Free Admission to More Than 1,500 Museums, Aquariums and Zoos

Photo (cc) by Sue Waters

More than 1,500 museums in all 50 states will be open free of charge on Saturday, Sept. 27, aka “Museum Day Live!” That is, they’ll be open to those who take advantage of a Smithsonian magazine offer: a ticket good for two people to any participating museum.

Register online and a ticket will be emailed to you. Then just print it out and take it to the venue of your choice. All participants also get a one-year digital subscription to Smithsonian magazine; you can opt out if you like.

That’s one sweet deal. But it’s not the only way to get in free at museums — or at zoos, aquariums, science centers and children’s museums.

Do some restrictions apply? Naturally. But still: Free admission!

The once-a-year Smithsonian deal truly is free: Just apply and print your ticket. (Don’t have a printer? Visit a public library or a copy shop that will let you download the email.) For the others, you need to belong to a specific bank or be a member at an institution that has a reciprocal agreement.

Buy at one place, visit many others – what’s the downside, exactly?

Art, culture and … cowboys?

If you’re a Bank of America customer, the Museums on Us program is good on the first Saturday of the month (and some Sundays) at more than 150 institutions in 31 states. “Customer” means those with bank accounts but also holders of B of A and Merrill Lynch credit or debit cards. Flash your card and a photo ID, and in you go.

Museums on Us has a wide variety of art venues, plus some interesting outliers like the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Motown Museum, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and the IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame. Others aren’t museums at all, including the Houston Zoo, the Shedd Aquarium and the Frederik Meijer Sculpture Park.

If traveling for fun or for business at the beginning of any month, use the link above to find out what’s available in the region. During a trip to New York City, I used my airline credit card, which has a B of A logo on the back, to visit the Museum of Modern Art for free. Bonus: I was also able to skip the long, long line of folks waiting to pay.

Loads of choices

A concept known as museum reciprocity made my recent trip to Austin, Texas, both frugal and culturally enriched. It’s a great idea: Buy an annual pass to an institution affiliated with a reciprocal program and get yourself free or greatly reduced admission to many hundreds of other institutions.

My membership card from the Anchorage Museum got me in the door at both the Bullock Texas State History Museum and the Blanton Museum of Art. Although I made donations at both places (and at MoMA in New York), I did have the option of paying nothing at all.

Free museum admission really stretches your travel dollars, and not every museum is about old masters in a dim gallery. (Not that there’s anything wrong with those!) How about the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, the Surfing Heritage Foundation, the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum, the Charles M. Schulz Museum, the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force or the American Jazz Museum?

Sound intriguing? Any time you plan to travel, check your options through these two groups:

More than just still lifes

Again, you’re not limited to the fine arts when it comes to museum reciprocity.

The Association of Science and Technology Centers is made up of more than 300 educational institutions, mostly in the U.S. and Canada. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums encompasses 156 venues in the U.S., plus one in Canada and one in Mexico.

Many of those institutions offer free admission, but some offer only 50 percent off your ticket. A third organization, the Association of Children’s Museums, lists more than 200 member sites nationwide that will give you 50 percent off admission.

A few caveats about all “free” admission policies:

  • Institutions close to one another may limit free admissions. (“Close” could mean nearby or 90 miles.) If you’re visiting from far away, your hometown museum membership card might get you in at more than one place. Call in advance, so you can prioritize if necessary.
  • You need an actual membership card, so don’t put off joining your local institution. Specifically, don’t wait until just before closing on the day before your trip.
  • A specific membership level (e.g., individual vs. family) could be necessary to get in free at some of these institutions. Check before you go, so you won’t be surprised.
  • Your free admission might not include special attractions or touring exhibits.
  • Prepare to pay for parking. There’s a limit to “free.”

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