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March, 2004 -- Since lodging is likely to be your biggest expense in Washington, D.C., my advice to you is this: travel here on a weekend in summer. Rates usually drop substantially at even the best hotels. You may find yourself able to stay at a rather nice hotel for a very low price. I tested this notion by checking the lowest rates posted by the online reservation agency, Expedia, for a Friday in August 2003, at various favorite D.C. hotels. Advertised and available were: a suite for $69 at the Capitol Hill Suites, and a double for $79 at the Hilton Garden Inn, $89 at the Jurys Washington Hotel, $98 at the Washington Terrace Hotel, and $109 at the River Inn.

If you're not able or not interested in visiting the capital in the summer, weekends are still your best bet for snagging a good price at a hotel. As a general rule, no matter when you're coming to town, I would always recommend negotiating and checking all sources to find an affordable rate. Keep in mind that you probably won't be in the position to bargain during cherry blossom season, in late March/early April, and during certain crunch times in Congress, notably mid-September until Thanksgiving. The year 2004 is a presidential election year, as you know, which means that now is not too early to book a hotel room for January 20, 2005, if you're planning on attending the inauguration.

You'll see that I present a wide range of hotel choices in this chapter: student hostels, budget chain motels, intimate bed-and-breakfasts, and moderately priced hotels. All of the accommodations are respectable and clean; I've tried to describe each in terms of its distinctive characteristics. And remember, as you calculate costs, don't forget tax: in the District, in addition to your hotel rate, you'll pay 14.5% in taxes. The total of state and county taxes on a hotel room is about 9.75% in suburban Virginia and between 5% and 8% in suburban Maryland. And keep in mind that parking can cost a bundle ($15-$25 at most hotels), so inquire about parking rates when you make your reservation, or consider foregoing a car and relying on public transportation.

Best Location for Touring Capitol Hill: The Capitol Hill Suites, 200 C St. SE (tel. 800/424-9165 or 202/543-6000; www.capitolhillsuites.com), is the only hotel actually on Capitol Hill, which is why a number of congressional members book long-term stays here. You're a block away from the Capitol, Library of Congress, and Supreme Court, and just up the hill from the Mall.

Best Location for Visiting the Smithsonian Museums: The Hotel Harrington, 436 11th St. NW (tel. 800/424-8532 or 202/628-8140; www.hotel-harrington.com), lies within easy walking distance of both the White House and the Mall.

Best Budget Boutique Hotel: In the District, the boutique hotel, the Jurys Normandy Inn, 2118 Wyoming Ave. NW (tel. 800/424-3729 or 202/483-1350; www.jurysdoyle.com), charges $89 to $185 for rooms that are small but charming, and for service that's personable; extras like an exercise room, a pool, and a restaurant are available at its sister hotel around the corner.

Best Lodging if You're on a Shoestring Budget: The less private the accommodations and the fewer number of bathrooms a property offers, the cheaper its rates. If you don't mind bunking down with strangers, check out Hostelling International, 1009 11th St. NW (tel. 202/737-2333; www.hiwashingtondc.org), which is well run, centrally located, close to the Metro, and dirt cheap ($29 a night).

Best B&B: I recommend two, each a restored 100+-year-old house in the wonderful, walk-to-restaurants-and-shops neighborhood of Dupont Circle. Swann House, 1808 New Hampshire Ave. NW (tel. 202/265-4414; www.swannhouse.com), is remarkably pretty and comfortable, with luxurious accommodations that include whirlpool baths, fine art, working fireplaces, and antique furnishings. My new favorite B&B, The Inn at Dupont Circle, 1312 19th St. NW (tel. 888/467-2100 or 202/467-6777; www.theinnatdupontcircle.com), opened in 2000 and offers gracious common rooms and guest rooms with distinctive features, such as loveseats in alcoves and Persian rugs on shining hardwood floors.

