Join the Crowds on Inauguration Day

Insider advice from a former White House staffer for planning your trip to Washington, D.C., to attend the inauguration of the 44th U.S. President, Barack Obama.


Millions of visitors are expected to descend on Washington, D.C., for the historical inauguration of the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, on Jan. 20, 2009. If you aim to be part of the maddening crowd, follow these tips—based on personal experience from past inaugurations I’ve attended—to avoid disappointment and frustration.

Procuring a Ticket

If you haven’t already requested inauguration tickets for the swearing in from your congressperson or senator, it’s probably too late. There are a mere 240,000 tickets to go around, and each member of Congress has a relatively modest number to allocate. Congressional members have been taking requests since the day of the election, and promise to pass out the tickets (at no charge) on a first-come, first-serve basis once they get their hands on them (about a week before the big day). Lucky recipients will be asked to pick up their tickets in person at the congressional representative’s office.

Regardless of what ticket agencies and unscrupulous individuals may claim, no one has tickets to distribute yet—and it is illegal to sell them.

A coveted ticket will get you the best view of the action—taking place on the west-facing steps of the U.S. Capitol Building—but they aren’t actually necessary. You’ll find jumbo video screens set out throughout the National Mall, so if you want to be in the thick of things but don’t have a ticket, go to the west end of the Mall (near the Lincoln Memorial and grab an empty piece of grass.

Pennsylvania Avenue Parade and Inaugural Balls

After the swearing in (and a brief interval inside the Capitol and out of public sight), the new president and first lady participate in the Inaugural Parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, running from the Capitol and terminating at the White House. A good bit of the route is lined with risers, and seats are sold well in advance. The rest of the parade route is open for anyone to watch; folks camp out overnight for the best free spots, so plan ahead.

If you hope to catch a glimpse of the new first couple, look for real estate that’s closer to the White House, as it’s been tradition over the past several inaugural parades for the president and first lady to step outside of their vehicle and walk the parade route—but they usually only do this within a few blocks of their new digs.

The evening of January 20 is abuzz with Inaugural Balls; the president and first lady generally make appearances at about nine “official” balls; there are several dozen “unofficial” balls (to which the president is not expected to make an appearance) throughout the city. These events require tickets, and they generally go for $100 or more each. Although these are for sale from a number of organizations and venues, your best bet is to check a distribution site like or

Crowds and Cold Weather

I strongly recommend you follow the following advice:

  • Get to the National Mall as early as you can on the day of the inauguration. It’s impossible to estimate the number of people expected to show up and the hassle of getting into the area via public transportation—the Metro subway or city buses.
  • Don’t even think about driving. Streets and bridges will be closed, and parking will be nonexistent.
  • Security promises to be formidable as well; be sure to check a few days in advance of the ceremony to learn what items are prohibited. A good rule of thumb is to bring your keys, your wallet, a cell phone and little else.
  • Dress for frigid weather. Although it isn’t unheard of for D.C. to experience a warmish winter day, it is much more likely that it will be cold, windy and maybe even damp. Chairs (if you’re lucky enough to get one) are metal, and the ground beneath your feet will be cold, regardless of the air temperature. When my husband and I attended the first Clinton inauguration, we brought thermal packs for our pockets and for our shoes—and still found ourselves miserably cold after hours of waiting.

Lodging Options

If you haven’t already done so, make your air and hotel reservations now. Many hotels in the city are already sold out.

Expect to Splurge

If you find an open room, chances are it will be going for an exorbitant rate. For example, L’Enfant Plaza Hotel—located a short walk from the National Mall—rented rooms for the July 4th holiday last summer for less than $200. These same rooms are going for close to $700 for the inauguration (and you’ll probably have to commit to a minimum stay).

VIP inauguration packages across the city are fetching stratospheric prices: The lovely Park Hyatt Washington’s American Talents package, for example, includes a four-night hotel stay, personal butler service, tickets to a Kennedy Center performance and dinner at the hotel’s exclusive Blue Duck Tavern—for you and for a deserving family that is part of the Mid-Atlantic Make-a-Wish Foundation—all for the price of $70,000.

Stay in a Nearby State

If D.C. hotels are too overpriced for your taste, or prove to be impossible to come by, check out budget hotels in the nearby suburbs of Virginia and Maryland. One of my favorite inexpensive accommodations is the immaculately kept Homestead Studio Suites (tel. 703-707-9700) in Reston, Va., (about 45 minutes by car to the city); each room has a kitchenette, and some come with multiple bedrooms if you are traveling with a family. If all else fails, check; local residents are already offering up guest rooms and even spare couches for rent for those in need of a place to rest their heads.

Destinations: Washington

Themes: Family Travel, Historical Vacations

Activities: Sightseeing

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