As Roadschoolers, we are always searching for great museums to supplement our learnings but after a short time on the road, we quickly realized that museum admissions add up quickly! That's when we discovered reciprocal memberships.
So what is a reciprocal membership and how does it work? Reciprocal memberships allow the pass holders to visit other museums that participate in the program. They each have their own restrictions on how they can be used which we will explain below and we always recommend calling to make sure they are still participating in the program.
Here are the following reciprocal programs we have found and used over the years
ASTC- Association of Science and Technology Centers Founded in 1973, ASTC has approximately 650 members in nearly 50 countries. It includes science centers and museums, as well as nature centers, aquariums, planetariums, zoos, botanical gardens, and natural history and children’s museums.
This membership has been the one we have used the most because it covers so many different types of museum. Another big perk of this one is the admission to the museums are free, making it an amazing value. One day at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia would have cost us $88 alone but with our membership (which cost less) it was free! The admission doesn't include any of the special exhibits or Imax show, only the regular admission.
It does have a restriction of use of 90 miles from your home museum and your home address and that 90 miles is as the crow flies not driving or google mileage. So what does that mean? It means that if you were to drop a pin on your museum and draw a circle 90 miles out from it any museums that fell in that circle you would not be able to use unless they had a special agreement with that museum. The same applies to your home address so picking your museum location is important.
Our top 3 picks, we will share below, were chosen to avoid the 90 day rule from the most popular domicile services as well as the overlap of the museums themselves.
AZA - Association of Zoos & Aquariums Was found in 1924 and has over 230 members but not all members participate in the reciprocal program (Disney's Animal Kingdom is unfortunately one who doesn't) but there are many that do.
With the AZA membership, where you get your membership really matters as it relates to how much you will pay at other member sites. There are 2 tiers of membership that the Zoos can participate in, first they offer only 50% off their admission and the second tier offer free admission. These are notated on their list of reciprocals by being either red or blue and have either 50% or 100% & 50% next to their name.
If you purchase a membership from a zoo with blue 100% & 50% next to their name like the Sentosa Island SEA Aquarium listed above, you will receive free admission at any of the other AZAs that have that same blue 100% & 50% by their name. When you go to an AZA with the red 50% by their name then you would pay 50% off the admission cost.
However, if you buy a membership from one with the red 50% next to their name like the Calgary, then at the AZAs with the blue 100% & 50% you will only save 50% off admission.
So always buy from one that has the blue 100% & 50% by their name and all of the ones we recommend have that designation to ensure you get the best discounts.
NARM - North American Reciprocal Museum Association This one has the largest reciprocity with over 1013 members. Most of their museums focus on the arts and history but they do have botanical gardens, children’s museums, science and technology centers as well.
Like the ASTC, with a NARM membership you receive free entrance into the museums participating in the reciprocal program. The admission doesn't include special events or separately ticketed exhibits. We have found this one to be of great value as our children have grown but don't be shy if you have littles to take them too, ours have been going since they were small and Crazy Family Adventures has post on tips for making a trip with littles enjoyable.
Time Travelers - Time Travelers was created in 1998 by the Missouri Historical society and has over 300 museums across 40 states. They focus on the historical sites and history museums.
Museums participating this program may offer free admission but there are some that may only discount. We recommend calling the museums on this list in advance to confirm the pricing with your reciprocal membership.
ACM - Association of Children's museums Started in 1962, this reciprocal has 400 museums in 48 states and 20 countries but not all of them participate in reciprocity so be sure to check the list. With a focus being on early childhood learning, we find that this reciprocal works best for those with children 8 and under.
With this reciprocal you will receive 50% off admission for all museums in the network.
AHS - American Horticulture Society Botanical Gardens are the specialty of this reciprocal and they have over 320 gardens that participate. We have only used this one twice but both times it has been spectacular and not just about plants. We used it at the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas and Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids both were incredible in their own unique ways.
Like the ASTC and NARM, you receive admission into all participating gardens for free. Again it doesn't cover special events or exhibit entrances. Some of the gardens have a 90 mile restriction like the ASTC based on your home address. Good news for RVers domiciling on SD, FL and TX, SD & FL's gardens do not enforce the 90 mile rule and in TX if you domicile out of Escapees you should be fine as only the northern gardens enforce.
Unnamed Reciprocal Zoo - So this is one I stumbled on by accident, we happened to be in Utica and thought the Utica Zoo was an AZA, turned out it was part of another reciprocal and I still haven't been able to track down the name of it. Utica zoo is one of 80 reciprocal zoos and aquariums on this list, there aren't a lot and some of them are only 50% off while others are free but if you want to visit the Clearwater aquarium and have a family of 4 or more, the Utica zoo reciprocal is the cheapest way.
The membership in Utica cost $60 for a family, and is the cheapest one in this reciprocal we have found so far. For my family of 4 (3 people over 12 and 1 under) it would cost $87 to go to the Clearwater Aquarium so this one was a no brainer the year we went.
I recommend checking their site to see if they have any other that might be of interest to you before adding this one to determine the if this would be a good fit for your family.
There are 3 others reciprocals as well MARP, SERP and ROAM that seem to focus heavily on the arts and have a lot of over lap with NARM because of that we haven't purchased or investigated to find the lowest priced one yet.
Whew!!! Are you still with me? I know that was information overload! So now that your head is spinning, let me make it easy for you and give you our top 3 picks for reciprocity
Western North Carolina Nature Center - At just $69 this membership that includes ASTC and AZA is an excellent deal! Its located in beautiful Asheville, NC and is a lovely facilty that the kids really enjoyed.
Kern County Museum - Gives your reciprocity with ASTC, ACM, NARMS and Time Travelers with their Travelers memberships for $125. If you are looking to add AZA to this one to have all of them, Living Desert in Carlsbad, NM is only $40 for the family membership (don't mix it up with the one in Palm Springs that is crazy expensive).
Boonshoft Museum of Discovery -Located in Dayton, OH the Adventurer membership for $145 allows you reciprocity at ASTC, AZA and ACM.
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