Every year thousands of families scrimp and save in hopes that they may get to take their family on one good vacation.
A vacation is so great that it is scrapbook-worthy and the kids will look back at it fondly even as adults. For us, an annual vacation is not possible. So when we do splurge we like to make it epic! let’s make it a budget-friendly vacation while we are at it.
This year, just weeks before the pandemic started we considered going away for just a couple of days. We were going to stay someplace locally and just do a couple’s getaway because that is all we could afford. As we were discussing our plans and trying to cut corners where we could, I had a delightful conversation with a customer over the phone. They had lived in Washington D.C. most of their life and while we all know there are a lot of historical landmarks there, I’ll admit I didn’t know much else about the great city. As it turns out, in addition to the city being rich with a historical culture many of the attractions are free. I was pretty sure at that point they had to be incorrect so we did some research.
Turns out, they were right and at this point, we got really excited. It might be possible to turn a two-day getaway for just us into a week-long vacation for the entire family. While I had a vague idea of how the week should unfold it still took weeks to plan and with three kids a lot to consider. This is how we did it and you can make that bucket list vacation to DC happen too! Let’s make this a budget-friendly vacation for the whole Family.
Research All of the Attractions and Narrow them Down
Our goal when going to Washington D.C. was to make sure that our kids with ages ranging from 8-17 were going to have a good time with a combination of fun and education. We decided that we would be staying for a week and while there are literally dozens of things to see and experience we knew that we needed to be realistic about our timetable. In order to do this, we created a list of all attractions that were possible and of course in our budget. The first thing to narrow down your options is to make a list of all attractions that your family might have any interest in. We’re going to help cut down your research time and lay out the top suggestions.
We found useful advice at many places the main D.C. tourism site https://washington.org, as well as Travelocity, Trip Advisor, Google maps, Yelp, etc. It is a good idea to be prepared. A great source of knowledge for us was also https://www.triphacksdc.com/ They also have a youtube channel that has guides on many different aspects to help you on your trip to D.C.
Top Attractions/Things to See in Washington D.C. This is the part that makes this a budget-friendly vacation!
- National Gallery of Art (Free!)
This gallery has two major buildings one being classical and the other one modern. It has art from da Vinci as well as a six-acre sculpture garden that can be really neat to see. Depending on when you visit they also offer classical concerts and an ice skating rink in the winter. Located in the National Mall.
- National Air and Space Museum (Free!)
This museum was an absolute blast and interesting for the entire family. They offer multiple exhibits and have the world’s largest collection of historic aircraft. Some of their exhibits are even hands-on so the kids can feel free to touch things. (Usually a big no-no in museums) Located in the National Mall.
- National Museum of Natural History (Free!)
Fair warning, This museum is huge! It features 127 million items from dinosaurs, animal exhibits, and real mummies from Egypt and you can even see the infamous Hope Diamond. This museum is an ALL-day activity. Located in the National Mall.
- National Museum of American History (Free!)
This museum is a must for anyone interested in American History. It has over three million engaging items such as Dorothy’s red slippers from The Wizard of Oz, the flag that helped create “The Star-Spangled Banner” and many other educational pieces. Located in the National Mall.
- Smithsonian’s National Zoo (Free!)
It’s a zoo so what’s not to love? While this is not the largest zoo we’ve ever been to it is still good-sized. They do have one of the few captive Giant Panda Bears in the U.S. This panda also just gave birth to a healthy cub so that’s a must-see. Located about 15 minutes from the National Mall.
- National Museum of African Art (Free!)
This museum was called the most “important research facility for African American art in America.” by the Washington Post. It has a selection of musical instruments, artifacts, carvings, and mosaics that are just over 12,000 pieces. Located in the National Mall.
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Free!)
While this is notably a very dark tragedy in our history, it is important for those to be educated on these events. Due to the nature of the museum and artifacts, it is recommended for children ages 8 and up. It is important to note that if you visit this museum from March through August to book a time slot beforehand online but once again it is completely free. Located in the National Mall.
