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It's time to plan your inauguration trip

So, you want to travel to the U.S. Capitol for the festivities surrounding the January 20th swearing-in of Senator Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States? You better start planning now.
Image: U.S. Capitol inauguration preparation
Construction is underway in front of the U.S. Capitol for the 2009 presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C. If you're interested in attending the historic festivities, you should start planning now.Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

So, you want to travel to the U.S. Capitol for the festivities surrounding the January 20th swearing-in of Senator Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States?

Forget about crashing with Sam Arora. The politically active law student has a small one-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C., and has already agreed to give three friends a place to stay. Now he's getting calls from Clinton and Obama campaign volunteers he worked with in other states. “There are going to be people sleeping in the bathtub at this rate.”

Not interested in snoozing in a friend’s tub? Then get busy. Rooms in the D.C.-area are going fast. Many hotels are already sold out and staff members at Destination D.C.,the official tourismsite of Washington, D.C., say most properties with rooms still available are boosting their prices and imposing minimum-stay requirements up to five days.

But don’t give up. Here’s a checklist and some insider tips on how you can plan a trip to take in this historic event.

Getting there
If you don’t live close enough to Washington, D.C. to drive or get there on a train or a bus, start shopping for airfares now. Most airline and travel Web sites (Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, Cheapflights, etc.) offer a flexible search option for travel dates, so use that feature to make sure you’re seeing all the choices. And keep in mind that D.C. is served by three airports — Washington Dulles International Airport, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport — so broaden your airfare search to include alternate airports as well.

If you drive, traffic and parking inside Washington will be impossible. Plan on leaving your car somewhere outside the city and use public transportation instead. Event planner Pamela Milan says experienced folks pass up limos, which get stuck in traffic, in favor of the Metro subway system. “I've ridden on some of the best-dressed Metro trains during that week,” she said. “Ball gowns. Tuxes. Mink coats. Major bling. And very safe.”

Jacqueline Condie is leaving her car in New York and taking the train to Washington. The New Jersey resident booked Amtrak tickets first thing Wednesday morning, but wasn’t able to find hotel rooms to fit her budget. “So it looks like it will just be a day trip for us. We’re just going to be part of the madding crowd’s euphoria. No plans other than to be there and let the day unfold as it will.”

How to find a place to stay
Although there are more than 95,000 hotel rooms in the D.C. metropolitan region, don’t count on waiting to make plans and then finding many — or any — at anywhere near an affordable price. “It’s a rate game,” one travel insider told me. “Hotels are changing the rates and the terms by the hour.”

If you have a lot of money, you have some intriguing choices. The Fairmont Washington, D.C. Hotel, for example, is offering a $40,000, four-night “Eco-Inaugural Package” that includes lodging in an eco-friendly suite, a custom ball gown designed by a noted organic designer, organic spa treatments, an organic midnight supper and a Lexus hybrid vehicle and driver. For $99,000, The Ritz-Carlton, Georgetown, is offering a four-night “Politically Correct” package that includes a stay in the Presidential Suite, Gucci luggage and two tickets to the inaugural parade and an official inaugural ball. As a bonus, the package includes a four-night stay at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman “to relax after the festivities have ended.”

For those with tighter budgets, check for rates and packages on the major travel Web sites, individual hotel sites and D.C.-area tourism sites. Remember that most hotels have imposed minimum-stay requirements, so unless you put in a date range of at least three or four days, your searches will show no availability. And don’t limit yourself to Washington, D.C. properties. Rates should dip as you move away from the city center, so consider Arlington, Bethesda, Silver Spring and other nearby towns. (Before you confirm, check to see how far a hotel property is from a Metro subway station.)

Want to follow the roots of President-elect Barack Obama? Get ready to visit three countries, five time zones and six states.

No hotels in your price range? Consider renting an apartment through Craigslist and other informal sites, or trolling through your address book for friends who live in and around the D.C. area.

Now that you’re going, what can you do?
There’s the swearing-in ceremony, the inaugural parade, and official and unofficial balls and galas that will take place in and around Washington D.C. during a celebration period that will last up to 10 days. There will also be concerts, parties and plenty of other activities. You'll need tickets for some while others will be free. Many haven’t even been organized yet.

To find out what’s going on, monitor these Web sites:

  • Destination D.C. has up-to-date information on 2009 inauguration events, hotel availabilities and links to the official inaugural Web site and a site that has information on state society balls. (They even have a Twitter feed and a Facebook page to keep visitors up-to-date.)
  • For details (and tickets) on the swearing-in ceremony and other Inauguration Day activities, see the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies site. Tickets to the swearing-in ceremony on January 20thare free, but you need to contact your Congressional representativeorU.S. Senator to request them.
  • If you’d like to actually be in the parade, check the Armed Forces Inaugural Day Committee site. The AFIC coordinates the musical units, marching bands and other parade performers, and will be taking applications until 5 p.m. EST on November 14th.

Some alternatives
If you can get to the Washington D.C. area during the inauguration festivities, don’t worry if you don’t have a ticket to an official event. There are plenty of viewing spots on the parade route and there will be giant viewing screens set up on the National Mall for the swearing-in ceremony. Restaurants, bars, hotels, museums and other tourist attractions will be organizing and hosting special events, so it will be hard to avoid being touched by the excitement of what officials predict will be the largest turnout for a U.S. presidential inauguration ever.

Just remember: Wear warm clothes and comfortable shoes. And bring along plenty of patience.