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Your Washington DC Area Guide

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Maybe you've been able to avoid the assignment for several years, or have been dying to move to the area, but now the orders are official! If you are depending on a typical duty station experience, you may be disappointed. Most agree the National Capital Region is unlike any duty station you've had in the past.

Get ready to enjoy this unique experience full of history, politics, inside the beltway traditions and patriotism like you've never seen before! After you read the rundown of the Nation's Capital below, head to PCSgrades.com for neighborhood reviews with photos and maps to help you pick the perfect part of town for you.

WHERE IS THE PENTAGON?

While you may hear people say they are PCSing to Washington D.C. for an assignment at the Pentagon, this unique building is actually located across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia. You've seen large bases and posts but when you park at the Pentagon, it gets tricky remembering your parking space among the 67 acres of parking lots, which accommodate over 8,700 vehicles.

The Pentagon itself is indeed impressive. This concrete structure featuring seven floors, two below ground and five above, is the largest office building in the world, covering 34 acres. It is double the size of the Empire State Building. Nearly 30,000 military and civilian employees share 691 water fountains and 284 bathrooms. There are no elevators in the Pentagon. Ramps accommodate those moving from floor to floor. Pentagon tours are offered which are always a hit with out of town guests.


HOUSING

There are many options for housing in the National Capital Region. Although, depending on where you are coming from, there may be sticker shock as the DC suburbs feature seven of the country's 10 richest counties. There is no on-base housing at the Pentagon. However, there are several nearby military installations that offer housing options. These include:

Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling in Southeast Washington, D.C.
Joint Base Andrews in Prince George's County Maryland
Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia
Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, Virginia

Housing takes many forms in the National Capital Region. Single family homes, townhouses, condos and apartments can be found in both urban and rural settings a short distance from downtown.

NOVA (NORTHERN VIRGINIA)

  • Arlington and the city of Alexandria, Virginia are inside the beltway.
  • Fairfax County, Virginia (Falls Church, Reston, Tysons Corner, McLean, Great Falls, Fairfax, Fairfax Station, Lorton, Oakton, Springfield, Burke, Annandale, Chantilly, Centreville and Clifton) is the largest county in the Washington, D.C. area. It falls inside and outside the beltway and is home to George Mason University.
  • Loudoun County, Virginia includes Sterling, Ashburn, Potomac Falls, Countryside, Middleburg, South Riding, Hamilton and Dulles International Airport.
  • Prince William County, Virginia includes Woodbridge, Dumfries, Haymarket, Occoquan, Lake Ridge, Manassas and Manassas City.

MARYLAND

  • Montgomery County, Maryland includes Bethesda, Rockville, Silver Spring and Wheaton
  • Prince George's County is home to the University of Maryland, government agencies like NASA and the Department of Agriculture, as well as the Washington Redskins Bowie, Brentwood, Capitol Heights and Cheverly College Park.

Prices vary widely depending on the state and county you choose to live in. If you work with a PCSgrades reviewed realtor,you'll find there is a rental or mortgage to fit every BAH.

WASHINGTON D.C. WEATHER

There are four distinct seasons in Washington D.C. and the surrounding areas. Winters are relatively mild with an average snow fall of 15.4 inches, three quarters of it falling in January and February. Springtime is preferred as tourists travel from around the world to see the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin. These delicate flowering trees only bloom for a couple weeks out of the year. Summers can be as steamy as the politics with temperatures rising above 100 on some days in July and August. The mild temps tend to stick around in September and October. But by Halloween the fall foliage is in its full splendor with the vivid colors of autumn.

BAH WASHINGTON DC

Your BAH may not stretch as far living in the DMV, (the District, Maryland or Virginia). Depending on where you are PCSing from, you might have sticker shock when house hunting in the D.C. area. You will generally pay more for a home in the District of Columbia than in the suburbs of Maryland or northern Virginia, but they have lower property taxes.

In Prince George's County, MD the median price for a single family home rose 9.6 percent over the last year to $312,345. The average sales price in Fairfax County is $560,919; this is up 2.17 % from January of 2017. The housing market in both states is currently hugely competitive, and it's common for sellers to receive multiple bids.

