Thursday, April 2, 2015

How to Stay both Budget and Family-Friendly When Visiting Washington D.C.

I must admit this guest post, while in some ways makes me very happy and nostalgic, it also makes me sad. You see, growing up my family went on lots of great trips, like to the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Hoover Dam one trip, the Kentucky Derby and Mammoth Caves another, and another trip in the area of Virginia and DC among others. We had a really great time on all those trips, and I would love nothing better than to be able to take my kids to the places like Washington DC where I have such great memories (as well as side splitting hilarious stories), but not living in the US, I can't take my kids on these trips...
So just reading about all free and low cost things in DC that I never even saw when I was there with my family when I was a teenager, makes me a little sad and wistful about what I missed out on.

Photo by Eric Loit via
As a penniless parent myself, I know how hard it is to find a balance between budget and family friendly when planning a vacation. If your next vacation is taking you to the nation’s capital, then I have some suggestions to keep you on track. For a city that is one of the most expensive in the country to live in, Washington D.C. offers some surprisingly frugal tourist attractions. If you put one or two of these on your vacation to-do list and then add a cheap hotel in Washington, DC into the mix, you will be golden for this trip.

The Smithsonian National Zoological Park
The Smithsonian National Zoological Park combines two things every budget-minded parent needs when entertaining the kids on vacation – exotic animals and free admission. The National Zoological Park is a 163-acre complex that houses over 2,000 animals and almost 400 different species. The zoo is open all year round, too.
  • Some must-see attractions include:
  • Giant pandas Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and Bao Bao
  • Asian elephants
  • American Bison
  • Great cats
The site offers a Kids’ Farm section for a little hands-on learning. The zoo has restaurants and snack stands, but you are more than welcome to bring a lunch to save on food costs.

DC by Foot
DC by Foot is a tour company that offers a fast and almost free way to see some of the sights in Washington, D.C. The catch is you should tip the tour guide, but how much you tip depends on what you can afford. As part of the tour, the guides offer games and fun trivia about whatever site or topic you choose. DC by Foot offers a variety of themed tours, such as:
  • Arlington Cemetery
  • Lincoln Assassination
  • Historic Georgetown
  • Ghosts of Georgetown
You can even opt for a long tour that covers everything. Make a reservation before you leave – they are available online. There is no upfront cost for the tours; the company just asks that you pay a fair amount based on how much you enjoyed the guide. What’s fair? If you go by the pricing for their private tours, about 10 dollars an hour per person. You name the price, however, so you decide what your budget allows.

Rock Creek Park
Rock Creek is over 2,000 acres of history to explore. You can visit the Peirce Mill, have a picnic at the Georgetown Waterfront Park, or see the memorial at the Francis Scott Key Park.
Rock Creek Park offers a cool way to learn about the stars, and if you time it right, it is free. When night falls, you can take the family over to the planetarium to explore the universe with the help of the park rangers and some high-tech software. Free tickets are available at the park’s nature center. You can even do some exploring on your own with the telescopes set up at Military Field if you visit between April and November.

The National Museum of Natural History Butterfly Pavilion
The Butterfly Pavilion will cost you a little money, but it is worth it. For just six dollars for adults and five for kids, you can walk and play with the live butterflies in their home among the exotic plants.
If you are really tight with your budget, go see the butterflies on Tuesday when the museum gives out free tickets. They will limit your time there, but it is a chance to enjoy a little nature for no money. When done at the pavilion, head over to the free Butterfly Habitat Garden just east of the museum to learn more about them.
The bad news is you may have to pay for the butterflies, but the good news is the rest of the museum is free. At the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History you can see gems, mummies, Neanderthals, and coral reefs all in one place. Stop by the Q?rius leaning lab on the first floor and help kids over 13 start a field book to record their visit.

Turtle Park
Turtle Park is a playground in the American University Park neighborhood ran by a non-profit organization. It is not packed with history like one of the other museums, but it is a fun place to let your little ones run and play.
Like the name suggests, the playground is built around a theme. There is lots of sand and some big turtles to climb on, a long with slides and the other things you expect at a playground. There are picnic tables, so you can enjoy a nice lunch while the younger children work off some steam. Visit the spray park on days everyone needs a bit of cooling down, too.
Turtle Park is off the beaten path, but easily accessible using the Metro system. Just take the redline to Tenleytown Station.

The National Air and Space Museum
What kid doesn't want to see a space ship like the Apollo 11 Command Module up close? Or how about a lunar rock you can actually touch? Like all the national museums in Washington, D.C., admission to the National Air and Space Museum is free.
While there, you and the family can try out a flight simulator, hear a story, and see the sun through a telescope. If you want to take in a show at the Albert Einstein Planetarium, you will have to buy tickets. They cost $9 for adults and $7.50 for kids. A 3D movie at the Lockheed Martin Imax Theater will cost you about the same price.
When you add it all up, a vacation in Washington, D.C. is very budget-friendly. There are historic monuments and free museums all around. As far as vacation budgets go, you can’t do better than free.

A trip to the nation’s capital is a learning experience that won’t break your budget if you travel smart. Pack up the family, find an affordable Washington, D.C. hotel and enjoy the sites for less.