Those cheap winter and spring airline fares are wonderful--if you want to go somewhere cold where you can't ski. But who wants to do that?
Museum freaks, that's who.
With all due respect to Los Angeles and San Francisco, America's greatest museums are to the East. And once you're inside one, who cares if it's 25 and snowing outside?
Washington, D.C., the mecca for museum lovers, is the best example. There may be better times of the year to see Washington's landscape but there is no better time to see its dazzling array of museums, among them the most popular and comprehensive in the nation.
Unlike the tourist season when these museums are jammed, winter keeps down the weekday crowds. And you only have to face the winter during a two-block walk from the nearest weather-protected subway station.
Group of 13 Museums
Chief among the Washington museums is, of course, the venerable and venerated Smithsonian Institution, which is not one but a group of 13 museums and art galleries, plus a zoo. Its most popular museums are clustered along the broad, grassy mall that extends from the Capitol to the Washington Monument, and you can easily spend a week right here.
Here is the National Air and Space Museum, which draws more than 10 million visitors a year, making it the most popular museum in the world. Here also is the National Gallery of Art, which is hosting two extraordinarily popular special showings: "The New Painting," an exhibition of Impressionist paintings that continues through next Sunday, and "The Treasure Houses of Britain," art privately collected in Great Britain from 1485 to the present. "Treasure Houses" continues through April 13.
Also on The Mall is the National Museum of American History (where they show Americana such as the First Ladies' inauguration gowns, Fonzi's leather jacket and Archie Bunker's chair), the National Museum of Natural History (featuring an exhibit on the United States exploring expedition of 1838 titled "Magnificent Voyagers"), two other art galleries, a sculpture garden and the Art and Industries Building (built in 1881 and arranged inside to simulate Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exhibition).
And the Smithsonian's are just a few of the museums Washington has to offer. And they all are free.
Cheap air fare and free admission goes a long way toward making a museum pilgrimage a remarkably economical vacation. If you don't need to economize on accommodations--or you have a friend in Washington with a guest room--that's all you need to know.
But if you are planning your first pilgrimage and want to watch the budget, here are a few tips.
Washington is an expense account town, so hotels and restaurants tend to be pricey. The few economy motels cost about $40 a day for double occupancy in Washington and in adjoining cities such as Arlington and Alexandria.
You can get cheaper accommodations through the American Youth Hostel Assn. (P.O. Box 37613, Washington, D.C. 20013, phone (202) 783-6161). Through an agreement with a few hotels in Washington, AYH offers accommodations for as low as $27.24 a day double. And the AYH in Baltimore offers a place to sleep for $8 per person a night, but you have to take the train or drive the roughly 45 miles into Washington.
Bed and Breakfast
You can stay at a bed-and-breakfast establishment in Washington for about $25 per person or, on weekends only, at one of the city's four- or five-star hotels for a little under $50 per person. The Washington Visitor's Bureau (1575 Eye St., Washington, D.C. 20005, phone (202) 789-7000) has information about accommodations. The bureau also provides information about special events in town, either by pamphlet or by recorded telephone message to (202) 737-8866).
And there are many special events, day and night, from concerts to animation festivals, and most of them are free as well. A good source of this information is the Washington Post's Weekend tabloid included in each Thursday's edition.
Parking is hard to find in Washington, and when you do find it, it costs a fortune. Instead of driving, book your accommodations near a Metro station.
The Metro is Washington's subway, which is remarkably clean and efficient. Even during off hours the trains run every 10 minutes, and they take you quickly to virtually every part of the city you'd want to see and to outlying districts. It also goes right to National Airport, the closest and most convenient airport to the city.
Unless you're traveling far from downtown, the ride will cost you around 80 cents. But best of all, virtually all the stations are underground and out of the weather. The Smithsonian and Archives stations are closest to the museums on The Mall.
Cabs Relatively Cheap
One caution: The subway runs until midnight every night except Sunday, when it closes at 6 p.m. It's easy to forget and find yourself locked out of the subway station, but relax. Cabs in Washington are relatively cheap. The fare for two of us from National Airport clear across town to Cleveland Park was only $10. Fares are based on flat rates between zones. The cabs have no meters.
There are restaurants in outlying neighborhoods where you can eat at reasonable cost, but one way to keep down meal expense is to become a member of the Smithsonian for $18.
It's a nice thing to do in any case; you get its authoritative and colorful magazine for a year and a discount at the museum shops, plus the best tour map available for the Washington area. But the membership card also admits you to Associates Court in the National Museum of Natural History, which is an all-you-can-eat buffet that serves lunch during weekdays and a combination breakfast and lunch during weekends, all for around $6.
The food hovers between all right and good, and there's enough to compensate for an inexpensive coffee-and-toast breakfast. Get there by 11:30 to avoid too long a line.
Even the most obsessive museum lover needs a break now and then. A good one that will give your feet a rest is a warm bus ride through the city past its most famous landmarks. The Tourmobiles, as they're called, continuously run a prescribed route through Washington and Arlington all day. You pay your fare once for the day ($6.50 or $3.25 for under-12 children), and you can get off and on the bus along the route as often as you want.