- Visit and tour the Capitol Building (Free!)
Yes, you can in fact go inside the Capitol building and take a guided tour. We will say it was amazing. It’s filled with beautiful sculptures and artwork, and if you wander over to The Library of Congress it is truly breathtaking. Make sure you book your tour beforehand online as all of the others are completely free! Located in the National Mall.
Now keep in mind these are only a few notable destinations to see on your trip. This doesn’t even highlight the monuments and memorials (which we suggest going at night while they are lit up). Depending on your family’s interest you may find other destinations more appropriate for you. The issue that we found ourselves running into while planning is wanting to see it all. After being there for a week we can safely tell you it’s not possible. With there being five in our family we allowed each individual to pick their top destination to make sure that we could see everyone’s favorite. Once you plan each person’s top pick you can fill in the rest of your vacation with alternative and extra options.
Plan Ahead for Transportation and Parking
We can not emphasize enough the importance of planning ahead for how you will be getting from place to place and parking. There is nothing worse than getting to your destination and then spending valuable time searching for somewhere to park. Also, while most activities are free in this city, parking rarely is so by prepaying for this there are no unexpected last-minute expenses. Luckily there are options so you will be ready to go when you get there. Here are some of our favorite options.
- Spot Hero – This is an online service where you can view a map of pretty much any city and select a parking spot in advance. You will pay for parking at the time of booking so you will not need any additional funds later. Once you arrive at the parking spot you will simply scan a barcode on your smartphone to get checked in.
- Parking Panda- The same concept as Spot Hero but will give you a quick breakdown as to where you will want to park at the National Mall, the Smithsonian Zoo, and various lodgings. We used both services to make sure that we got the best spots.
- Metrobus, Metrorail, and MetroAccess- These are the public transportation systems in Washington DC. If you are staying locally and would rather leave your car at the hotel, this is the way to go. They travel all over the city and depending on what hours and months you go the price ranges from $1.85 to $6 a trip. Make sure to research beforehand all the routes you will be traveling.
- DC Circulator- Another form of public transportation that travels throughout the district. While these buses are comfortable and safe make sure that you check their schedules in advance as well as where all their stops are located. The circulator also only costs $1 per trip so it is by far the most budget-friendly.
Trip hacks DC has a video that makes the metro a bit less overwhelming for those who choose to travel this way.
But Where Are We Sleeping?
Air BNB- While we are always tempted to stay with the classic hotel, Air BNBs have been popping up everywhere. At first glance, you may look at these beautiful homes you can stay at and think there is no way we can afford this. We are here to tell you you are wrong. Many of the homes are offered at the same price if not less than a nice hotel room. To top it off, they offer separate bedrooms for privacy, kitchens so that you can save on spending money eating out, and some are even pet-friendly. Many of these properties also are only a block away from downtown so you may be able to walk to the public transportation and leave your car at the property. That means no paying for that expensive parking we discussed earlier. We recommend checking out the BNB site and seeing what options are available at https://www.airbnb.com/.
While there is a wide variety of hotels in and surrounding this exciting city we are going to narrow it down for you based on what the average family is looking for. The following hotels are our best suggestions.
- Kimpton George Hotel- This 4.5-star hotel is located in Washington DC and is pet friendly. It also sports a restaurant inside if you don’t want to travel the city for meals and is only a 20-minute walk from the National Mall so you won’t need to search for parking during the day. While prices vary per season you can expect roughly $150 a night for a family of 5. They also offer rollaway beds and cribs at no extra charge.
- Hyatt Place Washington DC/National Mall- This hotel is one of our favorites as it has almost anything you could need. For one, it is located right by the National Mall (which also provides a great view) and is a quick walk. It can easily sleep a family of five and offers free breakfast for the family. (just another way to save on your trip) The hotel also has two restaurants located inside for your other meals but the best part (the kids will agree) of the hotel is it has an indoor swimming pool. Just don’t forget to pack your suits! You can stay at this beautiful hotel for roughly $134 a night as a family.
