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The Surprising Item Everyone Has That Could Save You Hundreds on Your Next Vacation

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Spoiler: Your library card is your free gateway to your next getaway!

Yes, that’s right—complimentary (and discounted) admission to family-friendly museums, cultural attractions and state parks can all be yours, simply with the use of your library card.

A little-known and—until recently—widely underused travel budget-saver, a library card can gain you free access to a growing list of local and far-flung U.S. attractions, from the New England Aquarium (admission: $28 per person) to the Omaha Zoo ($22). The savings on cultural attractions can truly be substantial! Did you know you can also use your local library card to borrow free admission “passports” to many state parks?

You can even get free entry to family-friendly city tours, water park-like public pools and ski resort attractions! If you’re looking for low-tech entertainment for a road trip, one regional library system actually allows you to “borrow” travel toys through a local branch toy library!

Sound too good to be true? A little time and effort is all that’s required to take advantage of one of the best family travel budget savers.

How It Works

Programs vary by location in terms of use and requirements for participation, but in general, using your library card, you’ll need to follow the outlined program reservation process. Some passes are in short supply—necessitating some finessing to obtain (you’re up to the task!), while others are abundant and require only a simple click-and-pick procedure to obtain.

Scope of access is limited to attractions in local and adjacent metro areas in many cases, however, some programs extend beyond city borders. If you live, work or go to school in New York State, for example, you can apply online for a complimentary New York (City) Public Library Card. After submitting proof of residence, you’ll receive a card with a barcode, which enables you to access the online Culture Pass reservation system. You can start planning a family vacation to the Big Apple, where you can visit tons of kid- and teen-friendly attractions for free, from the Brooklyn Children’s Museum to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum! Note that passes may be reserved 90 days in advance, and new passes are released on the first of each month.

Some programs limit the number of people admitted for free to one or two per library pass, but since many attractions traditionally offer free admission for children, you can still enjoy a free day out with the entire family. Nashville Public Library’s Museum Counts Passport, for example, enables Davis County, Tennessee, residents to swap their library card for two free adult admission passes to Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame. Admission to the museum is always free for area resident children ages 18 and under. Now that’s something to croon about!

Read on for a sampling of the savings you can score with your library card!

Zoos

Georgia residents can visit adorable Giant Panda twin cubs Ya Lun and Xi Lun (and their parents Lun Lun and Yang Yang) once a year for free, thanks to Zoo Atlanta’s Georgia State Library Pass Program. Up to four family members receive complimentary weekday admission, after checking out, viewing, and returning a zoo DVD. The potential savings for a family of four is $100—well worth a little extra time and effort!

Highlights:

  • Albuquerque BioPark (Public Library Albuquerque and Bernalillo County): Free admission for two adults and two children; potential savings: $49
  • Brookfield Zoo (Chicago Public Library Museum Passport): Free admission for two; potential savings: $44
  • Elmwood Park Zoo (Pennsylvania County Library Systems): Free admission for two adults and up to six children; potential savings: $120
  • Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium (Omaha and Council Bluffs Public Library): Free admission for two adults and up to six dependent children; potential savings: $118
  • New England Aquarium (Boston Public Library): Free admission for four, September to June only; potential savings: $112
  • Seattle Aquarium (Seattle Public Library): Free admission for six; potential savings: $180
  • Woodland Park Zoo (Seattle Public Library): Free admission for up to four people; potential savings: $60
  • Zoo Miami (Miami Dade Library Public Library System): Free admission for two adults and two children; potential savings: $56

State Parks

Introduced in 2018, New York State’s Empire Pass is your ticket to the great outdoors! The credit card-size pass, which can be borrowed with a library card issued by many of New York’s county library systems, can be checked out for one week and is valid for free vehicle entry to over 100 New York state parks and recreational areas. You can swim, fish, hike and explore a variety of ecosystems, terrains and recreational areas, including beaches, mountain trails, forests, lush meadows and waterfall-fed swimming holes. The potential savings if you’re visiting just one park is $6 to $10 per vehicle, but you can really maximize savings by utilizing a pass to visit several parks in a specific region over the course of a week. Simply use the “Search by Region” function on the New York State Parks website to map out your Empire State Parks family adventure!

Highlights:

Theme Park and Family Attractions

Do you have a Thomas the Train lover in the family? Did you know that you can use your library card to gain free access to a theme park that is a train lover’s paradise? A SAILS Library Network Museum Pass can get you free admission for two to Edaville USA Theme Park. The family-friendly Carver, Massachusetts, theme park features an awesome area dedicated to dinosaurs, as well as a 250-acre Thomas Land.

Highlights:

  • Boston by Foot (SAILS Pass): Free admission for up to four people for Classic tour, including “Boston by Little Feet,” “Heart of the Freedom Trail,” “The North End,” and “The Dark Side of Boston”; potential savings: $60
  • LEGOLAND Discovery Center Chicago (Chicago Public Library): Two for one admission; potential savings: $21
  • Crystal Coaster Alpine Slide (Michigan Activity Pass): Buy one, get one free pass; potential savings: $9

Destination Museums

Families with school-age kids adore The Museum of Science Boston. With your Boston Public Library card, you can score free admission for up to four people—a potential savings of $112!

Highlights:

Cool Pools and Summer Learning

California residents can make a splash by combining fun and learning! In California, Contra Costa County Library’s Discover and Go! Pass enables resident library card holders to gain free and discounted access to nearly 90 Bay Area attractions and cultural institutions. Participants include public pools (free admission for two adults and four children,) museums, zoos, science centers, theaters and more!

Travel Toys

At The Lincoln Branch Library, a Rochester, New York, branch of the Monroe County Library System, you can check out iSpy, Uno, 20 Questions and matching games, magnetic puzzles, and kits themed to special interests, from trains and dinosaurs to ponies, tools, space and construction vehicles. Toys can be kept for up to three weeks—plenty of time for a cross-country road trip!