership because of the relatively close proximity to so many included museums (but yet still greater than 90 miles away, meeting the eligibility for us to visit). Examples below are from specific museums in the ASTC program, based on current admission and are just estimates to show you how our family of four was able to maximize our museum membership.
- We planned a long weekend adventure with a path through eligible museums. Every museum we visited on this trip was free admission for our family. We left one morning from Champaign-Urbana and went to the Peoria Playhouse for a few hours (admission would have cost $34, we paid $0), took a lunch break and then visited the nearby Peoria Riverfront Museum (would have cost $40, we paid $0). Our kids were not very interested in what there was at the Riverfront Museum, and so I wasn’t upset when we left after less than two hours, since we hadn’t paid anything specifically to enter that museum! From there we drove to Dubuque, Iowa, where we stayed the night and visited the Family Museum (would have cost $36, cost us $0), stayed another night and visited one final museum, the Putnam Museum (would have cost $34, cost us $0) before heading back to C-U on Sunday. The museums were all a little different and were 100% of our entertainment (aside from the hotel pool!) for this little getaway. Savings: $144!
- On a trip to Orlando, we had a day of “down time” scheduled with no theme parks and ended up at the incredible Orlando Science Center for a few hours. Admission would have cost us $71.80, not something we budgeted for an “off day”, but thanks to our museum membership and the ASTC program, it was FREE.
- We had a day in Chicago to visit museums. First, we went to the Field Museum, where they rang us up to a total of $82 and then noted our museum membership and the total we owed was $0! This felt amazing! After a full day and a lunch break at the museum, my husband and I talked about walking over to the nearby Adler Planetarium to see if it would make a good place to come back to on its own day. It would have cost us $40 to walk in the door, but again, FREE. And we were glad we checked it out since there was much more to see and do than we expected.
- On a trip to St. Louis, we visited the free (for everyone) St. Louis Science Center. We hadn’t thought about our museum membership until we walked in the door and learned that at this located, our ASTC pass got us SIX free tickets to a Discovery Room or Planetarium Show. Extras we wouldn’t have paid for on that trip, and enough for our family and our friends, too. Savings: over $30
Want to do something closer to Champaign-Urbana?
While the following museums do not meet the 90 mile requirements from the Champaign-Urbana, you can get half price admission to them through the ACM benefits. These are a couple examples of an easy day trip from C-U, and an added way to max out your museum membership.
- Children’s Discovery Museum, Normal (just $3.50 per person for members)
- Children’s Museum of Illinois, Decatur (just $4 per person for members)
Of course, do your own research for how this could play out for your family before purchasing a membership. At this time, the necessary membership to take advantage of the benefits above is $125 at the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum. You can see how that quickly paid for itself in out of town visits alone for our family. And I’m not even talking about ALL of the perks to belonging to your local children’s museum.
Perhaps it makes more sense for you to become a member at another nearby museum, or near family out of town. Just note that if you were to become a member at a children’s museum, say, in Chicago, your pass would not be eligible to use for free admission into many of the big downtown museums I listed above due to the 90 mile requirement.
To the best of my knowledge, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis does not participate in either reciprocal program. The Chicago Children’s Museum (at Navy Pier) DOES participate in the ACM network, so up to six people could have half-off admission to that museum with the pass.