A lot has happened since my post-Harvey check-in in September! I’ve actually been cooking a lot, but not so many new recipes from Ina – more like soup and casseroles for the freezer for people who are still putting their houses and their lives together. We’ve had quite a couple of months – our beloved dog Tippet died in October, and I’ve been struggling to get over a nasty chest cold since then. But it hasn’t been all bad news: the boys have adjusted amazingly well to their new school, and they are wowing their teachers in first and fourth grades. And, we took a trip that we’ve been planning since February! Neil and I traveled to Washington, D.C. for a conference he attended last winter, and as soon as we came home, we started planning a trip with the boys.
Our offices close for the week between Christmas and the New Year, and the kids are out of school, so we figured this would be as good a time as any to take a trip. Washington, D.C. seemed as good a choice as any because it’s so easy to navigate, there’s so much that interests the boys, and it’s a relatively inexpensive city. As soon as we started out, Neil said, “We need to remember this for next time!” So we’re all hoping there’s a next time. We’ve had friends who have done their lists of Disney hacks, to make a Disney vacation affordable and doable for a family. Here’s our list of D.C. hacks. Some things aren’t D.C.-specific, but I suppose they’d work for any city travel.
- Find a hotel near the Metro. For the price of about a one-day car rental, we bought week-long Metro passes for the four of us. The biggest benefit of this isn’t just the rental car savings, but the parking savings and avoiding the city traffic. Even though Houston is bigger than D.C., the population density here is three times as … dense. So, the traffic can get out of hand, and parking is extremely expensive. We found a hotel somewhat close to a Metro station in Arlington. It’s a lot cheaper than hotels in the city, and we’ve only traveled by train and by foot, and so we’ve been able to budget for an entire week here. Also, the kids LOVE it, and I figure I’ve bought myself a year or two more before dementia sets in by re-learning the routes we need to take. All that being said, the $8 cab ride we took one day was the best money we spent all week. There’s something to be said about knowing when to ask for help. We also took an uber to the airport (and donated our used-just-once booster seat to the uber driver, much to his delight), and that was also worth it. By that time, I had a full-blown case of influenza, though … more on that later.
- If you don’t plan to uber/lyft/cab/drive your way around the city and you’re going to use the Metro and your feet for most of your travel, you’re going to want to pack light. We each packed one small suitcase for a week, which might not sound like any big thing, but we are all of us chronic over packers. Knowing we’d have to haul our stuff everywhere, though, made us think twice about what got packed and what could stay home. When you find that hotel near the metro, look for a hotel with laundry machines for guest use, or a nearby laundromat. Pack a few laundry detergent “pods” to do a load or two of laundry in the hotel. It might not feel very vacation-y, but neither does dragging half your wardrobe three blocks from the Metro stop. If you feel like splurging, I’m sure there are a lot of reliable wash-and-fold services in the city, but we figured since we’d be in by 8 pm with the kiddos anyway, we might as well do it ourselves. I packed one basic outfit: leggings, a cotton dress, and short boots. It might look like I’m wearing the same outfit in every photo, but I’m OK with that.
- Plan to eat at least one meal in the room every day. For us, breakfast made the most sense. For your family, it might make more sense to have peanut butter sandwiches on the go for lunch, or a picnic dinner in the room in the evening. We went to a grocery store (the Whole Foods off of the Foggy Bottom Metro stop – or “Foggy Butt” as Ben likes to call it – is excellent for this), and picked up fresh fruit, yogurt, and croissants. So, if your hotel doesn’t have an included breakfast, check for one with at least a mini fridge. This has saved us money, but it has also saved us the bother of bringing kids to restaurants three times a day. Our kids are great travelers, but we all need our time at “home,” and breakfast was a good way to start the day that way. That way, by the time we left the room, we were ready to go to our first attraction. Even if you don’t want to eat in the room, plan on at least one grocery trip for snacks and other essentials. In addition to the Whole Foods near the Foggy Bottom stop on the orange/silver/blue line, there’s a Trader Joe’s across the street from the Clarendon stop on the orange/silver line. Buy a roll (or two) of paper towels and a bottle of hand soap for the room. We traveled at the peak of cold and flu season, and after being with so many people all day, the last thing I wanted to do was to wash hands with the same nasty bar of hotel soap with my whole family. Hand soap. Trust me. As long as you’re at the grocery store, pick up some fresh fruit for the room. M&Ms are super fun for the airport and one or two nights in the hotel, but you’ll all feel better if you have some fresh fruit and veggies in you. We ended up eating our entire dinner at Whole Foods at least two nights – the kids could eat pizza, Neil could eat a sandwich, and I could pick up some sushi and a salad. I added some sliced bell peppers to my salad bowl and then put them in front of the kids with their pizza, and said a prayer that the vitamin C in them would help stave off any nasty travel germs.
- Whatever you don’t want to pick up and drag home on the metro, use Amazon’s Prime Now or Uber Eats. We had bottled water, a few sodas, and a few other essentials delivered to the room one night. I don’t know why I feel guilty about this, because it’s AWESOME. We did New Year’s Eve dinner with Uber Eats, and everybody got what they wanted without waiting in line at a restaurant or having to travel home through a crowd of partygoers. (We are so old.)
