This post is sponsored by Old Town Trolley Tours all opinions, hair-brained ideas and work is 100% mine.
If you have teens or tweens you may know that traveling with them can be a challenge at times. After several visits to Washington DC I’ve compiled a list of tips and tricks to help you when visiting DC with teens. If you like this post you may also like this post on 15 Simple Disney World Travel Tips
Last month my family visited Washington DC. It wasn’t our first trip to DC and I don’t think it will be our last. When I travel I love to share part of our experience on Instagram and have noticed that I always get a lot of questions about what we are doing, and tips for traveling to that destination. Last year I wrote up my tips and tricks for visiting Disney World, and it is now the MOST visited page on this site. Since that post seemed to resonate with many of you I’ll be sharing similar travel tips on a regular basis.
So here goes… my 10 Travel Tips for visiting Washington DC with Teens and Tweens.
1. Plan before you Go.
There are a thousand things to see and do in Washington DC. The Smithsonian alone is comprised of 19 different museums. Each of those museums has hundreds if not thousands of artifacts. Add in all of the memorials and visitor sites surrounding DC and it can easily become overwhelming.
Many teens (including mine) have short attention spans. This is actually helpful when visiting DC. You’ll be able to knock out a bunch of sites in a short amount of time. The first time I visited a museum with a bunch of teenagers I was astonished at how quickly they breezed through.
They don’t want to sit and look at the exhibits, read the guide books or even take the time to absorb what they are seeing. They want to rush through the museum and see IT ALL. Hope Diamond… Check…. Apollo Spacecraft… Check… Degas Paintings…. Check… You get the idea.
By all means encourage them to stop and think about what they are seeing, but just let them be themselves. They are absorbing more than you think. We took my oldest daughter to a museum in Europe when she was 13. I was adamant that she look at all of the paintings and understand what she was seeing. She on the other hand did not seem to care. Just another boring old painting, I was seriously crushed and questioning my parenting skills … BUT years later she came home from school one day and told me all about how they had studied one of the paintings that she saw. She went on and on about it. After that I realized that they remember and absorb more than you think, just be patient with them.
That being said… BEFORE you visit DC take some time and visit the websites of the places on your list. Get an idea of what each museum has to offer and which you and your kids are the most interested in visiting. Don’t just show up in DC and wonder “what to do today”. Have a plan before you go.
2. Ask each kid what their MUST DO is.
We only had 2 full days in DC. Definitely not enough time to see it all or even a large part of it. We wanted to make sure our kids were part of the planning process for the trip. Before we left we asked each kid what they HAD to do when they were there. We then asked them what they’d like to do and what they would want to do if we had extra time.
We spent the first day in DC checking off of the “MUSTS” then had some free time the second day to work on a few of the “like to do’s”. This is a great way to for each person on the vacation to feel like they were able to see what they wanted, and a great way to compromise if your kids have totally different interests.
My daughters MUST DO was the National Gallery & Georgetown Cupcakes, and my sons was the Air and Space Museum. Yep, totally NOT the same… but each of them was able to see what they wanted and they were patient when visiting sites that were not at the top of their lists. My son was extra patient waiting in line for cupcakes, even though he asked about a dozen times “why are we here again?”
3. Research the Museums online before you go.
After you’ve narrowed it down to which museums are your must do’s and want to do’s… get on the museum’s website and note which exhibits are currently running. Check opening and closing times. Read a bit about the exhibits so that you’re better educated when you get there. This will also help you to prioritize your time if you happen to enter the museum close to closing time… you’ll know which exhibits to visit as soon as you walk in the door.
4. Get tickets ahead of time.
If you are a US resident you can request tickets to visit the White House and the Capitol Building from the DC office of your local Congressman. We requested White House tickets in January for an April visit, but did not get tickets. There is not really any way to guarantee a visit, but your best chance is with your Congressman. You can wait in a LONG line to visit the Capitol Building or you can arrange a tour ahead of time. Just email your local congressional office to set it up. It will save you LOADS of time and the congressional aides and interns that give the tours are very knowledgable.. my kids loved asking them LOTS of questions.