To read the latest on the NOVA Housing Market, click here.

The good news is NOVA receives high marks for "its above-state-average school scores and a very low crime rate compared to the national average."

CULTURE AND CUSTOMS

There is, perhaps, no more a diverse duty station than Washington D.C. and the surrounding areas, providing for many unique experiences. From mid-September until Thanksgiving, and again from about mid-January to June, Congress is in session which means the hotels are full of guests and the restaurants and bars are enjoying a booming business. From mid-March through June, families and school groups pack the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms and enjoy Washington's monuments. This is also high season for protest marches.

PASSPORT DC

May features a month-long celebration called Passport DC, which showcases more than 70 embassies and cultural organizations with tours and open houses. A summer highlight is the annual Fourth of July festivities. There is an Independence Day Parade along Constitution Avenue from 7th to 17th Streets NW and a Capitol Fourth Concert featuring world renowned musicians and vocalists at the U.S. Capitol west lawn. And of course, fireworks over the monuments are always memorable!

Speaking of monuments, almost every out of town visitor that you host during your time in D.C. will want to see "the monuments," and with good reason. From seeing all the names on the Vietnam Memorial wall, to climbing the massive steps to the Lincoln Memorial, to visiting the National 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon, it never gets old.

THE COMMUTE

You think you have experienced traffic woes at other duty stations but the traffic in and around D.C. is near the worst in the nation according to most traffic studies. A typical NOVA commuter spends an additional 82 hours behind the wheel annually due to traffic delays, which is why many commuters use public transportation.

METRORAIL & METROBUS

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority operates the second largest rail transit system and the fifth largest bus network in the U. S. The system serves the District of Columbia, the Northern Virginia counties of Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun and the suburban Maryland counties of Montgomery and Prince George's.

CARPOOLS & VANPOOLS

Carpooling and vanpooling are also great options, especially for those commuting longer distances. These commuting options offer excellent cost savings and can cut commuting time through the use of HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes.

ONLY IN DC!

A unique form of commuting referred to as 'slugging', is very popular for those heading downtown or to the Pentagon each day. Drivers needing additional passengers to meet the required three-person HOV minimum, stop to pick up passengers as they stand in a 'slug line'. The driver displays a sign featuring the destination or calls out the destination through an open window. No money is exchanged as all parties benefit from the arrangement. It's been referred to as the "safe way to hitchhike" and has its own set of etiquette rules.

LOCAL CUISINE

With an international flavor and the fact that many people living in and around D.C. are originally from somewhere else, the cuisine is eclectic to say the least. In the mood for Salvadoran food? It's here! Want to try Ethiopian cuisine? We got it! How about Indonesian? Yep! Regional specialties include: blue crabs from Maryland and peanuts and country ham from Virginia. There is no need to dine at the same place twice with so much variety available in the D-M-V!

AREA ATTRACTIONS

Despite being a major urban area, it is not a concrete jungle. There are many outdoor areas to enjoy, including:

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park
This park dates back to the 18th century. The canal and towpath trail extends from Georgetown, Washington D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland – a distance of 184.5 miles. You will find outdoor recreation, picnicking, bicycling, fishing, boating and hiking at this great location.

Georgetown Waterfront Park
This park sits along the Potomac River and visitors can enjoy picnicking, bicycling and skating.

Rock Creek Park
Extending 12 miles from the Potomac River to the border of Maryland, the National Zoo is also located within Rock Creek Park. There is lots to do including: picnicking, hiking, biking, rollerblading, tennis, fishing, and horseback riding.

Great Falls National Park
With 800 acres along the banks of the Potomac River in northern Fairfax County, this park offers whitewater kayaking and canoeing. There are also fifteen miles of scenic hiking trails, five of which are multi-use for horseback riding, hiking and biking. Additionally, you can experience rock climbing on the cliffs in Mather Gorge above the Potomac. The falls total 76 feet over a series of major cascades.

