Saturday, March 28, 2009

Travel Tips: Washington, D.C.

I am sorry it has been a while. I have been madly working (when time and children allowed) on a digital photo album. I have a coupon for it that expires by the end of the month, so I have had some motivation to finish it. I am also trying to finish up our beach album from last year (I have a coupon for it too). So I have been on the computer, just not on here. :)

I have had a couple of people ask me about our trip to D.C. I am by no means an expert since we have gone one time now, a whirlwind trip at that. But I have learned a few tips I thought I would share. I cannot take credit for a lot of these. I have a couple of friends in the D.C. area who so very kindly shared tips with me before we traveled. And then a couple of things we learned through the School of Hard Knocks (a.k.a. experience)...

I have to admit before I share anything that I have wanted to see the sights of D.C. for some time. However, I was scared to go...especially after 9/11. Between the plane ride, the crime reports, and the ever lurking threat of terrorism that has haunted me since 9/11, I have been very hesitant to do this. Now, having gone, I cannot help but wonder what took me so long to go!

Anyway, onto the tips (and I apologize to several of you who have gone and are probably rolling your eyes at me like "Duh, I already knew that..."):
1. Flying in- I highly recommend flying into Reagan airport. The other ones (like Dulles) will look cheaper as far as flights go. But Reagan is RIGHT there. It took less than five minutes for us to get to our hotel (and then at the end, back to the airport). Even better, our hotel had a free shuttle, so we didn't have to pay a taxi. The Metro also goes to Reagan.
2. Transportation- We had the free shuttle to and from the airport. Otherwise, we used public transportation. We took the Metro or walked nearly everywhere (and took the bus one time at 1 dollar a person...had we known how close we were to where we were going, we would have walked that). I cannot say enough about the Metro. It was actually one of the favorite parts of the trip for the kids...they LOVED riding the Metro. It is very easy to figure out where you need to go. It is clean (no food or drink allowed). And it is a LOT faster than driving around DC, plus cheaper. Parking costs quite a bit, even at hotels. With the Metro, we paid around 80 dollars (for the four of us) and that got us around the whole four days...much cheaper than renting a car, paying for gas, paying for parking. As far as the Metro goes, we bought all four passes at the same time, putting 10 dollars on each one (we could use our debit card). You can always add more later. However, once they were really low, we just bought another round. There was a box in our hotel where you could donate leftover cards to Vets who are going to jobs. Oh, and you put the cards both going in to the Metro and OUT of the Metro.
3. One of my friends from D.C. advised us to always stand on the right side of the escalators in the Metro stations (which by the way can be really long...the Rosslyn one was the longest I have ever been on!). That way, those in a hurry can pass on the left...and they do! We usually enjoyed the escalator rides as a chance to slow down, so we stayed put on the right side. I don't think there was one time I wasn't saying to my kids, "Get on the right!" just about the time someone came running up or down!
4. Choose your hotel wisely. At first, I had stars in my eyes, and I was just pretty positive we needed to stay in a hotel IN Washington, D.C. with a fabulous view of the monuments. The funny thing is that we were at our hotel to sleep, and that was about it. After I got over the sticker shock, I quickly realized we were going to have to "downgrade" my desires a bit. I toyed with staying in several different parts of D.C. (I use as a guide for the reviews and ratings). Thankfully I asked a friend living there about some places I was looking at. He was able to give me the thumbs up or thumbs down on them, not just the hotel but the area we were looking into. We ended up staying in Crystal City (Arlington, VA). It was THE right area for us (which I totally attribute to friends living there). There is this whole underground mall with fast food. We also used it at night to walk from the Metro to as close to our hotel as we could since the temps were cooler then. The Metro was one block away. And it felt very safe to us. After we decided on Crystal City, we were pretty set on the Marriott (which actually is above the Metro basically), but at the last minute I found the Hampton Inn and Suites on tripadvisor. It had good ratings AND it was cheaper. The other appealing factors: free breakfast (which a lot of hotels don't offer) and free internet (which most hotels didn't offer). The internet was sometimes a bit temperamental, but otherwise, we had a wonderful stay.
5. Timing- We chose spring break because we usually go to the beach in the summer. Plus I had heard that the weather would be much more bearable in the spring. It was a good time to go, though early summer would have some benefits too I would think. Hours for museums tend to be longer in the summer, and some things we might have considered (like a canal boat ride in Georgetown) did not operate in March. We did get to see the cherry blossoms, but it was still a bit early...I would guess April (if we weren't working around school) would be ideal. Overall though the temps were pretty nice, cool at times, but never freezing. Also, as far as timing, hotel prices are much (as in about 100 dollars) cheaper on the weekends rather than weekdays. That is why we ended up going from Friday through Tuesday rather than Saturday through Wednesday. It was good as far as paying for lodging. The one downside is that there were a few things (especially federal building programs) we could only do on one day...Monday. So we ended up missing out on a few things like the Archives and the Bureau of Engraving/Printing.
