Should I Get An Annual Membership?

Many Different attractions offer annual memberships.  Depending on where they are and the type of establishment the attraction is these annual memberships can be an extremely good deal.  I save several hundred dollars per year, and my family has more access to a variety of attractions thanks to family memberships.

Questions To Ask Before You Get An Annual Membership:

1. Is it likely we will want to visit more than once in a year? 

If the answer is no, then most likely membership does not make sense.

2. What is the breakeven point when it comes to total visits?

Family memberships make more sense with the larger a family is.  When Mrs. C. and I had one kid it generally would take 2 and sometimes 3 visits for a membership to pay for itself, so we rarely bought family memberships.  Now that we have 4 kids we have noticed that sometimes it is actually cheaper to buy a family membership than it is to buy 6 individual tickets for 1 day!

3. How much money and time does it take to get to this attraction?

For more expensive destinations or for destinations that require a long car journey,  you really need to plan out exactly how often you will make the journey before paying out for a membership.

4. Is this something I want to support in my community?

Even if it makes no sense from a financial benefit standpoint to purchase a membership, perhaps you really care about the mission that the attraction has and you want to support it.

5. What extra benefits do members get?

Some places give members extra hours, discounts at other attractions, and special event tickets.

For example, my zoo membership gives me early access on weekends in the summer.  We can arrive at 8 AM instead of 10 AM.  Generally the animals are more active earlier in the morning, the zoo isn’t crowded, and we still have a big chunk of the day left when we are finished.  The last visit we made to our zoo there were only 3 other visitors at the zoo when we arrived.  We finished up at the zoo about 20 minutes after their normal open time and the parking lot was packed. This alone is well worth the membership. We also get a discount at over 150 different zoos across the country.  This makes it affordable to go to some zoos we might have skipped otherwise.

As another example, our membership to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago gives us free parking, free reciprocal membership to other science centers that are 90 miles away from both the Science Center and our house, and unlimited free tickets to all of their upsell exhibits.  With 4 kids and 2 nephews this quickly adds up to a lot of savings.  Granted we would probably skip some of these things without the membership, but it is nice to get to do some extra experiences.

Will I Spend More Money Because Of The Membership?

It’s easy to start spending extra money once you have a membership to a destination. Here are a few examples:

Gas for getting there and back multiple times.

Eating out lunch during your visit:  We like to pack a picnic lunch to avoid this cost, but there are occasions when we will hit up a restaurant on our way back.

Gift shops and extras: I’ve noticed a tendency for Mrs. C. to be more willing to get stuff at the gift shop for the kids when we are accessing the attraction for “free”.  I’m sure the attractions that offer memberships are well aware of this psychology as well.

Reciprocal Programs: Many reciprocal programs offer 50% off at other attractions, that you may not visit otherwise.  Add in these costs as well.

Here Are Some Great Examples Of Destinations In Southwest Michigan And In Chicago:

Potawatomi Zoo Family Membership: $72.50

Daily tickets cost $10 for adults and $8 for kids.  For our family of 6 1 visit then costs $52.

As Mentioned above on summer weekends members can access the zoo 2 hours before the park opens.  Most of the animals are out and are more active than during mid-day.  The weather is cooler and there are hardly any other people.

Reciprocal Membership:  Zoos across the country participate in the AZA.  Since we are members of one of these zoos we get 50% off admission to over a hundred other zoos in the country.  Typically we will visit 3 other zoos, saving us around $120 per year.  Add in the 3 -4 trips we make to our local zoo and this membership saves us around $300 per year.  In the future we will be taking more trips to a few zoos located further out.

The Museum of Science and Industry:

Daily tickets cost $18 for “adults” over 11 and $11 for children.  Total for us for one visit is $87 in admission plus $22 in parking for $109 total.  MSI has several exhibits that are upsells that run $12 per adult and $9 per child.  They also charge $9 for adults and $6 for kids to watch short (45 minute) films in the Giant Dome Theater). These can add up quickly!

MSI’s Family Membership is $195.  This includes free admission for 2 members all all children under 18 living in the household, plus 1 guest per visit, free parking, 10 free giant dome theater tickets, 1 free tour for all card members plus 1 guest (Value of $75),  and reciprocal membership to ASTC museums and science centers.  This membership is perfect for a family visiting 1 – 2 times during the year.

