It doesn’t matter what party the president hails from. The inauguration is always a party.
In 2008 I got the call to cover the inauguration of Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States, for a daily news website. And from the moment I stepped on a packed Amtrak train chugging 100 miles north from Richmond, Va. to Washington, D.C., I realized I was covering more than a mere transfer of political power. I was covering a social and cultural revolution that happens every four to eight years. The entire world was watching. And it seemed like at least half of it was there, waiting in line and smooshed in the crowd beside me.
The U.S. Presidential Inauguration isn’t an event you can plan to attend at the 11th hour, even though I pretty much did (we’ll get to that later). That said, you do need to plan your trip within a tight window of time – only about 10 weeks pass between Election Day and the Inauguration – and get a little lucky. The 2017 Presidential Inauguration Day is Friday, Jan. 20.
Remember, this is a party. A 24/7 whirlwind event where you’ll hug strangers and walk en masse across closed interstates in a scene stolen from a post-apocalyptic zombie movie. If you’re fortunate enough to have a comfortable place to sleep, good for you. The bars are open til 5 a.m. in our nation’s Capital for the Inauguration, if that’s your thing. So grab a sleeping bag, get some coffee and start your plan for crashing the Inauguration. The clock is ticking…
Getting from your place to Washington, D.C. might be the easiest part of the trip. There are three international airports to pick from – one in the White House’s backyard and two within an hour-ish drive (You never know for sure with D.C.-Maryland-Northern Virginia traffic.)
Ronald Regan Washington National Airport is the closest to the District, and offers the convenience of an onsite D.C. Metro station. Dulles Airport is a bit further afoot, but it’s also bigger, with more flight and airline options. Baltimore-Washington Airport (BWI) is a hub for discount carrier Southwest Airlines and is located nearby an Amtrak Station.
Speaking of Amtrak, taking the train to the Inauguration is a smart idea, especially if you’re considering driving to the inauguration. (With bridge closures on Inauguration Day, other street closures, numerous security checkpoints and expensive parking, driving should be avoided.) Union Station is a busy train station and will see increased activity for the Inauguration as it’s often used as a ball site. But the value and convenience of Amtrak, especially for those travelling regionally within a few hundred miles, will likely trump that of plane travel.
Once you’re in Washington or right outside the District, the Metro is the way to go. (I spent 20 minutes traveling 2 miles in a taxi last Inauguration. Avoid taxis, too.) You’re likely to make some new friends and have your personal space violated a least a few times in the Metro cars. More than 800,000 revelers rode the Metro in 2009. You’ll be able to purchase a $10 SmarTrip fare card that’s good for unlimited travel on Inauguration Day — that’s a 30-percent discount — on Metrorail and Metrobus rides.
Finally, know that there is ongoing Metro construction that could affect routes and station availability. But they wouldn’t close any stations down that week… would they? Be sure to check the schedule before planning your travel.
When I took the train up to D.C. in 2009, the row of folks next to me was staying in Richmond. Hotel rooms were so scarce and expensive in D.C. that they opted to train it up and back to pick up their tickets the day before the Inauguration because you couldn’t pick them up the day of the event. Then they would train back south to Richmond, stay the night, and ride the rail back and forth again the next day before driving a few hundred miles home.
You’re probably exhausted just reading that. Imagine living it.
That does bring us to a great hotel booking tip: look outside Washington, D.C. Listen, the swankiest D.C. rooms and suites can go for more than $500 a night on an average evening. If they haven’t already been booked, well just imagine what they’re asking. Additionally, many of these rooms will come with mandatory minimum stays of up to four nights that may not fit your travel plans. Be sure to scout the Northern Virginia and Maryland suburbs. And when doing so, look for close Metro access. The Orange Line connects to Rosslyn and New Carrollton. The Red Line will bring you back and forth to Bethesda and Silver Spring. The Silver and Blue Line have options as well.
Airbnb is also great choice and here is why: Imagine living in Washington, D.C. during the Inauguration. Unless you really want to be there, you don’t want to be there. Why not escape the crowds and make a solid rental fee, right? That’s the mindset of many in the District come the Inauguration, July forth and other holidays where folks flock to Washington. And property owners flee.
You can also do the more organic version of Airbnb. That’s what I did, crashing on a buddy’s couch. It was free, easy and just a brisk 40-minute walk to the National Mall, where all the action was taking place. Just float a Facebook message and see what happens. You never know when an old friend might respond.
I was lucky enough to claim a press credentialed seat within 300 yards of the staging area for the 2009 Inauguration. That did entail waiting outside a sterile, monolithic government administration building fighting bluster and a much-needed bathroom break. But it was a heck of a seat in the 500th-ish row of history in-the-making.
The good news for you is that tickets are free. Yes, free! But it’s not that easy.
You need to go through your congressional representatives to get tickets to the swearing-in ceremony and inaugural address, which are extremely limited in quantity. If you land a ticket, arrive several hours early. I saw plenty of empty chairs slowly fill in with angry spectators who simply couldn’t clear security and the mobs in time.
There are a number of options to watch the transition of presidential power without hoping to win one of these tickets, which are often awarded through lotteries. Well before the noon ceremony, a mass of humanity will gather on the National Mall, which faces the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol and is flanked by super-sized monitors broadcasting the ceremony live. It’s estimated one million onlookers gathered here in 2009. And later in the afternoon, there is a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue with the President, Vice President, marching bands, and plenty of Secret Service convoys. Again, you can try your hand at getting tickets in bleacher seats, this time from the Presidential Inauguration Committee, or you can pick your own viewing spot in one of a number of public entrances.
The most fun I had during the entire Inauguration was walking the streets of D.C., swinging by bars and restaurants, and meeting new people. My host for the week and I decided to wait in line for the upper crust establishments, such as the bar at the Four Seasons, looking for celebrities. I do admit to leveraging my press pass to swing past the long, lingering lines. We came up with a mixed bag, meeting some E! channel C-list personalities and retired network news anchor Tom Brokaw.
While there are 10 inaugural balls, some which require special invites and others that simply require your credit card, we didn’t attempt to get on the other side of the velvet rope. (Note: “Official” balls connote events the president will stop at, while you may be the most famous person at one of the “unofficial” balls.)
The Inauguration isn’t a trip built for relaxing or sightseeing at your own pace. This is a power trip, both the planning and experience itself. So catch up on sleep beforehand, wear some comfy shoes and bring a dependable coat. (January is D.C.’s coldest month.) With the right game plan and a little luck, you’ll get up close and personal (within 200 yards or so) with the 45th president of the United States.
Mike Ward is a copywriter, family columnist and sometimes comic who lives in Richmond, Va. with his wife, two young kids and two mutts. He likes long road trips and rooting for losing sports teams.