Mason Neck State Park
Located in southern Fairfax County, about 20 miles from Washington D.C., visitors to this park can enjoy hiking trails, a large picnic area, a playground, a car-top canoe launch, bicycle rentals and bird watching.

DAY TRIPS

Annapolis, Maryland
Just 32 miles away, it will take you about an hour to drive here where you can enjoy this gorgeous town with quaint restaurants and the Naval Academy!

Shenandoah National Park & Luray Caverns, Virginia
Another three hour drive at about 120 miles away, the park is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, west of Washington, D.C. Skyline Drive is the only public road running through the Shenandoah National Park. Nearby Luray Caverns is the largest series of caverns in the east. This eerie underground world of stalactites and stalagmites is worth a day trip from NOVA.

St. Michael's, Maryland
Only 79 miles away, you can make this trip in about 1.5 hours. Maryland's Eastern Shore features crabs and scenic water views like no other!

Richmond, Virginia
The 108 mile, two-hour drive to the Virginia State Capital is a nice day-trip if you are in the mood for a thriving restaurant scene and craft beer breweries

Lewes/Rehoboth Beach, Delaware
And finally, 121 miles and just 2.5 hours away by car, makes for a relaxing weekend. What can we say? It's the beach! Bring your sunscreen, flip flops and your bathing suit and enjoy!

This post sponsored by PCSgrades.

Stephanie Wade/U.S. Transportation Command

In military life, there is really nothing more stressful than a Permanent Change of Station (PCS). Deployments are a close second, but a PCS takes the cake. Combine a PCS with a deployment and not only do you want to eat all of the proverbial cake, you want to guzzle copious amounts of wine, too. We see you. Cheers.

One company, PCSgrades, is trying to make the PCS process feel more like a three-letter acronym than a four-letter expletive. Founded by veteran Todd Ernst, PCSgrades is the epitome of the military community taking care of its own. "PCSing has an emotional connotation," said Ernst. "We use it as an adverb, adjective, a noun and even as a cuss word."

Ernst started PCSgrades in 2015 after seeing friends struggle with unethical real estate agents and being taken advantage of by moving companies who knew DoD would be a paying customer no matter how poorly the companies treated their clients - us.

Here are 4 resources PCSgrades provides that you need to make moving easier:

1. Housing reviews

Does it get any more stressful than finding out where you're going to be stationed, Googling base housing at that station and getting results from 15 years ago (if you find anything, at all)? Nope, no it doesn't.

PCSgrades is changing the game on that by having military families who live in an area provide honest, candid reviews of their housing so incoming families can benefit. With reviews of both on and off base locations, families can finally get the truth about housing, whether it has black mold or the best views in town.

2. Moving company reviews

Great, you've figured out where to live; that's half the battle. The other, larger, more complex half? Figuring out how your stuff is going to get there. Knowing someone else will be handling your personal property and driving away with it for the foreseeable future is stressful enough. But not knowing what that company's background is, well that's a whole different ball game.

PCSgrades has countless reviews of moving companies provided by military families who have used them. Let's be honest: You wouldn't try a new Chinese delivery place without looking at reviews … why should picking a moving company be any different?

3. Area guides

The giant Google machine can only get you so far in life when you're researching your new duty station. We know you're busy and you want one-stop shopping on the interwebs. What you really need is aggregate data of things like schools to attend, restaurants to try, day trips to take and neighborhoods to avoid.

Introducing Area Guides, which offer exactly that: a holistic view of where you're moving and what to do once you get there. The best part? These are written by military families who have done it, for military families who are doing it.

4. Network of realtors and resources

PCSgrades has a nationwide network of A-graded realtors who know and understand the military and veteran lifestyle. Many of the realtors are veterans or spouses themselves, which takes the empathy to a whole new level. Having a realtor who gets the pressures of PCSing and the challenges of a military move is key to finding the right home for your family.

"I have friends who are hundreds of thousands of dollars upside down after bad home choices," Ernst said. "Housing choices can be pretty limited. Our moves are way more expensive than the typical civilian move." This is why Ernst created a way to alleviate the pain points for military families through PCSgrades.

