How to visit Boston’s museums with your family on a budget

How to visit Boston’s museums with your family on a budget

Melanie talks to the kids about the patterns found in the quilts at the MFA
Melanie talks to the kids about the patterns found in the quilts at the MFA
[lead dropcap="yes"]One of the benefits of homeschooling is the ability to be flexible, not just in how you spend your time at home, but in being able to go beyond the classroom to experience what you’re learning about up close, especially when you live in a cultural, historical, and scientific mecca like Boston.[/lead]

While schools acknowledge this reality with the rare end-of-year field trips in which too few chaperones take too many hyper children to a museum or aquarium or zoo where they spend more time running ragged and crazy than looking at exhibits or animals, they just don’t measure up when your family can make the outings a regular part of their lives.

Of course much of this isn’t free. In fact, we’ve found that, like all other things for families of more than two kids, too much of what’s available is geared toward upper middle class families with two kids. Yes, we’ve often been told about these magical, mythical “library passes” available at your local public library, but what we’ve found too often is that these passes are usually only good for a couple of people and take just a couple of dollars off the admission price.

So what Melanie and I have found to be most effective is that if we just pony up a few extra dollars upfront and buy a family membership at a couple of attractions per year, we can actually save money. Not only that, but removing the barrier of coming up with ticket money at each visit makes us more likely to take advantage and go to whatever the attraction is even at the last minute. We can even just go for a morning or a couple of hours without feeling like we’ve wasted the ticket prices. We’ve decided that we can afford two memberships per year, one to a museum and one to a zoo or the aquarium. Last year, it was the Museum of Science and the Franklin Park Zoo. This year, it is the Museum of Fine Arts and the New England Aquarium.

What we’ve found in a couple of years of doing this is that some places are much more suitable for larger families than others and that as our children grow older the calculus of what is affordable will shift dramatically too. This isn’t a small point, by the way. You can see our society’s subtle shifts in attitude about what constitutes appropriate family size in what accommodations are made for families. Clearly the expectation in Boston is that a family is parents and two kids. Some places don’t penalize you for more, but others do, even on the so-called family memberships. Frankly I don’t understand why a family membership can’t be parents and all their kids. What do they have to lose?

Here’s a chart of some of the top attractions in the greater Boston area, either that we’ve had memberships with or that we’ve visited (usually before kids). It’s somewhat arbitrary, but I think it’s representative. For the purposes of calculating prices, our family as of the date of this post consisted of two adults, an 8-year-old, a 6-year-old, a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old, and a 19-month-old. Please pay attention especially to the linked notes for valuable information.

Attraction Adult Price Child Price Free Child Age Membership[1] # in membership
Harvard Museums of Science and Culture $12.00 $8.00 Under 3 $85 2 adults, 4 children[2]
Museum of Science $23.00 $20.00 Under 3 $155 8 people[3]
Zoo New England $18.00 $12.00 Under 2 $110 2 adults, 4 children[4]
Museum of Fine Arts $25.00 Free[5] Under 7 $110 2 adults, all children
New England Aquarium $25.00 $18.00 Under 3 $195 6 people[6]
Roger Williams Park Zoo $15.00 $10.00 Under 3 $99 2 adults, 4 children[7]
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum $15.00 Free Under 18 $95 2 adults, all children[8]
Boston Children’s Museum $14.00 $14.00 Under 1 $225[9] 7 people
Battleship Cove $17.00 $10.50 Under 6 $65 2 adults, 2 children[10]
USS Constitution and Charlestown Navy Yard Free Free N/A N/A N/A[11]
The Trustees of the Reservation Varies Varies All $67 2 adults, all children[12]

Given all that data, how do we know if we’re better off buying tickets once or getting a membership. Here’s how the savings broke down for each institution given our current family situation and assuming that without a membership we visit once and with a membership we visit twice per year. (Usually, if we have a membership we make an effort to go at least three or four times to get our money’s worth.)

