What do dinosaurs, pandas, planes and Monet paintings have to do with each other? You can see all of these things for free in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian museums on the Mall and the National Zoo. There are always ways to spend money, though, even after getting free admission. To have a fun and frugal family vacation, you can keep those little costs down by doing a little bit of planning.
My husband, my four-year-old son, and I recently returned from a four-day vacation in D.C. that was a lot of fun. With three museums and the National Zoo on our itinerary, we didn’t have a lot of energy for extra hassles. We saved a lot of time and unnecessary hassle when we cut out some of the hidden costs, and overall had a more pleasant trip than we would have if we were waiting in line to buy overpriced lunches or dining out in noisy restaurants.
The Number One Trick for saving money at these Museums and the Zoo:
Pack your own lunches, snacks, and waterbottles. We packed granola bars and animal crackers onto the plane, and after we arrived we stocked up on peanut butter and jelly, bread, and applesauce pouches at a local convenience store. For $30, we fed our three-person family four days of lunches. We would be lucky to get one lunch for the three of us for $30 at any of the Museums or the Zoo. At the Zoo, a large fountain drink alone cost $8. Think about those movie theater prices when you wonder if it’s “worth it” to go through the trouble of packing a lunch. Then think about spending the bucks you save on an afternoon ice cream treat or a souvenir in the gift shop instead.
Your Hotel Can Save You Money.
It’s all about location, location, location. And a fridge. And preferably a kitchen table. The suite we booked included a full kitchen, including a kitchen table. We ate cereal in the mornings and saved enjoyed take-out meals at “our” kitchen table, which not only saved us about $80 a day in breakfast, lunch, tips, and drinks, but it also saved us the hassle of wrangling our antsy four-year-old in a restaurant. Don’t forget to save a little extra on your accommodations by booking through ebates. We got 4% cashback by first going to ebates, then booking the hotel through Hotels.com.
The National Zoo has a lot of thoughtful touches to help families with little kids — from stools in some bathrooms to misting stations and a splash area for little ones to cool off on hot days. My son’s favorite exhibit — by far — was the Small Animal Pavilion. With naked mole rats running through hamster tubes, meerkats standing on their hind legs to interact with visitors, and armadillos scurrying about, he was completely enthralled. There are also pandas, elephants, lions, tigers, gorillas, and a lot more animals to see.
A few frugal words to the wise here:
- Save $3 by printing out a map ahead of time. Admission is free, but maps are $3. Save time and help plan your visit by printing one out here.
- Getting to the zoo via Metro isn’t as easy as it looks. The walk from the Metro to the Zoo is uphill (0.5 miles to the Connecticut Ave. entrance and 0.9 miles to the Rock Creek Parkway entrance). We took a cab from Foggy Bottom and it cost less than $15 (each way, including tip), which was a good way to conserve our energy for the varied topography of the Zoo itself. Parking is $22 per day, and inconvenient — it fills up early and it took some of our friends 30 minutes just to park.
- There are plenty of shaded picnic areas for a brown bag lunch. If you’re packing a bunch of food and gear and storing it in your stroller though, you may want to put valuables in one bag that you can grab when you park your stroller outside the various pavilions.
- The Visitor Center Gift Shop has low-priced souvenirs for preschoolers — from $5 rubber snakes and alligators (Little Stapler’s choice) to $8 mini stuffed animals that you can probably only find at the National Zoo (creatures like the naked mole rat and at least three types of frogs with different ribbiting sounds).
There is so much to love at the Natural History Museum, especially if you are a preschooler who loves dinosaurs, sea creatures, and animals. Exhibits are tailored to the under-18 crowd, with some specifically geared towards teenagers and others for much littler ones. Check out their “When to Visit” guide, which tells you the Museum’s peak visiting days and hours.
Although the dinosaur exhibit you may have seen in the past is closed while they incorporate a new T-Rex into the exhibit, the Triceratops is on display upstairs, next to an activity that has visitors in front of a green screen while projecting them onto the wall with dinosaurs tromping about. After a few T-Rex roars, my little guy was too scared to stick around there for long. But he did explore a lot of the Museum. We essentially followed him through the exhibits as he went from one interesting display to another.
A few frugal words to the wise here:
- Save $1 by printing out a map ahead of time. Admission is free, but maps are $1. Save money and help plan your visit by printing one out here.
- The Butterfly Pavilion is free on Tuesdays. The butterfly pavilion allows visitors to walk amid butterflies. Admission is $6 for adults and $5 for youth. But if you want to go in for free, show up on a Tuesday and hop in line on the second floor to grab your free tickets. The tickets are timed, so even if you get your ticket at 10:30, you may not be able to enter the pavilion until noon.
