If you’ve ever visited a museum, aquarium or zoo, you’re probably aware that they’d all love for you to take out a membership. Everywhere you look these days there are special “members only” entrance lines, special events for museum members and discounts in gift shops or cafeterias for those holding membership cards.
Most of the time, the average traveller will ignore this option. You’re only visiting a city once, why would you sign up for a year long membership, even if it will pay for itself in two visits? And for many places, this is perfectly true. But there are some ways that savvy family travellers can save a lot of money by purchasing museum memberships and it’s worthwhile to do your homework before leaving home to see if there’s a way to let museum memberships work for you.
1) Join a museum that has reciprocal benefits
This is a biggie. The most extensive list that I know of is the Association of Science-Technology Centers, which represents over 290 sights, mostly in North America but also scattered around the world. By buying a yearly membership to your own local science centre you may be gaining free access to great sights wherever you travel. For example, by buying a family membership to the Pacific Science Center in Seattle one year for $109, we gained free access to the Telus World of Science in Edmonton ($72 value), the Reuben Fleet Science Center in San Diego ($42 value) and the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York ($72 value). This was in addition to two visits to the Pacific Science Center itself which would have cost $64 per visit.
This association is by far the largest and most useful group of reciprocal sights that I know of, but some others may be useful as well. For example, the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle offers reciprocal entrance with a huge list of other zoos across the United States. If you were planning to visit even one other zoo in the next year it might work out cheaper to buy a membership than a single entrance.
There are a few limitations on some of these reciprocal deals. For example, the ASTC membership we got with the Pacific Science Centre forbids using the membership in locations within 90 miles of your home address unless this is the centre where you purchased membership. This means that we couldn’t use our Pacific Science Center membership to gain access to our nearest centre, the Telus World of Science in Vancouver. But since the Seattle membership was half the price of the Vancouver one, we didn’t worry too much about it! And that’s another interesting consideration. Costs of memberships vary wildly from one sight to another. For this year, we purchased a year long membership at the San Diego Natural History Museum for only $70 for the whole family. That’s less than the cost of one entrance in some places! Now that’s a deal that’s hard to pass up.
2) Use a membership for discounts
As well as giving you free entry to the sight itself, a membership often gives you significant discounts on food, merchandise and add ons. If you’re planning to make some major purchases a membership can save you money even if you only visit once.
For example, a family membership to the Vancouver Aquarium costs $185 for the year. A visit for two adults and two children currently costs $108 (I know, crazy isn’t it?). For most visitors the membership will cost more, but say you wanted to splurge on the hands on dolphin encounter at $480 for two adults and two kids. Your membership will save you 20 percent or $96 which puts you ahead of the game without even counting in the benefits of other discounts and perks you may receive. So if you’re ever buying a lot of extras when you visit a sight, check out the membership benefits information and do the math.
3) Memberships make great gift ideas
Many people I know that love to travel have a hard time coming up with good gift ideas for family or friends. Serious travel lovers often tend to live a minimalist lifestyle and avoid accumulating a lot of stuff that just weighs them down. People who are planning to travel are also often on a tight budget with every spare penny going into the “travel” jar. So what better present than a membership to a local attraction? It takes up no space, it never breaks and it allows people to still visit those expensive sights while they’re saving up for the next big trip. We’ve received several memberships from my parents as our big family gift at Christmas and we’ve always made good use of them.
So next time your generous but clueless relative starts talking about the latest giant plastic toy they want to get for your kids, tell the kids to put a bug in their ear about how much they’d love a yearly membership to their favourite local attraction. No guaranteeing it will work, but it never hurts to try!
Overall, memberships can be a great way to save money when travelling and at home. Do your research, crunch those numbers and who knows, maybe you’ll soon find yourself marching past the long lineups at the turnstiles with your membership card clutched firmly in your hand.