Theme Park Insider vacation makeover: D.C., Philly and Hersheypark
Published: November 24, 2009 at 1:10 PM
It's a family of four, with 13-year-old boys, and she's aiming for a budget of $5,000.
So let's put together some specifics, shall we? Here's the format for vacation makeovers: I start with a tentative itinerary, then throw it open to you in the comments to suggest your additions and improvements. Think something I've suggested won't work? Suggest a better plan. Live in the area and got a great tip? Share it in the comments.
Now then, let's get to it:
Anyone planning a trip to D.C. must start by contacting one of their members of Congress. Some tours, such as the White House, must be arranged through a member of Congress, and Congressional staff can make many other reservations for you, saving you time and getting you better access to some sites than you could get on your own.
Which member of Congress to contact? Your choices are your two Senators and your Representative. Ideally, you want to pick the Democrat with the most seniority. Seniority, as well as being a member of the party in power, brings connections and perks in Washington, so you might as well put them to your advantage. You can make contact with your Representative through www.house.gov and your Senators through www.senate.gov. Each one has a staff member assigned to helping constituents who are visiting D.C., so they'll know what to do when you ask.
How to get to D.C.? You want to leave on a Saturday, and I found round-trip airfare between Seattle-Tacoma airport and Reagan National in Washington, D.C. for under $250 (with taxes) on Frontier, with a connection through Denver.
With the extended trip through Pennsylvania on the itinerary, you'll be needing a rental car, but we're not going to get it right away. Washington's got a great, clean, efficient subway system and finding affordable convenient parking in the district is nasty. So we'll going to wait on picking up the car until you're to ready to hit the road to Philly.
But without a car, you'll need to stay at a hotel within easy walking distance of a Metro stop. The Holiday Inn Rosslyn at Key Bridge is located next door to the Rosslyn station on Metro's Orange and Blue lines. And the rate of $158 per night shouldn't break the budget. You can wheel your carry-on bags to the Metro stop at Reagan National and take the Blue line to your hotel.
You are taking carry-ons only, right? Don't worry about packing toiletries. You can pick some up either at the hotel or one of the stores in the area on the evening of your arrival. That's cheaper than paying the bag fees on the airlines. Plus, you won't want to be hauling around more than four bags on the roadtrip leg of this trip, either.
I visited D.C. this summer and my second piece of advice (after the Metro) would be to not plan too much into each day. The temptation is to treat D.C. like a theme park, and pack many attractions into each day. You can't - well, not without feeling cranky, spent and frustrated by the end of the day. Pick one or two destinations each day, and explore those fully. You can't hope to see all of D.C. in a single trip, so don't try. But you can have a complete experience at a few, selected sites.
The next day, take the Blue line one stop to Arlington National Cemetery, where you can walk the grounds, visit many famous grave sites, including the Tomb of the Unknowns, and tour the Arlington House (a.k.a. Custis-Lee Mansion).
On Monday, take the Orange line into the District to visit the National Archives and Ford's Theater. The movie National Treasure made the Archives even more of a must-see, so lines are long. Arrive early (the Archives open at 10 am), or pay $1.50 per person and make advance reservations. We waited 90 minutes to get into the archives last August, so I'd definitely recommend the reservations. You'll need advance reservations for Ford's Theater, too.
Tuesday morning's your time for visiting the White House. Do note that you'll have to leave your purses, backpacks and cameras behind when going to the White House. After visiting the White House, stroll down the Mall and check out whichever Smithsonian museum you most want to see. Wherever you go, however, make sure that you have either lunch at the Mitsitam Native Foods Café at the National Museum of the American Indian. This is the best place to eat in D.C., period.
Wednesday, get your rental car from the Enterprise location near your hotel. I found a midsize car for a weekly rate just under $250 from that locaton. You can save about $20 by going back to the airport to pick up the car from Dollar or Thifty, but I don't think that's worth the cost or hassle of making that extra trip.
With your car now packed, it's time to check out and hit the road to Philly.
Diana Day of BeTwinned.com says that the Reading Terminal Market is a must for Philadelphia visitors. ("Try out a cookie at Famous 4th Street Deli. Lots of people like to get cheesesteaks at Jim's at 4th and South (good steaks, but touristy), but I imagine that the cheesesteaks at the Reading Terminal Market will suffice nicely.") There are several hotels in that area, and it's within eight blocks or so to Independence Hall and the core historic area, so let's make that our hotel destination.
Your options under $200/night are the Hampton Inn, on the far side of the Convention Center (away from the market and historic core) for around $140 a night (plus $20/night parking) or the Hilton Garden Inn for $180/night (plus $25/night parking).
Spend Thursday with a visit to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. (An advance reservation is required for Independence Hall, unless you are Nicolas Cage, of course....)
On Friday, either hang out in the area, or take Diana's suggestion and make the short drive out to Laurel Hill, one of the city's historic cemeteries and gardens. Set along the Schuylkill River, many key folks from Philadelphia's early history are buried there under fabulous and unique tombstones. Diana says that a tour guide is well worth the trouble, and there is also a cell phone tour available.
On Saturday, you'll make the two-hour drive to Gettysburg to visit the historic battlefield and cemetery. You can save a dollar a ticket by buying your park admission and included Cyclorama ticket online. A variety of hotels are in the area for between $100 and $150 for the one night, including a Days Inn and a Courtyard.
Sunday's another travel day, as you drive an hour and a half north to Hershey and Hersheypark.
It's too early for discounts on tickets and accommodations in the area, so I'd hold off until booking anything until next spring, at the earliest. But right now, the Hershey Lodge is offering a $250 a night rack rate, which will include a one-hour early admission to the park. Hersheypark hasn't set its ticket prices for 2010 yet, but they've run about $50 a person in the past, with discounts available at local groceries and at the hotels.
After you arrive on Sunday, hit up the free Great American Chocolate Tour outside the park. In the evening, Hersheypark's offered free admission during the last two and half hours the park is open to people who hold a ticket for the next day. If that's available in 2010, take advantage to knock off a few popular rides when lines go down at the end of the day.
On Monday, hit the park during early admission and get your rides on the top-rated Lightning Racer and Storm Runner roller coasters, before the rest of the crowd arrives. Since I've not been to Hersheypark before, I'll defer to Theme Park Insider readers for a more detailed tour plan for the park.
Tuesday, it's time to head home. Get up early for the drive back to D.C., where you'll drop you car back at Enterprise, then hop the Metro for the ride back to Reagan National, where you'll board your evening flight back to Seattle.
Airfare, hotels, rental car and admissions will run you about $3,400 for the trip, at today's prices, leaving about $145 a day for food, gas, Metro tickets and souvenirs. You could save $200 by opting for another hotel instead of Hershey Lodge, though you'd lose early admission to Hersheypark. I'd simply hold off on booking the Hershey part of the trip until later, to see what deals develop there.
Other cost saving tips? I recommend splitting all meals while on the road. You'll save money, and calories. Remember, you can't take home doggie bags on vacation, after all. And you can always order more, if anyone's really still hungry.
Readers, it's your turn. Wanna fill in the holes? Got a better idea on places to stay or ways to get there? Let's hear your suggestions for this trip, in the comments.
Want to have your vacation plans made over? E-mail Theme Park Insider editor Robert Niles at themeparkinsider - at - gmail.com with where you want to go, when, a budget and how many people are traveling.