General Information, Income and Budgeting, Recommendations

Budgeting to Go: The Power of Reciprocal Memberships

When I first began researching full-time RVing I was skeptical about my family’s ability to afford this way of life. After all, we are far from wealthy people, and we are not retired. In fact, we were, at the time, still working stationary jobs. Still, I thought it was a possibility that was worth looking into, so I did a bit of reading.

What I learned was that you don’t have to be rich to travel full-time. What’s more, many people even save money by making the decision to hit the road. This caught me completely off-guard, but was definitely encouraging to hear.

Of course, I wanted to know how this could be. How on earth could a family live such an amazing life on a budget? I knew how much our vacations cost at the time, and while they weren’t extravagant, they weren’t exactly cheap either.

After a bit more digging I began to find answers. What I learned was that people use camping memberships or stay in spots monthly in order to save on rent, and they stay in places where all utilities are included in the price of rent. Because these people are no longer working traditional jobs, they have no need for a second vehicle, which reduces the cost of insurance, maintenance, and gas. Finally, many of these clever people use the power of reciprocal memberships to save thousands of dollars in admission fees.

It was the last one that really piqued my interest. After all, we were going to want to do some sightseeing on the road, and even after we learned to how to make money on the road there was no way we could afford to pay admission to museums, zoos, amusement parks, and national parks in every place we planned to stop. If these reciprocal memberships were what everyone claimed them to be, they could be a game changer for us.

So I read some more, and as I researched I began to realize just how amazing these nationwide reciprocity programs really were.

Here is the information I gathered during my long and frankly tedious research. I hope it helps you understand your options so you can make the best choice for your family without putting in the hours of reading I did.

Museum, Garden, and Zoo Memberships

There are a large number of museum reciprocity programs. Each one can be joined by purchasing a pass to one of the reciprocity program’s member museums. Lists of member museums can be found on the reciprocal program’s website.

Below are the various museum reciprocal programs:

Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) — This is the program we find ourselves using most often. It includes free admission to a pretty good number of science museums and a few children’s museums. Almost every single one we have visited has been of excellent quality and we have never had trouble using the pass. We have, however, occasionally had to pay for parking.

Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) — This pass allows the user free or half-price access to most major zoos and several aquariums across the country. The discount a person receives depends on the zoo he or she is a member of, as well as the policies of the zoo they are trying to visit. Therefore, those who wish to use this pass should research carefully before making a purchase. We had this pass for a year, but rarely used it. We would consider getting it again if it made sense based on our travel plans.

North American Reciprocal Museum Association (NARM) — This program includes free admission to an enormous number of museums. While many of them are art museums or museums geared more toward adults, we have found some gems using this pass. The Ringling, for instance, was a favorite and we couldn’t have seen it without NARM.

Time Travelers — Time Travelers doesn’t include as many museums as I would like. Still, I do like the concept of a history museum reciprocal program. While we haven’t used this pass yet, I could see us doing so at some point. The pass does include free admission to all included museums as far as I know.

Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) — ACM gives the card holder 50% off admission to a long list of participating children’s museums. So far, we haven’t had to use ACM because the places we have visited have all been members of the ASTC program as well, meaning we received free admission. However, we do have plans to use this discount at two different locations in July. Based on what I know about this membership, I’d say it’s best for those with kids ages 8–9 and under.

Museum Alliance Reciprocal Program (MARP) — I actually didn’t even know this program existed until we visited The Ringling and saw their acronym on our wristbands. I proceeded to look them up and discovered that they are an organization that is quite like NARM, offering free admission to various museums, but with far fewer participants. Most of the museums that do participate seem to be adult-oriented. Therefore, I’d skip this one in favor of NARM if I were given the choice.

Southeastern Reciprocal Membership Program (SERM) — As the name suggests, this program includes only museums in the southeastern part of the country. For this reason, I haven’t looked into it much. However, if you were to be traveling in this area, it might be worth researching, as it does seem to be offering free admission to all participating locations.

Reciprocal Organization of Associated Museums (ROAM) — I love the acronym for this organization! However, so far it hasn’t really suited our needs, so we haven’t invested. This program is growing quickly though, so I could see that changing. It includes free admission to a large number of art and history museums. Also included are a few gardens and several other museums of various types.

American Horticultural Society (AHS) — The perfect pass for garden lovers, AHS offers free admission to many of the country’s top botanical gardens. Additionally, those with this pass are offered admission to a few different museums. This is not a pass we have, as gardens aren’t really our thing, but it could be useful to some families for sure.

Amusement Park Memberships

This family is a Disney family. For this reason, we spend all of our amusement park money on annual passes to Walt Disney World and don’t leave much room in our budget for other passes

That said, there are several reciprocal amusement park memberships that are definitely worth purchasing if you are an avid theme park enthusiast. Here are the ones I know about:

Merlin Pass — The Merlin Pass includes access to Legoland Parks and Legoland Discovery Centers. It also includes free admission to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museums, Sea Life Aquariums, and a few others. Free parking is also included, making this pass a great buy for families with young children.

