How to Use the ASTC Travel Passport Program to Visit Museums for Free

By Bonnie Anderson (aka the Domestic Budget Goddess), TWM Core Contributor

It has been quite the frigid winter here in the Midwest. Record breaking. Between the -15 degree temperatures and the flu that is going around, all of my kids are getting stir crazy and I’m feeling the mommy burnout starting to set in. When it’s too cold to go outside our options for fun are limited to indoor activities which can get pricey really fast when you have 5 kids to pay for.

Enter: ASTC travel passport.

If you’ve never heard of this, you are not alone. I still think it is the best-kept secret to how families visit museums for free.

I personally didn’t know about this program until I moved to the Midwest and I now share this secret with everyone I know with kids, so it may not be a secret for much longer. As I mentioned in this article, we use our pass to get into some of the biggest (and most expensive) museums in Chicago completely free. It is a perfect way to get in those educational trips for kids and even educational trips for toddlers without breaking the bank.

Children’s museums allow kids to be kids while also providing educational opportunities without them even knowing.

If you have already heard of how families visit museums for free through this program, you may have been overwhelmed. It seems complicated, but it’s not. I promise. A passport is easy to get, easy to use, and pays for itself over and over again. Every traveling family should have one of these.

In this article I will not only give you a simplified ASTC travel passport program review, but I will also break down how to use the ASTC travel passport program where you live. By the end you will be running to get a pass for your family, because Punxsutawney Phil just informed us that we have six more weeks of winter (sigh) and summer travel season is right around the corner (hooray!).

ASTC Travel Passport Program Review

ASTC stands for “The Association of Science-Technology Centers.” The ASTC represents more than 600 museums and science centers in nearly 50 countries worldwide of which more than 350 participate in the ASTC Travel Passport Program.

The ASTC travel passport program is a reciprocity science center and museum pass. Which means that you can purchase a membership at your local museum or science center on an approved list and then also qualify for 100% free admittance into other participating museums. The ASTC travel passport is a worldwide program and will get you into hundreds of museums in the United States as well as museums in Egypt, Portugal, and Sweden, just to name a few. The participating museum list is updated every six months adding more museums every year.

Pass Restrictions

This is probably the biggest hold up for people when it comes to using the ASTC pass, but it really shouldn’t be. It is called a “travel passport” and these restrictions are made in order to get people “traveling” to see different museums that they wouldn’t normally think to go see. Since I am constantly looking for educational trips for kids, I make sure to carry my pass in my wallet just in case we decide to visit a museum at any point along the way.

There are two main exclusions with the ASTC pass:

  1. Science centers and museums located within 90 miles (as the crow flies) of where you purchased your membership.
  2. Science centers and museums located within 90 miles (as the crow flies) of your residence.

To some this may seem like a long way to travel but I actually love the fact that I get to travel to use our pass. We have the option of sticking around our town and attending the museum we have a membership at, or we could take a day trip and go visit somewhere we have never been to before. I think this is the best way to see new places and provide educational trips for kids. I do it whenever I can. Most recently I used our day off of school to visit a museum in a neighboring state, which was really only 1.5 hours away. My kids love traveling all over to visit a new museum and I love that all I had to pay for was gas.

 After a long day of museum play, your toddler may just try and crash somewhere in the museum before you are ready to leave.

However, if there happens to be a museum that you would like to attend that won’t work for you due to these restrictions, you could always check to see if both museums participate in the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) reciprocal program. If they do, you will qualify for 50% off regular admission for up to 6 people. ALWAYS check out the ACM reciprocal pass list just in case. It would cause me physical pain to know that I could have saved the equivalent of a night out with my husband if I just would have flashed my card at the front desk.

Important Tips

  1. Make sure the science center or museum you are visiting is not excluded (see restrictions above)
  2. Review the family admittance policy for the museum before you visit. The museum list online will give a guideline for each participating facility, but it is always good to call and double check before you go. They are not all the same. Some will admit only 2 children and 2 adults with your pass while others will admit all children, parents, and even a guest (perfect for when grandma comes to visit).
  3. Pack your ID (or other proof of residence). Some museums will check your ID to make sure that you live the required 90 miles away in order to use the pass, although, there are some who don’t enforce this rule. Those that enforce the residency rule will be marked with a (✓IDs) on the participating list.
  4. Don’t forget to pack your membership card! There is no ASTC database, so your card is your lifeline! It is the only way to get in for free, unless you have a very merciful person at the front desk who will call the museum to confirm your membership with them.

