Surviving Spring Break Madness In Washington, DC

While American college kids bake in the sun, pound tequila shooters and do things they hope won’t end up on YouTube in Cancun, South Padre Island and other venues for Spring Break debauchery, their younger siblings all seem to be on class or family trips to Washington, D.C. I’ve visited D.C. many times over the years and lived there on three separate occasions. But until this week, I’ve mostly managed to avoid the hordes of tourists that descend on the place during the Cherry Blossom/School Spring Break season.

I’ve always been an off-season or shoulder-season traveler but now that my kids are in school, I don’t always have the flexibility to travel when the prices are low and the crowds are sparse. When my kids have a break from school, our choice is to: A) hire a babysitter so we can continue to get work done (expensive and hard to do for just one week), B) stay at home and go stir crazy, or C) bite the bullet and travel despite the higher prices and crowds that are inevitable during school breaks.My wife needed to visit D.C. on business, so I had two and a half days in D.C. with my little boys, ages 3 and 5, this week, when hundreds, perhaps thousands of grammar and high schools around the country are on their spring holiday. The city was absolutely crawling with school groups and families on vacation.

I thought that we lucked out when I bid for a 3.5-star hotel on Priceline and got a luxury chain hotel downtown that had rave reviews from customers on Trip Advisor (4.5-star average from more than 800 reviews) for $105 per night. But even the best hotels fall apart when they are jam-packed and this place was a circus. If you didn’t shower by 7 a.m., there was no hot water. Wi-Fi, which cost $9.99 per day, was ridiculously slow, no doubt due to the volume of traffic. And the breakfast lines were unlike anything I’ve experienced at any hotel in my decades of traveling the world.

The place was so overrun and dysfunctional that I actually felt bad for the employees who had to absorb all of the customer complaints. They were clearly sick and tired of the guests’ complaints and were getting creative in their responses. A woman from Georgia whom I commiserated with in the breakfast line told me that a front desk agent suggested she use the pool, when she complained about the lack of hot water in the room.

I wasn’t brave enough to bring my kids into the Air & Space Museum, the National Zoo, the Cherry Blossom Festival, or the Museum of Natural History (they’ve been to these places before) but I saw how crowded they were and was thankful my kids are too young to insist. Instead, we focused on some of D.C.’s less visited museums, like the Freer and Sackler Galleries, The National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African Art (all are manageable and are highly recommended). We also went to a couple higher profile museums, like the National Gallery of Art, but made a point of getting there at 10 a.m., right when they opened to beat the crowds.

If you’re visiting the free Smithsonian museums on the weekend or during school holiday periods, plan out your strategy carefully. Visit the most popular museums right when they open (usually 10 a.m.) or after 4 p.m. and use the peak hours, around 11:30-3:30 to visit the more off-the-beaten-track attractions. If you aren’t sure what the most popular museums are, have a look at Trip Advisor and take note of how many reviews the place has. The museums with 1,000 reviews are more are the ones you have to be worried about.

The other minefield is trying to have lunch near the museums during peak hours. Packing a lunch is a great idea but if you can’t be bothered, try to eat by 11:30, or after 2 p.m. The cafeteria at the Smithsonian Museum of American History has excellent food, including good BBQ, sandwiches, craft beers and a lot more, along with high prices, but you do not want to try to eat there or at any other popular lunch spot near noon or 1 p.m.

D.C. in the spring is a peculiar brew. You see armies of guys in dark business suits, badges swinging from their necks, marching around dodging strollers and school kids. But despite the crowds, D.C. is still better in the spring, when the weather is mild, than in the summer, when the humidity is brutal. Just get up nice and early, you’ll be sure to have hot water and you’ll be hungry for lunch before the crowds are.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]