First off, we decided to travel via Megabus. While the return trip was closer to the advertising (which indicated a near-rockstar tour bus experience - lots of room, WiFi, heck, probably someone there to entertain the kids with creative balloon animals!), the trip up was rough. Surly driver, shabby vehicle and I had a sinking feeling about this trip. It's not always best to go cheapest. Consider that you're dropped off in an uncovered parking lot a few blocks from Union Station. Yep. Just a parking lot. I'd suggest re-thinking this part - it was cheap, but it also felt cheap. Thanks are due to Victorian Marxist who not only dropped us off and picked us up, but kept his opinions about the wisdom of our travel plans to himself (mostly).
Rather than a hotel (which can be criminally expensive in DC), we booked the downstairs "mother-in-law" suite of a schoolteacher's house in northeast DC. We had plenty of room, lots of hot water, a comfortable bed - really, there was no downside here. I'd heartily recommend booking through airbnb.com anytime you plan on travelling. Accommodations range from "hey, I've got a blow-up mattress on the floor of what's usually my study!" to entire houses.
For the actual sightseeing, we had decided to stick mostly to the National Mall. That meant we needed to figure out both the bus system (to get to the Metro) and the Metro itself. Piece of cake and we were both bowled over by the kindness of people to obvious tourists in the city. A Metro agent came out of his cubicle to walk two NC hick types through the ticket machine process (rechargeable SmarTrip cards are the way to go, baby!) and a bus driver actually waved us by when we were fumbling with the cards.
I have to mention our first night in town. We were bushed from the ride on CrampedBus (to the point we paid way too much to a gypsy cab driver to get to the house. He was very nice - who wouldn't be to the rubes who got so willingly rooked? - and we just were beyond caring at that point. We got suggestions for a nearby place to eat (we later bought groceries at the neighborhood bodega, but weren't up to it at that moment) and hot-footed it down the street to a Tex-Mex place. It was dark by the time we got finished eating and my ankle was making its still healing presence known. We were discussing what was best - hail a cab or puzzle out the bus system? - when I leaned over to the couple next to us and just asked for help.
The lesson is: Always ask for help.
Turns out the couple runs a Website devoted to publicizing all that is good to see, eat, hear, etc. in DC and they both see themselves as unofficial ambassadors of the city. They listened to our question and then said, with utter sincerity, "We live in the neighborhood. We can help you figure it out, but would you rather us just give you a lift?"
Remember the lesson: Always ask for help. Most people like being asked and some will go way beyond the call.
Next post - museums, monuments and some moments that stopped us in our tracks.