Planning a trip to Washington DC for family is difficult, but there are basics that every Washington DC visitor should know. Learn from my mistakes and add these easily overlooked details to your list.

Why is it that we have to make mistakes to learn our lesson? Our six day Washington, D.C. family vacation during Thanksgiving 2022 allowed us lots of time to explore our nation’s capital. Yet, there are so many Smithsonian museums and government buildings and culture to see, that our week-long road trip to DC still wasn’t enough time to fully explore Washington.

Planning a trip to DC was overwhelming. Where to stay on a DC vacation? What are the best kid-friendly sights in DC? What’s the best travel schedule for DC? It felt a little bit like DisneyWorld to me with places and tickets and hours. It was more stressful than I would have liked. There were so many pieces to fit together for the puzzle that was my Washington, D.C. travel itinerary.

Mistake #1: Don’t Underestimate Distance
Mistake #2: Don’t Neglect Feet
Mistake #3: Don’t Ignore Rest
Mistake #4: Don’t Forget Transportation
Mistake #5: Don’t Underestimate Time
Mistake #6: Don’t Forget Daylight

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Family walking around the outside of the Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC
Family walking around the outside of the Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC

DC Mistake #1: Don’t Underestimate Distance

Washington, D.C. is definitely a walking town, but I thought I had “figured it out” for our Washington DC family vacation. With a hotel only a mile from the Capitol, the kids and parents could quickly walk everywhere without having to pay for public transit, right? It’s a mile from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. Add in the walk to the memorials in the other direction, and the distance back to your hotel room gets even higher.

When you’ve already walked fifteen miles during the daytime or it’s getting dark or threatening to rain, you will rethink your plan – subway is faster! Go ahead and plan to buy a DC metro pass at any MetroRail station – one for each member of the family – and add trips as needed. If you’re worried about keeping down costs, check out this schedule to see the cost to ride the DC metro.

Plan ahead. Be realistic with your planning. During our week in D.C, the family walked sixty-five miles. Half of the days we were there, we did walk about a mile to the sights in the morning, but we usually ended up taking the subway at least once a day because we were exhausted.

Family walking on the road through Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC
Family walking on the road through Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC

DC Mistake #2: Don’t Neglect Your Feet

Washington is synonymous with heavy walking, right? But, did you know that Washington, D.C. actually gets more rain than Seattle? Then why the heck did we head out on our family Washington DC trip with untested shoes, worn-down shoes, and mesh-toed tennis shoes?

One kid brought only one pair of tennis shoes that were so worn down that the soles were practically smooth. His mom (me) is too cheap for good shoes, it seems. Then, in the rain, he fell down multiple times on the smooth steps. He bruised his butt and nervously clung to my hand the rest of the day.

The day it rained, we also learned about the importance of wearing shoes that would keep your feet dry. While I’m not suggesting you pack your rain boots, you definitely need a solid pair of shoes. Grab a waterproof jacket or disposable poncho too!

Walking on hard concrete ground all day makes your feet hurt. I bought arch supports for my new shoes, but my still feet hurt at the end of the day. Even the stubborn kids admitted they were sore. I wanted an Epsom salt soak in warm water. Although it seems high maintenance, get a hotel room with a bathtub, and maybe even consider bringing a plug for the bathtub. I’m bringing one next time!

Plan ahead. Your feet will hurt no matter what. Do the best you can to prepare the yourself and the kids. Consider trying to build up stamina with neighborhood walks ahead of time. Whatever you do, make sure you praise the kids’ tireless work; Mom whining about distance is only going to make it seem even longer.

Taking a break on the grass of the National Mall in Washington, DC
Taking a break on the grass of the National Mall in Washington, DC

DC Mistake #3: Don’t Ignore Rest

Your kids have been acting semi-well-behaved most of the day during your family trip to Washington DC. They’ve been quiet in museums and walked on the sidewalks like “normal people” for hours of the day. They’re exhausted. Not to mention, you can only read museum placards for so many hours. No one is learning any more information.

After averaging fourteen miles of walking a day, we were ready to go to the hotel at six. At closing time, you will be ready to rest your feet, take off your shoes, and veg in front of the TV. Make sure you pack some simple travel games to keep them busy in the hotel room – or go to the lobby and let Mom sleep. Let yourself have a morning to sleep in and go to bed early!

Bonus: Get a hotel with a working pool. No matter how tired they say their feet are, my kids always have extra energy to burn at the pool. Or the workout room. While I didn’t even want to think about more walking, the kids were riding a mountain bike and elliptical. Oh, to have the energy of youth.

(Don’t) Plan ahead. Kids need downtime. You need downtime. You aren’t wasting your vacation time if you spend the evening resting. Also, it’s okay in D.C. to sleep in later in the morning because places don’t open until usually 10 AM. You will be more rested and able to maximize your time adventuring.

September 11th Memorial at the Pentagon in DC
Wandering the September 11th Memorial at the Pentagon in DC

DC Mistake #4: Don’t Forget Transportation

Deciding where to stay is one of the most important decision when planning a trip to Washington, DC. I wish I could say I have an easy answer for you, but it really depends on several factors. Hope this breakdown helps.

