How To Get a Free Tour Inside the White House
Washington DC is full of iconic monuments, memorials, museums, and buildings. I strongly encourage every American family to try and visit, at least once. Of course the White House is one of the most iconic buildings in the nation, but most just view it from the street behind the gates on Pennsylvania Avenue. That's a decent view, but did you know you can go inside the White House?
Public self-guided tours of the White House are available, but you have to plan ahead in take advantage. My family just took advantage of this opportunity, and I'm happy to share a few details about the tour and how you can get free tickets yourself.
How to Request Tickets to Tour the White House:
Requests for the tour must be submitted through your Member of Congress or embassy (for foreign visitors) three weeks to six months in advance of the desired tour date. My understanding is that it is a first come, first served situation, so I would submit the request six months in advance with the date range that would work for your family. We contacted our representative in January for our July trip, but did not know the exact time of our White House tour until about a week before our trip. Of course there is no guarantee you will get tickets, but the earlier the better.
Each Member of Congress has established his or her own procedures by which to accept tour reservation requests, so you need to contact their offices directly to learn what their process is. You will have to submit identifying info so they can run background checks - you are going inside the White House after all. If you aren't sure about how to contact the reps or senators for your area then visit house.gov or senate.gov to find your members' websites.
Tour Operation Dates:
The self-guided tours are generally available from 7:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. Fridays, and 7:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Saturdays (excluding federal holidays). Hours and availability are always subject to change - you can call a 24-hour line at 202-456-7041 for the most current tour information.
Rooms in the White House You See:
Okay, now that you know how to get tickets to the White House, here is how it goes once you get inside. After lining up 15 minutes before our scheduled tour, showing our IDs (drivers license or passport for US citizens 18+), and going through several ID checks, both a metal detector and a dog sniff station, we were in. The first hallway we walked down was honestly a little disappointing as there are rooms such as the China Room and Library, but you can't go in as they are roped off with a velvet rope and you can just stare in from the hallway.
There was a popular display in the first hallway about Presidential pets that my kid loved...naturally followed by a gift stand where Grandma bought her a stuffed "Millie" (Bush's dog). Yup, there is a toy gift stand inside the White House. While it was cool to be in the White House, the first few rooms were not overly impressive because it still didn't feel like you were in the real White House. However, once you go up the stairs it gets better. You get to walk through the East Room, the State Dining Room, the Blue Room, the Red Room and the Green Room. There are ropes that keep you from being able to sit on the furniture or touch the decor, but you are in the rooms, and that is pretty cool.
I think my favorite part of the tour was actually looking out of the windows of the White House and onto the lawn, as that is what made me realize we were actually in the White House. Seeing the hallway with the partially rolled out red carpet that serves as the backdrop for lots of conferences on TV was also pretty cool. Viewing the oil paintings of various Presidents and First Ladies in person was also enjoyable - especially seeing things like the stark contrast of the bright and sunny painting of Ronald Reagan hanging across the hall from the dark and subdued painting of John F. Kennedy. You aren't seeing these paintings in a book - you are seeing them with your own eyes!
There are Secret Service agents in every room, but they aren't just there for security, they are also able to share some information and history about the rooms they are in if you ask. Some are better at this than others, but most seemed to be more than willing to offer some commentary that brought the rooms to life. However, if you don't ask, they generally don't say anything.
Young kids like my four year old are not the target demographic for this tour, though hopefully she will be able to look back and appreciate the opportunity one day. I would think that kids who have studied the White House and government some in elementary or middle school would be the perfect age for a visit. In fact, get me to tell you the story some time about how my kid ended up in time-out in the corner of the East Room and Secret Service checked on her she was so fussy (ie tired). Oh boy.
You can't bring cameras or anything else into the White House, so no photos, but you can have a camera phone and use it right after you exit the front steps of the White House for some patriotic selfies and other fun shots.
Be sure to try and get tickets to the White House tour if you have a trip to DC in your future as it really was a special experience, even with my tired kid who can now add "was in time out in the White House" to her travel resume.
Stay tuned for more fun tips for families visiting DC, and happy July 4th. We are thrilled to have the ability to use miles, points, and travel deals to celebrate the nation's birthday in its capital.