I am a Christian. I was an 8th-grade American History teacher. I am currently a freelance writer, public speaker, & homeschooling mom of 9.
Would you like to get FREE admission to hundreds of museums, gardens, zoos, and parks? Find out how to have the most fun while traveling without busting your budget! Whenever we travel, we visit sooo many art, science, history, and children's museums. We also stop by lots of botanical gardens, zoos, and parks. People think we spend a fortune on our vacations, but we don't! My entire family gets into all of those places free! Yes, really! The way we do this is through the reciprocity agreements between museums, gardens, zoos, and parks.
Here's how it works...
We buy memberships to museums, gardens, and zoos that have reciprocity agreements with lots of other museums, gardens, and zoos. For example, every year I pay $50 for an annual family membership to a history museum which has reciprocity agreements with almost 300 other ASTC museums. The history museum mails us an ASTC membership card. Whenever we visit one of the ASTC museums, we show them the card and our entire family gets in free! We also have memberships for gardens and zoos. The park passes are a bit different, but I'll cover that at the end. Keep reading to find out more about each one.
Science & Children's Museums: ASTC
The ASTC (Association of Science and Technology Centers) is our favorite! Different museums have different prices and offer different privileges, but they all allow for you to get free entrance into all 270 participating museums. We usually pay $40 a year to get a family membership at one museum. Using the ASTC pass, we get free admission for our family to over 270 museums, mainly science and children’s, across the world. Be sure to shop around to find the best deal! Annual family memberships can range between $35-$150. Some memberships include added perks like free IMAX movie tickets, free admission into special exhibits, etc. You do not have to buy a membership at a museum in your state, but there are restrictions on visiting museums near each other and restrictions on visiting museums near your home if you join a different museum. You can see the list at http://www.astc.org/passport/ .
Art Museums: NARM, SERM, & ROAM
We also love the NARM (North American Reciprocal Museum) Association. We pay $90 a year ($100 - $10 Educator's Discount) for a family membership to a local art museum, and we can get into 650 other museums, mainly art, for free. You can see the list at http://narmassociation.org/ . The museum where we have our membership is also part of SERM (Southeastern Reciprocal Membership), so we can get into those art museums as well. You can see the list of participating SERM museums at http://www.semcdirect.net/ . One other art museum membership is ROAM (Reciprocal Organization of Associated Museums). You can see the list of participating ROAM museums at ROAM. It will also pay off to shop around as membership prices and privileges vary. Since the art museum where we have a family membership has a garden, it not only has reciprocity agreements with other art museums, but it also has reciprocity agreements with botanical gardens as well (which is what I’ll mention next).
The AHS (American Horticultural Society) family membership can get your family in free to 300 gardens and arboreta across North America and even the Cayman Islands. An annual family membership card typically costs about $50. You can see the list at http://ahs.org/ .
Zoos & Aquariums: AZA
Every year my in-laws buy our family a birthday gift: an annual family membership pass to our local zoo, which is a member of AZA (Association of Zoos & Aquariums). It costs $125 a year. There are zoos that charge less for their annual membership fee. We get into our local zoo free and then we can get into a number of other zoos for 50% off their normal prices. We have only used that a few times since the reciprocity benefits are not as great of a deal as the above memberships; however, it is an option if you love visiting zoos. Some of the zoos (such as one in LA that costs only $55/family) allow for you to get into some other zoos free if you purchase their zoo family membership. You can find the list of participating zoos and aquariums at https://www.aza.org/reciprocity/ .
National and State Parks
National Parks do offer an annual membership, the America the Beautiful Pass, which you can find out more about at https://www.nps.gov/ . It costs $80 per family and is FREE for those active in the military and for families with a child in 4th grade. If you have a child enrolled in 4th grade at school you can obtain the pass through their school. If you are homeschooling a 10 year old child, you can fill out and print off the pass at https://everykidinapark.gov/get-your-pass/ . Bring the paper to a national park, and they will issue your child the Every Kid in a Park membership card, which allows his or her entire family into the park free for that year.
One year we purchased a state park pass. We live in Florida. At the time it cost $125 for an annual family membership. It took many visits to state parks for us to even out what we paid. Possibly other states charge a more reasonable rate.
- Tip #1: Some museums (especially the ones in large cities) offer 2 different family memberships: one that includes the reciprocity and one that does not. Be sure to ask before you buy!
- Tip #2: Sometimes Groupon or LivingSocial will offer 50% off deals on memberships.
- Tip #3: Most museums not only offer family memberships, but they also offer memberships for singles, couples, and grandparents (which allow grandchildren free entrance as well).
- Tip #4: Some (but not most) museums limit the number of people who can enter on your pass, so if you have more than 2 children, be sure to check ahead of time! Usually the number is listed on the museum list's website.
- Tip #5: You do NOT have to buy a membership to a museum/zoo/garden in the state you live in. Definitely call around before you buy a membership as prices and perks vary. You can simply call the museum/zoo/garden, pay for the membership over the phone, and have the membership cards mailed to you.
If you're wondering what to get as a birthday, Christmas, or thank-you gift, consider purchasing an annual membership to the place where your recipient might enjoy. Whether they are an animal lover, art enthusiast, nature lover, gardener extraordinaire, or amazing person in general, they will probably appreciate the membership card more than another vase of flowers or one more toy to fill up a bedroom. If you have a loving family member who asks what you or your children would like for Christmas, consider requesting an annual family membership. It's a gift that will help create many delightful memories for the whole year!
What our kids use to track where we are and where we are going
Find out my "I wish I had known ahead of time..." tips, full itinerary, & more at my page Grand Canyon on a Budget with Kids. I've included our schedule for our trip and all the helpful tips I found out ahead of time or learned afterward! Also included are our favorite children's books, guide books, and YouTube videos we used while preparing for our trip.
Find out our full 5 day itinerary and tips on food, parking, and more at Washington, D.C. on a Budget with Kids. I also included our favorite children's books, guide books, and YouTube videos we used while preparing for our trip.
© 2017 Shannon
Which zoo, museum, garden or park is your favorite? Or just let me know you stopped by. I love hearing from you!
Shannon (author) from Florida on August 10, 2017:
Yes! There is a 90 mile radius limit for the ASTC & NARM memberships.
K in Philly on August 10, 2017:
A note: make sure if you are buying an out-of-state membership that you won't be prevented from visiting museums close to your house - some don't allow reciprocal visits too close to the address on your drivers license ...