While the nation’s capital is a popular destination all year long, there’s really nothing else like the city's Cherry Blossom Festival. From March 20 to April 13 this year, Washington, D.C. will celebrate with 25 days of parades, performances, and cultural events in the heart of downtown.
Naturally, you'll see some outrageous price markups at hotels during the festival. Some rooms more than double in cost compared to any other spring weekend. The good news is that if you plan strategically – and act soon – you won’t necessarily have to pay a huge premium. Here’s how:
1. Visit the first and third weekends.
Historically, peak bloom – when the blossoms are at their fullest – has fallen at the end of March or the beginning of April in D.C. (though of course the timing is impossible to predict infallibly, particularly in wacky weather). Still, because cherry blossoms only tend to stay on the branch for about a week, most visitors time their visit accordingly and flock to the city on the second weekend of the festival. And, unsurprisingly, that’s reflected in the hotel prices.
The first and third weekends of the festival don’t come with much of a hotel room premium, however. Take the mid-range Kimpton brand, for instance, with eight properties in the city. Rates for the weekend of March 28 start at a whopping $350-$509, depending on the hotel, with the Monaco and Palomar on the upper end and the Rouge and Helix on the lower ends. That’s compared a pretty reasonable $135-$246 the weekend before and $152-$348 the weekend after.
We suggest this option for either the first weekend, when rates are the lowest (but crowds can be a little larger), or the third weekend, before the blossoms have all fallen. A tip for timing: The National Parks Service has a nifty chart that explains what happens during the five different stages of bloom. Starting in March, the team should start providing more specific forecasts.
03/04/14 update: Interestingly, we're seeing some rates fall slightly for the first weekend and rise slightly for the second and third from the week before. This makes us wonder if people are expecting a later peak this year, because of the particularly cold winter we've had.
2. Book now. We mean it.
The festival is about one month away. In the past few years, travelers, on average, made hotel reservations as early as three weeks before they travel. A number of affordable downtown properties, like the Holiday Inn White House and Comfort Inn Downtown, have already sold out for the ever-popular second weekend. (Rates at the Holiday Inn currently start at $116 on the weekend before and $160 the weekend after; they’re $129 and $209 at the Comfort Inn respectively.) Ensuring that you’ll have a place to stay aside, you’ll find that discounted advance booking rates are still valid for many hotels, for now.
3. Check out boutique hotels.
Chains and business hotels dominate the city’s hospitality scene, but a few smaller boutique properties offer fair rates as well as hip, upscale decor. We love The Melrose Hotel, fresh from a top-to-bottom renovation. Its sleek, design-focused rooms are going for $160 the first and and $176 third weekends of the festival. 03/04/14 update: Rooms were sold out for the second weekend when this story was first published, but it looks like at least one is currently available for $329 – for now!
Affinia’s Liaison Capitol Hill, one of the closest hotels to the Capitol, is also a nice contemporary option with rates currently from $149 the first weekend, $389 the second, and $179 the third. If you’re itching for a souvenir, spring for their festival package for about $30 more. It includes two all-day metro passes, welcome cocktails, and a cherry blossom bough to take home. (Remember, it’s illegal to pluck them at the Basin...)
4. Try neighborhoods just beyond the city center.
Many residential neighborhoods are still easily accessible by Metro, if you’re willing to build in a bit of commuting time. In Arlington, VA just across the river, for example, a queen room complete with a kitchenette at Virginia Suites Hotel goes for just $109-$169 over the three weekends. Or go a little north to Van Ness, where a Days Inn room for $130-$210 includes complimentary parking. That's a solid savings when you consider that parking can cost as much as $30 or $40 per night at other properties or in parking lots downtown. Super-savers can look into InterContinental Hotel Group’s properties, which include the Crowne Plaza and Candlewood Suites brands, in Arlington as well as Alexandria, VA. Though starting rates don’t go much lower than the $89-$106 range, rooms are generally more spacious with extra amenities like balconies and kitchenettes.
5. Don’t be afraid to mix and match for a longer trip.
Rooms at business hotels are actually more expensive during the week than on weekends, because that’s when their regular clientele turns up. Don’t feel obligated to stay at just one hotel if your trip spans more than two or three days.
6. Go for the vacation rental.
Vacation rental rates generally aren’t as affected by seasons and events, at least not to the extent that hotels are. In a quick search on Airbnb, we found studios and one bedrooms alike around $85 to $150 (no matter which weekend). Neighborhoods like Logan Circle, Adams Morgan, Foggy Bottom, West End, and Dupont Circle seem especially promising.