Drive and stay in a suburb

  • Bad: You will be using up several hours a day getting to your location.
  • Good: The hotel is cheaper per night and won’t charge as much (if anything) to park your car.
  • Take the subway. Plan for $1-2 per person per trip plus return fare. The cost is higher during peak time and for longer distances. For a six person family, think $20 per day on the D.C. subway.
  • You can drive in and park in a parking garage. The cheapest ones I found were $25 per day, but still have to get back to your garage by more walking or subway.

Drive and stay near the Mall

  • Bad: The hotel will be more expensive, and you will pay for valet parking per day. Our hotel was $50 a day for parking only.
  • Good: Save several hours a day being closer to the main sights. Explore other areas of D.C. on the way back to your hotel.
  • Depending on the hotel location, you may still pay to take the subway.

Fly in to D.C.

  • Stay at a hotel close to the Mall.
  • Plan to pay a bit on the Metro to see outlying attractions.

People told me, “Don’t drive in D.C.” I made the mistake of suggesting we “Just drive around”, so the kids could see our general location near the mall. An hour later, we had made several very frustrating laps in the same area due to traffic, roundabouts, construction, and a dysfunctional iPhone map. Don’t drive unless you have to, and make sure you use WAZE to get directions.

I did the math many times. I even had free hotel stays because of points I accrued through credit cards. We paid $350 just to park our car for a week. Eesh. Add into that the $12 that it cost my family of six every time we took a subway one direction.

Plan for cost. Transportation adds up even when you try to be as cheap as possible. At the end of the day, you will have to decide. Do you want to add another mile of walking to your exhausted feet or pay $10 for a bit of rest. You will pay; the question is do you want to pay in time, foot pain, or money?

Walking on the sidewalks exploring Washington DC
Walking on the sidewalks exploring Washington DC

DC Mistake #5: Don’t Underestimate Time

When planning a trip to DC, make sure you also reserve the time for your entrance tickets while looking at the map and calculating how long it will take you to get between sights. Don’t forget to plan for meal time as well.

There were several places – like the Capitol Museum and Mount Vernon – that I just didn’t know would be as awesome as they were. We could have spent at least an hour learning about government in the Capitol’s museum, but we had to rush across the street for our reserved time at the Library of Congress. It’s a good thing that we found the Capitol Cafe in the Capitol Building or more time would have been wasted trying to find food.

Even if you have a timed ticket, you may end up waiting in line and get into the building later than was on your schedule anyway. Most places weren’t super strict on being there exactly on the time on the ticket, but I’d plan to get there at least thirty minutes before your ticket time. Plan for even earlier if it’s a busy vacation season.

Save time by bringing snacks or a some quick picnic food in your bag; you can even park your heavy bag in a locker so you don’t have to carry it around museums. Although there are some food trucks around the mall every day (even on Thanksgiving), finding an actual restaurant will require a bit of wandering away from the area. Several of the Smithsonian museums have cafes, but they may not offer many options or a simple peanut butter sandwich. If you’re headed to the White House or Capitol building, backpacks are not allowed, so plan accordingly.

Plan ahead. Don’t try to squeeze too many places into your daily itinerary. Leave wiggle room in the schedule. If you have an hour to kill, you can always duck into an art museum or take a detour to a statue. Maybe you could even get in line for the next place early and be the one person to get there on time.

Sunset at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC
Sunset at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC

DC Mistake #6: Don’t Forget Daylight

Don’t forget about the seasonal changes for sunrise and sunset. During our November vacation, the early winter darkness made us ready to head back to the hotel earlier. A summer family vacation to DC will allow much more daylight for wandering around the city. But remember mistake #3. You still need to rest. It will just be harder to make it happen.

Why do all child-friendly attractions close at six? In my planning, I even marked all the places in D.C. that stayed open a little bit longer, so we didn’t have to just sit in our hotel rooms. Sure wouldn’t want to waste an hour of vacation. But when it’s dark at 5:30, home at the hotel is where you will want to be.

And, while I’m not a person to shy away from homeless people, the walk to our hotel often took us past quite a few of them asking for money. One route downtown took us past a homeless encampment in an abandoned building. With the sun going down early, I definitely didn’t want to wander past these places in the dark.

Wandering the Bartholdi Gardens and Fountain in DC at Dusk
Wandering the Bartholdi Gardens and Fountain in DC at Dusk

My Plan for Our Next Washington, D.C. Trip

Next time I am planning a trip to washington dc for family, I would pay more to get a hotel even closer to the mall to limit walking or plan to just stay outside of the city since we used public transportation anyway. With several days of sights to see on the National Mall, I this would decrease hours of walking. I wouldn’t worry so much about having every day scheduled and planned out. Consider making one timed reservation a day and plan to spend the rest of the time walking to monuments or going to a museum.

Let me know if you still have any questions. I’d love to help make your trip easier!

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