By Jamie Hazlett
Sun Star Columnist
One might think that America’s political parties would be ready for a break after the contentious midterm elections. It’s easy to imagine pundits and politicians alike breathing a sigh of relief as they sip their mai tais at an exclusive resort (thanks, campaign contributors!). However, as they lounge in the sun, their thoughts are not likely to be frivolous. After all, it’s time to gear up for 2012, and with the White House on the block in the next election, you can bet that by next winter, one destination that is high on every party’s list will be Washington, D.C.
This, fellow travelers, is where we enter the story. Washington, D.C. is a place that anyone born or living in America ought to visit at least once. Unless you like mobs of people, this is the time to go. Once the campaigning takes off, airline and hotel prices will be higher and their availability lower, driving up the cost for starving college students eager to experience one of the country’s cultural and historical centers. The best way to avoid high costs is to go soon and go smart. The holiday season is beautiful in D.C., but you have to deal with sight closures and occasionally inclement weather. If you choose to go in March, the temperatures will be tolerable for Alaskans (75-80 degrees is standard in the day time), Spring Break allows a vacation without missing class, and best of all, the cherry blossoms are in bloom.
Not many college students head to D.C. for Spring Break, so airfare is sometimes cheaper than it would be to stereotypical destinations, especially if you book ahead. As for hotels, the trick is to stay away from Washington, D.C. itself. Try looking for rooms in the suburbs near the capital, where rates are lower. The great thing about cities on the Eastern Seaboard is their phenomenal public transportation, and D.C. is no exception. Stay near an outlying Metro (D.C. subway system) stop and buy a week pass. You’ll save money on both your hotel and your transportation. Don’t bother renting a car and trying to drive in D.C.; the traffic is merciless and there’s virtually no parking near the National Mall, where most of the attractions are located.
A great way to save money on vacation is to hit up as many free things as possible. Washington, D.C. is a standby flyer’s dream when it comes to gratis attractions. The Smithsonian Museums, all of the national monuments on the Mall and tours of Congress and the White House are free to visit. You can easily fill a week in the capital without spending a dime on entrance fees. Skip the “moonlight tours” of the monuments and head up to Union Station to admire the architecture and grab a slice of pizza at Pizza Uno, which has great views down into the station itself. If you’re going to pay for any attraction in the D.C. area, my suggestion is the zoo. The National Zoo is hard to beat – after all, no one else has Tian Tian and Mei Ziang, the two playful giant pandas that are practically the zoo’s mascots. If pandas aren’t your thing, head for the Amazon habitat and wander through the jungle as monkeys swing overhead and giant South American fish swim in the river below.
Avoid the political crunch time, and you might come home feeling like voting is more than just an annoying task your parents berate you into doing (no promises if you wait, though). You can have sun, cheap sites, and good food, all while having fun and maybe learning a little something. If you take nothing else from the trip, you can at least honestly quip about hearing the wheels of government grinding ever so slowly from across the Mall.