- Residence Inn by Marriott Bethesda Downtown- This hotel is not located in the heart of DC but is only 5.6 miles from the National Zoo. (A must-do while visiting) While it is a little more expensive going at a rate of roughly $169 a night it does offer some great amenities such as a free full breakfast, a swimming pool, and a kitchen. It’s also another hotel that is pet-friendly if you are traveling with your four-legged babies.
We agree that it is always a plus to stay right by the attractions that you plan to visit but sometimes it is a little cheaper to stay in a different city not too far away. The rates may be cheaper and in some cases are located by other interesting attractions or historical sites you may not have considered. We chose to stay in Williamsburg, Virginia in a condo for our stay. While we don’t necessarily recommend this as we drove two and a half hours to go to DC each day, there are closer towns that also have some great culture. Depending on your stay you may want to break it up a bit as we did and do something locally to another town. In our case, it was Colonial Williamsburg where they performed reenactments and then went to a fossil beach after.
So we now have a place to sleep, what attractions and activities we want to do when we get there, and an idea of what kind of transportation will be the easiest. Now one of our last steps to plan for is often the one that costs the most when traveling….keeping our bellies full when we’re traveling. While staying fed is a necessity is one of the most overlooked items when budgeting. We often find ourselves nickel and diming with stops at McDonald’s while road-tripping or grabbing a bite to eat from the gas station. Next thing you know after a couple of days there is a sizable hole in your budget. The good news is there are ways to prevent this and plan ahead. In our family, we love good food and always want to experiment with trying different restaurants and cuisines when we can. This particular trip we knew this was not going to be an option. Here’s how we did it. This is another area you can save to make this a budget-friendly vacation for anyone.
- Breakfast- This meal is a must if you are traveling and going to be out doing activities all day. The most frustrating thing to happen is when your kids or yourself don’t eat breakfast and then you’re starving when you want to be enjoying an activity. Next thing you know you are paying $6 for a gas station sandwich or a hotdog from a local vendor. If you are staying at a hotel that offers breakfast take full advantage. Some hotels even have full breakfasts with hot food which is definitely our favorite but even if it’s a continental breakfast grab that muffin or yogurt and enjoy. If you are not staying in a hotel with free breakfast the goal is to be staying somewhere with a small kitchen or just a kitchenette. Almost all have refrigerators so you can get milk and eat pre-packaged cereal or you can make toast or bagels etc. If you absolutely can not eat something in the morning or your kids tell you they are not hungry, make sure to pack something in your purse or backpack. Keep mini muffins, granola bars, and pop tarts on hand because without fail they will be hungry when you get to your destination.
- Pack your Lunch- Always!!!!- Yes, it’s a pain but trust us when we tell you this is going to save you a lot of money and headaches. Make sure you pack a small cooler/ice pack. No matter where you’re staying you should be able to prepare sandwiches, chips, fruits or veggies, and drinks the night before. Double-check what everyone wants to eat so you don’t end up not having enough of a particular type on hand. We have teenagers so pack a little bit extra of everything for those that have a big appetite. If you have days when you are close enough to where you’re staying you can also take a break and use your kitchen/kitchenette to warm up hot meals. If you are traveling during a colder time of year but are unable to go back to your room make sure to pack some hot soup in a thermos in addition to your sandwiches.
- Dinner- This meal is a little more difficult to plan for if you are out and about this late in the evening. It also happens to be the one meal that we were willing to splurge just a little bit on. Washington D.C. has some amazing food but going out as a family will definitely cost you. We suggest you only eat out once or twice depending on your budget. Since we are limiting the amount of going out to eat make sure that you are spending your hard-earned dollars at a worthy restaurant. Below are some of the most popular restaurants in D.C. that the locals claim are a must to dine at:
- Founding Farmers- This restaurant is located 3 blocks west of the White House and offers everything from sandwiches to salads to pasta dishes. This restaurant, while delicious, is a little pricey. Think $15 to $20 per person on average.