Attraction Savings[13]
Harvard Museums of Science and Culture $27
Museum of Science $97
Zoo New England $58
Museum of Fine Arts $10[14]
New England Aquarium $49
Roger Williams Zoo $41
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum -$35
Boston Children’s Museum -$57
Battleship Cove $45

It becomes apparent right away that those with the most expensive ticket prices upfront offer the greatest savings. I was a little surprised at the Museum of Fine Arts, but again since kids go free (in general) anyway, the cost is low to begin with. On the other hand, that’s one of the places where we plan to go most often over the course of a year and so we’re really saving several times that amount.

A few notes on the individual attractions:

Harvard Museums of Science and Culture

We’ve gone to the Harvard Museum of Natural History only once so far and thus have not purchased a membership. It’s about what you’d expect with lots of stuffed animals and skeletons and rooms full of rocks and crystals, but it also has some unique exhibits like its collection of scientific glass specimens from a time when scientists made exact replicas of plants in glass to keep and study, long before less fragile methods of preservation were available. It’s located in Cambridge on the sprawling campus of Harvard, tucked away in a nondescript building. The membership might be worth it for just this one museum alone, but for all four it’s a good deal.

Museum of Science

One of the busiest of all the museums we’ve been to, the Museum of Science has a mix of brand-new, flashy and old and tired. Some of the exhibits looked old and tired when I was kid going to the museum. In addition to the IMAX theater, they’ve also got the Theater of Electricity in which a massive Van de Graff generator throws off brilliant and loud bolts of electricity. I don’t think the kids are ready for that. They also have a planetarium, which Isabella and Sophia might sit through, but not the younger kids. Last year, they had a very good exhibit on the Dead Sea scrolls and we recently went back as our yearlong membership is ending at the end of the summer. I think we made it at least three times, perhaps even four. And I think Melanie went with the kids without me at least once. We got our money’s worth.

Zoo New England

While the membership includes both Franklin Park Zoo in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston and the Stone Zoo in Stoneham, we never made it to the latter. It’s just a bit far when the Franklin Park Zoo is so close. In fact, it’s so close that it makes a fun half-day jaunt to have a picnic lunch and then play in the massive play structure playground there, which is what I did one day with the big kids. I was a little worried when we got the membership that since it’s mainly outdoors we wouldn’t get all the value out of it because of the winter, but we did manage at least one day at the zoo in winter by sticking primarily to the indoor Tropical Forest exhibits. This was another one well worth the annual membership.

Museum of Fine Arts

I would say that if I had to pick just one museum or zoo that we could get a membership at, it would be the MFA. For the price, it’s an unbeatable treasury of great art spanning all centuries and all cultures. From Egyptian to Greek to Roman to African to Islamic to Japanese and Chinese, it’s all there. Not to mention the amazing American and European galleries, both classic and contemporary. And then there are the specialty exhibits of jewelry and musical instruments and the top-notch special exhibitions, like the Samurai exhibit, the Audubon paintings, and yes, even the quilts that we spent two hours looking at. Of course, we did get to see the special Magna Carta exhibition that included original copies of the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. And I did get to once again marvel at one of my favorite areas: the scale-model sailing ships. I’m happy we have selected the MFA for this year’s membership.

Isabella with the moon jellies

New England Aquarium

The other membership for this year is for the New England Aquarium. I debated this one in my mind. We went here most recently a couple of years ago, before the big renovation of the central giant fish tank. Don’t get me wrong, I do love the aquarium, but it’s one of the most expensive on this list. But the kids love all the animals, all the fish and the sea lions and penguins and all the rest. They love racing up and down the ramp around the central tank. And the renovations are stunning. The views into the tank are better than ever and they now have new iPad-based kiosks everywhere for you to look up dynamic information on what you’re seeing. I miss the dolphin shows of my youth, but they do still have sea lion shows and a new touch tank for sharks and rays which is pretty cool too. One element that made a membership more palatable was the idea of taking the commuter ferry from Hingham instead of driving into the city or taking the MBTA and walking from South Station. We did the South Station walk before and while that was fine, it’s just even more tiring for the kids. Plus the ferry takes as long as the walk just from South Station so time saved there. Commuter boat roundtrip fare for the adults was $8.50 each, kids under 11 are free, and parking was $4 for the day.

