1. Planning--We did not start early enough in our planning. If you're thinking of going to D.C. and know the dates you will be there for sure, don't delay in contacting your U.S. state senator and state representatives. They are the ones who can help you score big in getting tickets to hard to obtain tour events (i.e. the White House, Senate, Washington Monument). The Washington Monument sells tickets ahead of time for $1.50 through the National Park Service website. They are free if you can get them the morning of....but be prepared to get in line EARLY and wait for a couple hours. We had tried to get tickets ahead of time online, but as we were there the weekend of July 4th they sold out very early. As luck would have it, a very kind family man gave us two tickets that his family was unable to use so at least Tom and Josiah were able to go up to the top of the monument.
We did hit up our local library and found 3 great tourbooks we were able to check out. Be sure to notice the date of the copyright, though, as D.C. has changed dramatically post 9/11.
2. Lodging--By searching our options ahead of time online we were able to purchase a room at a special online rate that ended up being the greatest single savings of our trip. We chose to drive out to the Dulles airport area (17 miles) and ended up with a full 2 bedroom suite with a fully stocked kitchen for $67 (including taxes, parking and breakfast). That room would have cost us $185 if we had walked in that night. We had found a room downtown for around $105 (without taxes), but it did not include parking or breakfast. We paid about half price for a much nicer room, the only inconvenience being the small drive. We timed our trip so that we drove in/out when we hit absolutely no traffic. Here is the link to the particular hotel we stayed in.
3. What we did--
We were only stopping by D.C. on the way home from New Jersey where Tom had been preaching at a small camp. Therefore we had 2 days/1 night to try and see as much as we could.
The national zoo--
The panda bears are the obvious highlight of this zoo, but we found the entire zoo to be worthy of the title "national" zoo. It is just so clean, so well kept and the buildings and outdoor exhibits are very well planned. One note, if you go, walk all the way in and then start walking out. The brick pathway spirals 3/4 mile downhill so it is easier (especially with small children) to start at the bottom and work your way up so that you don't find yourself at the end of the day exhausted and having to climb all the way back up (it is very hot and muggy in the summer in D.C.!). Fortunately someone who worked at the zoo passed this tip on to us.
Next we parked by the Lincoln Memorial and visited the Korean War Memorial, the World War II Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial. We began at the Lincoln while it was still light...but by the time we had walked around to the Vietnam it was definitely growing dusk. This was perfect because it enabled us to see all the details of the memorial by daylight...but also how differently (I think more majestic) at nightfall.
We picked up a child's passport of D.C. at the Lincoln Memorial that was helpful to our planning and informative as we visited the different sites. Your child can stamp the passport at each of the sites. And if they answer all the questions correctly they can earn a badge. Really great (and inexpensive) resource for families.
We started out trying to get tickets (but we didn't get into D.C. until around 9 as we hadn't wanted to leave any earlier or risk getting caught in rush hour).
The Washington Monument
....tickets were gone, but Si and Tom still scored tickets through the generosity of a stranger.
We decided to thoroughly hit two (as opposed to seeing a little bit of all of them). We chose the Air & Space and the Natural History museums (American History would have been our top pick but was closed for renovations). The restaurant in the Air & Space museum is spacious, inexpensive and easy to eat at. They offer McDonald's and Donato's pizza in addition to an icecream bar and a coffee bar.
Walked up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.
Lastly, we toured the Federal Bureau of Printing and Engraving. We had been able to secure tickets for the next to last tour (and we had been there at 9:30 in the morning to request tickets). It was a great tour, and we indeed SAW money being printed.
During our stay in Washington, we never had to pay for parking (and the walk was never unreasonable). The only tickets we purchased were for the boys to see an IMAX film at the Smithsonian. Next time we hope to get tickets to the Senate and the White House by planning in advance through our congressmen. Also, Tom and I greatly desired to tour the National Holocaust Museum but not with young children.
Our best tip to pass on is this...carry an over the shoulder water cooler. You can refill at any place that sells soft drinks. It is an easy way to keep the entire family hydrated. We found that in the heat our kids were rarely hungry, but always thirsty. Keeping them well hydrated enabled them to keep up with all the walking.