We want to show our kids Washington DC and related attractions. They have been asking for about a year after learning about history and government in school. It will be about 2 years before we can get organized, arrange vacation time off, and save enough to go. How does one go about estimating the cost for such a trip, and saving for it? Has anyone taken their family across the country to see this area? How many days should we plan to stay there? How can I accurately estimate the cost? I have never organized a trip like this before. We have gone to India but we only had to worry about plane tickets since we stayed with family. Planning a trip to a place I've never been, and knowing it's expensive, seems like an overwhelming task.
There are probably lots of family-friendly guide books at the library, so I'd start there if I were you.
Having lived in Northern Virginia for a few years, here's what I know:
The subway is very easy to use, so don't be afraid to stay some place farther out if it's close to the subway. It's also easy to take light rail from BWI airport, and flights to there are often cheaper than DCA or Dulles.
Visiting monuments and museums like the Smithsonian is free, so take advantage of that. You could spend a year exploring the museums alone, so have a game plan for what you want to see.
In 11th grade we went to the Holocaust Museum. It's a powerful experience.
I'd say you'd want to stay for at least 5-7 days.
How long are you planning on staying for?
We use to frequent DC quite often. We stayed in a public campground across the river from DC and then took the metrorail into the city because hotels in the city are very $$$$. The great thing about DC is almost everything is free.
In some ways, Washington, DC, is a very frugal city because many of the attractions are free. I would check some books out of the library, but a few must-sees with kids (in my opinion) are the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Zoo, Union Station, the monuments, the Smithsonian's Sculpture Garden, and Ford's theater.
A couple of thoughts - the city and its sights are very spread out and it is A LOT of walking. It might be worth into looking into the cost of taking one of the tour buses around the city to get to see some of the big sights and monuments and then you could go back and visit the ones you want to see up close (kids love the Lincoln Memorial) I would sign up for Group On Washington, DC, as they might run a deal for a tour bus or other activity. We actually did that for Phoenix when we went the other direction a few years ago :)
Washington's hotel rooms actually tend to be less expensive on weekends than during the week since they lose all the business travelers and August tends to be the least expensive time to visit because Congress is in recess and that impacts business. However, Washington was built on a swamp and it can be very hot and humid in August.
Also, some of the neighborhoods downtown are really "office park like" in that people really work there and the sidewalk sort of rolls up at night. For instance, I worked in a neighborhood near Capitol Hill where many of the restaurants only served breakfast and lunch. I would make sure that there are other hotels in the vicinity or that it is in a residential neighborhood so that you have things you can walk to at night.
I would take metro or MARC and not rent a car unless you are planning on a doing a trip outside of the city where you need one - the city is not built on a grid and is very confusing to drive in if you aren't familiar with the layout - I spent the first several years lost. If you decide to stay in a suburb, I would make sure it is a nice one, the city has some very nice suburbs as well as some that are not so nice. If you narrow down where you are thinking about staying in either the city or the suburbs and want to send me a private message, I would be happy to look.
Finally, many of the hotels tend to be geared towards business travelers rather than families, so if being able to take a break at the hotel pool is important - make sure that they have one. Just because a hotel is large and a major chain is no guarantee in DC.
Send me a message if you want more info. It is great that you are coming to DC. We have such a big and amazing country - it is great for the kids to get to see other parts of it. Mine were blown away by AZ.
Thanks for all the advice so far!! I am always afraid that we will miss the good stuff if we don't get advice from people that know the place. We have already set a goal to start saving per month. :-)
I love the Frommers travel books:
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.
DC is a great place to visit on the cheap! You can do almost everything for free.
Last time I went there to visit (not counting the medical trip to NIH earlier this year) we just did two days with me, a friend, and 9 kids between us. Our only big cost was two hotel rooms. We did things like $5 footlongs from Subway for lunch and carried plenty of food in our backpacks. You could spend weeks just in the Smithsonian Museums.
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