Washington DC is a fantastic learning experience and a lot of fun. We've gone twice, once when our older kids were younger and last summer, taking only our youngest, who just turned 14 yesterday.
We hadn't been on a family vacation since Sage (our youngest) was about 7. She barely remembered what "vacation" was. I am a terrible flyer, awful anxiety) plus the cost is disgusting to fly, at least from Chicago.
What we did to save money and have a good time!
~ We rented a brand new car. My car is more than 10 years old. DH's car is an old, broken down pick up, which broke down needing over $2,000 in repairs within a week of our returning from DC, we didn't know it, but if we hadn't rented that car, we would have broken down with a car that needed to be in the shop for nearly 2 weeks hundreds of miles from home. We looked at rental car fees and saw who had the best rates and the best upgrades. We got a Toyota Camry or Sentra, I can;t remember. We put about 2,000 miles on the car and put all our gas on one credit card (because DH is terrible with cash, he just blows through it, he's actually more mature with a CC) we spent less than $200.00 on gas. Amazing. We went with Enterprise (and then got a discount when DH had to rent a car for nearly 2 weeks when we got home and his truck broke down.) I also now have a new Dream Car. A brand new Toyota. (I've never had a new car. I woman can dream.)
~I got Travel Guides from the Library I got two books from Fodor's "Let's Go" series and one of them had a laminated map that DH and DD used to guide us around DC. We didn't even have to buy a map of the Mall or the area.
~We stayed in a nice, but not too expensive hotel that served breakfast AND had a shuttle to the Metro. I did a lot of research into hotels. I LIVE by reading reviews and buy nothing before I've read reviews. My DH wanted, of course, the cheapest hotel available. He had come up with a random number of "no more than $80.00 a night." Uh, you can't do that and still find a nice, clean, SAFE neighborhood area, bed bug free hotel in the DC area. We stayed at the Hampton Inn in Alexandria VA. We paid $89.99 per weekend night, and $109.99 per weekday night. You save more money if you stay over a weekend.
~The hotel put out a great breakfast spread saving us at least $30.00 -$40.00 a day in one meal. They also had tea and coffee and hot cocoa and cookies and fruit in the afternoon and evening for a snack. The rooms were CLEAN and bed bug free (read the reviews. ONE mention of bedbugs and I am OUT of there) and they replaced our feather pillows with poly fill because of allergies. We had two Queen Sized beds and one bathroom for 3 people, but we managed.
~We did mostly free entertainment. We did most of the Smithsonian Museums (my favorite place on EARTH, next to Chicago's Field Museums, are the Smithsonian Museums. We did give some donations, mostly to the Holocaust Museum. We paid to see Mt. Vernon, but it was worth every penny. Sage had been asking about slavery and Mt Vernon had a lot of slave history that she could learn about. (The only thing I wish we had broken down and paid for was the Newseum. Next time, I think.) We saw the Capital and did the tour, but we didn't want to have to go "across the street and get tickets from the Congressman to see the chambers." Too much hassle. (Oddly, if you are not a US citizen you show them your ID and can see the chambers without any hassle. As long as Congress isn't in session.) The tour was great, we walked right by Boehner's office and my husband had to physically restrain me from barging in there and "telling him a thing or two." LOL!
~We didn't get a Kitchenette. Most of the hotels with Kitchenettes in the DC area were in less than safe neighborhoods and/or their reviews were not good. We did eat lunch on the Mall most days, and we did go out to dinner virtually every night. But, the third night, we gathered all our leftovers from the previous nights (the Hampton has fridges) and had a "leftover party" warming the food in the microwave also provided by the Hampton. This had the side effect of my snacking less. All good.
~The shuttle was free if you were Hampton Inn guests and took us every morning right to the Metro, where we bought tickets to get us right to the Mall. It was so easy and convenient, SO much nicer and cleaner than Chicago's El. (We drove to Mt Vernon, it was not on The Mall.)
~The Memorials were all free as were all of the Smithsonian Museums. We saw Library of Congress, Smithsonian Castle, Air and Space, Natural History, American History, Holocaust, several art museums, Lincoln Memorial, WWII, Viet Nam, Korea, and Botanical Gardens. (While walking my DH was entertaining us by making up names of government offices, "Here's the Official Department of Redundancy, and here's the Redundant Department of The United States....and here's the Ministry of Silly Walks.." etc) We paid to see Mount Vernon.
~We're not really Night People. We just stayed in our hotel, went swimming in the hotel pool, or read or watched some TV and looked at our pictures we took during the day and planned the next day.
We made it there in one trip from Chicago to DC. Thirteen hours of driving (we depleted all the songs on my iPod) but we took two days to get back, stopping at a nice well known but not expensive chain hotel somewhere near Toledo.
It was a memorable trip and we were so glad we went. Because so much of the stuff you see is free it save a lot of money. Plus, you can teach more about the way the government works, and SHOW the kids this stuff. I could have stayed all day in the American History Museum and the Natural History Museum, and DH and DD had to be dragged out of Air and Space. Library of Congress had some of the earliest maps and globes in the world on display, which was great for Aspies DH and DD. We did a LOT of walking and kept track with my phone app. We walked between 2-3 miles a day on the average, It was good for all of us.
I would encourage any family to go to DC for a great trip. If we were to do it again, like I said, I would have gone to the Newseum, and Versailles and tried to spend a day in one of the great antiquing towns in VA or MD, but that would have raised our cost and we would have needed an other couple of days.
Have a good time.