- If you want to see any of the paid attractions (e.g., anything outside the Smithsonian museums and the National Gallery), buy a “Go Pass” – we got ours at Costco. We figured out that it would pay for itself even if we only used two of our four passes each. We used ours for the International Spy Museum, the National Building Museum, the National Geographic Museum, and the hop-on hop-off bus tour of the monuments. The boys loved the spy museum; I do not understand espionage, and so I’m probably not the best person to ask about that one. I did love the National Building Museum and the National Geographic Museum, though – even more than I expected. The National building Museum has a huge “great hall” to run around in -for free! You only have to pay (or use a go pass) for admission to the exhibits. There are also a ton of clean bathrooms there (moms notice these things!), and it is directly across the street from the Judiciary Square Metro stop. This was a godsend on a very cold day. We could have used one of our “go pass” passes on the National Cathedral, but we paid separately for that. Side note: the Cathedral is not on a Metro line, but it is free to tour on Sundays, and there’s a great little cafe on the Cathedral grounds. Next time, we’ll make more of an effort to go to church there on a Sunday. As it was, we used our one non-Metro day to go there, because our seven-day Metro pass had expired at that point. We did use our “go pass” on a hop-on-hop-off tour bus which was a mistake on a 22-degree day, but was a good way to see other things not on a Metro line (the monuments and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing). We had hoped to see Mt. Vernon and Arlington Cemetery, but when the highs were in the low 20s, we changed our tune. Which brings me to my next point:
- Make a plan, but make it flexible. We made a general list of what we would try to do and ideas of which days we would do them, but circumstances like weather, moods, and different friends we wanted to see made us glad that we hadn’t nailed ourselves down to a certain date for any one activity. We only made one restaurant reservation for the entire week. I might have felt differently if we were traveling without the kids, but for our purposes, it just made more sense to find something nearby wherever we happened to be. Along those lines:
- Know your limits. No matter what time we left the room in the morning or what we had planned for that day, we tended to start to melt after hitting about 13000 steps. I think we probably would have gone a lot further and longer if it had not been extremely cold. That made it nearly impossible to spend time outdoors, but it also added to the time it took to get through security checks and get everything settled so we could get to the good stuff. Speaking of that:
- The National Gallery has a free coat check room, and the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Museum of American History have free lockers. For a quarter, you can use the National Museum of Natural History’s lockers. If you’re wearing a few pounds of winter gear and/or hauling around a bag full of everybody’s everything, you’ll want to remember this.
- Speaking of the bag full of everything, you might want a lightweight backpack. I can’t carry a purse around all day without getting a backache, and I wanted some of the males in the family to be able to carry around the family bag for some of the day, too. I needed something for my wallet, phone, extra phone charger, a metro map, and all of our passes and cameras. I didn’t do a ton of research on this, but I bought this one before our trip. It’s big enough without being too big to squeeze into those free lockers. The boys got cameras for Christmas from my parents, which has been awesome, but there were enough exhibits that did not allow photography that it was nice to be able to tuck them away.
- The Mitsitam Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian has very good “real” food (not just chicken tenders and hot dogs). There is also a very good restaurant downstairs in the National Gallery, but it’s a bit more expensive and less kid-friendly.
- Wear comfortable shoes. This is a walking city. Like, go try some on in the store. Maybe get some new socks, too.
- On Friday afternoons, the National Portrait Gallery has a free make-your-own art time. It was a lovely, quiet, warm corner of the city that helped us decompress after a crowded morning and create something (for free!) that we could bring home with us.
- We didn’t make reservations ahead of time for any attractions or tours. If you want to tour the capital building, you should contact your senator or representative several months in advance. You’ll need to plan in advance to tour the White House, too. For this trip, we knew we’d have plenty to see without reservations, so we just planned to do that. The one Smithsonian museum that requires some planning in advance is the African American History museum, but it’s not impossible to visit without a months-in-advance plan.
- The Air and Space Museum is very popular. We went on a Saturday. That was probably not our best move. If you need a nap, get tickets for a planetarium show. The kids were mesmerized, and Neil and I could close our eyes for a few minutes. Don’t tell Neil deGrasse Tyson.
In six days, we saw a lot:
- International Spy Museum
- National Portrait Gallery
- National Museum of the American Indian
- National Air and Space Museum
- National Gallery
- White House
- The Willard Intercontinental Hotel
- National Museum of Natural History
- National Museum of American History
- National Geographic Museum
- National Building Museum
- Union Station
- National Cathedral
- Bureau of Engraving and Printing
- Jefferson Memorial
- FDR Memorial
- Lincoln Memorial
- Albert Einstein Memorial
- Old Ebbitt Grill
- Smithsonian Castle
Even with all of that, we had a fun New Year’s Day brunch in Georgetown, we made it to the Apple Store in Arlington one night to replace our sad old phones, we had time for rest and relaxation, and we managed all of our errand-y running around things. The kids played in the snow for about an hour one morning at the hotel while we sipped our hot coffee inside. For us, not having too much structure was key, and we still saw plenty of things. It was also bone-chilling cold there (and we’ve lived in Minnesota, so we know cold!). If we had fewer days, we probably would have squeezed more into each day, but we probably wouldn’t have felt the need to pace ourselves as much, either.
We got a great deal on our flights (Southwest from Hobby to Reagan), and an unbelievable rate at our hotel just across the river from DC. Other than that, we paid for our food, the Metro passes, our “Go Card” and admission to the National Cathedral. We had a few short cab rides on the last day after our Metro week-long passes expired, and an uber to the airport. For a week away from home, I think we did really well.
We came home and all had influenza. It was the PITS. But even after a week at home for Christmas, a week in Washington, and a very long sick weekend at home, I’m still not sick of my family, so I’m calling it a win. We can’t wait to go back!