Forget free museum nights, go for free on your own schedule

If you’re a nerd like me, museum admission fees can add up quickly.

Sure, many museums have free nights. I’m sure they’re a lot of fun in some cities, but in places like New York or Toronto they can be so crowded it’s just not worth going. It’s a real challenge to focus on an exhibition when the ambiance is akin to Grand Central at rush hour.

Plus, when I’m not paying $25 for a ticket it’s easier for me to justify visiting the same museum for several short visits, rather than trying to see it all in one day. It makes it much easier to find time to go to a museum when I can pop in for an hour — and there’s a limit to how much I can really take in at once.

Get free admission with memberships you already have

Your local museums probably offer discounts for students, but you may be able to get free passes through your alumni network or your local library. There may be other local programs — like free museum memberships with your NYC ID.

If you have a military ID, there are quite a few museums in the Blue Star network, offering free admission each summer. Some museums offer discounted or free admission year round.

If you have a Bank of America or Merrill Lynch card, you can get a free general admission ticket to museums around the US on the first full weekend of the month.

If you work for a large corporation, see if you can benefit from corporate museum memberships and sponsorships.

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) isn’t a reciprocal network, but many museums provide complimentary admission to members (and often a guest) as a courtesy. If you work for a museum that’s a member of a reciprocal museum network other network institutions will often give complimentary admission if you show your business card.

Overseas memberships

If you’re planning on visiting a museum several times, check to see if they offer an overseas membership. These are often much less expensive than a regular membership and you still get all of the benefits. If you live abroad and are spending a few weeks (or months) in North America, this is the perfect solution.

Reciprocal museum networks to join in North America

Quite a few museums price their memberships so you only need to visit two or three times in a year for it to be a financially smart move. Not only does it make it easy (and cheap) to visit a museum you love, it can also unlock member benefits at other museums.

Becoming a member of a local museum can get you free access to dozens or hundreds of other museums. It often includes their regular member discounts at the museum stores and member rates for lectures and special events. Some museums have exhibitions or programs that aren’t included in membership, so you may still end up occasionally needing to get a ticket for a special exhibition or the planetarium.

Some programs include free admission to all member museums, while others may only provide a discount (although it’s usually pretty substantial). If your museum has different membership levels, make sure the level you join at includes the reciprocal membership. Some institutions don’t recognize family memberships or limit the number of tickets included with a reciprocal pass.

The big reciprocal organizations are:

That’s a lot of reciprocal networks! You don’t need to join them all for it to be worthwhile. A quick look at the list of participating institutions (or even just the name — not everyone cares about zoos) will help you narrow down which memberships would be beneficial.

Sometimes you can find museum memberships at a discount on Groupon, LivingSocial, or simply on sale. It’s in poor taste to ferret out the cheapest membership to save a few bucks, but some museum memberships are more expensive than others and people who live near smaller museums can benefit. You’re meant to join the museum you visit most frequently or the one closest to your home base.

Some museums are members of multiple reciprocal organizations. If you’re nomadic or just okay with being extra cheap, these museums are quite popular for their ROI:

There are also regional organizations:

If you’re less nerdy than I am (or I guess nerdy in a different way) there are also reciprocal networks for amusement parks:

And, of course, there are park passes:

Most states and provinces offer their own annual passes.

Before you buy, check the geographic restrictions. ASTC and AZA limit your access to reciprocal museums within 90 miles of your residence and your home museum.

Even museums that aren’t part of a reciprocal network may have agreements with individual institutions, so if you have a museum membership check to see what benefits you already have. For example, if you become a member of The High in Atlanta, GA, you can get discounts to events at the Alliance Theatre and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

In order to make use of reciprocal memberships, all you have to do is show up at the admissions desk with your member card (and sometimes an ID). Unfortunately, most museums won’t recognize reciprocal memberships if you’re buying tickets online, so you’ll have to get your tickets in person.