How to Use the ASTC Travel Passport Program

Buying a passport 

When considering which museum membership to buy, the first thing to do is check the participating list. If there aren’t participating facilities close to you, there is always the option of calling the museum and having them send you a pass in the mail. This takes some planning ahead if you are going to be using it on a big trip, but it will save you the drive time and gas.

We have several museums around us that participate in the passport program and we have purchased passes at a different one every year as we have tried to find which one is our very favorite. It is worth getting a membership to the one that you will attend the most as museums usually offer exclusive members-only benefits such as members-only days, early admission, and museum store discounts. Also, make sure that you save your receipt as most museum memberships are tax deductible!

None of the museums are the same. With creative and unique exhibits we never get bored when we travel around.


When I said that this was the secret to how families visit museums for free, I meant after paying the initial membership fee. . . nothing is ever free when you have kids. Unless we are talking about the “at no charge” messes that they provide for you to clean up every day. For the small price of a yearly family membership (usually anywhere from $80-$200) you can get into hundreds of museums for free.

The price varies depending on which museum you purchase your membership from. Our first membership was purchased from a museum 45 minutes away from us and cost $130, the second year we tried another one an hour away and it was $85, and last week I bought our new pass from a museum 20 minutes from us with a 50% off coupon making our membership only $62!

Look for museums with an outdoor area to provide additional opportunities for messes and running space for toddlers.

It is worth doing a little bit of homework (and watching for sales) to get the best deal when it comes to your membership. Before you buy, check out the ASTC restrictions (listed above) and ask to make sure that the ASTC benefits are included in your membership before you buy. If you do choose to buy a membership from a museum far away from you, it may not work for admittance to museums close to home if they verify residency.

Using the Pass

This is the easiest part. Show your pass at the museum’s admission desk and walk right in. That’s it.

The first time we used our ASTC pass was at the Field Museum in Chicago. We bought our pass specifically for this museum, as well as other well-known museums in Chicago. Our Midwest friends had told us it was their secret to getting into Chicago museums for free but no one really taught us how to use the ASTC travel passport program and I wondered if there was a catch. As we walked up to the admission desk I was a little apprehensive. The admission prices for the Field Museum are $24 for adults and $17 for children, which meant we would be spending a whopping $116 to get our family into the museum if this pass didn’t work.

But it DID work! I flashed my card and then felt like I was a bandit running from a bank robbery as we entered the museum. I also loved that I didn’t feel like we had to stay all day (although you really could in that huge museum) because it was FREE! Honestly, if you are planning a trip to Chicago at all with your kids, and you really should after reading this article, then it is worth buying an ASTC pass just to get into the museums. Even though it only includes general admittance (no IMAX shows or extra experiences) it will still save you oodles of money. As an added bonus you will also have a membership to a cool museum you can regularly attend near your home.

Museums provide opportunities for children to do things they don’t normally get to do at home. The bonus is parents don’t have to clean it up.

Now that you have the full ASTC travel passport program review, and learned how to use the ASTC travel passport program, you are ready to buy your pass, load the kids in the car, and start checking each one of those museums off the list. This pass may be the only thing that will get me through this bitter cold winter with my stir-crazy kids and I anticipate it to be my lifeline for the summer months as we travel. My kids are becoming museum connoisseurs and are constantly comparing each one that we visit. There are just too many great museums to check out!

Bonnie Anderson

Bonnie Anderson

Domestic Budget Goddess, Core Contributor

Bonnie loves finding a great deal that can get her closer to the next exciting adventure with her husband and 5 kids. Her degree in Family and Consumer Sciences has helped her to claim the title of the “domestic budget goddess” by neighbors and friends throughout Central Illinois and Northern Utah.