In November our family of 8 took an amazing 10-day trip to Washington DC. It was our first family trip flying instead of driving!
Mike and I had visited Washington DC (just the two of us) two years ago, but felt like we barely scratched the surface. We knew it was something the whole family would enjoy, especially since we have been studying American History this year in our homeschool. Since we were familiar with the city’s attractions and had experience navigating the city via public transportation, we felt comfortable bringing the whole crew. We even invited our parents to join us and had one (my mom) take us up on the offer.
As you’ll see below, Washington DC is a super affordable destination for a family vacation because most of the attractions are free. You could spend weeks scouring all of the museums and still not see everything. We packed our ten days full and had a wonderful time, but there was still so, so much more to see.
When all was said and done, we spent $5,335 on our 10-day trip for our family I’m excited to show you the cost breakdown of exactly what we spent.
$2,198 Airfare for 7 (our youngest was barely under 2, so he flew free)
We flew from Sacramento to DC (Reagan). We flew with Southwest Airlines for several reasons.
First, leg room. The last time Mike and I flew was to Washington DC two years ago. The long cross country flight in the ultra budget seats of another airline nearly killed him (he’s 6’7″), so I researched which airlines have the most leg room.
Second, bags are free. We knew we were going to check luggage and that really adds up with other airlines. Although they may appear to have cheaper tickets, once you take the baggage into account they really aren’t less expensive.
Third, if we needed to change plans we could. You can change your plans without losing money on Southwest as long as you cancel your flight within 10 minutes of departure. We saw how a trip can quickly get ruined back in July, so we wanted to be cautious and not lose money.
My mom got her own plane ticket. I found her a Southwest flight arriving nearly at the same time as us. And when we left DC we even flew out on the same flight!
$0 Rental Car
As you’ll see below, we were very intentional about planning our trip so that we wouldn’t need a rental car. Renting cars is especially expensive now. At the start of the pandemic rental car companies sold off much of their fleet because of low demand, then replacement auto prices went up with supply chain issues. Getting a rental car (or two) for a big group like ours would have been especially expensive. Plus, driving and parking in a big city is not my idea of a good time, so we just used public transportation.
$2,403 Airbnb for 10 nights
Originally I looked at getting a hotel near the National Mall so we would be within walking distance of all the museums and monuments, but that poses some complications for a big family. Since there are 8 of us we would need at least two rooms. That means we would have to split up, which isn’t much fun for parents. Plus, (obviously) is double the cost of one room. Also, hotel rooms are also pretty small for ten days with six energetic kids. One of the biggest reasons we chose an Airbnb over a hotel, though, was to have a real kitchen. And that really paid off.
Airbnbs are harder to find in DC than in other places because the laws are more restrictive, but we managed to find a gem about two miles north of the Capitol. There was room for one more person, and we were delighted to have my mom join us.
$301 Metro Passes
We didn’t want to rent a car in DC because then we would have to drive and park. Plus, we would have to get a huge van to fit all of us. When deciding between a hotel where we would be close to everything and an Airbnb where we would need to take public transportation, I factored in the cost of Metro passes. I didn’t want to have to “budget” the cost of each individual ride, so I opted for unlimited passes. I ordered the Metro cards online and they sent them to our home in California so we could have them in hand when we arrived. Lucky for us, when I ordered them they were having a sale on Metro passes in hopes of recovering some of the ridership lost during Covid.
Kids under 5 don’t need to pay on the Metro, so that covered two of the people in our group. We bought passes for the other six of us, plus my mom.
Each pass ended up costing $43. That breaks down like this:
$2– Initial cost of the empty card
$14– 3-day unlimited pass (regularly $28)
$19– 7-day short trip pass (regularly $38)
$8— additional cash credit per card (see below)
The unlimited Metro passes took us everywhere we needed to go around DC at any time of day. We used the cash credit when we took the Fairfax Connector bus to and from Mount Vernon ($2 each way) and to the Air and Space Udvar-Hazy Smithsonian Center in Virginia ($2 each way).
$49 MARC Train
On Sunday we took a train to Maryland to visit Mike’s sister’s family. Even when we’re on vacation, we try to treat Sunday as a special day. We don’t shop, play sports, or do the entertainment sorts of things we do on other days. So we went to church with their family and got to meet our niece’s brand new baby. Our kids enjoyed playing games with cousins that they don’t know very well. They have a large van so they brought us back to our Airbnb that night. That allowed us to stay later to enjoy dinner together and let the kids play into the night.
