Are you getting the best bang for your travel dollars? Here's how to make the most of them!
In a previous post, I talked about how much I loved free attractions - not only for their delicious pricing, but also for the value their dedicated staff adds to the visit. For the follow up, I’m going to take a look at paid attractions and give some helpful ideas on how you can gain the best possible value for your admission price.
Why Pay When You Can Go For Free?
First of all, you might not have to pay admission at all! Many museums and galleries offer one day a month or a week for free! For example, Paris' Louvre is free for everyone the first Sunday of the month and for under 26's every Friday evening - a savings of 15 Euro! Arrive nice and early to beat the crowds. In Ottawa, many museums are free on Thursday evenings - a great way to see new things.
Delve Into Discounts!
Claim every freebie and discount you can. Holding student, teacher, union, military, and other professional identification can result in free or discounted admissions. Children, seniors, those with disabilities (and their assistant) all usually benefit as well. Sometimes you can also save with quirkier affiliation, like an auto club membership (such as at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ), a university alumni card, being a subscriber of a certain newspaper, or being a member of a hotel loyalty group. If you are passionate about saving money and need a project on a quiet March night, organize all your possible memberships and affiliations and see what they can do for you!
Pay for Partial Access
Consider paying for only part of the attraction. Realistically consider how much time and interest you have before you get a general admission pass. At Versailles, there are endless options to mix and match ticket packages, depending on whether you want to see the basic palace (I said it! Basic palace. Poor Versailles!), the private apartments, the estate, and so on. Many galleries offer a less expensive admission if you skip the pricey exhibit – or if you only see the exhibit and not the permanent collection. This is especially true of amusement parks. There is usually an option to buy individual rides, packages of 10 rides, or an all-day pass. The all-day pass is only a good value if you actually will use more than 10 rides. Depending on the time of day and how busy the park is, you might be lucky to get 6-7 rides completed.
Buy Some Added Value
By contrast, consider buying MORE than you need to! Sometimes there is very little financial incentive to skip the exhibit in favor of just the permanent collection. Some galleries and museums give very strong financial motivations for you to visit both – and hopefully you will love it and spread the word. Take a small chance and you might just discover something you love! A huge fan of Shakespeare, I saw a performance at the University of Southern Utah's Cedar City reproduction of the Globe Theatre. While I might normally just buy a ticket to tour the theatre itself, buy purchasing a show ticket, I saw a great performance, got to poke around the theatre, visited displays on the theatre's history, and saw a pre-show dancing troupe. For my money, this offers a tremendous value over (the less expensive) cost of touring the theatre structure.
Can You See Some For Free?
Don't pay at all! Doesn't make any sense? Sometimes, the appeal of an attraction has as much to do with the building, the location, and its beautiful lobby and gardens. Many museums and galleries have dramatic pieces of sculpture, art, and historical artifacts in their front lobby, the café, and even outside. Most have small gardens and benches as well. If you aren't sure if you'll like it and only have a short amount of time; walk around the free things, grab a cup of coffee, and enjoy works of beauty without the admission price.
Go to church! Some of the world's most famous houses of worship now have to charge an admission cost to cover the cost of their docents, administrators, cleaners, and assistants. Being open to tourists is actually hard, expensive work. I don't begrudge them the need to charge admission. But if you just want to see inside a beautiful building, or if you are more interested in hearing the acoustics instead of seeing the historical plaques, consider going during worship services. Normally everyone will be welcome. This is exactly what I did at St. Paul's Cathedral on my second visit. The lovely music and choral singing made me really appreciate my experience. Dress appropriately, do not take pictures, and give a donation if you can. While it might be fine to take a quick walk around when the service is over, it is best not to linger.
Volunteer for an Insider's View
Depending on your time and interest, you might be able to see some other attractions for free if you volunteer your time. Look at the website in advance in case there are special opportunities. The Sierra Club offers free nature walks – with informative commentary from botanists and other experts – at many spectacular natural locations. You just need to be willing to pick up garbage or help make small repairs to shelters. All national parks have a “friends” association that offers periodic short volunteer opportunities – maybe you’ll spend the afternoon helping to restore a garden or cleaning a rehabilitated arts centre.
Pursue Some Paid-for Perks
If you've paid for admission, make sure you take advantage of all the perks. Most attractions have free mini tours, lectures, films, and presentations throughout the day. National and local parks offer free talks and nature programs with the local rangers. Take advantage of them, even if you aren't entirely sure if it’s your thing. You've already spent your money to get in the door, so you might as well get a free tour while you’re at it.
Location, Location, Location
If you have no choice to pay for admission, you might as well pay as little as possible. Investigate the pros and cons of buying tickets online. Some attractions, such as outdoor amusement parks and ski hills, offer serious discounts when purchased in advance on line – sometimes you can save $20 or more for a day pass. Even better – when you buy tickets in advance, you can walk on in. This is a great plan when you can’t manage to get up at 6am. But buyers beware: sometimes you can face expensive service charges for buying online, especially if a third party broker is used. “Convenience” fees are the bane of my existence! Theatre tickets are notorious for this. You'll have to find a balance between buying in advance and getting a great seat or taking a chance to buy the same day and save several dollars in surcharges.
Peruse a Package Deal
Consider package deals as a way to get good value. I always price things out individually and weigh the pros and cons of bundling in a package deal. If you are certain that you want the other components of the package, and if you feel it is a good deal, go for it. While most people think of package deals as flight, hotel, car rental combos, there are a lot of other options. Many theatres, for example, offer packages with backstage tours, dinner, and a show. Other packages might include presentations from the director or writer – experiences never normally offered to the public at any cost. Consider not only the value of the package deal, but whether or not they include special perks that would add the value of a wonderful experience.
