Friday, July 29, 2011

Day 2- Washington DC

Rise and Shine! Wanting to get an early start at the zoo, we were on the road by 7:30am this morning.

The National Zoological Park is part of the Smithsonian so it was free.

By 9am it was already close to 100 degrees. Many of the outdoor animals were sleeping it off somewhere in the shade. Not a panda to be found. The grounds were lovely.

The indoor exhibits opened at 10am. There were many lively creatures inside.

This is a pretty large zoo and we all took advantage of the misters located around the park to help alleviate the heat.

After three hours the children were hungry again. The food offerings at the zoo were quite pricy so we made our way back to the street where I asked a local for recommendations. He said that we were just doors away from the best pizza and subs in Washington. Sounded good to us!

We piled into Vace Italian Deli, located on 3315 Conneticut Street, close to Macomb. Wow! The guy didn’t lie. We had the most delicious pizza with a perfectly done crispy crust and paid less than $2.00 per slice. There is no place to eat in the deli so we took our feast to a shady bench on the street, then went back for seconds….yum.

Fed and watered, we took the metro to the Museum of American History. Once again it was free. There were so many interesting things to see including the dresses of the first ladies, the original American flag, the hat Abe Lincoln wore the night he died, Kermit the Frog, Michael Jackson’s hat, Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz, Julia Child’s kitchen and exhibits on the Presidents and American wars. There was definitely something for everyone here…we spent three hours in this delightfully air conditioned museum.

Much to my horror, my eldest son wanted to climb the Washington monument and the other kids seconded the motion. When we got there, there were no more tickets available for the day. If you really want to do this, I recommend ordering tickets ahead of time or show up early in the morning for timed tickets….apparently the line-up is pretty long.

While the males in our party hung out eating and drinking on a shady bench, the females checked out the Smithsonian Castle. You do not need much time for this, but I recommend it. You can see a video orientation and a scale model of the federal city or relax in the café or gift shop.

It was time for McDonalds then we caught our ghost tour at 8pm in front of Dolly Madison’s house on Layfayette Square (which is kind of like the White House’s back yard).
Ghost tours need to be booked and paid for in advance. Our group enjoyed hearing about some of Washington’s really unique, haunted history.

We were back in bed at our bed and breakfast by 11pm.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Day 1- Washington, DC

The day was already hot, hot, hot. From the Mega Bus lot at K and Capital Street, we rolled our luggage to Union Station.

Washington DC has a great Metro system, it’s just a little complicated at first to figure out the fare structure. Machines where you can buy passes or fare cards are prominently located inside the stations. Fortunately staff are available to give you advice about which type of fare to buy, when and how to punch your fare cards and approximately how much you need to spend. Check out the Washington Metro system site for more details.

From the Takoma Metro stop, we followed the directions given by the owner of the 1850s mansion bed and breakfast that we booked through Airbnb. I guess we looked a little lost at one point because a merchant left his store, crossed the street and asked if he could help us. This wasn’t an isolated incident of kindness and hospitality. We found throughout our trip that people in Washington are extremely friendly and helpful.

The owner of our bed and breakfast was waiting for us when we arrived. He let us leave our luggage early because we didn’t know of any place in the Washington core where we could temporarily store it before check in. Our rooms were clean and cool which was a blessing since it was over 100 degrees outside.

The Takoma neighbourhood feels very safe. Believe it or not, although it’s just a 15minute metro ride from the centre of Washington, Takoma is actually located in the state of Maryland.

After freshening up, we spent four hours at the Holocaust Museum and attended an interview with a Holocaust survivor. We were enthralled. The whole thing was an informative and very moving experience. I believe we all came out more informed about this awful piece of history. The museum is free but if you do not want to wait in line for timed tickets, you can buy them in advance on line for $1.00 each.

After a tantalizing supper at Mcdonalds (kid’s choice), we went to the Spy Museum. Tickets are normally $18.00 per person however we joined Goldstar and paid $9.00 per person plus a $2.50 per ticket handling fee in advance. The kids loved this interactive museum and we could have easily enjoyed more than the 2 ½ hours we spent there. The gift shop had some really unique items.

We then returned to Mcdonalds for ice cream and smoothies. In my experience, keeping kids well fed and watered is imperative to having a happy vacation.

We ended the night by visiting a few of the monuments. The Monuments are magical at night. The lit up Washington monument and the WWII Memorial are spectacular but for me, nothing compares to the Lincoln Memorial at night. Fireflies in the grass between the monuments only added to the magic of the evening.

With tired feet but happy spirits, we called it a night.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Mega Bus to Washington...The Reality

A travelling group of my friend, me and five kids, ages 9, 12, 12, 15 and 15 waited in line at the Toronto Coach Terminal for the 9pm Mega Bus to Washington DC. The weather was hot, hot, hot.

When the bus arrived, a few minutes late, we realized it was the single level version which was perfectly fine with me.

We showed our confirmation number to the bus driver, confirmed that we carried passports and settled into our seats.

The two men sitting across the aisle from me said that they purchased their return tickets for $4.00 each. They suggested that I join the Mega Bus electronic mailing list to receive notice of special sales. Despite paying ten times more, ($40.00 return per person), I still considered this an amazing deal.

