WASHINGTON — Unable to find affordable transportation to and lodging in the nation's capital for President-elect Barack Obama's Jan. 20 inauguration, one group of Obama supporters came up with a unique way to get travel and stay in style: a ship.
Calling it the "Yes We Can 2009 Inauguration Cruise," the group has rented a 500-room cruise ship and plans to charge $1,000 a person to sail from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Baltimore, then take charter buses to Washington for the inaugural festivities.
"I had been volunteering for Senator Obama since Iowa, so there was no doubt in my mind that I would be there on Inauguration Day," said Karen M. Phillips, an Obama campaign volunteer who helped organize the cruise. "No, looking at it on television would not be good enough. It became a personal mission of mine to put something together that was economically reasonable and entertaining."
The cruise highlights the crunch on transportation and housing for the event, with airline and bus seats filling up as fast as the limited number of hotel rooms in the Washington area.
Inauguration and tourism officials estimate that between 2 million and 4 million people are coming to Washington. Almost all of the 90,000 hotel rooms in the region are reserved already. Rooms that are still available command prices from $400 a night, with three- or four-night minimums.
Several airlines have increased service into Washington to accommodate inauguration attendees — JetBlue has even added a special nonstop flight from Chicago to Dulles International Airport — but those tickets are also selling fast.
"We're looking good," said Olga Romero, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, which added 26 flights to its regular service into Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, which is about 35 miles from the Capitol.
Amtrak is bracing for a holiday-type crush of passengers aboard its trains heading into Washington. The federally subsidized rail service is poised to be one of the biggest transportation beneficiaries of the inauguration — and beyond, as Vice President-elect Joe Biden is a longtime rider and supporter.
Reservations for Jan. 16-23 are up from last year anywhere from 73 percent (1,946 reservations) on the Crescent route between New York and New Orleans, with a stop at Washington's Union Station, to 315 percent (24,866 reservations) for the Northeast Regional service between Boston and Washington.
Reservations for the Acela Express, Amtrak's faster, more expensive trains between Boston and Washington, are up by 6,188 passengers, or a 161 percent increase from a year ago. Sleeping accommodations on the Capitol Limited, a Chicago-Washington train, are all booked for Jan. 18 and 19, said Tracy Connell, an Amtrak spokeswoman.
Bus companies are also bracing for a boost in business. BoltBus, a discount carrier with service between New York and Washington, has been sold out for weeks and is looking to add more buses, according to spokeswoman Abby Wambaugh.
Megabus, another New York-D.C. low-cost carrier, has sold 2,133 tickets so far and is leasing additional vehicles to add to its fleet for Inauguration Day.
"On Inauguration Day, we will be winging it," said Bryony Chamberlain, director of operations for Coach USA, which operates Megabus. "Passengers will get there, but it will take longer."
Charter buses are also doing hefty business. Washington area transportation officials calculated that about half of the charter buses available within a 1,000-mile radius of Washington — about 10,000 buses — will be shuttling inauguration attendees, which raises the question of where they'll park.
"There is difficulty in Washington, they're still organizing," said Megabus's Chamberlain, adding that she still hasn't been told where her company will be allowed to drop off and pick up passengers on Inauguration Day. "We know there's going to be a lot of demand and that we'll need a lot of buses."
Phillips and her seafaring group aren't worried about ground logistics. After soaking up the historical moment of Obama's swearing-in and sampling the evening inaugural balls, they'll sail from Baltimore for the Bahamas to soak up some sun.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2008