Image: Inaugural construction
Susan Walsh  /  AP file
Workers construct the presidential inauguration stand on the west side of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
By Travel writer contributor
updated 1/19/2009 12:45:09 PM ET 2009-01-19T17:45:09

If you’re among the millions of people that will be in Washington, D.C., when Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, then here are some last-minute tips to help you make the most of this historic occasion.

You won’t be alone
For awhile, officials were speculating that up to 5 million people would be showing up in D.C. for the festivities on and around January 20th. After calculating how many people can physically enter the city by Metro buses and subways, charter buses and other forms of transportation, estimates have been scaled back to a bit to somewhere between 2 and 3 million people.

There’s no way to calculate how many other people might descend on the city by car, bike or foot. — especially if nice weather prevails. While D.C. is preparing to welcome a larger-than-usual crowd, you’ll need to arrive prepared with strategies for getting to and from town, staying warm, getting through security and keeping an eye on your friends and family. You’ll also need a plan for staying nourished and using the restroom.

Staying there
If you don’t already have a hotel reservation in D.C. or anywhere in the region, you may be out of luck.

For last-minute accommodation options, try making arrangements on Craigslist or some other informal Web site. Of course, it never hurts to check back with relatives, friends and friends-of-friends for any last-minute openings.

Get there and back
Consider yourself lucky if you already have a reasonably-priced airline ticket to and from the D.C. area. Many airlines, including JetBlue, Virgin America, Air Tran, Southwest and US Airways, are adding extra flights and, in some cases, larger airplanes, for inauguration week, so last-minute reservations may be an option. And because airline schedules seem to be in constant flux, reconfirm your travel plans before heading to the airport.

On a special Inauguration Day travel page, Amtrak describes the expanded services and ticket restrictions in place for inauguration week and includes links for the Maryland Transit Administration’s Commuter Rail service (MARC) and the Virginian Railway Express (VRE). Festivity-goers should also note that D.C.’s Union Station has limited restroom facilities (Amtrak suggests you go on the train) and that on Inauguration Day, all food and retail outlets in the station will close down in the middle of the afternoon.

Thinking of taking the bus? Earlier this week, the Web sites of Greyhound, Vamoose, Boltbus and the Chinatown Bus Co, still showed some available reservations for rides during inauguration week. Rideshare boards are also another option.

  • Bonus tip: If you purchased your plane ticket back in November, check back to see if the fare has dropped. If it has, ask your airline to refund the difference.

Getting around
Forget driving. Forget taxis. The streets will be closed around the National Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue and, outside that area, parking could be a nightmare. Walking, biking or riding on a Metro bus or train will be your best bet for getting in and out of the city.

On Inauguration Day, buses will run on a modified Saturday schedule. Metrorail trains will run from 4 a.m. until 2 a.m. on a rush hour schedule well into the evening, but officials advise travelers to set out as early as 4 a.m. to avoid having to wait hours to simply get into a Metro station. Remember, too, that people will be crowding the stations after the inauguration ceremony and the parade, so D.C. insiders suggest making a reservation in town for lunch or dinner and making your way home after the big rush is over.

Metro has information on a special Inauguration Day Web page, which includes a free downloadable commemorative walking guide and a map showing the closest Metrorail stations to the day’s events. (Note: the Smithsonian’s Metrorail station will be closed on Jan. 20th.)

  • Bonus tips: Buy a Metro farecard before January 20th so you don’t spend extra hours waiting in line just to purchase a ticket. Farecards are available online or in Metro rail stations. Everyone will need their own card to enter and exit the system.
  • Bicyclists should consult the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) for recommended trails into the city and check their bikes — for free — at one of the two Inauguration Day bike valet stations. (Some hotels have bikes to loan and there are also bike rental shops in and around D.C.)

Day-of events
If you were lucky enough to snag one of the 240,000 free tickets for the swearing-in ceremony handed out by a congressional delegate, you’ll get directions on how and when to pick up those tickets in person before the event. Don’t forget your photo identification.

And don’t assume that having a ticket means you can just mosey over to Capitol grounds anytime you choose. Security will be extra tight, so ticket holders are being advised to show up as early as 7 a.m., but no later than 9 a.m., to make sure everyone gets through security in time for the formal part of the swearing-in ceremony, which begins at 11:30 a.m. Security screening for the ceremony closes at that time, so you'll be waved away if you show up late, ticket or not.

For those without tickets to the ceremony, the entire National Mall will be open to public for the inauguration. Giant video screens and an audio system set up and will enable everyone there to follow along. Although the Mall is open 24 hours, camping there is prohibited and tents are banned.

For those who’d rather try for a glimpse of the president along the inaugural parade route, which begins at the Capitol steps and heads up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, note that there is room on the sidewalks for only about 350,000 people. There will be security teams on duty, and once the sidewalks are full, that’s it. Camping on the streets along the parade route is discouraged, so don’t expect to be able to grab your sidewalk spot until about 7 a.m.

For a list of pre-Inauguration Day events open to the public, as well as a list of official and unofficial inaugural parties and balls, see the Destination D.C. Web site. Some of these events are free; tickets (some quite pricey) are still available for others.

  • Bonus tip: Security will be tight everywhere in and around D.C., so leave lots of otherwise useful stuff (strollers, umbrellas, etc.) at home. The District of Columbia’s 2009 Presidential Inauguration Web site has a long list of items that will be prohibited from all inaugural event sites.

