Reasonable Washington trip
WASHINGTON -- Sticker shock from each hotel and airfare package explored on a travel Web site sent me searching for another option. Extend the trip, shorten the trip. Fly early, fly late. It did not seem to matter. The cost to visit the country's...
WASHINGTON -- Sticker shock from each hotel and airfare package explored on a travel Web site sent me searching for another option.
Extend the trip, shorten the trip. Fly early, fly late. It did not seem to matter. The cost to visit the country's government hub seemed unpatriotically high: More than $300 a night for an average hotel room near the Capitol and several hundred dollars for a roundtrip flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Washington.
My challenge was to get the most out of a trip to Washington on a reasonable budget. But with only a few weeks remaining before I was to be there for work, with a few days of vacation tacked onto the end, an affordable flight and reasonably priced accommodations seemed as unlikely as getting a full meal on the airliner.
In this case, the trip couldn't be planned six months in advance, as travel industry experts recommend. Airlines are cutting flights and filling their planes to save money, so gone are the days when airlines would offer 11th-hour discounts.
"Book as early as you can," said Gail Weinholzer of the Minnesota-Iowa AAA office. "For the most part, that's going to be your best option because with fewer flights and fewer seats you're not going to get last-minute deals."
My flight to Washington with a layover left early in the morning; I returned late at night after another layover. Total cost: $440. Booking three months out, however, could knock that down by $100 or more. Still, my flight cost less than it would to drive to Washington, which would have taken up precious time.
Rather than settling for an overpriced hotel room near Capitol, my wife found a bed and breakfast with more reasonable rates. The Woodley Park Guest House offered nice rooms, excellent service and a full breakfast starting at $145 a night. That was a fair deal considering the alternatives.
Washington is different from many top American destinations in that once you pay for airfare and lodging, it is possible your only other major expense is food. We did not pay to see anything during four vacation days, proving admission fees won't bust your travel budget as they would in other cities.
Since many of the biggest tourist attractions are funded with tax dollars, there is no admission charge. Such is the case for the Smithsonian Institution's 17 Washington museums and the historic monuments maintained by the National Park Service.
Four days were not enough time to see everything of interest, so we made a list of priority stops and got an early start each day. We might have made even better use of our time had we stopped at the Smithsonian Castle early in the trip.
The castle, near the park-like National Mall between the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial, includes an information center with volunteers who recommend sights, suggest itineraries and generally help visitors get their bearings.
"They'll be able to answer questions about all the Smithsonian museums, so if you really didn't have a chance to plan ahead of time I would definitely stop at the castle first," said Samia Elia, a Smithsonian spokeswoman.
The Smithsonian also has a new Web site making it easy to plan museum visits before you leave town.
A trip to Washington requires early planning for airfare and lodging, but also to ensure access to two key tourist stops -- the Capitol and the White House. Tours of each are free and can be scheduled through the offices of your U.S. senators or representative -- and should be requested several weeks in advance. Capitol tours also are available on a first-come, first-served basis, but by requesting a tour prior to a trip you avoid having to wait in line outside. Think waiting in line won't be a problem? Consider the weather; it was 90 degrees and uncomfortably sticky during our stay. Visiting in the fall or spring would be better.
Temper your expectations prior to a White House tour. While a visit to the historic residence certainly is interesting, don't expect a lengthy tour from a guide dispensing tales of White House lore. Instead, the tour is self-guided, swings through only about eight rooms and takes 25 minutes. The tour is worthwhile, but overrated.
Our Capitol tour made up for any disappointment from the White House visit. Congressional interns and low-ranking staff -- not historians -- lead most tours through the halls of Congress, but they are told to memorize a thick binder full of Capitol history, so they share more facts than one could possibly remember. Most tour groups include up to 15 people, but a scheduling fluke worked in our favor as a Senate staffer led just the two of us through the Capitol.
It's easy to overlook details at popular Washington sites, but there are many: ornate carvings and paintings in the Library of Congress, a plaque on the Lincoln Memorial steps marking the location from which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech, candid photographs of presidents in a White House hallway, the sheer size of each stone that comprises the towering Washington Monument and the vast collection of artifacts at any Smithsonian museum.
All that sight-seeing leaves one hungry and, expectedly, food isn't cheap near the main tourist area. Walk a few blocks north of the National Mall, however, and you'll find many options, including child-friendly chain restaurants and local favorites. Don't expect too many dining bargains, but it is possible to eat in Washington for close to what you would pay in the Twin Cities.