Top two expenses every year for homeschooling the four kids: travel and memberships
Top two best money investments: travel and memberships

I strongly believe that, of all that we do for school, our non-traditional learning is what has been most impactful to helping my kids truly learn and love our world. No amount of book reading can compare to knowing familiar obscure details about the towering dinosaur fossils or visiting the same gorillas four times a year or spending hours at the local children’s museum. Sure, these opportunities can be big financial investments, but given the right strategy, they don’t have to be. 

Why Should I get a Museum Membership?

Repeat visits to the same place bring ever more information retention and familiarity. The best kind of learning. When you are familiar with a place, less energy is spent trying to figure your way out and seeing the new sights. You can focus on truly absorbing details. There will never be a museum visit when you leave to declare that you saw nothing new. We always discover new items, corners, or facts. Challenge your family to do so and make it a game. And bring guests to your museum to give them private tours of all your favorites.

Usually, I can get a family membership for the whole year for the price of two one-day trips. This seems to be the average whether it is for an arboretum, zoo, or museum. Depending on the location, having a membership can brings early entrance some mornings and discounts for special events, educational programs, Imax movies, and gift shop purchases.

Plan ahead. If you know you will be travelling within the next year, definitely look at that area’s museums. For the cost of one trip to the local museum plus one museum on vacation, you have practically paid for a year’s membership. Just make sure you do it far enough in advance to have proof of membership with you in your wallet.

Visiting the Favorite Statues at the Zoo

Saving Money on a Membership

  • Consider buying a membership for a museum not in your home city. The museum near Grandma’s house or even on a trip might be $40 cheaper for the year than your local one. Smaller, less popular museums tend to offer cheaper membership rates. Double check on their website for the little ASTC logo on their membership page and consider calling to talk with them directly. You get the same reciprocity no matter the location of your home membership.
  • Ask about a teacher or homeschool discount. It never hurts to ask. Make sure you keep your homeschool ID or proof of enrollment with you just in case.
  • Check on Groupon. Search by city and “things to do”. Museums often have one day ticket deals as well as discounts for a year’s membership. This is especially beneficial in more tourist-heavy cities. Make sure you check the details listing how long before using Groupon that it has to be purchased. Some required it to have been bought 24 hours before use.
  • Ask for memberships for family gifts for Christmas or Mother’s Day or even “Happy First Day of Homeschooling”! Best gifts ever.

What Does Reciprocity Mean?

When your museum offers reciprocity, you can get in for free or reduced price to museums all over the country and, sometimes, world. My favorite museums for membership are the ones with reciprocity, and we sure abuse use them on our travels cross-country. Make sure you keep your membership card and your driver’s license with you to prove membership.

Another perk of these programs is that you explore new cities because you have seen an amazing museum on the list. You make a detour. I have planned quite a few road trips based solely on which museums I can hit along the way. When you have a membership, you also have an automatic free stop for a wiggle-break on a long driving day. A new children’s museum is better than a rest area any day.

Sometimes you can find museums that are on several different reciprocity lists at one time. They exist to give you even more bang for your buck.

A word of caution. Sometimes on the list I see museums which are free of charge to all and aren’t technically reciprocity. I find this pretty sneaky. 

Our Favorite Ever Dinosaurs at the Houston Museum of Natural Science

If It’s So Great, Why Would I Join a Museum Without Reciprocity?

Short answer? Because the museum is awesome and has tons to offer for repeat visits throughout the year. It may not travel well, but the benefits way out-weigh this fact. Our Houston Museum of Natural History will forever be one of our favorite places and returning feels like going to see old friends. We still talk about one of the mummies by name every once in a while. 

Reciprocity Programs

Association of Science and Technology – ASTC

The ASTC museums are my favorite membership to get and includes science and children’s museums. By using their Travel Passport Program, you get in completely free to other museums on the list by showing your membership card and meeting the requirements for each museum.

The catch: if you buy your membership in a large city that has several museums on the list, there sometimes is a requirement that your membership doesn’t give reciprocity within 90 miles of your home museum. My downtown Houston Health Museum membership didn’t get me in free to the Johnson Space Center in south Houston for example.

Drawing the Snakes at the Zoo

Association of Zoos and Aquariums – AZA

While the reciprocity with zoos isn’t 100% free, distant zoos will give either 25% of 50% off of the full price ticket. Our family lives at the zoo, and we definitely get our membership’s worth of visits out of this investment. Hint: sometimes zoos are listed under garden memberships so check out other lists too!

Wild Kratts + Zoo = more animal knowledge than you could ever find elsewhere 🙂

I tried to go without a zoo membership once. It lasted six months.

The Children's Garden at the Athens Botanical Garden
The Children’s Garden at the Athens Botanical Garden

American Horticultural Society – AHS

When I realized how much my kids enjoy walking around the Atlanta Botanical Garden and did the math, it just made sense. The year of Covid seemed like a good time to spend more time exploring new outdoor locations. Since we have bought it, gardens around the country have been explored. It’s been a great addition to my reciprocity arsenal and brings with it some awesome outdoor adventures with the cost fully covered with my membership.

We have been able to travel all around the US and get in to so many botanical gardens for free. It’s been a great investment!

Inspecting the C.S.S. Jackson at the National Civil War Museum
Inspecting the C.S.S. Jackson at the National Civil War Museum

North America Reciprocal Museum Association – NARM

With the purchase of our membership to the Carlos Museum in downtown Atlanta, we got to add NARM to our list of reciprocates. With full admission price covered by the membership, we’ve been able to go to lots of museums. There are more than 1000 art galleries and historical museums and gardens on the list to explore. If you’re looking for a membership with a great reciprocity, this is the one to get!

Links and information updated May 2022

Hope this inspires you to go check out some new places!

9 thoughts on “Museum Memberships: Are They Worth It?

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