How to Enjoy Great Museums for Free
A great museum can offer insight into life in the past, let you view famous works of art or explain the inner workings of everything from a space shuttle to a dinosaur. Visiting a museum is part of the fun of traveling, whether it is a destination in itself (such as the Smithsonian Institution or the Metropolitan Museum of Art) or a lesser-known find (such as the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, or the Mütter Museum of medical history in Philadelphia).
Some museums, such as The British Museum in London and the 19 that make up the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., are always free, while others have a pay-what-you-wish policy that lets you set your budget.
But many museums charge admission fees. Although the average U.S. museum admission fee is just $7, according to the U.S. Embassy, it’s not unusual for popular museums to charge $15 or $20 for adults. If you want to bring the whole family with you, that can really add up.
With a little advance planning and creativity, however, it’s possible to visit many museums—even those with hefty admission fees—for free, or almost free. Here’s how to do it:
Check for Free Days and Times
If you live in or are traveling to some of the largest cities in the United States, the website Free Museum Day is an invaluable resource. The site lists museums in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle, and notes which ones are always free, which ones have pay-what-you-wish policies and when they offer free admission—usually 1 day a month for limited hours.
Many more offer free admission on a particular day of the week or month. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles offers free admission on Thursdays between 5 and 8 p.m., for example, and admission is free every Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
For other cities, check tourism sites for your destination, or look up the location on About Travel. Information varies by city, but you’ll find articles on free museums and galleries in Minneapolis, for instance, and even free museum days in Greece (which include Sundays from November through March, as well as all Greek national holidays).
Museum Day Live!, brought to you by Smithsonian magazine, is a day of free admission to some 1,400 museums around the United States. The annual event occurs on the last Saturday in September and allows free admission for 2 people with a Museum Day Live! ticket downloaded from Smithsonian magazine’s Museum Day Live! website.
Look for Reciprocal Admission Programs
If you’re a member of a museum at home, that may qualify you for free admission to museums in many destinations you visit.
Through the Reciprocal Organization of Associated Museums, member organizations provide reciprocal admissions for members at the $100 level or above. That’s a bump up from the individual member rate for most museums, but it applies to the organization’s more than 200 member museums and arts organizations. If you travel a few times a year and visit museums, your investment could pay off quickly.
The rules are similar for the North American Reciprocal Museum Association, which includes 700 arts, cultural and historical institutions throughout the United States and Canada, as well as in Bermuda and El Salvador.
Another organization that offers a reciprocal membership program is the Association of Science and Technology Centers. The ASTC Passport program includes almost 300 science centers around the world, including the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto and the California Science Center in Los Angeles. ASTC benefits are usually available to all members, regardless of level, but you’ll need to travel with your local membership card and photo ID, and note that the program does not include centers within 90 miles of your home.
Carry the Right Card
A happy side benefit of carrying a Bank of America® or Merrill Lynch® credit or debit card is that it qualifies you for free admission to about 150 museums through the Museums on Us® program. This benefit applies during the first full weekend of every month to member museums such as the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Phoenix Art Museum and Detroit’s Motown Museum.
Free museum admission is just one of the many perks of the NEA Credit Card Program.
Look for Special Circumstances
During the weekend of the Chicago Marathon last October, the Art Institute of Chicago—ranked the top museum in the world in Trip Advisor’s 2014 Travelers’ Choice awards—offered 2 free admissions to every runner who showed their finisher’s medal or bib at the ticket desk. If you’re traveling as part of a group tour or for a special event, read the fine print in your information packet to see if you’re eligible for special deals or discounts.
A 2010 collaboration among the National Endowment for the Arts, the Department of Defense and Blue Star Families resulted in the Blue Star Museums program. Now in its 6th year, the program makes admission free for active-duty military personnel and their families to more than 2,000 museums between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Participating museums for 2015 will be announced on the website in May, but the 2014 list spanned all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and America Samoa. Museums included the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York, and the World of Little League in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
Look for Discounts
If you can’t schedule your visit—or don’t meet the requirements—for free admission to the museums you want to visit, look into discount programs and packages that can reduce your costs.
For example, the CityPASS is available for 11 large cities in North America. Ticket books usually include 5 admissions to an area’s top attractions (including museums) and are good for 9 consecutive days, giving you time to fit in other activities during your vacation.
Prices vary by city, but in Seattle, for example, your CityPASS ($64 adults; $44 children) includes 2 trips up the Space Needle and an Argosy Harbor Cruise, as well as visits to the Seattle Aquarium, the Woodland Park Zoo or the EMP Museum and the Pacific Science Center or the Museum of Flight—a $123.75 value, according to the website.
Do Your Research
The one common denominator in all of these deals is that it pays to do some planning before you travel. Before you book a trip, go online and look up the museums in or near your destination. If they offer free admissions on certain days or weekends, decide if you can time your trip to take advantage of those perks.
Call ahead to verify the offers are still good, be sure to pack any necessary cards and your identification, and you can explore worlds of art, history or science wherever you go.
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