An Affordable Family Holiday in D.C.

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Washington D.C. is the new “it” family holiday destination.  The New York Times declared it hotter than New York City once Barack, Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama moved into the White House. And now Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert are headed to town for competing rallies (in the Glen Beck vein) on Oct. 30. Even without all that, Washington D.C. is one of the best family vacation destinations around.

There are many great things to love about D.C. For starters all of the museums, monuments and the zoo are free. Free, free, free. That’s the government working for you and me and the best way to ensure an affordable family vacation.

Beyond the power, history and general coolness of D.C., it’s a beautiful city to wander in. It was designed by Major L’Enfant, a Frenchman, and is reminiscent of Paris (best city in the world). A tour of the monuments at night with their facades lit up is an excursion that should be a “must do” on any family vacation itinerary.

Apparently word got out that the Evans family was headed there for a family vacation and everyone else decided to come, too. The city was jammed and I imagine it will be for the foreseeable future.

Attacking D.C. requires a battle plan to ensure your family vacation will be as much fun as ours was.

Where to Stay

Step One: Determine where to house the troops: There are so many hotel choices in D.C. it boggles the mind. I even have information on a great furnished apartment rental that was only $800/week during the inauguration. Post a comment if you’d like me to send you the details.

However, being Luxury Travel Mom I decided to see if the ultimate luxury hotel, the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel www.Marriott.com (site of the infamous Eliot Spitzer rendezvous), would welcome me and my army of small invaders. To my continued surprise, they were ever so accommodating of us and even would have welcomed our dogs. Little known fact: Most Marriott Hotel properties are pet friendly.

Though I delighted at the thought of showing up Clampett style at the front door of the esteemed Mayflower, half dressed screaming children and howling beagle in tow, I ultimately chickened out and left the dogs home. The children were half dressed after a long drive to D.C.; some things are unavoidable. We rented a suite with an attached room for the kids, we had plenty of space and the staff couldn’t have been lovelier to my children, even as they rolled each other down the hall of antique carpets.

What to Do

Step two: Plan your invasion. I’m going to give you my top five hints, tricks and tips on how to avoid the lines to lower the frustration level on your family vacation. My new motto is “lines are for suckers.”
1. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: There are actually two museums, one in town and one out by Dulles airport. We did both. We did the one in the city first; there were lines everywhere, lines to get into lines actually. If you plan to go to the one in the city, buy your Imax tickets online, there was a wait of at least an hour to get them at the museum. Bring food, there was another long line to get into McDonald’s; I refuse on principle to stand in a line like that. Go at 5 p.m. The museum doesn’t close until 7:30 p.m. and the place is empty in the evenings. This museum has the Spirit of St. Louis, Apollo 11 and a piece of moon rock. We luckily tagged along on our congressman/friend’s tour. We learned more from the docent than I learned in an entire class at university. Take the tours in the city, then plan on enjoying the simulators at the museum by the airport. The drive to Dulles is about 40 minutes but it’s worth the cab ride. It has a real space shuttle, the Enola Gay and all sorts of amazing aircraft. There were NO lines at this museum; my kids did every flight simulator, some of them twice.

2. Bureau of Engraving and Printing: This is where our money is printed; you can actually see multimillion-dollar stacks of money. What’s cooler than that? If you contact your congressman’s office far enough in advance, they can get you a ticket. It’s no different than the ticket you can get for yourself, but you don’t have to stand in line. No time for that? Send someone to stand in line at 8 a.m. when they open and you’ll get a ticket for a tour that same day, most tickets are gone by 9 a.m. Don’t attempt to wing it with this one. In the gift shop you can even buy sheets of uncut money. My kids are still talking about it.

3. The monuments at night: As fun as the monuments are during the day, they are spectacular at night. Sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial looking across the reflecting pool at the Washington Monument by moonlight fills you with a patriotic pride that will almost make you cry. It will really make you cry if you didn’t bring snacks for the kids.

4. International Spy Museum: This is not free. Admission is $15, kids ages 5-11; $18 for those ages 12-64; $17 for those 65 and over and active military and intelligence community (how do they know?) and free for kids under 5. It’s worth every penny. They have spy gear that has never been seen by the public there, it’s beyond cool. Children 12 or older can sign up for a one hour “spy mission.” My children are too young, but my 10-year-old daughter plans to come back and lie about her age so she can do it. I’m so proud of her. There’s a lot of reading required to really enjoy this museum, I wouldn’t recommend it for the under 8 set. It was my favorite museum by far, if this whole “mommy” thing doesn’t work out, I’m joining the CIA. Again, this is a line nightmare. I ran into my friend whose husband is a congressman in the gift shop, she couldn’t get in to the museum. Buy your tickets online and have them held at will call, you’ll walk right in like the VIP we know you are.

5. The White House: After 9/11 the security at the White House changed dramatically. The only way to get a tour of the White House is through your congressman or senator. Plan at least 4-6 months in advance and they can get you a tour. If you didn’t plan far enough in advance, take the kids on the walk around the outside and to the visitor center. As my 3-year-old said “Rock Obama’s house is neat.”

Other great sites: The National Zoo nationalzoo.si.edu/default.cfm (they have pandas, which are in the raccoon family not bears, as we were reminded by my 9-year-old). The Capitol, your Congressman can get you this tour, even at the last minute. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, another good one to see in the evening when there aren’t any crowds.

Where to Eat

Step three: Feeding the troops. Having snacks is the most important part of any well-planned invasion. Small children cannot live on sidewalk hotdogs alone. Trust me, I’ve tried. Most fun restaurant for the wee ones, Tony Cheng’s in Chinatown. Jimmy Carter liked the food so much he had Tony come to the White House and cook. They have great prices and a very easy to manage Mongolian BBQ on the first floor. Another great find was Good Stuff Eatery a few blocks from the Capitol, homemade burgers and fries and hand dipped milkshakes, including the yummy toasted marshmallow shake.

Planned well and executed right, this will be a trip you and your children will remember for a lifetime. My husband and I felt this might be the best family vacation we’ve taken in a long time, and all without pina coladas or hammocks, now that’s saying something.

Note: Also see 12 Free and Family-Friendly Things to Do in D.C.

Kim-Marie Evans, mom of 4, blogs as LuxuryTravelingMom in the TravelingMom blogger network.  The panda photo is courtesy of her daughter, M. Evans, a 10 year old budding photographer.