Best Service: The staff at Lincoln Suites Downtown, 1823 L St. NW (tel. 800/424-2970 or 202/223-4320; www.lincolnhotels.com), aims to please, greeting you by name and serving you complimentary homemade cookies and milk each evening.

Best for Romance: Either of the B&Bs mentioned above would be lovely. In the hotel category, downtown's Henley Park Hotel, 926 Massachusetts Ave. NW (tel. 800/222-8474 or 202/638-5200; www.henleypark.com), is the hands-down winner. The English-style hotel features luxurious lodgings, plus little bonuses, like afternoon tea, an intimate restaurant, a fun pub, and nearly nightly entertainment (see description, below, for "Best for In-House Entertainment"), so you need never leave the hotel. The rack rates make this a splurge choice, but you can often get lucky with good packages and discounts here, perhaps paying as little as $99 on some summer and weekend nights.

Best for Business Travelers Without a Bottomless Expense Account: The Four Points Sheraton, Washington, D.C. Downtown, 1201 K St. NW (tel. 888/481-7191 or 202/289-7600; www.fourpointswashingtondc.com), is your best bet. With a great central downtown location near the new convention center, weekday rates as low as $99, and perks that include high-speed Internet access in all rooms, an excellent on-site restaurant for business entertaining, and a 24-hour fitness center, this hotel might please even the most jaded business traveler.

Best Health Club: Though the Hotel Tabard Inn, 1739 N St. NW (tel. 202/785-1277; www.tabardinn.com), doesn't have its own on-site health club, guests get free passes to the nearby YMCA, which offers Universal equipment, basketball, racquetball/handball/volleyball courts, a weight and exercise room, 25-meter indoor heated pool, a jogging track, stair climbers, treadmills, stationary bikes, a steam room, a whirlpool, and more.

Best for Travelers with Disabilities: Jurys Washington Hotel, 1500 New Hampshire Ave. NW (tel. 800/423-6953 or 202/483-6000; www.jurysdoyle.com), has 11 rooms equipped for disabled guests, four with roll-in showers, and wider than normal corridors and entryways. Ramps throughout the hotel allow for easy access to the meeting room, restaurant, and pub.

Best Hotel for Feeling at Home Acting the Tourist: The Hotel Harrington, 436 11th St. NW (tel. 800/424-8532 or 202/628-8140; www.hotel-harrington.com), may not be anything fancy, but the friendly staff at the front desk is willing to answer questions, and a tour bus stops right outside the front door.

Best for In-House Entertainment: The Henley Park Hotel, 926 Massachusetts Ave. NW (tel. 800/222-8474 or 202/638-5200; www.henleypark.com), is notable for hosting live jazz and dancing weekend nights in its Blue Bar, and a pianist plays there Monday through Wednesday nights.

Best Hotel for Running into Locals: Several D.C. hotels have excellent restaurants and fun bars that draw a regular crowd of inside-the-beltway types. Two of the best, and most affordable, are the Hotel Tabard Inn, 1739 N St. NW (tel. 202/785-1277; www.tabardinn.com), and the Jurys Washington Hotel, 1500 New Hampshire Ave. NW (tel. 800/423-6953 or 202/483-6000; www.jurysdoyle.com).

Best Views: The Channel Inn, 650 Water St. SW (tel. 800/368-5668 or 202/554-2400; www.channelinn.com), overlooks the boat-filled Washington Channel. Be sure to ask for a waterfront room.

Best Choice If You've Got Hippie Sensibilities and a Discriminating Palate: The Hotel Tabard Inn (see mentions in other categories above) is decorated in a comfortable but decidedly funky style; fortunately, the well-esteemed restaurant focuses on seasonally fresh American cuisine, so there's nary a wheat germ or square of tofu to be found.

Best Lodgings for a Spiritual Experience: Of course, it doesn't get much more uplifting than the quarters provided in the College of Preachers' building on the hilltop campus of Washington National Cathedral, 3510 Woodley Rd. NW (tel. 202/537-6383; www.pecf.org).