MSI also offer the Explorer Society Membership, which includes everything the family membership includes, plus allows for 1 additional guest, and unlimited free tour tickets, special exhibit tickets, and Giant Dome Theater tickets.  This membership costs $300, but quickly pays for itself if your family wants to do everything the museum has to offer and you plan on going at least twice.   Basically if you do 3 of the extra charge events, you will break even with a family of 6.

We plan to maximize our MSI membership by going for a 2 day trip when our membership starts, then 1 more trip in the fall, 1 during winter break, and at least 1 next summer. Bringing 1 guest and doing 2 extra charge activities and 1 movie per visit, our base cost would be $331 per visit. Multiplied by 5 visits during the year and we get to $1,655.

We will also visit 2 of the ASTC museums, the Imagination Station in Toledo, OH and COSI in Columbus, OH.  We will get free admission to these attractions, a value of  $165.

Six Flags Great America:

Six Flags pricing adjusts literally all the time.  You can check their website 6 different times and find 6 different prices.  When I was looking at their website in February they had a sale for season passes for $76 a piece. More recently they had a July 4th sale for $80 a piece.  The retail price for daily tickets is $71, which makes this a no brainer if you can go for at least 2 days.  Unfortunately for us, Six Flags is just outside of a comfortable driving distance, at 2 hours and 45 minutes. This limits the value, since we would have to get a hotel. What’s great about the six flags season pass is that you can use it at any six flags theme park locations (excluding water parks).

Go Big Or Go Home; Universal Studios:

A couple months ago I wrote about getting an annual pass to Universal Studios Orlando Florida.  For people who live within a couple hour drive the deals are amazing.  The price of an annual membership is about the same as the price for a 3 day ticket.   For us, going for 3 trips and staying for 3 days per trip would be about ideal. 1 during Winter break, 1 in late summer, and again in the first part of winter break before the year ends.  Tickets for 3 days for the six of us would cost $1,650.  Going with the preferred pass that allows early admission and no blackout dates would cost us $2,310.  Visiting 3 times would give us $2,640 of savings over the $4,950 retail price of tickets for 3 trips. For people who don’t live 1,100 miles away the annual passes here make much more sense.


Get An Annual Membership As A Gift:

Is your house filled to the brim with toys?  Mine certainly is.  With 4 boys spanning 10 years in age and a blended family resulting in a half dozen grandparents, and several aunts and uncles,  Christmas presents and birthday presents lead to a massive influx of toys.  At a certain point it just doesn’t make sense to keep throwing more toys at these kids. For years I have asked for people to give them hugs or a swift kick in the butt for presents, but I don’t get many takers.

I think memberships are a great gifting opportunity.  It discourages the rampant consumerism of our kids, limits clutter, and provides fun experiences the whole family can enjoy. Our annual membership to our local children’s museum is a gift from my parents.

Floating Memberships:

Floating a membership is a great way to get more value for your dollars.  Say you only visit a certain place during the summer.  Start your membership in mid- July, visit a couple times before school starts up,  then visit the following summer when school gets out.  You enjoy trips for two summers off of 1 years membership.  Then cancel the membership and if you desire start up again the following summer midway through. This can greatly stretch your entertainment dollars.

As time goes on I plan to take better advantage of these memberships. I have even started a spreadsheet to track our visits to museums and reciprocal partners to see just how much of a financial benefit we gain.  I’m certainly keeping my eye out for more good deals on memberships.  Next year I will probably get one to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and perhaps to the Adler Planetarium and combine visits to the two, seeing as how they are within walking distance to each other.

Do you have memberships to different attractions in your area?  Do you usually get your money’s worth from saving on ticket prices, or are the extra benefits provided to members worth the cost for you?

John C. started Action Economics in 2013 as a way to gain more knowledge on personal financial planning and to share that knowledge with others. Action Economics focuses on paying off the house, reducing taxes, and building wealth. John uses the free tool Personal Capital to track his net worth and posts quarterly updates on his finances. Check out the Action Economics archives section for all past posts.

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