Washington DC is a very unique travel destination because nearly everything is free! There are 16 Smithsonian museums and galleries to visit, plus dozens of monuments, beautiful parks and historical sites. Most are open 7 days a week and are completely free. Some of the most popular attractions require a reservation (a covid accommodation) which sometimes requires a $1-2 fee.
Here’s a list of all of the places we visited and the cost if there was one (if no cost is listed it was free).
- National Zoo– You need a reservation, but there is not a fee make one.
- Capitol Grounds Tour– We contacted our state representative and one of his staff gave us a nice tour.
- Library of Congress– We gave ourselves a tour of the Library of Congress and enjoyed the special exhibits there.
- National Postal Museum– The Postal Museum was one of our favorites! There were lots of hands-on, kid-friendly exhibits.
- American Art Museum– This was the kids’ first time in an art museum. I was a little nervous but they actually did really well!
- National Portrait Gallery– This museum shares a building with the American Art Museum. We especially enjoyed seeing the presidents portraits. They’re more interesting than they sound.
- Museum of the American Indian– Mike and I explored this museum extensively on our last trip and we knew our kids would enjoy it.
- National Air and Space Museum– We visited during a time when the hands-on kids’ area was open. We also loved seeing the Wright brothers exhibit and the history of space exploration exhibits.
- Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art– None of us are big into modern art, so it was fun to learn about something new. The installations were definitely interesting!
- Museum of American History– There are so many cool exhibits throughout the American History museum.
- National Archives– Reservations are required but don’t cost anything. You get to see the actual Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill or Rights.
- Museum of Natural History– The rock and gem collection in the Natural History Museum had our kids wanting to go back again. We also loved the animal, bug, DNA, fossil, and virus exhibits.
- Museum of African American History and Culture $9 There is so much to see in the African American museum. We enjoyed learning about both history and culture there.
- Ford’s Theater– You can reserve tickets online for $3 each, but there are free tickets available at the box office as well. We went on a Monday that we figured would not be busy and were able to get tickets of all 9 of us for free. We got to go through the museum and then walk through the theater to see where Lincoln was shot. There are some additional exhibits, but they were closed due to covid.
- Holocaust Museum $9– Mike and I were very impacted by the Holocaust Museum on our last trip, so we wanted to bring the kids. After the first floor, we realized it was too heavy for our 10-year-old, so Mike took him and the three little ones outside while the rest of us went through the whole museum.
- Mount Vernon $174– Definitely our priciest excursion, we thought George Washington’s plantation, Mount Vernon, was worth the cost. The plantation is set up like it was in Washington’s day. There was lots to do and see. We wish we had more time for the museum which we saved for the end. It was very well done with lots of interactive exhibits.
- Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center– This huge hangar is filled with hundreds of aircraft and spacecraft, including the space shuttle Discovery.
- Lincoln Memorial– We visited this iconic memorial at night.
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall– Seeing all of the individual names on the wall is sobering.
- Jefferson Memorial– The walk along the Tidal Basin out to the Jefferson Memorial is beautiful.
- Roosevelt Memorial– The FDR memorial was one of our favorite memorials, a beautiful and extensive tribute to a great president.
- George Mason Memorial– We enjoyed learning about this founding father whose memory is often neglected.
- Martin Luther King Memorial– I love reading the powerful quotes carved throughout this memorial.
- Washington Monument $9– We took the elevator up 500 feet to the top so we could look out the windows at the amazing view. Tickets become available each morning for tours taking place the following day. You can only order 6 tickets at a time (and they sell out within minutes), so part of our group went one day and the rest went the next day.
Things we didn’t do, but wanted to:
- Arlington National Cemetery— We had it in our plans for the last day, but felt like it would be too much uphill walking for our exhausted crew, plus they wanted to go back to the Museum of Natural History again before we left.
- White House— There were no tours due to covid.
- Supreme Court— There was no access due to covid.
- National Bureau of Engraving and Printing– Mike and I enjoyed this tour on our last trip and know the kids would be fascinated, but it was closed due to covid.
- International Spy Museum $26– With all of the amazing free museums on the National Mall, we didn’t look seriously into any paid ones. It’s probably cool, but it didn’t make the cut for this trip.
Okay technically we spent $43 on groceries while we were in DC, but that just came from our regular grocery budget (which is about $500 per month). The rest of our food we brought with us.
Yep, we packed several suitcases of just food. Another reason why flying Southwest with free baggage was important.
I’m sure that sounds outrageous (and maybe even ridiculous!) to some of you, but hear me out. This was a move that made our trip so much more affordable and laid back than it could have been.
Even fast food for a family of 8 adds up fast, so we just don’t eat out. Like ever. Well, we get pizza sometimes, but other than that we eat home-cooked meals every single day. That wasn’t going to change, even on vacation.
