Weekend In: Washington DC, Part 1

Washington DC is one of my favorite places to visit. Despite having been quite a few times, there is always so much to see and do. There’s never enough time. Or leg energy.

The sights. The food. The people. The mobs of clueless tourists. Oh, wait…

In the next several posts I’m going to address each of those things, based on my previous experiences. I recently spent four days in the capital,  fortunate to accompany a friend for a long weekend to celebrate her birthday. And she had never been.

In this post I’m going to cover the first two aspects of trips: airports and hotels.

While Reagan is right in town (alert – it feels like you’re going to land on the river), you can sometimes save a bit of money flying into Baltimore. If your schedule is more flexible than your budget, this may be a good option. You can take the train (I believe for as little as $9) into DC from BWI.

I’ve flown into both, and they have their advantages. Detroit (my home airport) is a Delta hub. Say what you will, but I’ve always had great experiences on Delta. Delta flies to both DCA and BWI. I’ve gotten deals into both, and really chose the airport each time based on where I was going and what was the most convenient. Both have mass transit directly in the terminal.

Choosing your hotel will, most likely, be the most expensive part of your stay. Great news – a lot of stuff is cheap-to-free in DC. Bad news – the hotels seem to know this.

The most important factors in determining where to stay are location and budget. But together, not separately. If you get a great deal on a hotel which requires a $30 cab ride…. Your deal is decidedly less great. And forking out $60 a day to get to and from where you actually want to be will be more painful than just spending $60 extra per night on a hotel. DC has horrible traffic. All the time. Every day. Horrible. If you are comfortable jumping onto the train or a bus, and the hotel is seriously close to a stop, consider it.

Let’s use my trip as an example. We stayed at the Washington Hilton. The hotel was great. Clean, comfortable, quiet. It was also about $14 each way in a cab to the White House or, say, the Washington Monument. We got a smoking deal on the room, so that $30, give or take, was worth it. And even with cabbing around part of each day, I walked no less than 10 miles each day. Had the hotel been closer, would I have been forced to walk there too? Shudder….

With 660 hotels in the DC area (source), you will certainly be able to find a hotel in the right area, within your budget.

Holiday (noun): exemption of requirement

Whether its over the river and through the woods, or to the international terminal, many of us will be traveling for the holiday. Celebrating the nation’s independence with some independence from real life?

I live eight hours from my hometown, where most of my family including my parents live. For the last 20 years, I’ve only gone home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Not both, and it rotates.

Sometimes I make it for Easter. About half the time, I visit on or around the 4th of July. The European whirlwind was over a Thanksgiving I didn’t go home; the Cayman get away was over a Christmas.

For family, and sanity, the every-other routine has worked wonderfully. And for travel, there are some real blessings. Let’s take a look at the benefits if striking out, with or without family, during the holiday.

FREE days off!
Ok, don’t get excited. I don’t mean no-cost vacations. I mean taking advantage of company-provided, paid time away from work. This can also mean weekends, if you only work during the week. For each of the big vacations mentioned above, Trisha and I took a 12-day vacation and were only required to use about six days of vacation time.

There ARE deals to be had
Traveling at the holidays doesn’t have to be the most expensive and daunting experience, especially if you are willing to try something different. You’re probably not going to find the best deal of your life on two weeks in Disney for you, the significant other and your four kids. But you may get a deal you didn’t expect to another great city. Thanksgiving offers amazing deals with international travel. Which makes perfect sense… It’s only Thanksgiving here. Explore some off-season options, and keep an open mind.

Deals ahead — WAY ahead
A few years ago, my brother-in-law rented a car for part of our journey home for Christmas. When he arrived at the rental desk to pick it up, the attendant asked in shock how he got the new 7-passenger car for such a low price. “I haven’t seen prices this low since summer,” she told him. And that made sense… He had made the reservation in August. Price is relative and “a good price” is even more so. Want that dream holiday at the fancy resort? Do it! If getting it all for a great price is key, or the only way you can afford it, plan ahead. Just think, Thanksgiving airfare will be out before you know it! (Sorry)

Only pay once

paying eurosThe best advice I can give for minding your budget while on vacation is to only pay for things once. I know that sounds like ridiculous advice, but it happens.

Here’s how I know this can be a problem: I paid twice to take the train through Europe in 1999. It was clear Trisha and I had two strikes against us: we were very excited; we had no idea what we were doing.

We had established a strategy early on, which we thought would save us both time and money. In the end, I still believe it did. I’m also aware that we probably through away something in the neighborhood of $250.

Our plan was to spend every-other night at a hotel, and to spend the alternate nights on the train relocating us to a new destination. These were our general guidelines, but we didn’t want to waste the day sitting on the train. Though not the most comfortable for sleeping, we were able to save both time and money by being a little put out. It was a sacrifice we were willing to make.

Key to this plan was the Eurorail Student Pass. I believe in 1999 we paid $250 or $275 USD for each student pass. Eurorail, the amazing train system of Europe, define a student as anyone under 26.

Here’s where we went wrong.

I think the pass is meant to allow you to just get on any train you want. Present your pass as method of payment when reserving your ticket. Our first train ride was Lisbon, Portugal to Barcelona, Spain. It turned out to be the perfect storm of ignorance and confusion. The ticket agent in Lisbon told us we would have to pay for our tickets despite having the student passes. I’m not sure if we did something wrong, or if there was a language problem, if she was new or if we were just stupid enough to pay it… but we paid for that, and every other ticket on our trip. It didn’t feel like a hardship, but after the fact it certainly felt like the whole situation didn’t go as planned.

This lesson isn’t just about trains; it’s about asking questions and really understanding what is included in your package. Whether you’re taking a cruise or a road trip, don’t be afraid to ask questions (and ask again, if necessary). What is included, and more importantly, what is not. What do they mean when they say “all-inclusive” or “transportation optional”? If you aren’t sure, kindly ask someone from the hotel/resort/train/airline/etc. It is their job, after all, to assist.