Most museums in DC are free and you can just walk in. However be prepared for long lines at security check points during high season. The Holocaust Museum is free but you need a TIMED ticket to visit. You get the tickets on their website and they sell out many days (or months) in advance. We didn’t realize that and did not get to visit the Holocaust Museum this time, next time I’ll reserve it in advance.
5. Talk about what is appropriate before you go.
I’m sure we’ve all rolled our eyes at the numerous “selfies” our kids like take. Honestly I just think it’s this generations way of expressing themselves. I’m sure my parents thought many of the things my generation did were ridiculous too.
The LAST thing you want is your kid to be embarrassed because they were reprimanded for not showing proper respect at a sacred or solemn place. I know it may seem obvious that they should not take a selfie or giggle at Arlington or the Holocaust Museum, but just to be safe talk to them about it first. Make sure they know what they are going to see and what type of behavior is expected of them while they are there. It will only save heartache and embarrassment later. Remember they may be older but they are still kids and they are learning every day.
6. Photo Scavenger Hunts
The museums may get boring after a while… to keep them engaged have them look for specific things at the museums and monuments. Have them take photos of them as they see them. Next summer when they are bored out of their minds, print off the photos and let them make a little mini scrapbook of their trip.
7. Give them souvenir money in cash
If you do decide to let your kids have money for souvenirs give it to them in cash. EVERY museum in DC has a gift shop (and most of them are pretty cool) add that up with the souvenir shops on every corner and you’re in for a lot of “mom, can I get this?”. We gave them cash before we left (they earned it before we went and each had a slightly different amount to spend). They were in charge of budgeting their money and it helped avoid some conflict.
8. Take a tour.
There are MILES AND MILES of things to see in DC. The subway system is great but you’ll spend most of your time underground and not see what’s above you. Many monuments are clustered around the National Mall, you can walk to them all if you like but they are FAR away from each other. Taking a tour will help to both save your feet and your time.
For us, it was cold and rainy when we visited DC. We took the Old Town Trolley hop on hop off tour both days when we were there and it totally saved us. I can not imagine walking around all day in the cold and rain. It’s the only reason we made it around the ENTIRE tidal basin. We would take the trolley to a stop, walk around for a bit and walk up to the next stop, then get back on the trolley for a bit. If you like you can also stay on the same trolley for the entire loop. The drivers give you great commentary about the city as they drive.
We were there during Spring Break and it was busy!!! The trolley operators were always friendly and they seemed to stay on top of the crowd situation very well and we didn’t encounter a full trolley once.
We had planned to take the Monuments at Night tour as we have taken it in the past and really enjoyed it, but it was full for the time we were visiting. If you know the days you’ll be there, give them a call and reserve it before you leave.
9. Make dinner reservations in advance.
DC is a city with a lot of young professionals. At 5 pm sharp they all leave their offices and head out to the bars and restaurants around town. Also about 5 pm we started to get hungry. We walked around for a while looking for a place to sit down and eat but they were all either too fancy for the kids, or had hours long waits.
We used Yelp to research places to eat but still ended up pretty lost when it came to dinner. Many places took reservations, we just didn’t do it before we left. One night we ended up with a 9pm dinner at Shake Shack.. which was not bad (I mean I LOVE Shake Shack) but we had been on our feet all day long and the last thing I wanted to do was wait in line and then “hover” over tables waiting for someone to get up (if you’ve ever been to Shake Shack you know what I’m talking about). Instead we opted for snacks at 5 pm then a later dinner to avoid some crowds.
10. Wear comfy shoes and dress in layers.
You’re going to walk a lot. We clocked 22,000 steps on our Fit Bit in one day… that’s INSANE! You’ll also be darting in and out of buildings all day. Dress in layers that you can take on and off as you need.
One last tip, if you visit DC in April-May you’re going to be SURROUNDED by teens on school field trips… I mean a lot of teens…. You’re going to wonder at one point how there are so many teenagers in the world.
We chose to visit for Spring Break so that we could see the Cherry Blossoms (for information on peak bloom times visit this website) . We have also visited in the Fall and I prefer that time of year. Less crowds and the weather is cool (it may also be wet so be prepared). If you visit in the Summer be prepared for heat and humidity and in the Winter watch for cold and damp temperatures. Holidays are busier (Memorial Day, Labor Day Weekend & 4th of July), so plan your trip accordingly and be sure to be prepared before you go.