When it comes to choosing a place to stay with your kids, look for a hotel that is convenient to the Metro, sightseeing attractions, restaurants, and amusements. A complimentary terrycloth robe and 24-hour room service might turn you on, but such amenities are of little consequence to youngsters. What's important to them is that they're close to food and fun: If there's a refrigerator, restaurant, snack machine, pool, or shopping nearby, your kids will be happy staying almost anywhere.
Many of the District's large hotel chains offer budget-minded traveling families, who occasionally opt to enjoy a light bite in their rooms rather than dine in a restaurant, the options of coffee bars, fast-food kiosks, or shops that carry snacks and light fare right in their lobbies.
Make sure your kids know the difference between food taken into the rooms and food taken out of them. Guests pay dearly for taking snacks and beverages from stocked refrigerators and minibars. If there's no lock on yours, tell your kids that the contents are off limits unless they clear it with you first.
Many D.C. hotels have an indoor or outdoor pool (covered in winter for year-round swimming) with a poolside beverage or snack bar. And nearly all hotels have on-site or nearby fitness clubs. Some are complimentary; some charge a fee. Of course, kids must be accompanied by an adult at the pool or health/fitness club. Many guest rooms offer complimentary premium channels or charge a small fee for pay-per-view movies and/or video games, so there should be enough to keep your tot entertained when you're not out and about in the city.
Depending on your budget, the selection of places to stay in Washington, D.C. is wide indeed. For those who prefer to leave the city at night, I've included several hotels in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. The following suggestions cover a broad spectrum, from super-duper luxury hotels to budget alternatives. All, with a few exceptions, are within easy walking distance of the Metro, and all have something (in most cases, several somethings) that makes them attractive to kids. If you can't swing a $3,000-a-night Presidential Suite or room with a view of the Capitol, don't despair. You won't be spending that much time in your room anyway. At day's end, flopping into a bed -- even one with a few lumps -- will spell relief.
Getting the Most for Your Dollar
To get the best value for your travel dollar, stay away from the District during the high season, which runs from late March to mid-June, when prices are at their highest. To save the most, visit between mid-June and Labor Day, when Congress and your kids are on vacation. The trade-off for a summer visit is Washington's notorious heat and humidity. In 2005, most hotels offered family incentive packages and summer savings. These hotel packages included accommodations, admission to a private museum and/or tickets to a performance, and a welcome gift for the kiddies. Rates started at $99 per night. History -- and 15 years penning this book -- has taught me that great deals will be in effect during subsequent summers. Call tel. 202/789-7000 or go to www.washington.org for information on this or other bargains. The months of January and February are usually slow, and rates typically fall. The trade-off for lower prices and fewer tourists: cold, damp weather. If you can live without cherry blossoms, definitely avoid the 2-week festival in late March and early April; it's an expensive and crowded time to visit D.C. And owing to Mother Nature's quirkiness, the blossoms often peak before or after the festival anyway.
Weekday rates can drop 30% to 50% on weekends; depending on occupancy, you might be able to cash in on weekdays as well. Hotels sometimes run unadvertised special promotions, but you won't find out about them if you don't ask. So speak up when you make a reservation.
Many experienced travelers believe you'll be quoted a better rate if you call a hotel directly instead of reserving through its toll-free number or at the website. While the Web is fantastic for research, I've been burned a few times when I've made a reservation at a hotel's website and there was no record of it when I showed up (usually hungry and cranky). It's always a good idea to print out your confirmation page and bring it with you in case you need proof of your reservation. When quoted a price, don't be afraid to ask if anything else is available for less. There's probably no point trying this around cherry-blossom time, but it's amazing what reservations clerks will come up with when you tell them you're going to shop around.
Take Time to Total Taxes
When you're budgeting for your vacation, remember the hefty hotel-room tax: it's 14.5% in the District. On a $200 room, that's an extra $29 per night.
It's no secret that in most cases accommodations in the suburbs are less expensive than in D.C. But as usual, there's a trade-off for the lower prices. Many disagree, but I think there's a lot to be said for waking up in a city and having the attractions at your fingertips (maybe even a view of the Potomac or U.S. Capitol from your hotel) instead of having to commute into the city and getting stuck with a view of a highway or shopping mall.
For information on accommodations, try the Washington, D.C. Convention and Tourism Corporation, 901 7th St. NW, 4th Floor, Washington, DC 20001 (tel. 202/789-7000; www.washington.org). Washington D.C. Accommodations, 1201 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20007 (tel. 800/503-3330; www.dcaccommodations.com), offers free advice and reservations. If you're more comfortable with someone else doing the negotiating for you, write or call Capitol Reservations, 1730 Rhode Island Ave. NW, Suite 302, Washington, DC 20036 (tel. 800/847-4832; www.visitdc.com). They handle hotels in all price ranges and are privy to discounts because of their high-volume business. Additionally, they screen all the hotels they use for cleanliness and to make sure they're in safe neighborhoods.
Handy Hotel Reviews
I find www.tripadvisor.com a helpful site when I'm planning a trip. If most of the reviewers' comments are good or better, experience has taught me to discount the lone review that trashes the hotel. There's no pleasing some people.
Groups who will occupy 10 or more rooms should know about U.S.A. Groups (tel. 800/872-4777; www.tripadvisor.com). This free service represents hotel rooms at almost every property in the Washington, D.C. and suburban Virginia/Maryland region and will work hard to find the best accommodations at the rates you request, saving your group valuable time and money.
