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Getting There
Western Mall
Eastern Mall
Central Mall
Washington D.C. is one of those trips everyone needs to take at least every third or fourth year. Kids growing up need to see their seat of government first hand so they establish some identification with it, and adults need to revisit these sights periodically. Washington was for a century a standard school trip, either through social studies class or as a class trip, usually in the sixth, ninth and 12th grade. Budget cutbacks and overemphasis on testing have eliminated most of these school trips, so families and Scout troops will have to fill in the gaps. Organizing a Washington trip does require some thought and advance planning, because while everyone is guaranteed the right to tour every building and see their government at work, the number of visitors has forced some regulations, and security concerns have established certain safeguards. You have to contact your senator or representative at least three months in advance to guarantee tickets for the White House, Washington Monument or Congress, and you need at least a month's advance to guarantee a reservation at one of the Mall hotels. You should also think carefully about when to go. Witnessing a Fourth of July on The National Mall is a tremendous experience, but the crowds are overwhelming. Every fourth year the Boy Scouts hold their Jamboree at nearby Camp Hill, and for 10 straight days busloads of boys from all over the nation will flood The Mall. The Eastern Mall is much less crowded when Congress is in recess, but of course you also do not see them debating bills on the floor when you tour the Capitol Building. The Western Mall is crowded on the Memorial Day weekend and on other military related holidays like Veterans Day. Weather is also a factor. School is out in the Summer, so it seems an obvious time for kids to go. But July and August are so oppressive in Washington that Congress adjourns then. The heat and humidity are worse in DC in those two months than in Florida or New Orleans. A Spring Break trip would be much more pleasant, especially if it coincided with cherry blossom time, when the Western Mall is at its most beautiful.
We absolutely caution against trying to save money or avoid crowds by staying on the outskirts of town and driving in and out every day. It is a terrible strategy. First, there are hotels along The Mall which offer the same reasonable rates as the suburban ones. Second, traffic in all directions is heavy and confusing. Whoever drives will spend all night dreading the morning drive in and all day dreading the afternoon drive out. It can ruin your trip for those people. Third, an hour or so in traffic coming and going is two hours a day you can spend much more valuably. Finally, when you get downtown, you're going to have to park, and for day customers the rates are steep, assuming you can even find a space anywhere near where you want to go. We'll talk about hotels on the lodging page and about driving in on your arrival and out on your way home, but we highly recommend you arrive, park your vehicle, and not use it again until departure day. As a matter of fact, if you live anywhere served by Amtrak, travelling to Washington by train would be a fine idea. The station is downtown, and if you bring backpacks the walk to the hotel is not bad at all.
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