We could have done the grocery shopping in DC, but knowing that we would be getting around via the Metro buses and trains, it didn’t sound like much fun to do a 10-day grocery haul on vacation. Plus, I knew I could get better prices on groceries at home. It’s not that California is cheaper (it’s not). It’s that I know where and how to shop at home. Shopping in DC I would not be nearly the savvy shopper I am at home. Give me some time and I would figure it out, but as fun as it is to compare unit prices and find deals, it wasn’t what I went on vacation to do!
With our plane tickets we could have checked up to 14 bags for free. We ended up checking 11 bags total, nearly all of them carry-on size since we have a lot of smaller travelers. About 4 of them were full of food because on the way home we consolidated down to only 7 checked bags.
One thing that really helped was that Mike’s mom offered to freeze dry some things for us to bring. She has a freeze dryer that she uses to preserve her garden produce and other foods. I should really do a whole post on freeze drying because it’s pretty amazing. The start-up costs are expensive, but it is a great way to preserve food without losing any of the nutrition. And nutritionally it’s much better than canning or dehydrating.
We brought freeze-dried apples, peaches, blueberries, and strawberries for snacks and to put in oatmeal. It was a great way to bring fruit without the weight or risk of bruising. Freeze dried food has all the moisture removed, so it weighs next to nothing (that’s why backpackers love it). We freeze dried cooked ground sausage, grilled chicken, grilled pork loin, and cheese. We just soaked the meat in water to rehydrate and you would never know it wasn’t freshly cooked. We freeze dried tomatoes and zucchini from our garden and brought it to make spaghetti sauce. She even freeze dried ice cream sandwiches for us as a fun treat when we visited the Air and Space Museum.
What food did we bring? What did we eat?
Here’s a rough idea of our menu (sadly I didn’t take any meal pictures on the trip!):
- Zucchini bread/Pumpkin bread – I baked and froze about 10 loaves to bring on the trip for breakfast and snacks.
- Oatmeal – We brought individual packets, as well as regular oats, raisins, and brown sugar to make a big pot of oats.
- Cold cereal – We did buy milk at a nearby grocery store in DC.
- Toast with peanut butter
- Peanut butter and jelly/honey sandwiches or bagels and cream cheese – I brought about 10 loaves of sandwich bread with us as well as peanut butter, honey, bagels, and cream cheese. We bought jam in DC since I didn’t want to fly with glass jars.
- Snacks (see list below)
- Apple slices
- Carrot sticks
- String cheese
- Granola bars
- Trail mix
- Freeze-dried fruit
- Lasagna – We brought a frozen lasagna with us.
- Creamy Taco casserole – We brought all of the ingredients on the plane except milk.
- Spaghetti – I brought all the freeze dried ingredients to make homemade spaghetti sauce (all of which came from our garden except the sausage)
- Grilled chicken with mashed potatoes – We brought instant mashed potatoes and freeze dried grilled chicken.
- Pork with mac and cheese – This was a quick one which was a big hit with the kids.
- Leftovers – We made some of these meals more than once and also had some leftovers.
I bought a double stroller on Facebook Marketplace specifically for this trip. With young kids on a long trip that included lots of walking and lots of museums, I knew we needed a good stroller. I looked for one that would collapse easily for getting on and off the bus, was skinny enough to fit through normal doorways, and had lots of cargo space for jackets, umbrellas, and our food for the day. When I knew what strollers would be good possibilities I watched Facebook Marketplace for a good deal. I wanted one that was in good enough condition that I could easily sell back afterwards (though we haven’t done that yet). This is the side-by-side double stroller we got and LOVED. It has so much cargo space, is super easy to push and maneuver, each side reclines individually, and it folds up small and fast!
$13 Bike rental
On the day were we did lots of walking around the National Mall to see all of the monuments, we rented a bike from Capitol Bike Share for my mom. The kids would have liked to get bikes or scooters too just for fun, but the app rules say that you need to be 16 to use the bikes or scooters.
$110 Airport parking in Sacramento
We parked our van in the economy long-term parking at the airport for 11 days.
That covers it!
Our total including airfare, accommodations, entertainment, everything else for a 10-day trip to Washington DC for our family of 8 was $5,335. We had a fabulous time!
Is there anything we forgot? Do you have any questions for us?
As we landed in Sacramento, the captain announced our arrival and invited us to fly again with them soon. The kids heard that and exclaimed, “Yes!! We should do that!”
Where should we go next? What’s a great place for a fun and affordable family vacation?
Do you go on vacation without eating out?