On any city vacation we take, admission fees to museums and other cultural institutions are one of our biggest expenses.
For art, history and even children’s museums, admission typically starts at $15 or so for kids and heads higher for the parents. At zoos, aquariums, and science and natural history museums the cool add-ons like simulators and IMax movies add up fast.
Living in New York City, when Tween Traveler was Tiny our weekends and school-break staycations often included a trip to the botanic gardens, the zoos or a science or children’s museum.
A day for three at the Bronz Zoo could easily top $100 after we covered admission for three, extras like the Bug Carousel, parking and the inevitable afternoon ice cream.
One of the biggest ways we’ve saved money on traveled and staycationed has been by buying family memberships at museums and other local cultural institutions. Some memberships went further than others so we’ve learned to look at the details.
But the best memberships and the right membership level provided a lot of value for a set of parents who like get out and explore with their kid.
Here’s what to look for in a great annual pass for families:
10 Tips for Choosing Family Museum Memberships
1. Calculate The Basics:
Ask yourself these questions:
1. How often are you likely to go?
2. How many adults and kids usually go at any one time?
3. Are any of the kids still young enough to get in for free anyway?
4. How much is one-time admission for each adult and child?
How many times would you have to visit a place to make the membership fee pay off? And are you likely to go that often.
Consider, a basic membership at our local children’s museum was $85 for two adults and up to four kids. Like most children’s museums this one charged full price ($7.50) for adults and kids older than 1YO, so even if only one parent went with Tiny Traveler each visit cost $15.
That meant we’d only have to go six times a year to make the membership worthwhile; fewer if we went as a family of three or brought a second kid along.
The museum was an east way to escape the city heat in summer and avoid going stir crazy on rainy or cold days at other times of the year. There were months when we went every other week, making the membership a steal.
2. Calculate The Extras
Next, take a look at the extras that come with membership and the optional extras that cost a little more. Do they offer real convenience or extra value? For example:
1. Do you get free parking?
Street parking near, say, New York’s Bronx Zoo is nearly impossible and the parking lot is expensive. As members, we avoided paying $13 for parking each time we went, making the membership pay off that much faster.
2. Is there reciprocity with other institutions?
By adding $50 to our Brooklyn Children’s Museum membership we were able to get free access to children’s and science museums across the U.S.
Admission to the childrens museums in nearby Boston and Philadelphia were two or three times admission to the Brooklyn museum, so if went to just one other museum during the year we broke even. If were visited two or more (which we did), we were saving quite a bit.
If you have have family you frequently visit that has a nearby museum, aquarium or zoo that offers reciprocity with your local counterpart, then exploring those places each time you visit is good way to make your membership go further.
3. Do you get guest passes?
Check to see whether this perk is reserved for “premium” members and if there is a limit on how many guests you can bring over the course of a year.
Being able to bring your kids’ friends or visiting cousins is a handy perk.
4. Can the babysitter or grandparents take the kids without you?
A lot of cultural institutions charge extra if you want your kids to go with a caregiver other than you. But, we paid an extra $30 per year so that our babysitter could take our daughter to the nearby zoo. Over the summer she took her virtually once a week, making the extra fee totally worth it.
If the extras provide savings beyond basic admission and also allow you to save money or do more when you travel, the membership can pay for itself a few times over.
3. Consider The Perks
Some institutions have extra that don’t have a clear-cut dollar value, but can be some of the best incentives to join.
For example, membership fees often include things like
1. Members-only hours.
2. First crack at new exhibits.
3. Free admission to seasonal events or festivals.
4. Special members-only events.
We’ve been members of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for years because it offers members-only evening hours during the summer, plus evenings where members can picnic in the gardens. Both are welcome respites from the city heat and handy staycation fun.
The Bottom Line:
Look over all the extra carefully. How many appeal to you? How many can you easily take advantage of? Ideally they will help you to spend more time at a place your family enjoys.
If you don’t have a helpful membership to a city’s cultural attractions on vacation:
CityPass can save you 35% or more on top attractions in 12 U.S. cities, plus Toronto.
4. Don’t Auto-Renew
Many institutions give you the option of renewing automatically when you’re membership expires. For places you really love this can be a handy feature.
But at least for the first year or two, don’t do it. Before you renew you’ll want to have the chance to look back over the year and consider how many times you visited, how much you took advantage of reciprocity in other places, and how many of the extras you actually used.
Also, your needs are likely to change as your kids grow. Once Tiny Traveler started school we used our zoo membership much less.
At some point your kids wil grow out of children’s museums and in to science and history museums and then maybe even art museums (as teens).