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Presidential pampering still available, but hotels not as busy for Obama's 2nd inauguration

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WASHINGTON - Visitors coming to the nation's capital for President Barack Obama's second inauguration can't stay in the one place President Ronald Reagan's family once called an eight-star hotel. That spot is the White House, and it's booked for the next four years.

Still, inauguration-goers have a range of lodging options — from crashing on a friend's couch to reasonably priced rooms to ones that cost thousands of dollars a night.

With second inaugurations tending to draw fewer spectators, finding a place to stay in Washington won't be nearly as difficult as in 2009.

City officials are expecting 600,000 to 800,000 visitors for the Jan. 21 inauguration, far less than the 1.8 million people who flooded the National Mall four years ago to witness the inauguration of America's first black president. Back then, some hotels sold out months in advance and city residents rented out their homes for hundreds of dollars a night. This time, hotels say they're filling up more slowly, with rooms still available and prices at or slightly below where they were four years ago.

"Very few hotels are actually sold out at this point, so there's a lot of availability," said Elliott Ferguson, CEO of the tourism bureau Destination DC, who added that he expected demand to pick up after Christmas.

In 2009, hotel occupancy in the city for the night before the inauguration was 98 per cent, and visitors paid an average daily rate of more than $600 that night, according to STR, a company that tracks hotel data. This time, some hotels still have half their rooms available. As a result, some establishments have relaxed minimum stays from four nights to three and could drop prices closer to the time of the inauguration if demand does not increase.

Despite the muted enthusiasm, many of the city's posh hotels are still offering pricy packages. Visitors with an unlimited budget can check in to accommodations almost as grand and historic as the White House.

At The Willard hotel, about a block from the White House, rooms were still available starting at more than $1,100 a night with a four-night minimum. That's a far cry from the bill paid by President Abraham Lincoln when he checked out after his 1861 inauguration and paid $773.75 for a stay of more than a week.

At the Park Hyatt hotel in northwest Washington, where rooms start at $849 a night with a four-night minimum stay, the presidential suite is still available. For the 57th presidential inauguration next month, the hotel is charging $57,000 for a four-night package in the suite that includes butler service. And no one has yet booked $100,000 packages at the Fairmont hotel or the Ritz-Carlton.

A number of the city's luxury hotels plan special treats for guests, some of whom will be paying two to five times as much to stay during the inauguration compared with staying in the same room a week before. At the Ritz-Carlton, for example, where rooms start at about $1,100 per day, guests will get to bring home commemorative pillowcases embroidered with the official inauguration seal and their initials.

There are options for visitors looking to spend less, too, though some wallet-friendly choices have filled quickly.

Rooms at HI-DC, a hostel in downtown Washington, were sold out the day after the Nov. 6 election, with a bed in a dorm room going for $50 a night and private rooms for $150. With all the rooms sold, the hostel is finalizing plans for an election trivia night for guests.

Aunt Bea's Little White House, a six-room bed and breakfast in northeast Washington, still had two rooms available the week before Christmas, with rates starting at $225 a night. Innkeeper Gerald Duval said that included a bottle of champagne and a commemorative coin. There'll also be red-and-white bunting on the home's porch along with cutouts of the president and first lady.

Farther from downtown, the Best Western Plus hotel in Rockville, Md., was about 80 per cent full with rooms at about $180 a night, down from a $209 starting rate. Director of Sales Ron Wallach said the hotel targeted some groups before the election, including students, journalists and the Secret Service, in order to fill its rooms.

Other travellers looking for budget-friendly prices may have success with websites like Craigslist or Airbnb, where homeowners offer their places for a price. More than 200 Craigslist housing posts in the area included the word "inauguration." Airbnb said it expected approximately 2,000 people to stay in Washington during the inauguration using its site.

Other travellers have told friends and family living in the area to plan on having guests. Lauren Hines and her husband had three people stay at their small Capitol Hill apartment during the 2009 inauguration, so many that one slept in a hallway. She and her husband now live in nearby Alexandria, Va., and planned to host her father-in-law, and maybe her mother-in-law, from Ohio. Hines said they didn't even consider a hotel.

"They know that they've always got a place with us," she said.

___

Follow Jessica Gresko at http://twitter.com/jessicagresko

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