Reciprocal membership programs could save all over the country

Why I Buy Membership to My Local Museum

by Eric Mohrman


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It's sometimes difficult to afford trips to cultural museums, children's museums, science centers, zoos, and aquariums. It's a shame to miss out on them; they are entertaining and enriching for children and adults, and make for great family excursions. When you're traveling on a budget, these must-see attractions can be prohibitively pricey, especially for multiple people. By joining reciprocal membership programs, there's often a way to beat some or all of the cost at home and away.

Membership at a local museum or other attraction entitles you (and often your family) to free or reduced-price admission. You might also receive perks like free or discounted entry into special exhibits and concerts, invitations to members-only events, gift shop and food discounts, free or cheap parking, or complementary subscriptions to a newsletter or magazine. While membership requires an upfront payout, its benefits save money with a few visits over the course of a year. Membership makes repeated trips more practical and provides something fun and educational to do whenever you like.

The cost-saving benefits can go a bit further, especially when on vacation, visiting family, or otherwise on the road. Many memberships to museums and other attractions enter you into a reciprocal membership program. Joining your local museum, children's museum, zoo, or other attraction may earn you free or significantly discounted admission and other benefits at similar attractions elsewhere.

The largest such program in the US is the North American Reciprocal Museum (NARM) Program. Almost 600 museums across the US participate. There are more than 20 participants in Canada and a few in Mexico, El Salvador, and Bermuda, too. Join a participating museum and obtain a membership card with the NARM sticker to enjoy member benefits at other participating museums. These usually include free admission, food and gift shop discounts, cheaper tickets to special events, and more.

If you have children, check out the Association of Children's Museums Reciprocal Program. Almost 200 children's museums throughout the US and Canada currently participate. Join the nearest participating children's museum to enjoy membership benefits at these other attractions.

For the scientific-minded among you, the Association of Science - Technology Centers (ASTC) runs the Passport Program. Several hundred science and technology museums, children's discovery centers, planetariums, and other science-oriented attractions participate. Most of them are in the US, but this program reaches globally. There are participating museums in Canada, Mexico, South America, the United Kingdom, Australia, Israel, and elsewhere in Europe and Asia.

There's also the Reciprocal Admissions Program of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). By joining a local AZA-accredited zoo or aquarium, you enjoy free or discounted admission to the dozens of other participating attractions across the US.

These are four of the most widespread reciprocal membership programs. There are more localized programs around the US, too. For example, the Western Reciprocal Program includes a variety of museums throughout several of the country's westernmost states; museums in more than a dozen states participate in the Southeastern Reciprocal Membership Program.

There are a few caveats with reciprocal membership programs. Individual attractions have flexibility to set their own restrictions. Some of them only offer discounted (rather than free) admission to reciprocal members. Many do not extend the full roster of membership benefits, such as discounts at the cafe or gift shop.

Other attractions limit the days of the week or times of day when benefits are available, while some exclude free or discounted admission to special exhibits. Additionally, many programs do not extend benefits between attractions located within relatively close proximity. For example, the ASTC's Passport Program doesn't provide reciprocal benefits at museums within 90 miles of your home.

Call an attraction before going to inquire about their participation in your reciprocal membership program. Get details about their restrictions. Bring your membership card when you travel. You'll need it to demonstrate eligibility. Don't lend out your card, as the cardholder must be present to access reciprocal membership benefits.

For more information about reciprocal membership programs, including a list of participating attractions, perform a Google search. Staff at your local attractions can answer any questions about the reciprocal programs in which they participate (many are members of more than one).

Obtaining a membership at local museums, science centers, zoos, and aquariums is an affordable way to access these attractions year-round. It can also knock considerable sums off trips. You can feel good about membership fees (or "donations," as many places like to call them); art, cultural, and educational funding is being cut left and right, leaving museums and similar attractions with perpetually diminishing budgets. Joining is a sort of local philanthropy that helps ensure your grandchildren and their children can enjoy the same exciting family trips.


Eric Mohrman is a freelance writer living in Orlando. He writes often on travel, food, wine, dining, and nutrition topics.

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