We have a roughly annual trip to DC, usually in the fall. This is actually our third year heading down to visit some close family friends, and the 2nd year doing the trip over the long Columbus Day weekend. Check out the small report on last year’s trip!
I find October to be a particularly nice time of year in DC – not too hot, and not cold either. The long weekend itself is a bit busy, but you definitely don’t have the tourist traffic that DC sees during other times of year.
Usually we drive, but that was before travel hacking.
Now, we fly.
Boston – Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on Southwest, to be exact. With BWI only a bit outside the city, taking advantage of the Companion Pass is an absolute must. Southwest runs a ton of flights out of BWI, over 50% and more than 1.3 million passengers last year. If you’re flying to DC, definitely consider BWI as a viable airport. It’s the only thing nearby with decent prices. IAD is a viable option too. DCA, unfortunately, is much more expensive due to it’s proximity to the city.
Landing in BWI, we still had to get to the city. We arrived too late for the MARC train (which is definitely a great option), so I opted to try an Amtrak ticket. This was actually my first time ever on an Amtrak train, and we loved it! The trip from BWI airport to Washington DC’s Union Station is only about half an hour, but we enjoyed travelling by train. We’ve decided that we have to take advantage of Amtrak’s extensive route network within the Northeast in the future. We might even do the Amtrak all the way to DC for our trip next year! At 6 hours on the Acela Express and 9 hours on the regional, we’d have to plan a bit more time, but I think it would be a great experience.
With all our trips to DC, we make time to hit a few museums or memorials. Since all the best sites are free, it’s an easy way to use your time in the city! This year, we stopped by the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the National Portrait Gallery. And of course, no trip to DC with the kiddo would be complete without at least walking through the National Zoo!
The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History is huge! Boston has its fair share of museums, but nothing on the series of Smithsonian buildings. The best part? They’re all free to the public, all the time! If you enjoy learning about animals, geology, biology, or any of the other natural sciences, be sure you stop by and wander around. You could easily spend a whole day here, but I’d plan for at least 2. We happened to be so busy looking exploring everything, that I neglected to take any pictures…
The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery are actually found under one roof, in DC’s Chinatown area. These are open later into the evening than most of the other museums in town, and include a beautiful atrium, complete with water fixtures and landscaping. The atrium (see left) attracts plenty of students, artists, and small groups of folks just enjoying the sound of running water, some peace and quiet in the middle of the city.
On our last day, we stopped by the Library of Congress before making our way back to Union Station. Very, very cool site. You don’t need a whole lot of time here, but it’s certainly worth a stop. The building itself usually has some museum type exhibits on display, in the rooms to the side of the Great Hall. The Great Hall houses some stunning architecture and sculptures, and stairs up to small gallery, overlooking the main reading room. If you’re there on a weekend, you’ll probably have to wait in line a few minutes to walk around the main reading room. At the time, there were two exhibits on display, one with Native American art and artifacts, and another focusing on early maps and cartography. Two perfect exhibits for somebody that loves to travel and take in new cultures!
Take the tunnel to the Capitol building (or vice-versa) to make it even more interesting!
One of the nights we were in DC, the girls kept talking about some surprise they had for us that night. Turns out, they bought tickets to the Capitals game later! We’re all hockey fans, so we were definitely stoked to be going, and the Verizon center is right in the middle of the city (in Chinatown, near the SAAM and National Portrait Gallery), which made it easy to get to. In their last preseason game, the Capitals shut out the Islanders 4-0. Plus, since it was a preseason game, the tickets were only $37 apiece!
Just to recap on last year’s trip, the total trip cost was about $487. This year we clocked in at $452.39 after travel hacking. We flew there and beat the price! Of course, if I counted the cost of the Rapid Rewards points and the additional points we saved using the Companion Pass, we’d be upwards of $800 for the weekend.
It would take a lot to convince me to fly anywhere for a just a weekend on cash. Using points or miles can be persuasive, especially thinking back on all the 8 hour drives to and from DC the past few years…
Think of it this way: We
spent‘used miles for’ an additional $350. But, even if you only count my hours (not the kiddo or girlfriend), I traded an 16 hour roundtrip drive for about 4 hours total travel time. I saved 12 hours of my time. $350 / 12 hours = $29/hour. I basically bought my time at $29 an hour. But the thing is, I didn’t pay for it! Chase or Southwest paid for it, since they’re the ones giving me the Rapid Rewards!
Back to the budget: Of that $453, it was split pretty evenly between food and transportation, 45% and 52%, respectively. A few small souvenirs made up the extra 3%, just under $20. The transportation costs include the Metro within the city, the Amtrak tickets, fees/taxes on the flights, one of the Southwest flights, and an Uber or two. I paid for that one Southwest flight with a Southwest gift card I’ve been meaning to use. Of course, I bought the gift card on a great sale from Ebay, so there’s some more savings in there somewhere, too.
As with all our DC trips, the food bill was much higher than a typical weekend in my life (our friends tend to enjoy eating out). We saved a bit of money on dinner before our flight from Boston, stopping by the Admirals Club for a bite to eat. That Caps game I mentioned above isn’t included in the budget either, per her request – “It’s a gift! Don’t count that as part of all those numbers!”
We only ever go to DC for a few days at a time. Long weekends, you get the idea. With so much to do, it’s never enough time! America’s capital is by no means a cheap city to stay, but between crashing at our friend’s place, and the free museums, we actually make out just fine.
One of these days we’ll go for a longer trip, to see some of the other things on the list. My favorite so far has been the Vietnam Memorial. There’s a certain gravity to it. The sheer black wall makes you stop and stare for a moment. We still haven’t made it to Arlington National Cemetery. I’ve always wanted to walk through the rows of white headstones. I love places that make you stop and think, and the cemetery is definitely right up there with the Vietnam Memorial. I also still need to check off the rest of the museums, as well as a few odds and ends. The United States Botanic Garden, for one.
I know I’ll be back next year though, so I don’t have too long to wait!