Family Fun: Make 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. 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!
How does this work?
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 one year, you have a golden ticket to visit other museums around the country at a free and reduced rate. Let’s break down the two programs separately.
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.
This program covers many — but not all — children’s museums 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 percent 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.
Find the latest list of participants in both reciprocal programs here:
- ACM (Association of Children’s Museums) – filter by “reciprocal” category
A simple solution for Champaign-Urbana area families
For families in Champaign-Urbana, a membership at Children’s Discovery Museum in Normal is our most obvious choice (read our review). With the Family Plus Membership for $135 a year (2023 rate), you receive unlimited visits to the Normal museum and the ASTC reciprocal benefits when you travel 90 miles or greater beyond Champaign-Urbana and Bloomington-Normal.
This includes free admission to Chicago museums such as the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry and Adler Planetarium, just to name a few. What is not included are free visits to the Children’s Museum of Illinois (Decatur), Peoria Playhouse and the Peoria Riverfront Museum. Some of these would be covered for half-price admission through the ACM reciprocal network; call ahead for details.
Does it really work? This sounds confusing …
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. Here are a few examples of ways to utilize the free ASTC reciprocal admission benefits if you live in Champaign-Urbana and have purchased a Children’s Discovery Museum membership in Bloomington-Normal:
- Chicago – Spend a day at Chicago 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. After a full morning and a lunch break at the museum, we walked 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.
- St. Louis – 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 location, 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: more than $30.
- Orlando (or insert other “far” destination in the U.S.) – 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, which is not something we budgeted for an off day, but thanks to our museum membership and the ASTC program, it was free.
Of course, do your own research for how this could play out for your family before purchasing a membership somewhere.
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 listed above due to the 90-mile requirement.
To the best of our 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.