Thursday, April 4, 2013

When Free Is Not Frugal

Free does not always equate to the frugal choice.  Nothing new to me, but the concept was underscored on our recent trip to Washington, D.C.  All too often our nation's capital is touted as a great destination for families because so many attractions are free.  True, but that draws in soooo many people, decreasing the enjoyment of the destination.

During our five days in the city I once called home, we took in the National Zoo.  And a zoo it was!  Masses of tourists, school children, and locals descended upon a "free" cultural attraction. So deep were the crowds, our young children were confined to their stroller for fear of getting lost or stepped on.  The animals were an after thought, tucked behind vending stations, employees armed with cameras to "snap a quick photo" (for a fee) and police on segways.  The only positive was our ability to bring in our own food for the kids, saving us some money.  For the adults, the food options were actually rather healthy and not overly priced.  Something I cannot say for the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum at Dulles.

The saving grace of the zoo trip was the Amazonia exhibit, which oddly was nearly empty.  Don't let the photo fool you....the telescope station was actually broken.  As were many other features of the zoo.

Amazing display from the ceiling at Air and Space.  M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

The first stop on our trip, we drove into the lot and handed over $15 for parking.  A small price we thought, knowing how much our young son loves all things related to space.  Here we would see rockets and a space shuttle.  As we crammed the kids and stroller through security, we quickly realized that this was going to be a let down.  First, the guard told us "under no circumstances can you eat the food you have in here while in the museum and if you need to eat, it can only be in the McDonald's Cafe, and there you have to ask the manager for permission to eat outside food.".  I need to emphasize here, this museum is in a huge field, there is nothing within walking distance.

A bit miffed we opted to take in the exhibits, hoping to feed the children after we were done, on a bench outside.  Our daughter had other plans and was quickly in meltdown, demanding food.  Off I went with her, leaving my husband and son to absorb the many wonders housed on the site.  In the McDonald's Cafe I saw all that is what I call "wrong with America".  Fast food, tables with no chairs to discourage lingering, little to no healthy items and to my amazement, no $1 menu.  What?  The saving grace of the golden arches in my mind is that the $1 menu allows you to purchase a small amount of junk food, but no here.  I handed over $20 for a salad, 2 milks, some nuggets, yogurt parfait, and a burger for my husband (McDonalds being a favorite junk choice of his).  I told the manager that my children had dietary restrictions and would be eating some food I brought.  He response was to stare are me, dazed and confused.  We managed to find one cramped spot and "ate".  As we walked out my husband started crafting the letter he plans to write to Smithsonian management, what a poor display of Americana!  Interestingly, outside was a family clearly new to the states based on their dress and language.  How I admired them, bowls in hand eating healthy food brought from home.  They knew more than we did about these "free museums".

McDonald's Cafe, notice the lack of chairs or stools for these tables?  Such a disappointment considering the wonder on display in the museum.

Free is not always horrible.  In fact, thanks to the brilliant recommendation of a former co-worker who travels to New Zealand alone with her two children, ages 6 and 2, once a year, we did not purchase a single item for the kids to use on the plane.  She and I share the frugal gene, and I knew she'd have practical suggestions for in-flight entertainment.  The emergency card in the seat pocket is not only free, but amazingly entertaining for young children.  Our two year old pointed to the letters she recognized, counted the letter As, and chatted about the colors and pictures.  In the hands of our four year old son, it was great fodder for stories about rescues, etc.  Not one penny spent, kids engaged and happy, what a great experience for their first flight.

We had a lovely time exploring Washington, D.C., but sadly I will use great caution in ever planning around "free" or "reduced priced" admission.  The crowds take away from the exhibits, and it really isn't pay for it through food restrictions, parking, etc.  I'd rather spend a little and enjoy the day then get something for free.  Which was reinforced our last full day there when we took in the sites at Mount Vernon.

 Ahhhh, Mount Vernon.  Space to enjoy the birthplace of our country!

Frugal travel -- how do you save on exploring our world?

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