6. The Washington Monument- If you want to go to the top of the Monument, I would highly advise getting tickets in advance via telephone or internet. I almost did, and when I almost did, there were some reserved tickets available. But since we weren't sure on our schedule yet, we didn't. And we never got to the top either. :) When we went by the Monument to find out about tickets, we found out that the next reserved tickets were available in June. There are some tickets available each morning, but you have to arrive REALLY early in the morning and wait in line in hopes that you can get them. It would have been cool, just to say we had done it. That being said, a couple people I talked to told me that the view is not that great once you are up there because the windows are so small and you can pretty much see what is straight ahead. If you want a good view, then I would recommend the Old Postal Tower. It is not as tall, but it didn't require tickets and once you are up there (and it was plenty tall for someone afraid of heights like me), you can see all around you.
7. Hours- I highly recommend finding out the hours of any and all exhibits or monuments you may want to visit. While some are open late (like the Lincoln Memorial), many of them close early (like Arlington). I am usually a planner and on top of things like that, but life got really busy before we left. We were fortunate to show up at a few places like Arlington and the Old Postal Tower literally minutes before closing. Also, I would check online for the Museum hours. They can close early but sometimes have later nights. Also, if there is an Imax movie you are interested in seeing at one of the Museums, I would recommend finding out those times in advance. We really wanted to see one at the Air and Space Museum, but the one we wanted to see wasn't until much later. It just wasn't feasible for us to leave then come back later. We did catch one at the Museum of Natural History; the kids LOVED it.
8. Regrets- The only regrets I know of were visiting the National Aquarium (though the kids enjoyed it) and the "simulator rides" at the Museum of American History. The Aquarium was not bad, but it did cost to get in and wasn't really worth the money. I would have much rather spent more time at the Museum of Natural History. And the "simulator rides" also cost money and were CHEESY. I mean really cheesy. Now Mark and Hunter did ride a fighter pilot one at the Air and Space Museum and loved it.
9. Souvenirs- We had a hard time at first finding souvenirs. We are so used to Florida where there are souvenir shops (most gaudy from the outside) on every corner. They are not as visible in D.C. We finally found some at the Old Postal Tower building. I also got a pretty nice t-shirt at the airport, though once you go through security, you are limited on where you shop. I still want a Georgetown shirt which I could not find in Georgetown...I think I will order one on-line. Oh, and the kids' grandparents gave them each some souvenir money. So anytime they wanted something, we told them it had to come from their money (though I did buy a t-shirt for both of them since I knew they would never spend their money on clothing, and they both need spring clothing anyway). It was amazing how much wiser they were on spending their money when it was THEIRS and not MINE. :)
10. Bathrooms- I highly advise using the bathrooms when and if you find one because you just cannot be sure you will find another one anytime soon. Some places I did not expect to have one (like the Jefferson and FDR Memorials) did, while the Metro stations did not. I enjoyed the Capitol but about that time the coke I had had for lunch had gone straight through me and it was a bit panicky because we couldn't find any restrooms near the Capitol. (Lucky for our daughter because the one we did find was at the art museum which she wanted to go to) I am grateful for Starbucks. After dinner in Chinatown, we went for a long walk with our friends. The children started dancing. We found a Starbucks that generously let the kids use their restrooms. Mark tried to buy something (not just to be polite but because he really likes Starbucks) and they were about to close. Thank you, Starbucks!
11. Packing- This is not really a DC travel tip, but just a general travel tip. I packed outfits for both my daughter and me in ziplock bags (the 2.5 gallon worked well). I made sure each bag had needed hair accessories, undergarments, socks, etc. When I closed the bags, I laid on top of them as I "zipped" them shut which was a lot like using a vacuum on them. I was able to fit both sets of clothes in my suitcase (I also added one outfit to my carry on bag JUST in case) which was nice since we had to PAY to check our bags. On the way home, I put the outfits back into the bag to make sure we had everything. It was also easy for Lauren to just pull out a bag and know that all she needed was IN that bag. :)
12. Safety- I never felt unsafe. The Rosslyn area (from the Metro to the bridge) was a bit desolate at first, but not really scary. We were advised to not travel to the southeast part of the city, but there wasn't anything there we were going to see. We did go through security numerous times, but that wasn't a big deal (much easier than airport security...I was able to keep my shoes on and jewelry wasn't an issue). And the only rude people I encountered were a couple of tourists. Everyone else was nice as could be.

