Family Museum Memberships: A Good Deal?

Last Updated Sep 1, 2010 10:42 AM EDT

It's a rainy Sunday afternoon, and I'm standing at the ticket desk of our local science museum, the Da Vinci Science Center, in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Here are the admission rates: Adults, $11.95; children ages 4 to 12, $8.95. I'm looking at shelling out $29.85 for the two kids and me.

Then there's the one-year family membership: $90. So I'd have to go three times in a year to almost break even, or four to actually save money. (When your kids are running around the lobby, this calculation is harder to make than it seems.)

What do I do, family membership or one-time? Well, it depends, obviously, on how often I'd use it. That's kind of hard to predict.

Same deal has me scratching my head with the Philadelphia Zoo. Family of four, plus parking, costs $78. A one-year membership is $99. If we go twice, we come out ahead. But it is an hour away, which requires some snack and potty calculus, and do the Butlers need to go to a big zoo more than once a year anyway?

One friend paid $150 for a family membership to the Please Touch Museum in Philly. Here's how she described it: "You really have to work hard to get your money's worth. For us it was a hassle making the hour-long drive, packing a lunch to make sure we had healthy stuff to eat, and hoping it wasn't ridiculously crowded that day."

Geographic proximity seems to be the key. Some families I know live close enough to museums and attractions to pop in and out for 45 minutes at a time on a weekly basis. For everyone else, it requires a little forethought: Are we really coming back here? On the other hand, if it's a nonprofit, a portion of your membership may be tax deductible. And you're supporting an organization you believe in.

Travel author Tim Leffel, along with some other parents, gave me advice about when you should spring for a family membership. Here are their tips:

Look for reciprocal memberships: Da Vinci Science Center membership would also get us reciprocal admission to other museums around the country through the ASTC passport program. So now we can check in on the polar bear at the Ecotarium in Worcester, Massachusetts, when we visit relatives there in the fall. OK, that changes the cost equation.

Plan it: If you can't think of at least one other occasion off the top of your head when you know you'll be back, skip the family membership. But if you can think of several ways to use it - your nieces and nephews will be visiting, for instance, and they can enter on your membership, you'll be more likely to get your money's worth.

Consider it for consecutive visits to a big museum: Even if you're visiting a city for a just few days, a family membership can make sense if you go twice or three times in a row. This can work well for large attractions. "I prefer shorter visits where you concentrate on small parts of a museum rather than trying to see the whole thing in one go," one friend told me. "It makes the outings less stressful."

Try before you buy: Leffel says if you pay for a one-time visit to a museum, and the kids totally dig it, you can ask on your way out if the museum will apply that day's admission to the cost of yearly membership. Save those receipts and ticket stubs, and look for someone in customer service who has decision-making power.

The other stuff: When Leffel's daughter was young, they bought a family membership to the nearby Nashville Zoo. "The reason my daughter loved it is they have this fantastic playground, with a giant climbing structure with crazy rope ladders and slides," he says. "It was a good way to kill some time." He also has fond memories of family night, when once a year the zoo was open in the evening only for members. That extras made it worthwhile.

Have any tips on making the most of museum visits with your family? Sign in to share them below.

Photo courtesy Flickr user mape_s, CC 2.0
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