Inauguration Travelers Need a Bailout

It's hard to put a price tag on history.

But I'm going to try -- as a service to all those folks who want to head to Washington to watch Barack Obama be sworn in as our 44th president. Officials now expect that as many as 1.5 million people will attend the Jan. 20 festivities -- shattering the old record of 1.2 million who came to see Lyndon Baines Johnson's inauguration in 1965.

First, a warning. Getting to the inauguration is not going to be cheap, especially not if you're flying. You might want to call this the airlines' "inaugural surcharge" -- and it's a wee bit higher than the bag fees we've all gotten used to.

Case in point: If you're traveling from Los Angeles to any one of the three Washington-area airports (Dulles, Reagan or Baltimore), you could pay up to $1,600 for a return nonstop coach flight. How bad is that? Well, compared to the price of flights the week before the inauguration, it's 400 percent higher!

Take a look at our price comparison (PDF) chart. I did some analysis on flights from all over the country, and it doesn't matter if you're flying in from a red state or a blue one. You're going to pay and pay big.

Of course, before you make that airline reservation, do you even have a ticket for the inauguration?

Good News: The tickets are free! Bad News: Everyone in the world seems to want one.

There are 240,000 tickets that will be distributed by members of Congress. I suspect many of those tickets will go to local officials. Although, New York's Sen. Charles Schumer has a pretty good idea where he's distributing his 350-ticket allotment: by lottery.

And if you don't win the lottery? Well, the National Park Service (which is involved in inaugural logistics) is well aware that many people will be ticketless -- which is one reason why it's putting up jumbo TV screens in Washington's Mall. And that's free too.

But as with any trip, you've got to plan on where to stay -- and here's where your luck may run out. According to various news reports, the 90,000 hotels in D.C. are mostly booked. I tried to check the availability of rooms at Washington's glitzy Mandarin Oriental, but the Web site was very slow -– maybe because so many folks were inquiring about the hotel's four-night Presidential Privilege package that includes a chauffeur-driven Maserati and more, with a very presidential price tag of $200,900. Eventually I got through to online reservations where nothing was available.

Inauguration Tourists

This has prompted some folks to look for lodging as far away as Baltimore and even Richmond, Va. Or, you can be really adventurous and go to couchsurfing.com and stay on a stranger's sofa! Don't laugh, there are a lot of folks who swear by this, and say it forges lifelong friendships.

But let's get back to my area of expertise -- the airlines and airfares. Look at those steep prices again. You will want to protect this big investment in case of delays and/or weather-related snafus, so be sure to arrive a day or two early. I know Washington is not exactly Buffalo, N.Y., when it comes to snowfall, but it has its moments. Does anyone remember JFK's inauguration in 1961?

Eight inches of snow had fallen and it was bitterly cold. Still, a million people managed to get there anyway -- many by abandoning their cars and cabs in the snowy streets of D.C. and hoofing it.

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