Bathrooms, hand warmers and more
If you’ll be spending the day attending any part of the festivities, it will be a very long, crowded, and probably cold day. You’ll need to dress warmly, bring food (snacks, sandwiches, juice boxes, maybe; but no coolers or glass containers) and have lots of patience.

You’ll likely be standing around in the cold for long periods of time and, eventually, you’ll need to go to the bathroom. Keep this in mind: there will 5,000 portable toilets on the National Mall on Inauguration Day, but there will be no bathrooms for ticketed attendees during the inaugural ceremony on the Capitol West Front.

Metro will be closing all bathrooms inside its 86 stations, but will put around 150 portable toilets outside the stations. Bathrooms in the Smithsonian Institution’s 13 museums on the Mall will be open to the public on Inauguration Day (until 5:30 p.m.), but you’ll need to wait in line to pass through security checks there as well. And the restrooms in restaurants and bars, many of which will be offering Inauguration Day specials, may be restricted to customers only. The bottom line: use the can when and wherever you can, and bring along your own stash of toilet paper.

Another thing to keep in mind, says Capitol Hill resident Helen DeBarge, is that “You can’t plan on finding anything you need in any store in D.C. on Inauguration Day. So stock up and come prepared.”

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D.C.-based freelance media producer Heather Dahl agrees, and urges everyone to buy disposable hand and foot warmers now. “While covering the 2005 inauguration, I tried buying hand warmers for my gloves the day before the ceremony, but every place was sold out.”

Emergency plans
Even if everything goes smoothly, it will be important to plan what to do if there’s an emergency or if you get separated from your friends and family.

If you have a cell phone, make sure it’s fully charged and bring along a device that lets you recharge. Cell lines may be overloaded during parts of the day, but you should still be able to send text messages. Just in case, bring along some change for pay phones and write down important phone numbers on a piece of paper. Also, sign up for Alert DC, which will send you official text messages about any emergency situations occurring in D.C. A free-to-download iPhone app will also help you figure out where you are and what amenities are nearby.

Pack a personal emergency kit with first-aid supplies such as Band-Aids, antiseptic wipes, aspirin, toilet paper, medications, snacks, a small flashlight and some extra cash.

Slideshow: Dreaming of D.C. Create a “what-if” plan with your travel group. Agree on what you’ll do if anyone gets lost. It could be as simple as having a brightly colored bandana to wave above your head if you get separated in a crowd, or something more complicated, such as an edge-of-town meeting time and place you’ll all gather should the day’s events go awry.

Haven’t made plans to be in D.C. but still want to go?

Harriet Baskas writes's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for

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Photos: Presidential journey

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  1. Michelle Obama and her two daughters, Malia and Sasha, walk offstage as President-elect Barack Obama addresses supporters during his election night party at Grant Park in Chicago. Obama was a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s. He returned to the Windy City after earning his law degree, taught at the University of Chicago and eventually entered politics. Now, the Obamas live in the Kenwood area of Chicago, an affluent, educated neighborhood on the South Side. (Morry Gash / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Obama and his daughters walk the beach during their vacation in Kailua, Hawaii, on Aug. 12, 2008. Obama was born in Honolulu and lived with his mother and grandparents in a two-bedroom apartment. He moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1967 after his mother married an Indonesian man. Obama returned to Hawaii when he was 10 and lived with his grandparents until he was 18. (Marco Garcia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. During his August vacation, Obama threw a lei at the point where he scattered his mother's ashes in Honolulu. (Alex Brandon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Obama (red shirt) is seen with family and friends at the Pali Lookout in Honolulu. (Alex Brandon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The steep trail to the Makapuu lighthouse is one of Barack Obama's favorite hikes in his hometown of Honolulu. Here, a hiker and her dog make their way along the picturesque trail. (Lucy Pemoni / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. In 1971, when he was 10 years old, Barry Obama enrolled at the private Punahou School in Honolulu and entered an unfamiliar world of privilege. Despite feeling out of place, he eventually prospered at the school. Today, tuition tops $16,000 per year at the exclusive institution. (Lucy Pemoni / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Indonesian school girls run on the playground at the SDN Menteng 1 school in Jakarta, Indonesia. President-elect Barack Obama attended the school when he was a child. (Ed Wray / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Local boys in Kogelo village, Kenya, admire a painting featuring President-elect Barack Obama, center, alongside, from left, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, current U.S. President George W. Bush and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, during a gathering of people on Nov. 4, 2008. Obama's late father was from Kogelo, a village in western Kenya, and his half-brother, step-grandmother and other relatives still live there. (Matt Dunham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Obama graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991. This is a view of Langdell Hall at the school's campus in Cambridge, Mass. While there, Obama served as president for the Harvard Law Review. (Harvard Law School / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Barber Tony Coye talks about President-elect Barack Obama as he cuts Kenneth Clay's hair at the Hyde Park Hair Salon in Obama's Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago. (M. Spencer Green / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. This is a curbside view of the Chicago home of President-elect Barack Obama. Places that U.S. presidents have called home often become major tourist attractions, from estates at Mount Vernon and Monticello, to Hodgenville, Ky., where Abe Lincoln's log cabin once stood. (Jerry Lai / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Occidental College students celebrate in Samuelson Campus Pavilion on the Eagle Rock campus in Los Angeles, Calif., as alumnus Barack Obama is officially announced the 44th president of the United States on Nov. 4, 2008. (Marc Campos / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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