There you go, there are my tips. Oh, as far as favorites? All of it. I loved all of it (other than our two "regrets"). I loved seeing the history, the monuments, the White House. I LOVED the architecture downtown and in Georgetown. Roosevelt Island was a lot like visiting Northwest Arkansas but it was a little slice of nature in the midst of a big city. The Smithsonian Museums...incredible. There is not enough time in the day to even touch upon everything in the museums. Arlington Cemetery was just an incredible place (the one thing we didn't get to see was the Eternal Flame for JFK). There were several places recommended to us that we will hopefully do someday. We would have loved to go to the zoo, Mount Vernon, inside the Capitol, the Bureau of Engraving/Printing, the Newseum, etc. But we were really rushed and got as much in as we could with the time we had.

Oh, and it was a hard decision to not bring the little kids (part of the reason we took a shorter trip), but I really could not imagine doing it with them. Child 3  would not have been able to handle all of the walking, and the youngest would not have been able to handle the mixed up schedule, later eating times, etc. Someday we will take them too. The older kids did wonderfully. They only complained a time or two about being tired of walking (which suddenly went away depending on what we were doing) and the only place they really complained was Georgetown. That was our one little grown up indulgence (admiring the architecture that is).

Finally, here is a brief summary:
We were basically IN DC for four days.

I walked 92,337 steps which for me translates into 34.95 miles. Of that, my pedometer (which is really picky about "aerobic exercise" counted 279 minutes of that as aerobic exercise which means I had to be moving at a fast pace for a certain amount of time. (at home, that number would have been 120 minutes...30 minutes a day)

In those four days, we visited...
Arlington Cemetery (and the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns)
the Washington Monument
the WWII Memorial
the Reflecting Pool
the Lincoln Memorial
the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Wall
the White House
Lafayette Park (across from the White House)
the National Aquarium
the Museum of Natural History (including Imax 3D movie)
Roosevelt Island
Georgetown (University and nearby neighborhoods)
the Francis Scott Key Memorial
the Capitol building
the art museum
the Air and Space Museum
the Museum of American History
the Old Postal Tower
the Jefferson Memorial
the FDR Memorial
the Korean War Memorial

Not too bad. :)



  1. It looks like you had a great trip. I can't wait until we go. (Who knows when that will be.) I am sure it will be a very memorable trip for Hunter and Lauren. You got some really good pictures!

  2. I am so very impressed. I was born here and don't think that I could have written that post:0)

  3. Hi,
    you have a beautiful family..your blog is very nice. keep it up...


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