Best Hotel Bets
Most Family-Friendly near the Mall: The J.W. Marriott, 1331 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (tel. 202/626-6991; www.marriott.com/property/propertypage/WASJW), and L'Enfant Plaza, 480 L'Enfant Plaza SW (tel. 202/484-1000; www.lenfantplazahotel.com), are each less than a 10-minute walk to the Mall. Both offer plenty of family perks, along with nearby sightseeing, dining, and shopping opportunities. And both have direct access to the Metro, so no raindrops need fall on your heads.
Most Child-Pampering Hotel: The Four Seasons, 2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (tel. 800/332-3442 or 202/342-0444; www.fourseasons.com), does not discriminate, pampering children every bit as much as their parents. Some of the hotel's kid-spoiling tactics include gifts at check-in, brownies and milkshakes at tea, videos to borrow, kid-size terry robes, and milk and cookies at evening turndown.
Most Fun for Kids 5 and Older: The Helix, 1430 Rhode Island Ave. NW (tel. 800/706-1202 or 202/462-9001; www.hotelhelix.com), knows how to create the right atmosphere for young-at-heart fun-seekers. When was the last time you had a pillow fight? Well, get on the stick! Request the Family Bunk Room for four, with a king and double-decker bed (top single, bottom double), and battle it out for the top berth.
Best Views: L'Enfant Plaza, 480 L'Enfant Plaza SW (tel. 202/484-1000; www.lenfantplazahotel.com), has rooms that enjoy views of the Potomac River; Arlington, Virginia; and Georgetown. Some top-floor rooms of the Omni Shoreham, 2500 Calvert St. NW (tel. 202/234-0700; www.omnihotel.com), overlook Rock Creek Park and/or downtown.
Best Value for Families: Holiday Inn on the Hill, 415 New Jersey Ave. NW (tel. 800/638-1116; www.hionthehilldc.com), has a convenient Capitol Hill address, a rooftop pool with sundeck and snack bar, and a Family Fun Package with lots of perks. At all times, kids 18 and under stay free with parents, and best of all, kids 12 and under eat free in the Senators Grille.
Best Suite Deals: Washington Suites Georgetown, 2500 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (tel. 877/736-2500 or 202/333-8060; www.washingtonsuitesgeorgetown.com), is a short walk from the Foggy Bottom Metro and has lots more to recommend it -- kids 18 and under free in the same suite (with a separate bedroom), and complimentary cribs, strollers, and expanded continental breakfast daily. Pets are welcome too. You'll find a grocery store and slew of neighborhood restaurants within a few blocks.
Best Bargain for Families: Hosteling InternationalÂ¿Washington, D.C., 1009 11th St. NW, at K St. (tel. 202/737-2333; www.hiwashingtondc.org). If you don't mind roughing it a bit, staying here is a bargain and makes for a super family experience not far from the action. Kids 3 to 11 (with a parent) pay only $10 per night, those 2 and under are free,; and special family activities are gratis.
Hippest Bathrooms: Helix, 1430 Rhode Island Ave. NW (tel. 800/706-1202 or 202/462-9001; www.hotelhelix.com). Better than a jolt of java in the morning are the Helix's minimalist, crayon-colored bathrooms. What? A bathroom without a traditional vanity? Where does the water go? And how does it get there? This could be the most fun your family have ever had brushing their teeth.
Most Peace and Quiet: Morrison-Clark, 1015 L St. NW (between 11th St. and Massachusetts Ave.; tel. 800/332-7898 or 202/898-1200; www.morrisonclark.com). If your kids are out of diapers and well behaved -- there are lots of antiques here ripe for breaking -- opt for a room with a porch or balcony overlooking the garden courtyard. Stay here for a genteel experience a tad off the beaten path yet convenient to the Metro and the sights. Kids 16 and under stay free with parents, and weekend breakfast is complimentary.
Coolest Decor: Helix, 1430 Rhode Island Ave. NW (tel. 800/706-1202 or 202/462-9001; www.hotelhelix.com). In a town that takes itself too seriously, here are royal blue and orange countertops, curtained platform beds, floating entertainment centers, lava lamps, and Pop Rocks in the honor bar. This is hotel as entertainment.
Best Pool: L'Enfant Plaza, 480 L'Enfant Plaza (tel. 202/484-1000). The attractive outdoor pool (covered in the winter) is surrounded by potted flowering plants and has plenty of seating and, best of all, a snack bar. Many families opt for a room off the pool. (This is also a primo place to watch the Fourth of July fireworks!)
Best Hotel Food Deal for Kids, Coffee Shop: At the Holiday Inn on the Hill, 415 New Jersey Ave. NW (tel. 800/638-1116; www.hionthehilldc.com), guests 12 and under eat free in the on-site Senators Grille restaurant, where they can order their faves (pancakes, hot dogs, pizza, and the like) off the kids' menu at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At the Grand Hyatt at Washington Convention Center, 1000 H St. NW (tel. 202/582-1234 or 800/233-1234; www.grandwashington.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels), kids 3 and under eat for free in the Grand Cafe; kids 12 and under can order from the kids' menu or half portions from the regular menu.
Most Welcoming to Pets: From April to October, The Holiday Inn Select in Old Town, 480 King St., Alexandria, Virginia (tel. 703/549-6080; www.ichotelsgroup.com/h/d/sl/1/en/hd/axeot), hosts Doggy Happy Hour every Tuesday and Thursday from 5 to 8pm. Bring Fido for water and biscuits while you enjoy free hors d'oeuvres in the brick courtyard.
Best for Athletic Families: The jocks and jockettes in your family will love the Omni Shoreham, 2500 Calvert St. NW (tel. 202/234-0700; www.omnihotels.com), for its oversize outdoor pool and extensive grounds for power walks or jogs. Exit the hotel's back door to Rock Creek Park's 10 miles of hiking and biking trails and its 1 1/2-mile fitness course with 18 exercise stations. You can also walk to the zoo.
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