Written by Megan Whaley
Hello, Williamsburg travel friends! It’s Megan again, your Frugal Travel Mama from Tripbound. Last time I was here, I shared my family’s memorable and budget-friendly trip to the Great Smoky Mountains.
So, what do I have up my sleeve today? My family’s most recent adventure—a budget-friendly weekend in Washington D.C.! We had such an amazing spring trip to the nation’s capital. And, for that reason, I am so excited to share my travel tips and ideas for vacationing here with your family.
Trust me; it’s one of the easiest midweek or weekend trips you can think of as a Williamsburg local! Not only is the D.C. area full of family-friendly fun, but it’s also educational. Money well spent if you ask me!
- Getting There
Everyone in The Burg knows that interstates 64 and 95 are way overcrowded—especially during summer weekends. So, as we mapped out our trip to Washington D.C., we were well-prepared for our 2.5-hour drive, which we knew could quickly turn into hours of standstill traffic if we were not careful. Our best bet for getting there with little to no tears from the kids in the backseats of our minivan was to leave midday Friday.
We did pretty good avoiding all major traffic jams. And, thankfully, there are plenty of nice rest areas and stops along 95 for those “I gotta go potty” moments. In all honesty, I am pretty sure we stopped at least three times in one hour.
I’m sure you’re wondering what we did to prepare for our drive, however. It’s pretty simple. I rented new-to-us DVDs and books from the local library to help keep the kids entertained on the road. I even went with a Washington D.C. theme, and we read books and watched Night at the Museum for some inspiration.
And, when the traffic started getting heavy, we decided to take a mini detour to the Air & Space Center located in Chantilly (more on this in a minute). This perfectly-timed detour allowed us to spend a couple of hours outside the car exploring and eating dinner to avoid the 5 p.m. rush hour around the capital.
Not to mention, because our minivan gets great gas mileage, we were able to squeeze our entire weekend (there and back) into one tank! We arrived at our resort, checked in, unpacked, and immediately started planning our adventures for the next day.
- Where To Stay & Sharing the Space
Have you ever heard of the National Harbor area in Maryland? It’s a fairly new up-and-coming area located about 10 miles outside of Washington D.C. on the beautiful Potomac River. And, it offers a fantastic family-friendly atmosphere for staying near the capital in an affordable vacation rental.
Knowing my sister and her family, who also shares a love for affordable family vacations and trips to Washington D.C., we decided to share the space and split the cost of a two-bedroom deluxe suite at Wyndham National Harbor.
We were able to comfortably sleep our two families of four in the space, which slept up to 8 people. It was definitely a tight squeeze, but we made it work to save some serious $$$. Plus, the kids loved having their cousins to hang out with all weekend.
We also had a full kitchen for making breakfast, packing lunches, and storing all of our on-the-go snacks. And, the full living room space gave us the option to watch movies and play games after the kids went to sleep.
Ultimately, staying in a vacation rental is so much easier for traveling with multiple families than booking two hotel rooms. Best of all, we were a short walk away from restaurants, the pier, the Capital Wheel, a playground, and carousel. This area certainly gave off some city vibes without the city traffic.
All that said, I would highly recommend staying in this area. The only downside is, if you like to take the metro into the city, there are no metro stations nearby. The resort does, however, offer a free shuttle to the Alexandria Metro Station. But, because metro fare starts at $10 per person, we found it much cheaper to drive eight people into the city instead. Plus, our husbands pride themselves on their savvy big city driving skills.
- Our Favorite Spots
When it comes to a trip to Washington, D.C., the list of free places to visit is endless. This makes the selection of hotspots to venture to over a short weekend a little overwhelming.
For that reason, we decided to focus on museums and sights that were the most exciting to our kiddos at this stage of their lives. My seven-year-old is a huge history buff and animal lover. So, trips to the National Archive, Natural History Museum, and Lincoln Memorial were on her wish list. My four-year-old son, on the other hand, loves space and airplanes. I bet you can guess what was on his wishlist! Yes, both Air & Space Centers.
Here’s a short recap of our favorite places we visited on this year’s trip:
- National Archives Museum: Because our 1st grader is starting to learn about the beginning of American history, we decided a free visit to see the most important documents in the National Archive Museum was a must on our to-do list. For starters, the building is beautiful from both the inside and outside. While walking around, I couldn’t help but think of all the hidden rooms and vaults that store our country’s history. And, inside the vault, in the center of the building, are essential documents on display—the Bill of Rights, Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence. It was fascinating to see the old signatures and handwriting of our founding fathers. Both the kids and the grownups were in awe. If you’re wishing for pictures, I’m sorry friend. No photographs were allowed here! You will have to go check this one out for yourself. I promise; you won’t be disappointed.