Roger Williams Park Zoo

I might argue that Roger Williams is a better zoo than Franklin Park. Roger Williams has elephants, but not the lion that Franklin Park has. But Roger Williams recently added some very nice exhibits including one based on animals kids would find in their own backyard and another one, a wetlands trail. The day we went was boiling hot and Sophia nearly melted, but I think we’re better prepared for those sorts of outings these days. Comparing the zoos, I think RWP is better looking, but FPZ is just so close.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Just around the corner from the MFA, the Isabella Stewart Gardner is quirky. Because the museum was Isabella’s mansion and all the art is placed where she placed it and her will mandates it all must stay where it is, sometimes the museum isn’t the most conducive to small kids and strollers. Certainly there were spots where a stroller was a tight squeeze and rooms where I spent more time keeping small hands off delicate treasures than I did admiring those treasures. But it is a beautiful museum with some unique pieces from some of the greatest masters. And, of course, it’s my Isabella’s namesake. This will remain an occasional treat, though, I think.

Battleship Cove

Located in Fall River, we haven’t yet been to Battleship Cove as a family. I was there about a decade ago as chaperone for my nephew Peter and his Cub Scout troop for an overnight on the WWII-era battleship USS Massachusetts. That was quite an experience. I enjoy it a lot, but it might be something for when the youngest is older than stroller age. For one thing, you can’t maneuver a stroller through a battleship really even if they have cut out all the knee-knockers on the tour. I don’t think we’d visit more than once per year, though, and so a membership wouldn’t make sense for us.

Boston Children’s Museum

Another one we haven’t been to as a family. I think I remember going here once as a kid. This is the tough one. You’d think that this would be natural for a family membership, but keep in mind that the whole thing is aimed at families and so they don’t gain by giving deals to us. Thus the Children’s Museum becomes among the most expensive of all the options, and like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, you don’t begin to benefit from a membership until the third visit. Given how crazy and chaotic children’s museums can be, I wonder if Melanie and I would be willing to make three trips per year to the BCM.

Bettinellis at World's End
World's End in Hingham

The Trustees of the Reservations

A unique organization whose mission is to preserve places throughout Massachusetts with historic, scenic, or ecological value, the Trustees of the Reservations encompass more than 100 places throughout the state, from wilderness areas to stately mansions to working farms. A couple of our favorite places in the network are Weir River Farm (see Melanie’s posts here and here) and World’s End, both in Hingham. World’s End is a couple of islands, connected to the mainland by small bits of land, that were once planned to be the sites of giant mansions in the baronial pre-income tax days and thus were laid out with grand avenues and massive trees. That fell through and in the intervening decades among the proposals for the site was a location for the United Nations (before New York was selected) and a nuclear power plant. Thank God neither happened because this pristine spot is beautiful, overlooking the seaside village of Hull, the Atlantic Ocean, Boston harbor, and Boston itself. A magnificent place for hiking and picniking.

It only costs $6 for adults to go to World’s End and a couple of dollars for Weir River so if we only ever go those two places, a membership doesn’t necessarily make economic sense. But it might make another kind of sense because as I mentioned earlier, when you have a membership the mental barriers to just getting up and going are much lower. You can go on a whim. And this is easily among the least expensive of the memberships with the most things you could possibly see.

