I really love to travel. I haven't always had the money or the freedom of schedule to do so, but when I have the chance, I go…dragging along my kids and husband or sometimes my mom on whatever adventure I've hatched. And when we travel, we don't just push back and relax, we explore, we walk and walk and walk, we find hidden gems and we get the local scoop.
The thing I love most about homeschooling is the freedom we have to go and do and explore and learn firsthand anywhere and anytime we choose to do so. We've done a lot of that locally, but we have also taken to the road. We went to Southwest Florida in September, Kansas City area in November, Sioux City, IA in March (believe it or not, there's a lot of history and culture there) and Washington D.C. area in April.
For me, a huge part of travel is the planning that takes place before we leave home. I like to get the best deal. I like to have reservations when able to do so. I like to have an itinerary that allows quite a bit of flexibility. I like to know what our options are for activities, for meals, for breaks, for groceries, for transportation, etc. I explore maps, websites and blogs to the degree that by the time we arrive I already have a general sense of where things are and how to get here and there. I plot and plan and make lists and notes and first drafts of itineraries. I make phone calls and check out deals and FINALLY make out the official itinerary.
Here's how I planned the D.C. trip and how it worked out for us:
Step One: Where are You Going & How are You Getting There?
I had not planned on going to D.C. this year, but then in early January, I happened to see that Southwest Airlines was having a big sale. I scanned the deals from MSP, my home base of Minneapolis/St. Paul, and found that D.C. was the cheapest destination and it was too low to pass up. I phoned my mom to see if she was game to accompany me and the boys and bought the tickets. It's my philosophy that if you find deals that are truly too good not to go, you go!
Now, with Southwest, you can't lose. If you can't make the flight you bought tickets for, you get credit to go somewhere else when you can go. And they don't hide any fees like I have found on Frontier and Spirit. What you see is what you get, PLUS you get 2 FREE checked bags for each ticketed person! We, flying from MSP, are somewhat limited with Southwest, but they keep expanding the number of cities they are flying to from here. In fact, we were on the inaugural flight from MSP to BWI (Baltimore Washington International).
The only problem with flying into BWI is that it's about a 45 min drive to D.C. You can take a train or a taxi or hire a town car. We opted for a town car that was there to pick us up when we arrived and then picked us up from hotel and drove us back to airport at end of stay. I found a good deal on Groupon and then called and negotiated an even better deal. So, it was still cheaper for us to fly Southwest into BWI.
Step Two: Where are You Going to Stay?
The next hurdle was finding cheap, but clean and safe and nearby accommodations for us. How did we travel before the internet was around? Thank goodness for Trip Advisor! I was able to locate and then read hundreds of reviews on a Best Western in Arlington, VA, very near Iwo Jima, the National Cemetery and a big metro station. The reviews were mostly good, but I was able to figure out exactly which rooms/what part of the hotel I wanted to stay in.
So, when I called to book my reservation I knew exactly what to ask for. I have to admit I had concerns we'd get there and it would be a dump, but I also thought hundreds of reviews couldn't have gotten it wrong. We ended up paying $902 for a whole week when many middle range hotels in the area costs $350 a night – ridiculous!
We just needed a place to shower and sleep, basically. I hoped and prayed it would be clean and without bed bugs. And it was perfectly fine. It was clean with no sign of bed bugs. The staff was nice and helpful. It was conveniently located and easy for us to walk, catch a bus or take a short taxi ride. There was a really good (& cheap) pizza place attached to the building, and they even had a gluten free crust for me. Bonus: they always had hot coffee in the lobby – and it was good! Only downside was that it was small and fairly cramped for four people, but again, we were there from about 10 pm to 7:30 am on most days. So, it wasn't a problem. We would definitely stay there again.
Step Three: What are You Going to Do?
I put in a lot of screen time researching and reading reviews and contacting our MN senators regarding tours and events and locations. Then, I logged a number of hours coordinating times and locations. The result was a jam-packed week-long history lesson.
The thing about Washington D.C. is that there are a ton of FREE things to do with your family! How often is that the case when you go on vacation? None of the historical sites, including the Capitol, White House, Library of Congress, National Archives and all the monuments, cost a cent. Additionally, all of the Smithsonian museums are free. AND the DC by Foot tours are free – you just pay your guide a tip at the end, based on what you felt you got out of it and what your budget is. There are even free performances at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts at 6 pm every evening.
Both of our senators had breakfast gatherings for their constituents and this seemed to be a fairly standard practice with other state's senator's offices. So, be sure to check your senator's website. Plus, you'll need to go through your senator's office to get a Capitol tour and White House tour scheduled. They are also able to arrange Pentagon, F.B.I. (recommended age for this one is 16 and older) and other tours.
I'll provide our detailed daily itinerary in the next post.
Step Four: How are You Going to Get Around?
We opted for taxis when we had a specific time to be somewhere first thing in the morning. We got week passes for $11 each to ride the D.C. Circulator trains for nonspecific start time days, on our way back to hotel, around the mall area, etc. And we walked and walked and walked, logging about 15 miles per day. The city is easy to get around in and we met many people who were willing to help with directions or walk us to a station or give us insider tips, etc. We, my mother, two young boys and I, were out after 10 p.m. several nights and were not concerned about our safety. Of course, I always feel less worried about safety in a city I'm unfamiliar with. In your own city, you know where murders typically occur, the areas to avoid, the corner that was on the news last night after a couple was robbed at knifepoint, etc. I know D.C. is not necessarily a safe city, but the areas we were in were vibrant and friendly and filled with police and secret services officers. So, we never felt unsafe.
To Be Continued…Check in later this week for my "Official Itinerary" and our reviews of the things we did and places we went. Over and out…