The bus was very similar to many of the Greyhound buses I’d been on except that there were electrical outlets between every seat and no pockets to place magazines/books etc in front of me. The seats were of average size which worked for us but would be a bit of a challenge for above-average sized people.

Since it was an overnight trip, we didn’t have the option of turning on our reading lights.

Mega Bus advertises (but does not guarantee) WIFI on all their busses. It didn’t work on this one.

People clapped when the air conditioning came on full force. It felt good but was rather chilly for sleeping…but sleep we did. Despite the heat-wave outside, I’m glad we'd brought jackets.

The bus stopped at the Canada/US border. Bleary eyed, we filed out and collected our luggage, which went through the xray machines. We then had a brief questioning with the guard, took back our luggage, placed it in the storage under the bus and reboarded. It took an hour for all the passengers to get through homelands security...the guards were friendly and professional.

I noticed that we had a few stops for breaks and for pick-ups and drop-offs in a few cities along the way, but I always quickly returned to sleep.

About twelve hours later, I woke up as we entered Washington DC. The bus dropped us off in a large parking lot not far from Union Metro Station.

The Mega Bus ride to Washington, DC was not bad as far as over-night bus trips go. Surprisingly, all of us, including the kids, slept well.

I consider Mega Bus excellent value. At prices like this, I plan to make many for trips with this bus line.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Off to Washington

It’s often a challenge keeping the kids busy during summer holidays. You want them to be entertained and hopefully learn something at the same time, but putting them into numerous summer camps can get expensive. (Also, I love spending time with my kids.).

After researching Mega Bus, I’m off to Washington, DC with my boys (ages 12 and 15), a close girlfriend and her kids (girl 15, boys 12 and 9). We leave Toronto at 9:00 pm on a Monday night and get into Washington at 8:00am on Tuesday, morning. We will stay for two nights at an 1850 mansion which we found on Airbnb. After touring Washington all day on the Thursday, we will catch the 10pm bus back to Toronto, arriving home at 9:30am on Friday.

And the price is right. Return bus tickets are $40.00 and the boys and I will pay $150.00 for two night’s accommodations. Most museums in Washington are free! How great is that?

My friend and I have been prepping our kids for the trip. Both adults and kids have gone through the list of attractions, museums and historical sights and have listed their top five. We will make sure that everyone gets to go to their favourites. So far, top on our list are the Monuments, a walk past the White House, The National Museum of American History, The Holocaust Museum, The Spy Museum, FBI Museum, the zoo and a ghost tour. There is so much more to see, that we may have to leave some things for another visit.

When travelling with a group, it’s absolutely ok, (and often recommended), to split up for a while. My family is into ghost tours but my friend’s family aren’t, so that may be the time to do our own things.

We need to be organized with such a large group so we’re working out an itinerary which takes into consideration time to see the sights, line-up time, travel between locations time and rest/refreshment breaks.

If you have any Washington suggestions from using the city transit to tips on beating the line-ups, please let me know.

This trip to Washington promises to be an adventure that will outlast the memories of most summer camps.

Keep posted to this site. I will be blogging from the road to let you know how this trip turns out.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Travel Deals with Group Coupons

I’ve just added a new obsession to my repertoire; online group coupons.

I’m sure many of you have heard of Groupon and Living Social, the largest in an ever increasing field of companies offering localized and national coupons for 50-90% off. For those of you who haven’t, check them out. You can either sign up to receive a daily email or go directly to their websites to check for coupon deals in your location of interest. These offers are time limited, usually available only for a few days.

Led by Groupon in 2009, this internet couponing phenomena has grown at an incredible speed. Groupon is a privately owned Chicago company that in late 2010 turned down a six million dollar acquisition offer by Google. Livingsocial is their closest competition.

Most people just check out the deals in the area where they live but I’ve discovered that it’s perfect for saving a bundle on travel. For example, this summer our family is off to Charleston and Hilton Head, SC and Savannah, Georgia as well as Washington, DC. After researching our destinations, I have an idea of what things we want to do. With our family, ghost tours are always a favourite. Through Groupon and Livingsocial, I bought two separate ghost tours, each at more than 50% off. I also bought a 1 ½ hour authentic southern cooking class in historic Savannah for myself, a Savannah architectural tour and a Charleston Museum plus two other historic sights pass for our group. To keep fed and watered while seeing the sights, I purchased restaurant and smoothie coupons for Hilton Head, Charleston and Savannah. Even though I haven’t found anything I would use in Washington, DC, I have saved over $150.00 for our southern States trip.

Livingsocial has a section for accommodation deals and package vacations which is well worth checking out. I didn’t find anything for this trip because most of the resort packages are based on two people.

Groupon covers areas all over the world including Europe and Asia whereas Livingsocial is only in Canada and the USA. If you find any other sites that cover areas outside of North America, I’d love to hear from you.

It’s easy to get carried away when buying these deals, so keep the following points in mind:
1. Buy only what you know you will use.
2. Check expiry dates.
3. Keep track of your purchases. I keep my coupons in a binder that is sectioned by location. I also have a master sheet in the front listing the deal, the location and the expiry date.
4. Deal only with reputable sites with money back guarantees such as Groupon or Livingsocial.

Group couponing is another tool to stretch your travel dollar. You never know, tomorrow’s deal may be the attraction or tour that you were planning to pay full price for. Very satisfying.