USS Constitution

Finally, the USS Constitution. As I said in it’s footnote, I put this here because it’s free and represents all the free options available in the region, including many historic sites throughout Boston. In fact the Charlestown Navy Yard is part of the US Park Service and the Constitution is a commissioned US Navy warship, so of course there’s no fee. However, the nearby USS Constitution Museum is a private entity and suggests donations for admission, including $5-$10 for adults, $3-$5 for kids, and $15-$20 for families. For $50 you can get a membership. I love this ship and would love to visit her any chance I could so I hope that this gets on our list of places to go very soon.

Of course, in the end, membership isn’t just about admission and tickets. It’s also about supporting these great institutions that preserve and present great culture, great history, and great flora and fauna, and ideally I would love to patronize them all. But the reality is that we have a limited budget of both time and money and we have to be selective. I think our plan to ration yearly is a good one and I hope that as our family grows older (and bigger?) we can still maintain our ability to expand our children’s horizons by exposing them to all the great cultural, historical, and natural institutions Boston has to offer.

  1. Most membership benefits include discounted guest passes, discounted parking, and discounts in the gift shop and restaurant, if there is one. Most institutions also offer varying membership levels and I have picked those that we would choose for our family. Depending on the size of your family and the ages of your children, you might choose a different membership level.  ↩
  2. Membership includes all Harvard Museums including the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, and the Harvard Semitic Museum. We prefer the Natural History museum.  ↩
  3. Membership includes a number of free IMAX tickets, free guest passes, and reciprocal admission to hundreds of museums and zoos, either free or discounted.  ↩
  4. Zoo New England consists of both the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston and the Stone Zoo in Stoneham, Mass., and the membership gives access to both. Child rate applies to under 12.  ↩
  5. Children 7 to 17 are only free on weekdays after 3pm, on weekends, and during Boston public school holidays. Otherwise, they pay $10.  ↩
  6. Membership includes passes to the IMAX theatre. Child rate applies to under 12.  ↩
  7. Roger Williams Park Zoo is outside Providence, Rhode Island, but is only a short trip from Boston and areas south of the city. Additional membership benefit includes express entry during peak hours. Child rate applies to under 12.  ↩
  8. Anyone named “Isabella” gets in free. Admission is also free on your birthday.  ↩
  9. Family memberships at the Children’s Museum offer entry for either 4 or 6, but you can add additional family members at $25 each. So the basic family membership is $150 and because we have 7 family members, we add $75 (3 * $25). Additional benefits at different levels include childcare, express entry, an exclusive members hour on Saturday and Sunday morning, among others.  ↩
  10. Because Battleship Cove membership only includes two children, we’d be okay this year, but in the future we’d pay for the “extra” kids at full child price each time we went. Child rate applies to under 12.  ↩
  11. I’ve included the USS Constitution because it’s one of my favorite attractions and as an example of the many free resources available in the area as well. (Not including parking and other incidental costs.) I should add that the USS Constitution Museum, which is nearby, is separate and has a suggested admission fee of $5-$10 for adults, $3-$5 for children, and $15-$20 for families. They offer a family membership for $50.  ↩
  12. Admission prices at the dozens of Trustees of the Reservations locations around the state vary from free to comparable to some of those above. In general, children usually get free entry. The two sites we visited most were either a couple dollars or $6 for non-members.  ↩
  13. Negative numbers indicate we don’t get any savings after two visits, but only after three or more. Since the USS Constitution is Free and the Trustees’s admission varies so much, those were left off this chart.  ↩
  14. I made the assumption that we’d be going during normal school hours and thus Isabella would end up with the normal $10 ticket price for her age bracket. See the note on the MFA in the previous table.  ↩

Image Credit

  • MelanieKidsMFA: Own photo
1 comment
  • Thanks for the mention of the Harvard Museum of Natural History. If you haven’t visited recently, the new Marine Life in the Putnam Family Gallery and New England Forests in the Zofnass Family gallery are wonderful, with both cutting-edge science, and family-friendly interactives. Come by T, or read the website in advance for info on parking in the next door underground garage.