- Le Diplomate- This restaurant is a French bistro but does offer some child-friendly options as well such as a double cheeseburger and macaroni and cheese. They specialize in amazing French foods to appease even the most cultured palates though such as roasted duck breast and veal escalope. This dining will run you roughly $20-$30 per person so it would definitely be a treat.
- Rose’s Luxury- This gem of a restaurant is well known in D.C. for not only its fantastic food but also amazing customer service. They only offer a prix fixe menu so make sure you check ahead of time as to what they are serving as it costs a whopping $75 per person. The locals swear by it though so if you are looking for a top-notch meal with great service this is the place to go.
Overall you are looking at quite a chunk of money if you decide to do an evening out. Budget well and plan to make the most of your meals back where you are staying to help keep this vacation in your budget.
- Snacks- As always do not forget snacks no matter where you go. Pack a bag designated just for this purpose and make sure it has a variety of all the kid’s favorites just in case. We recommend fruit snacks, granola bars, individual chips or pretzels, goldfish, and trail mixes. Also, don’t forget plenty of bottled water for everyone, preferably refillable, to help the environment.
Tips and Tricks
You now have planned for your scrapbook-worthy vacation. What next? Well, we want to leave you with a few tips and tricks we learned on this vacation that will hopefully make yours that much easier.
- Buy a 3 ringed binder and put all of your information into it. This includes directions that you have printed off, hotel confirmations, any confirmations you may have for parking, or an attraction that is booked. Even throw in a rough itinerary of your visit. We rely so much on technology and use our email to save a lot of this but if your phone dies or you lose service you no longer have access to this important information.
- Plan ahead for parking!- Do not think that you will just find a spot. Washington D.C. is very busy and you do not want to waste valuable time searching. Make sure to preplan the parking and pay for it ahead of time to save yourself the headache. This one pain point takes some of the value out of a budget-friendly vacation.
- Plan your day sparingly.- What do we mean by this? Well for starters we thought that we would easily have time to fit in two museums in one day. Instead, we found that some of the museums are actually an all-day activity and we missed a lot of exhibits to make it through before they were closed. In other words, underplan all your days, and then if you have time left over, have an alternative activity list for extra time.
- Allow for downtime– We cannot stress this enough but depending on your timeline (for us a week) try to plan an easy day in between attractions. You will get burnt out and we all know when the kids get burnt out when our sweet and fun kids become a lot harder to handle.
- Pack a good pair of walking shoes…and make sure you have a backup pair. – No matter what you are doing in Washington D.C. you will be walking a lot. The last thing anyone needs is your feet hurting and you are limping by the end of your day. My daughter had pulled the insoles out of her shoes before we went on this trip and never mentioned it. Needless to say, her feet were hurting by the end of the first day and we had to go buy insoles.
- Be aware of your surroundings- While we didn’t have any issues with crime, violence, etc. remember that you are in a city so make sure while walking around in the evenings that you stay in well-lit populated areas.
- Be respectful of monuments and artifacts- There is so much to see including the Lincoln Memorial, the Hope Diamond, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Remember not to allow kids to climb on them or deface them in any way. They don’t always know the value of these types of structures and we want to keep them preserved.
Follow the plans that we have discussed and we promise that your family will always remember this as a budget-friendly vacation. It’s important to remember that you may and most likely will run into speed bumps along the way. It’s okay to get frustrated but don’t let one meltdown or mistake ruin your whole vacation.
In addition to this article watch the helpful videos above to help navigate Washington D.C. It definitely helped us during our planning phase. We also welcome any additional questions comments, or tips for taking a budget-friendly vacation you may have in our Contact Us section.
Have an amazing vacation, you deserve it!
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