Family travel on the cheap with reciprocal zoo and museum memberships…


ourtravelingtribe.comOne of the many things that we love about being mobile, is that we are able to take the kids to visit fun and educational places all across the nation, including zoos, aquariums, children’s museums, and science museums.

Now that we have been on the road for over 7 years, we have learned some tips and tricks to traveling with a family and getting the most for our money.  Some of this info we learned from friends or the internet, but quite a bit of it was learned the hard (and expensive!) way, through making mistakes that cost us money!  That’s not such a great part of traveling, so maybe these tips will save your family some effort, and help you out during your own travels!

One of the ways that we have been able to afford to go to so many great educational destinations is thanks to reciprocal  zoo and museum memberships!

Reciprocal zoo and museum memberships mean that you have purchased a membership to a zoo or museum that belongs to one (or more) of four associations that serve these destinations: AZA, ASTC, ACM, or NARM.   When you purchase a membership from a participating business, your membership gives you reciprocal admission benefits to many other zoos or museums, across the country, that belong to the same association.

river otter at the OKC zoo

River otter exhibit at the Oklahoma City Zoo.

Molly riding on a segway at the OKC Science MuseumEach member receives free admission (and often other perks) to the park where they purchased the membership, this park is the member’s ‘home’ zoo/museum.

There are four main reciprocal museum associations, 3 of which are extremely popular with families that like to travel:
-AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums)
-ASTC (Association of Science-Technology Centers)
-ACM (Association of Children’s Museums)
-there is also NARM (North American Reciprocal Museum Association), which is comprised mainly of  art museums; while not as popular as the other types of memberships, I will do a short overview below.


T-Rex exhibit at the Greensboro Science Center (NC, USA)

Digging for dinos. T-Rex to be exact, at a special exhibit while visiting the Greensboro Science Center!

If you are looking to purchase any zoo and museum memberships for their reciprocity, here is some basic overview information.
Please be sure to read up on the benefits and restrictions on each museum’s memberships, and also the details of each membership level that you might be considering; different levels of memberships offer different benefits, including how many people will be admitted under each membership.

museum reptile talk

Getting a hands-on reptile talk at the Gulf Coast Exploreum in Mobile, Alabama

AZA – (the Association of Zoos and Aquariums)  This membership is incredibly popular with traveling families!  There are so many exceptional zoos and aquariums around the country, and many of them belong to the AZA.  If you purchase a membership at an AZA member zoo (or aquarium, included without mention from this point), you will receive benefits from other zoos around the country.   The main benefit is free or reduced (50%) admission to other member zoos.  The current list of AZA members is here, and the way the program works is outlined in the paragraphs on the right hand side of the list in that link.  Before you purchase an AZA membership, be sure that you understand how the reciprocity works – your discount at other zoos will depend on your home membership.  Purchasing a membership from a zoo that offers a 100% discount to other membership holders will be the best deal if you are going to be visiting a lot of other locations (listed in blue as ‘100%and50%’ on the member locations list); some location’s members will only receive 50% off at other member zoos.

green snake at the Oklahoma City Zoo

Be sure to check out the Herpetarium at the OKC Zoo (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma)

ASTC – (Association of Science-Technology Centers)  Membership to an ASTC offers you free admission to other member science-technology centers outside of a 90 mile home museum/resident address radius (explained further in the ‘restrictions’ below).  You can search to see if a science center is a member here, or find the complete 2016-2017 list of participating locations here.   Family size benefits vary with this program, with each location setting their own limits on number of family members included in the reciprocity.  Free admission limits are noted, for each center, on the member list.

lever exhibit at the Exploreum in Mobile, Alabama

Hands-On learning about levers via tug-o-war at the Exploreum in Mobile, AL.

ACM – (Association of Children’s Museum)  With over 200 member participating museums scattered around the country, this membership is great for families with younger children.  An ACM premium family membership is pretty cut and dried since they revamped the program in 2013: membership will give you free admission to your home park and 50% off of admission to ALL other ACM museums (none are free), for a family of up to 6.  No other discounts, benefits, or restrictions (no 90 mile distance limit).  You can search for local or destination specific participating children’s museums and find a complete list of participating locations here.  If you like to visit Children’s Museums, getting to visit them at half off is a good deal!

pint sized kitchen at the Greensboro Children's Museum in NC

Savanna takes over the kitchen in ‘Nana’s house’ at the Greensboro Children’s Museum in North Carolina.

NARM – The North American Reciprocal Museum Association has over 700 member locations worldwide.   Comprised mainly of art museum, this assoc. also includes some museums that could fall under other categories also.  Membership benefits vary depending on the location visited, but reciprocity is often only extended to named membership holder as opposed to the entire family (up to 6).  For example, when we visited the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Georgia (USA), I had called ahead of time to verify that they were NARM participating members.  Staff who answered the phone said that yes they were and confirmed the free admission; I failed to ask how many the free admission extended to, and when we arrived we were disappointed to find that it only gave free admission to one person. You can find participating NARM museums here.

Also, while the following 2 memberships are not as popular or widely know, they are still worth mentioning:
American Horticultural Society RAP (nearly 300 Gardens, Arboreta, and Conservatories) – you can find more information on their list of participating gardens here.

Time Travelers Reciprocity Network (over 300 historical sites and museums) – their list of participating locations also includes benefits to be extended from each location!

health exhibit at the Exploreum in Alabama

learning about heart rates at the Gulf Coast Exploreum in Mobile, AL.

