Have you ever visited a museum, aquarium, zoo, or other such attraction, and wondered if the annual membership – which offers unlimited admission for a year – is really worth the cost compared to just buying the one-day admission?
It’s a dilemma our family faced for years, until we had our fourth or fifth child and it became clear that the annual membership would be almost the same price as, or even cheaper than, the regular admission fees for a family our size.
But you don’t have to have a large family like ours in order to save big on an annual museum membership. This is because most cultural institutions, in addition to offering unlimited admission for a year, provide other great money-saving benefits to their members. Here are six members-only benefits that can make museum memberships pay for themselves . . . .
1. Free or discounted parking.
Some museums, especially in urban areas, charge for parking, which can cost $10-$20 per day. Free or discounted parking can add up to significant savings, depending on how often you visit.
Of the five institutions we maintain memberships at (three are in our community and two are in major cities three hours away), one offers totally free parking to all guests, one charges everybody the same price whether you’re a member or not, one gives free parking to members only, and two have no parking facilities of their own but they both provide us with two free parking passes each year for near-by city parking ramps.
2. Discounts at the museum gift shop, store, cafe or restaurant.
Most museums give their members anywhere from 5-20% off on purchases made at the gift shop, store, and cafe. You’ll need to show your membership card in order to get the discount.
We’ve found that museum stores offer unique and educational gifts, toys, clothes, games, and crafts not found in other local stores. My wife does quite a bit of our Christmas and birthday shopping in these stores while I try to keep the kids preoccupied elsewhere in the museum. And now our kids bring their own money with them to make their own purchases.
Museum food can be expensive, so we try to bring our own food when we can, or we’ll go to a restaurant nearby. On those occasions when there is nothing else nearby, or it was impractical for us to bring our own food, the member discount at the museum restaurant definitely helps!
3. Invitations to special members-only events.
Members receive invitations to special events like the opening night for a new exhibit (where you might have an opportunity to meet an artist or special guest), holiday parties and programs, member meetings and receptions, and more.
What I find interesting about some of these events is that you’ll see a real cross-section of the community – from donors who give tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to the museum to families like ours who just pay our regular annual membership fee (which varies from $65 to $190, depending on the museum).
If you enjoy socializing and meeting new people, or just being a “people watcher,” these can be fun events to attend.
4. Free or discounted admission to special exhibits.
Some museums give members free admission to special exhibits and shows which require everyone else to pay a separate admission fee for, while others charge members a discounted rate for those “extra” activities.
For example, the aquarium we belong to gives members free tickets to the aquatic show and half-price tickets for the 4-D movies, while non-members pay substantially more.
5. Reciprocal membership at other museums.
This benefit alone is worth the price of admission – er, membership – if you travel from time to time to visit other museums! Many cultural institutions have reciprocity agreements with other similar institutions, allowing their members to be admitted to the other institutions for free. Check your museum’s website or contact them to learn how this works.
In July we enjoyed three days in downtown Chicago over the Independence Day holiday. In planning for this trip, I checked the websites of all the museums we hold memberships at to find out if we could take advantage of reciprocity agreements with any of the great museums in Chicago.
We discovered that our local public museum, where we pay $65 for an annual family membership, had reciprocity agreements with a couple of the museums in Chicago. We chose to visit one of those museums, showed them our membership card from the museum back home, and all seven of us got in for free. This reciprocity benefit saved us $90!
6. Your membership is tax deductible.
Another great benefit of museum membership, which few people realize, is that your membership fees are often tax deductible. The reason why is because these institutions are nonprofit organizations and your membership fee is considered a donation.
Each time we joined a museum as a member, we received a receipt showing the amount of our membership which was tax-deductible. In most cases, the entire amount was deductible. Be sure to consult with your tax adviser to learn how this will apply to your own personal tax situation.
So there you have six ways that museum memberships can save you money, and sometimes even pay for themselves.
Of course, the amount you save will depend on how often you visit the museum and take advantage of the member benefits. If you go a couple of times a year, the savings can really add up. We visit our local art museum at least once a month, and the others two to three times a year, so we definitely get our money’s worth.
Looking over this list, I believe that #3, #4, and #5 offer the biggest savings benefits for our family. Which ones would make a museum membership worth the cost for you? Leave a comment below!