- The cafeteria is for Cafe customers only. I don’t know if they enforce this, but you could cover your bases by buying an apple or a coffee at the cafe, and still pack in your own lunch. It’s a pleasant place to eat, although my cell phone battery was running low and I couldn’t find any outlets there. First World Problem, I know …
- The “Picture with a Dinosaur” photos are $20. At the back of the new dinosaur exhibit, you will get asked if you want to have your picture taken with a dinosaur. If you don’t want to spend that on an 8 x 10 photo, don’t even stop. Go right past go and you’ll save $20.
- Pricing for the IMAX shows are $9 for adults and $7.50 for children.
- The Family Gift Shop is next door to the cafeteria, and has plenty of inexpensive souvenirs for kids, including — of course! — little plastic dinosaurs.
The National Air and Space Museum is not the best visit for a preschooler — even a preschooler who loves learning about space — because there aren’t many interactive exhibits there. Little Stapler responded best to the free Planetarium show, One World, One Sky: Big Bird’s Big Adventure. Another favorite were the old airplanes hanging from the ceilings (he is a huge fan of the move Planes), and the old space shuttles in the lobby. But he was fresh off of a visit to a Children’s Museum, where you can touch everything, so he was disappointed and confused about why he couldn’t touch or interact with any of the shuttles or planes — you can only look. There also aren’t any helpful extras for families with little kids, like family bathrooms or aisles easy to maneuver with a stroller.
A few frugal words to the wise here:
- The cafeteria does not allow outside food or drinks, and is exclusively McDonald’s fare. We ate our brown bagged lunches and saw others doing the same, and no one said anything to us. The cafeteria itself is a big, noisy, busy dome and not a pleasant experience. I recommend sneaking outside and lunching on the Mall instead (as long as the lines to get back the Museum in aren’t too long). There are vendors on the Mall if you need to buy foodstuffs, and plenty of benches and open space for a picnic.
- The Planetarium show One World, One Sky: Big Bird’s Big Adventure is free. It shows at 10:30 am on Fridays and Sundays. Snag your free ticket at the IMAX ticket booth right when you arrive. They are first-come, first-served.
- Pricing for the IMAX and Planetarium shows are $9 for adults and $7.50 for children. Unfortunately, Little Stapler was too freaked out by the 3D glasses, so he spent the entire show snuggled up on my lap. Meanwhile, I enjoyed the 3D images in Hidden Universe 3D, although it was a little light on information. If you’re on the fence about whether your child will like the 3D, you may want to check out the Planetarium shows instead.
- The basement of the Gift Shop has great low-priced preschooler souvenirs. Little Stapler loves the die cast fighter jets, and I love them because they’re priced at $8-$12 and still a nice quality toy. If you’ve ever visited the Air & Space Museum as a kid, you probably remember the Astronaut Ice Cream. At $6 a bag, it’s still a ripoff. Now you know why your parents didn’t want to get it for you 😉
Yes, folks, we tried to take our four-year-old to the National Gallery. I have been to other fine arts museums where they make an effort to reach out to children, so we packed a few toys in the backpack, walked up the zillion steps to the front entrance, and hoped for the best. Then the security guard told us we couldn’t take any toys into the museum, “because the gift shop sells similar items.” The gift shop sells toy jeeps and rubber snakes?! Well, I wouldn’t know … because we didn’t make it that far. We did make it to a few rooms in the permanent collection and one of the special exhibits, where a security guard told us that Little Stapler couldn’t sit on his dad’s shoulders.
Aside from the sculpture garden, which has a relaxing outdoor setting, the National Gallery is the most kid-unfriendly activity on this list. But, if you have older children that have an interest in art, it could be a great experience. The Museum offers free art guides geared for ages 6 and up online and free audio tours for ages 7 – 12. If not, you may want to instead opt for the kids’ activities on the National Gallery’s site.
A few frugal words to the wise here:
- Audio tours of the main collection are free. And, in a surprisingly child-friendly move, so is the audio tour that is geared toward children aged 7 – 12. The audio tours of the special exhibits are $5.
- The cafeteria does not allow outside food. If you pack in a lunch, the security guards will find it and direct you to the coatroom, where you have to check it and can’t bring it into the cafeteria. If it’s a nice day out, that’s no problem — just picnic on the abundant grassy spaces on the Mall.
Overall, we had a fabulous and exhausting trip through the National Mall, National Zoo, and National Monuments. We never felt like keeping our costs low deprived us of anything — who would miss paying $8 for a mediocre sandwich?! — but we do feel a bit triumphant to have had so much fun on so little money.
If you’re looking for more ways to have fun but still be frugal check out these other articles.
If I missed any free family activities or freebies at the Museums and Zoo, please share in the comments.