Keep in mind that there are some restrictions to the programs:

~Other AZA and ASTCs in a 90 mile radius (as the crow flies) from your home museum location, AND your driver’s license address, are exempt from the requirement to extend benefits…meaning, if you buy (for example) a membership to the Milwaukee County Zoo, then you will not get free or discounted admission to the Lincoln Park Zoo, Henry Vilas Zoo, or the Racine Zoo as they are all within that 90 mile radius of your home park (Milwaukee County Zoo).
Also, zoos and museum within 90 miles of your DL address do not have to offer you reciprocity discounts (except your home membership location).  We have personally never had our DL addresses checked, but other families have occasionally.

~Benefits are generally limited to a family of 6 (but can vary) and visit must include at least one membership named individual (generally a parent).  Often, if you have a larger family, then 2 memberships will be beneficial (one in husband’s name, one in wife’s).  With a family of 7 or 8, depending on how much you are going to use it, it may be cheaper to have one membership, then just pay for a child’s ticket (or 2) at each location; also, if you have babies/toddlers, they are often free.

~Reciprocity is generally only for basic admission.  If the location has a theater, planetarium, special exhibit…anything that visitors would have to pay extra for, it is usually not included in the reciprocity benes, and you will have to pay for participation in those extras also.


penguin exhibit at the Greensboro Science Center (NC, USA)

Peeking at the penguins at the Greensboro Science Center in Greensboro, NC.

Benefits that come with reciprocity:
~Your reciprocal zoo and museum membership gets you free admission to your ‘home’ zoo or museum location for a full year, and often includes notices of special events and discounts reserved only for members.  There is a rare location here and there that does memberships on fiscal or calendar years, so be sure to verify when it will expire before purchasing.
~Your membership card will often get you a discount in your, as well as other, member location gift shops.  Generally ranging from 10 to 20%, this is a great bonus if you are already buying souvenirs, so don’t forget to ask (more common at AZA than ASTC)
~If you have a local member location, please please consider supporting them even if their membership is more expensive than another location.  These reciprocal memberships were initially set up to reward families who have supported their local communities, by purchasing a membership to their neighboring zoo and/or museum, to enjoy other zoos and museum in locations they are traveling to.   Buying local also means that your membership won’t be invalid should your neighborhood museum start to check ID addresses.

Sci-Port Discovery Center in Shreveport, LA, USA

Learning about horsepower at the Sci-Port Discovery Center in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Tips to remember:

~Learn about the different levels of membership, including the differences in benefits, and see which one works best for your family.

~Shop around.  We don’t have a zoo anywhere near where we summer, so I can’t really ‘support local’ when it comes to an AZA membership.  Shopping around to find the best deal on an AZA membership saves us a lot of money on the road (I do try to support a location that I think we will be visiting that year tho!).  Keep in mind that not all zoos/aquariums are AZA members, or offer reciprocity (this goes back to being clear about membership benefits!).  If you are shopping around, keep an eye out for groupons; sometimes zoos and museums will offer memberships at a good discount on the Groupon deal site (this is an affiliate link).

~Call, before visiting a location, to ask about family size limits, and any other restrictions.  A family limit of 6 is the most common, but I’ve seen 4 and 5 on ASTCs, and even an 8 (yay!).  Not all surprises are fun ones, especially when it’s ticket shock.  😉

~Inquire as to whether you can place both parents’ names on the membership card so that either one can take the kids to the zoo!  If not, consider which parent is more likely to take the kids to the zoo without the other, and be sure to put the membership in that person’s name; we usually put everything in Vaughn’s name for consistency, but I (Dana) am much more likely to take the littles to a zoo or museum without Vaughn than he without me, so we put the membership in my name.

~Travel much?  Take color copies of your membership cards and tuck them away just in case.  If your card(s) get misplaced, lost, or ruined on your trip, then you will still be able to visit other locations under the reciprocity.

alligator snapping turtle at the OKC Zoo...

checking out an alligator snapping turtle up close and personal at the OKC Zoo (Oklahoma City, OK)

Thanks to reciprocal zoo and museum memberships, being able to visit zoos, aquariums, and museums all across the country has been such a treat for our family!  We have learned so much, and the memories and experiences are priceless!
(The tickets have been priceless too, thanks to these memberships! 😉 )

Hopefully, these reciprocal zoo and museum memberships will make it easier and more affordable, for your family to experience these fun locations also!

*Due to the amount of inquiries over where is the best deal for purchasing memberships, I am listing 2 museums that offer a great deal on reciprocity programs.  However, I really, really want to encourage you to find out the information on joining a LOCAL-to-YOU museum for several reasons – one being that if your local museum checks addresses, and you have a membership somewhere else, they may not let you in (remember that 90 mile exception), and also, please support your local community!  Supporting your local zoo/museum is an investment worth more than the few dollars you will save getting a membership somewhere else.
That being said, the best deals for memberships that I have found are:

*WNC Nature Center in Asheville, North Carolina – their family membership for $69 covers 2 adults and 4 children, and includes AZA and ASTC reciprocity.  Please read their membership page thoroughly so that you understand any limitations/restrictions.

*Boonshoft Museum of Discovery in Dayton, Ohio – they have multiple membership levels, so be sure to read carefully to find out which one is best for your family.  Their adventurer membership includes reciprocity to AZA, ASTC, and ACMs.  Dues are $135 a year, which is the minimum allowed to be a ACM member.

Again, please consider a membership to a local zoo or museum.  If you don’t have one near you, then what about near grandparents/family, or one of the stops on an upcoming vacation?  Please support institutions that you are actually going to use, and see your membership dollars at work! 🙂

Lilla Rose

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