Make a Membership Work For You
Consider buying a membership. If you know you will be coming back, if it represents a cause you support, if the membership gives you perks you will use such as café and gift shop discounts, then the membership may well pay for itself. Do a bit of research, however, before buying a “City Museum Pass”. These passes can often be a good deal, usually paying for themselves after just 2 visits. But beware – there is often just one “star” museum in the group and many more obscure, harder to reach attractions. This can be appealing if you want the incentive to see more unique locations, but can be waste of money if you will never take advantage of it. One huge perk of membership: bypassing all the lines!
Become a Coupon Sleuth
Before you buy anything – online or in person – do a search for coupons. More commercial attractions may offer coupon codes, two for one promotions, discounts for visiting late in the day, and more. You can search online, in newspapers, in the endless tourist brochures and magazines at the airport. Don’t be shy about asking if they will honor expired coupons. See a box to enter a coupon code but can't find one? Call and ask them where to find their coupon codes! We did this once to save 25% (well over $100) on the ferry service between Maine and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. After a night of unsuccessful searching for an online coupon code, we called the ferry office to ask. They weren't even sure, but suggested checking the local newspapers. A second night finally yielded results after searching through online editions of tiny community newspapers. Considering we multitasked this search with watching Law and Order, I say it was time and effort well spent so save so considerably on our ferry.
Groupon might also offer some options for attractions, as well as accommodations and dining. Be sure to read through the fine print carefully and double check expiry dates. (We also use Groupon for pizza deals to get inexpensive meal delivery for those frantic nights before and after our trip).
There's More Than One Kind of Membership
There’s a different kind of membership that might appeal to you based on your passions. Spread out over a broad geographic zone, these state, national, and even international memberships can get your free or discounted admissions at attractions all over the world. We found a great deal in our American National Park membership – it paid for itself many times over and encouraged us to make short visits to smaller parks we normally wouldn't have stopped and paid for individually. The Association for Science and Technology Centres has a passport programs that offers admissions and member benefits at over 300 museums worldwide.
If you can, buy your membership on the first day of the month, not the last. Many, but not all, year-long memberships will expire not in 365 days, but at the end of this month one year from now. Buying your membership on July 31 will get you 12 months of membership benefits. Buying it on Aug 1 will get you 13 months of membership.
Grab a Sneak Peak
Another way to save money – don’t go the real thing! Previews are a fantastic way to see amazing performances at a discounted rate before the grandeur of opening night. Ranging to paying a few dollars to see a dress rehearsal to saving a small percentage over normal ticket prices to see a production on the day before the weekend debut, seeing previews is a great way to save, not matter how much you pay. Plays, ballets, operas, musicals can all be yours at a fraction of the regular price. (Even better, you can sometimes save even more if you fall into a usual discount category like student or senior). As a university student, I regularly saw theatre productions for as little as $8.
A similar option: pay what you can events. Many galleries and museums have a monthly pay what you can night – even yoga studios usually have one “community” class a week by donation. The best form of this – Shakespeare in the Park. I try to take in production every summer!
Save Money, Save Your Receipt
Finally, you've examined every single possible angle to save money. Now it's time to save your receipt. The majority of sites will allow for come and go admissions with proof of purchase. While you might visit the Musee D’Orsay at 9am, you might want to duck back in for 45 minutes when it starts to rain in the afternoon, or at 7pm when you just aren't sure what to do with yourself in the as a solo traveler As many museums, galleries, and attractions offer a variety of programs and tours throughout the day, you can time your repeat visit to take advantage of these programs that you've already technically paid for.
Make The Most of Your Time
Remember that paying for sites and attractions is more than just maximizing your dollar. It's also about getting the best value for your time. More than anything else, I advocate that you can get the absolute best value for your time and money with a bit of consideration for timing.
In a recent post, I talked about how managing the timing of attractions was going to be a key strategy for me in making our upcoming, jam-packed trip feel a little less hectic. There is always a best time to visit a paid attraction and it is almost never midday. For me, I usually prefer to visit very early in the morning, being one of the first to arrive. If you are organizing your day into blocks of time (say, three hours), to me it makes much more sense to arrive early before opening, spend 30 minutes sipping coffee and watching the world go by, and then spend 2 ½ hours inside a not so crazy gallery. Arrive at noon and you could easily spend 30-150 minutes waiting to get inside, leaving you with as little as 30 minutes inside the cramped attraction. (Anyone who’s arrived at the Musee D’orsay at 1pm will know exactly what I mean!)
There's usually a good reason for arriving on one particular day versus any other and it's not always obvious. At The H.N. Greenwell Store Museum in Kona, I recommend visiting on Thursday, for no other reason than that’s the day they do a bread baking demonstration in a vintage, wood fed, outdoor oven and Portuguese style buns are for sale. Delicious – why would you go any other day? Search through the calendar of events buried on the website and find out which day is best for your visit.
Travel is about having the best possible experience and, for me, making the most of your precious, hard earned, limited time and money. I hope you will happily part with your money to visit some of the most memorable museums, galleries, gardens, zoos, aquariums, theme parks, historical sites, parks, and theatres in the world – and I hope you can do so without spending a penny more than need be, enjoying every second of the experience.
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