Summer vacation season is right around the corner, but with sequestration cutting hours and reducing services at many national parks, it's getting harder to find a low-cost, educational place to take the kids during the time off. Museums are a good option, but admission costs can be bruising, especially for large families.
On the bright side, there is a simple, fairly inexpensive trick that your family can use to get free admission at 662 museums -- and counting -- across the country. By joining the North American Reciprocal Museum Association (NARM) at a member museum, you can gain admission to any other museum in the network free of charge.
I found out about the program during a visit to the Norman Rockwell museum in Stockbridge, Mass. One-time admission to the museum for my wife, my daughter and myself cost $37 -- not exactly a punishing fee, but high enough that we would have to think twice before coming back. The thing is, after wandering through the museum a bit, we realized that we definitely wanted to return.
A year's family membership at the museum costs $75, which meant that if we returned within a year, we would break even. Any further visits would essentially be free. Before I handed over my credit card, though, I saw a notice for NARM. It turned out that a $125 roundtable membership would enroll my family in the program, giving us free visits at hundreds of museums.
I looked at the museum list and quickly discovered that it would be a great value. Two NARM museums are located right around the corner from our house, but we rarely go because the admission is prohibitive. Another 12 are located in my city, but -- again -- we rarely go because the $40 admission cost for our family is too much for a casual visit.
Part of the reason that NARM is a great deal for my family is because we signed up at the Rockwell museum. According to NARM director Virginia Phillippi, museums in the program are allowed to set their own requirements for membership. In other words, the Norman Rockwell museum, located in rural Massachusetts, charged a relatively low $125, but museums in large cities can sometimes charge more than twice as much for NARM membership.
Phillippi is NARM's first full-time director. The program has been around for a few years, but its leaders have traditionally taken on the group as a side job; their main jobs were running their own individual museums. Phillippi, for example, used to be in charge of membership at the Greenville County Museum of Art in Greenville, S.C., and her predecessor ran the Georgia O'Keeffe museum.
Working at GCMA, Phillippi noticed that, when they heard about NARM, about a third of the museum's members paid extra for the extended membership. It isn't hard to see why: In addition to free admission, NARM members get discounts at museum stores around the country and reduced prices on lectures and concerts. In the case of my family, it will take us about three museum trips to pay off the full price of membership.
NARM is also a good deal for the museums, as well. The museum where members initially sign up gets an added boost in membership fees, and all the museums in the network get added foot traffic -- which translates into increased store revenues, higher attendance at events, and other benefits.
The program is still fairly unknown, but Phillippi is hoping to change that. NARM has set up a Facebook page and a website, as well as a (constantly growing!) list of its member museums. If you're looking for a great place to spend part of your vacation, the list is a good place to start. And if you find three or more museums you like, NARM membership might be a great way to start saving before your vacation even begins.
Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings editor. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.
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