It's not your imagination. Visiting museums is pricier today than before the pandemic.
The entry fee that's now the "new normal," according to the New York Times, is $30 per person. That's the price of admission at major institutions such as New York City's Solomon R. Guggenheim Musuem, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Seattle's Museum of Pop Culture; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
As a measuring stick for how much the numbers have jumped: Most of these museums charged $20 or $25 pre-pandemic. Until 2018, the Met in New York had a longstanding pay-what-you-wish policy that now only applies to visitors who live nearby.
Sadly, these increases are necessary to the survival of many institutions. According to a 2023 survey by the American Alliance of Museums, only a third of U.S. museums are getting 2019-level visitation numbers. The rest report that only 71% of their former daily visitors are showing up. Membership numbers are also down.
Which is a long way of saying: When you can afford to support a museum on your travels by paying the entry fee, by all means do so.
For many other travelers, though, these costs will be a barrier to entry. Fortunately, there are several ways to get either free or discounted admission to museums around the United States and abroad. Here are some tips for experiencing these incredible institutions without blowing your budget.
Choose a destination where the majority of museums are free to visit.
That's the case, for instance, in Washington, D.C., where all Smithsonian locations and many other sites are free to visit. Likewise, free admission is standard at all national museums in the United Kingdom—and that includes in London.
Visit museums during times when they waive entry fees.
A huge number of major institutions around the world waive entry fees for several hours a week, often in the early evening. We have prominent sections in all Frommer's guidebooks detailing the periods of the week when top museums will be free. You can also check the museum listings here at Frommers.com, or simply go to the website of the museum that intrigues you to see if the place offers fee-free hours or even an entire day of the week that's free. In Paris, for example, most museums are free to visit on the first Sunday of the month.
Do know, however, that you'll pay for the freebie with elbow room: Museums often get packed during free periods. Another thing to note is that while general admission may be waived, there could still be a charge to see special temporary exhibits.
Become a member of a local museum that offers reciprocal benefits at other museums across North America.
Joining a museum in your hometown could come with discounts at other institutions farther afield. Though there are certain regional museum organizations that confer these benefits, the easiest course of action is to visit the website of the North American Reciprocal Museum Association (NARM). There you'll find a list of member institutions across the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean.
That said, "people get very confused when they go to our website," NARM director Virginia Phillippi admitted to me. "They want to just click and join NARM, but instead they have to choose a local institution in their area, become a member of it, and join that way."
So what you want to do is consult the NARM website's easily scannable list of member museums by area, where you'll find links to those institutions.
People who live in big cities with several museums on the NARM list need to choose carefully when deciding which one to join because membership prices can vary widely. For example, New York City has 23 NARM member museums—everything from the Frick Collection and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum to much smaller institutions like the Drawing Center and the National Lighthouse Museum on Staten Island. Choosing the right museum to join could mean a savings of several hundred dollars.
At the wonderful Himalayan culture center known as the Rubin Museum of Art, an annual membership that includes NARM runs $350 per couple. Get your membership at the Latino-focused El Museo del Barrio instead, and the cost for two drops to just $110.
Once you're a member of NARM, the savings can go beyond entry fees. Many museums give free parking to NARM members as well as discounts at gift stores and cafes, and free or discounted tickets to onsite concerts, lectures, and other events.
Get a museum-friendly credit card.
Credit and debit cards issued by Bank of America and Merrill give customers free entry to 225 museum across the United States on the first full weekend of each month. The "Museums On Us" program covers numerous big cultural players including the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Denver Art Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, and many others.
Buy a sightseeing pass if you plan to visit several museums on one trip.
A sightseeing pass that covers admission to several museums in one destination can be a good way to save money. But be sure to look through the pass's offerings before you purchase—too many passes steer users to tourist traps and junk museums that offer a lurid look at torture or sex, or simply supply cute backgrounds for Instagram pictures.
You want to make sure that the pass you buy actually gets you into the attractions you were planning to see. Also important: Make sure the pass gives you enough time to see the sights at a reasonable pace. If the pass allows you to get into 40 places but only gives you 48 hours to do so, it's probably a waste of money.
We've found that CityPass, which offers discounted entry to attractions in the most popular cities of North America, is quite a good value. There are similar pass systems available in Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin, Tokyo, Sydney, and other world cities (we profile them in the Frommer's guidebooks and on this website).
These strategies all require advanced planning, but you can mix and match as your schedule and budget allow.
As mentioned earlier, anyone who cares about museums and has the means to provide financial support to these crucial cultural institutions should consider paying full admission when possible.
"Admission fees are often a critical source of revenue that supports the museum’s mission," says Natanya Khashan, senior director for audience development and engagement for the American Alliance of Musuems. "This revenue supports critical activities like preservation and conservation (both of objects and living creatures), supplementary education for children, health and well-being programs, and so much more.”
Not to mention all the ways museum-going enriches travel.
"Going to a museum is an experiential gift that you give to yourself, to your children, to your family and friends," as Phillippi of NARM put it. "Museums provoke new thoughts, new understandings of the world. This may sound cliched, but I think museums really can be mind-blowing in the very best way."
I couldn't agree more.