In addition to a network of realtors, PCSgrades partners with "HomeScout," which allows you to search up-to-date home listings nationwide. Simply create an account with PCSgrades and the realty world is your oyster.

Whether you're looking for a new neighborhood, trying to find a vetted realtor, need a PCS checklist (let's be honest, is it on your radar to look at the expiration date of your military ID card two months before you PCS? Yeah, we know the truth; download the checklists here), or you're just wanting to know more about where you're heading, PCSgrades is making moving easier for every military family. Pay it forward by leaving reviews and be sure to take advantage of their excellent resources, today.

This post sponsored by PCSgrades.

7 airplane travel hacks with kids

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Yeah! You got orders to (insert foreign country overseas)! You can already picture your kids in the international school, speaking with cute little accents and wearing local garments. Adorbs. You've got your housing picked out, adventures planned and passport photos taken. You're ready for your epic move ... except for that 13 hour plane ride. Have you wrapped your head around that yet? Before you grab for a paper bag and start hyperventilating, use our travel hacks to help make the emotional turbulence you're experiencing a little lighter.

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We've all said it: "We'll drive. It won't be that bad." We picture the adventure, the memories, the nostalgia of car trips when we were younger.

But if we're really being honest with ourselves, think back to those car trips. Someone was crying. Someone was puking. Someone was whining. That person very well may have been your poor mother. True story, my mom once got out and walked along the highway when all six of us kids wouldn't stop fighting. A long car trip can be daunting, but with our tips and tricks they don't need to be.

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Nordwood theme, Unsplash

WE ALL HAVE OUR SHARE OF HORROR STORIES WHEN IT COMES TO MILITARY MOVING!

Name the most disgusting item erroneously packed by your movers… for me it was used coffee grounds and of course, trash. For others, I've heard everything from wet towels to dirty diapers. I've caught movers raiding my fridge, lounging on my mattress in my front yard, and throwing out items that they've broken. Raise your hand (or have a drink) if you ever had packers show up late (or not at all). Ever had packers get into a shouting match among themselves as they were packing your china? Or have you caught your movers throwing boxes down the stairs to the basement? That would be me!

LESSONS LEARNED

With each military move, there are "lessons learned". For instance, I won't go into great detail but let's just say after watching one packer go directly from using the restroom back to packing my kitchen without washing his hands, we now use gigantic ziplock bags to "pre-pack" all my kitchen utensils. A packers' bare flesh has never again touched one of my kitchen utensils.

My family's last military move was by far the shortest, only 1½ miles up the road. We were moving from a rental to a home we purchased. It was by far the worst in terms of damage and overall angst. I think because we were only "moving up the road" the pack job left a lot to be desired. I found one box of dishes which had not one piece of wrapping paper! Instead two throw pillows from my family room were used as a buffer! Amazingly, nothing was broken! Go figure!

When I heard glass shatter in the moving truck, I asked one of the guys what shattered.

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There are any number of reasons why in a given situation renting might be better than buying or vice versa. For military families, it might make more sense to buy at one duty station and then rent at the next. Up for consideration with each PCS is whether to buy or rent, to stay on-base or off. In making these decisions, there are numerous pros and cons to consider.

PROS TO BUYING

  • Purchasing the right home can be a great financial investment that can grow in value over time.
  • Tax deductions such as mortgage interest and property taxes can greatly reduce your overall income tax burden if you itemize.
  • Being a homeowner can give you pride of ownership and a sense of stability, rare in the military life which can seem nomadic at times.
  • A mortgage payment that is lower than your BAH can result in a boost to your savings.
  • You can decorate however you want! Goodbye white walls! Hello, Color!
  • Anyone can stay with you at any time. So it is not a problem when your Mom or sister comes for an extended stay during a deployment or following a PCS.
  • You can do (almost) whatever you want….host a late night party, plant a garden, knock a wall down!
  • There are no security or pet deposits when you buy a home.
  • You have the opportunity to become a landlord when military orders arrive and you have to move. Your home can become an investment property, providing a source of income which can partially or totally offset your mortgage, taxes, and insurance payments.
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