Cedar Point Platinum Pass — Offering card holders admission to all sixteen Cedar Fair amusement parks, this pass is a thrill-seeker’s dream come true. Cedar Point, Knott’s Berry Farm, and King’s Island are just a few of the parks included on this pass, and with free parking included, it is definitely a good deal.

Six Flags Gold Pass — Considering the number of Six Flags locations across the US, this all-encompassing pass is an amazing deal. A Gold Pass can be obtained for under $100 and includes access to every Six Flags park in the country. However, it is important to keep in mind that most Six Flags parks do close for the winter, making this a warm-weather-only pass.

Busch Gardens Florida Platinum Pass — Busch Gardens has some of the best theme parks around. For this reason, I highly recommend spending the extra money to get this specific reciprocal theme park pass if you are a Florida resident. It includes all of the Busch Gardens-owned locations such as Seaworld parks, Busch Gardens parks, Aquatica water parks, Sesame Place, Water Country USA, and Adventure Island.

Natural Park Memberships

Of course, our country isn’t just museums and theme parks. There is a lot of natural beauty to be seen and appreciated as well, and believe it or not, there are some passes for doing just that.

Here are the natural park memberships that are available to the general public:

America the Beautiful Pass — If you want to see the true colors of this amazing and wonderous country, this is the pass for you. The America the Beautiful Pass includes free admission to over 2000 national parks, wildlife refuges, forests, and grasslands. It is the ultimate pass for nature lovers and those who want to experience the raw beauty of the USA.

State Park Passes — Some states sell state park passes. While the specifics of these passes vary from state to state, these generally grant the cardholder free admission to all state parks and will sometimes include discounted camping.

Getting the Biggest Bang for Your Buck

If you have gotten this far into this article, you are clearly on a mission to save money. Therefore, I’m going to give you some hints for getting the most value out of your reciprocal membership purchases.

Overlapping Memberships

In the first section of this article, I listed all of the museum, zoo, and garden reciprocal programs out there. I also mentioned that in order to take advantage of these reciprocal benefits one need only join a museum that is a member of the reciprocal program they’d like to take part in. That said, simply choosing the museum closest to you is not always the best way to go.

You see, many museums participate in more than one reciprocal program. This means that by joining a museum that participates in multiple reciprocal programs you can have access to every program that museum participates in. This can really help increase the value of a membership.

For instance, we are currently members of Kern County Museum in California. We have never even been to this museum, nor do we live in California, but by choosing to join this specific location we were given access to five different reciprocal programs.

Some of the best museum options for these overlapping memberships include:

Location-Based Pricing

In addition to the overlapping of museum reciprocal programs, it is also important to keep in mind that pricing may change based on where you purchase a membership. This does not apply to Merlin Pass, Cedar Point Platinum Pass, Busch Gardens Florida Platinum Annual Pass, or the America the Beautiful Pass. It does apply to every other program listed here though, and is something to keep in mind.

  • The cheapest Six Flags Gold Passes I have found are from the Baltimore and St. Louis locations.
  • The cheapest full-benefit (not 50% off) option that I know of for AZA alone is through International Crane Foundation.
  • For those who want ASTC only, the best option I’ve found is the family membership through EAA. This organization also offers a free ASTC option to kids ages 8–19 who have taken part in one of their free Young Eagles flights.

Doing the Math

You will also want to do the math before buying any membership. Sure, it may seem nice to have as many reciprocal programs as possible, but if you will only be using ASTC, there is no reason to spend the extra money for those extra programs. Likewise, if you will use multiple programs, it’s best to purchase as many as possible on one pass as this will save you money in the long run.

Other Notes

Location Matters

Most of the museum/zoo/garden reciprocal programs do not honor the reciprocal benefits at locations that are within 90 miles of your home address OR the address of the museum the pass was purchased from. Therefore, you will want to consider where you will be doing most of your traveling before you buy.

Other Limitations:

  • Most museum/zoo/garden reciprocal memberships are good for up to 6 people. However, this does vary from museum to museum.
  • The museum/zoo/garden memberships rarely include parking as part of their benefits. This is also true of some of the theme park passes listed.
  • Most of the museums/zoos/gardens that participate in these programs do not offer free admission to special events or performances to visiting members of reciprocal museums.
  • The America the Beautiful pass does not grant the cardholder admission to special ticketed tours and does exclude some sights.
  • Attractions can pull themselves from a reciprocity program at any point. Therefore, it is always best to call before visiting any location and expecting reciprocal benefits.
  • It’s always a good idea to read the fine print before making a big purchase, and this holds true for the memberships we’ve listed here, as they can be confusing and no two programs are exactly alike.

By using a combination of these reciprocal memberships, my family and I are able to see a great many attractions we would otherwise have to skip due to financial constraints. Reciprocal memberships are a huge part of what make our adventures possible, and I hop this article helps you discover ways to use these memberships to make your dreams come true as well.

Do you use reciprocal memberships? Do you know of one that isn’t mentioned here? I would love to hear about it in the comments below! I am also always happy to answer questions whenever I am able, so feel free to ask away.

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