Can you keep this vacation secret about free museum day?

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By Christopher Elliott

Hey, can you keep a secret? It’s free museum day. That’s how you save a few bucks while you’re on vacation, and maybe even see another side of your destination.

My kids don’t want me to tell you about free museum day. They claim they don’t like museums. I don’t believe them: I think they just don’t like bad museums, of which there are plenty.

We experienced three free museum days recently — one at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and two in Los Angeles, at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Free museum days are one of the best-kept secrets for travelers. They’re typically held once a month on days when no one visits a museum, like Monday or Tuesday. And they are exactly what they say they are — days when you don’t pay for admission. (Some restrictions apply.)

Free museum day is here
A skeleton at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

How did we end up here on free museum day?

Our introduction to free museum day came on a January morning in Denver. We’d made plans to visit the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and we had tickets. Turns out — surprise! — we didn’t even need them. It was free museum day! Here’s a list of free days for the year. The museum was overrun with families who were trying to escape the cold and avoid the $17.95 admission fee.

By the way, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science is worth the price of admission. If you want to understand Colorado, you’ll find buildings upon buildings of fascinating exhibits that offer a glimpse not seen by most tourists. The wildlife halls, which feature more than 90 wildlife and habitat scenes, were fairly quiet on free museum day. We spent time admiring the bear and antelope. (Read this if you are planning to travel in the fall.)

All of which brings me to my first piece of free museum day advice: If you go, find an exhibition that’s less likely to attract crowds. The dinosaurs are always overrun by three-year-olds, and since my kids weren’t into prehistoric skeletons, we stayed away from that area. Just because you’re getting in for free doesn’t mean you have to see exhibits of little or no interest. (Related: Read this before you make a vacation mistake.)

Here's a vacation secret about free museum day
Aren and Erysse at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The best time to visit for free museum day

While we’re at it, let’s talk about the best times to schedule a free museum day visit. Everyone likes to show up in the mid-morning and stay until mid-afternoon. Avoid those times. You won’t get close to any of the exhibitions you want, and even if you do, the experience would not be ideal. In Denver, we should have arrived when the doors opened. When we showed up at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art just before the museum closed, the crowds had thinned. Peak times on free museum day are pandemonium. I’m about talking crying kids, long lines. And it gets hot with all those bodies wedged in the darkened exhibition halls.

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Surprise! Museums are free on these days
Aren at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

My final piece of advice about free museum day is that there are limits to freedom. Your kids might still want more. The choice exhibits may still cost extra, especially the IMAX movies. So you may have to prepare them for the fact that free doesn’t mean everything is free. It’s a good opportunity to remind them that when they become consumers, companies get to define “free” (kids eat free, free miles, free beer) and to help them understand that they might not always agree with that definition. Oh, but that’s just the consumer advocate in me talking. Moving along …

But even with the kids wanting to watch an IMAX movie or to see the space shuttle, there’s still more than enough to do on free museum day. We didn’t make it through all of the exhibits, and I think with a little encouragement, my three children would have agreed to return.

As a dad who is always looking for ways to save money, I love free museum days. As long as you set your family’s expectations, time your visit, and see the right exhibits, you can have a great trip. And my children made me write the next sentence: They do not hate museums. They do, however, dislike seeing the same type of museum over and over again.

I get it. No more dinosaurs, kids. I’ll try to remember that.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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