- Smithsonian’s National Zoo: Travelers of all ages will love the lions, tigers, panda bears (oh my!) at the National Zoo. We arrived at about 10 a.m. on the Sunday of our vacation. I highly recommend coming early, as we were able to catch so many early morning animal feedings. The kids loved watching the bears chew on trail mix, the piranhas eat a fish, and the sea lions catch a ball. Though, the highlight of the visit to the zoo was the three-week-old baby gorilla named Moke. Watching mom, dad, and baby interact was fascinating for all of us. The zoo also has reptiles (a huge hit with the boys) and panda bears (which the girls loved). Additionally, my sister and I enjoyed watching the sea lions jump in and out of the water as it reminded us of our childhood days back in California. Tripbound Travel Tip: Because the zoo is large and located on a big hill, I suggest parking at the bottom and walking up. When you’re tired and ready to head back to your parked car, you’ll be thankful you’re not making tired feet trek up a steep incline.
- The Old Post Office & Clock Tower: When we arrived in D.C. on Saturday morning to start our adventures for the day, we stopped into Starbucks to refuel the parents with coffee. Sidenote: my husband somehow managed to get a free iced coffee during this visit. I’m still not sure how that happened, but, hey, it was FREE. While inside the Starbucks of the Old (renovated) Post Office, the barista suggested a ride up the elevator to the top of the clock tower inside the building. We jumped at the chance to try something new (and free), and we took the elevator ride to the top. The view was spectacular. The clock tower is the second largest building in the capital, with the Washington Monument, of course, being the tallest. But, with the Washington Monument undergoing renovations until 2019, the clock tower is currently the only building to soak in the aerial views of the city. Also, the park rangers in the clock tower were very helpful and friendly when it came to sharing the history with the kids. This was a great educational moment for the history buffs in our travel party!
- Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Air & Space Center (Chantilly): If you have a little or big boy who loves airplanes and spaceships, this is hands down the place to visit. This museum has two huge hangers, which display thousands of aviation and space artifacts the entire family will enjoy. Also, it’s home to the space shuttle Discovery, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a Concorde, and the historic Boeing B-29 Enola Gay to name a few. Parking is $15 a car; however, we were pleasantly surprised that because we arrived at exactly 4:05 p.m., it was FREE! Guests who visit after 4 p.m. receive complimentary parking as the museum closes at 5:30. The 1.5 hours we spent here were completely worth it to see all of the spectacular air and space artifacts. Nothing in the world will make you feel small like standing beside a spaceship!
- What We Spent & How We SAVED
Remember earlier when I said we invited my sister and her family to tag along? One of the major benefits was splitting the resort cost. We paid $630 total for our unit by booking with Tripbound. That brought us to $315 per family for two nights!
Parking, however, was not included (nothing makes a frugal mama cringe like spending money on parking). It cost us $20 per night for a grand total of $40 per family in parking.
Thankfully, we scored FREE parking in Washington D.C. while visiting the museums. We also used the “SpotHero” app and found covered parking located near the Old Post Office for $10 for the entire day. We had the coupon code “spot,” and were able to save $10. That means FREE parking!
Though, the app doesn’t work for parking at the National Zoo. While admission to the zoo is free, parking is $25. Consider it an investment to help the animals, which does seem like money well spent in my pocketbook.
Aside from our hotel accommodations and parking, our only other expense was food. Because we were traveling as a group of eight (four adults and four kids), fancy restaurants were definitely out of the question.
So, we decided to go with quick-serve restaurants to save costs. We had great dinners at &pizza and Nando’s Peri-Peri for less than $30 per meal. All in all, I would say we spent about $500 total between the accommodations, parking, food, and gas.
You could easily spend double this amount for a weekend if you are not careful when it comes to selecting your home away from home and food options. For example, we walked into the cafeteria of a museum to eat lunch and quickly left when we received a cafeteria-style cheeseburger that was more than $16. And, we walked a few blocks and found a fairly inexpensive pizza place for $2.50 a slice. Winning!
I hope you enjoyed my frugal recap of our recent family trip to Washington D.C.! If you are planning to take your kiddos on an educational experience around our nation’s capital, I would highly recommend doing so during the spring, early summer, or fall season. The amount of walking (we walked over 15 miles in two days—thank you Fitbit for letting us know) is a lot for little feet.
Not ready to front the cost of accommodations for a weekend getaway? Take a day trip! Washington D.C. is doable in this amount of time. If you leave really early in the morning and spend the entire day walking around and exploring the area, you can easily drive home later that night. The later in the evening you drive home, the less crazy the traffic will be; trust me!
And, if you’re thinking of planning a D.C. adventure sooner rather than later, find me over at Tripbound.com. I’d be happy to share my adventures and budget-saving tips with you, and match you with your perfect vacation.
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