Thousands of institutions across the country offer free admission every day, or on certain days of the week, month or year. We've rounded up some of the best.
Whether you hope to vacation or staycation this summer, museums are among the many easy ways you can keep costs down.
Thousands of institutions across the country offer free admission every day, or on certain days of the week, month or year. They include museums of art, history, science, culture and industry, as well as children’s museums.
So we’ve rounded up top tips to help you take advantage of these freebies.
1. Institutions that are always free
You can find museums across that country where admission is always free for everyone. Here are a few examples to illustrate the variety:
- Arizona Capitol Museum, Phoenix
- Baltimore Museum of Art
- Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s museum and gold vault, New York City
- Houston Center for Photography
- Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust
- Minneapolis Institute of Art
- National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago
- New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park
- Smithsonian Institute (includes 19 museums and galleries and the National Zoological Park), Washington, D.C., area and New York City
- Texas Military Forces Museum, Austin
To find more, just do an internet search for “free museums” plus the city or state where you live or are traveling.
2. Institutions that are sometimes free
Many museums waive admission on a regular basis, such as on a certain day of the week or month. For example:
- Autry Museum of the American West, Los Angeles — free on the second Tuesday of the month
- DuSable Museum of African American History, Chicago — free on Sundays
- GLBT Historical Society archives and museum, San Francisco — free on the first Wednesday of the month
- MIT Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts — free on the last Sunday of the month (except July and August)
- Museum of History & Industry, Seattle — free on the first Thursday of the month
To find more, search for a phrase like “free museum admission days” plus a city or state, or check the websites of the museums you want to visit. Free days are often noted on the admission or hours page.
Many museums also regularly waive admission for specific groups, such as local residents. For example:
- Detroit Institute of Arts — always free for residents of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties
- Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago — free on Tuesdays for Illinois residents
- National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis — free from 3 to 5 p.m. on Mondays for Tennessee residents
- Oregon Historical Society museum and library, Portland — always free for Multnomah County residents
- San Diego Museum of Man — free on the third Tuesday of every month for San Diego County residents
Other such groups often include children, seniors, students and military members or veterans.
Again, do a search for the applicable group or ask the museums you want to visit.
If you’re part of a military family, search for Blue Star Museums. This seven-year-old network now comprises more than 2,000 institutions, all of which offer free admission to active-duty military personnel (including National Guard and Reserve) and their families from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
3. Bank of America’s ‘Museums on Us’ program
Bank of America and Merrill Lynch credit and debit card holders get one free general admission to certain museums every month as part of Bank of America’s “Museums on Us” program.
More than 150 institutions currently participate in the 19-year-old program.
Cardholders simply show their Bank of America or Merrill Lynch card and a photo ID to get in.
4. Annual free museum days
Mark your calendar for:
- Museum Day Live (next scheduled for Sept. 24, 2016). Smithsonian magazine hosts this event in the spirit of the Smithsonian museums, where admission is always free. On this day — which technically comes more than once a year (the last one was in March) — participating museums offer free admission to anyone who prints a free ticket from Smithsonian magazine’s website. Tickets for Sept. 24 will be available online starting Aug. 1.
- International Museum Day (happens on and around May 18 annually). This is a 38-year-old tradition organized by the International Council of Museums to raise awareness of the cultural importance of museums. Participating museums celebrate in various ways, which in some cases includes offering free admission.
- Art Museum Day (happens on and around May 18 annually). The Association of Art Museum Directors launched this program seven years ago and schedules it alongside International Museum Day. Last year, about 150 museums participated by offering free admission and special programs.
Local versions of these events may also be available. For example, Austin Museum Day (next scheduled for Sept. 18) involves free admission to museums in the Austin, Texas, area and Museums Free-for-All (which last took place in January) involves free general admission to museums in Southern California.
5. Reciprocal membership programs
The basic idea behind reciprocal membership programs is that if you join one institution that’s part of a network, you can visit the other institutions in that network for free or for discounted admission.
Take for example the North American Reciprocal Museum (NARM) Association, which describes itself as “one of the largest reciprocal membership programs in the world.”
Currently, 822 institutions are part of NARM’s network. They include arts, cultural and historical institutions as well as botanical gardens, children’s museums, and science and technology centers.
If you join one of those institutions at the NARM membership level, your benefits will include free admission to the other 821 institutions.
Other museum-related reciprocal membership programs include:
- Association of Children’s Museums’ ACM Reciprocal Network
- Association of Science-Technology Centers’ ASTC Travel Passport Program
- Southeastern Reciprocal Membership Program
To learn about other freebies for your summer vacation or staycation, check out:
- “50 Fun Free or Cheap Things to Do With Your Kids This Summer“
- “4 Ways to See Movies at a Theater for Free“
- “10 Ways to Get Free Lodging on Your Summer Vacation“
What’s your favorite free museum, or your favorite way to visit museums for free? Share your thoughts in our Forums. It’s a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.