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How to save money on your Washington DC vacation

Washington Arboretum for FREE
Colours of Washington Arboretum (photo courtesy of Maria)

Visit Washington for Less with Maria

This week’s Cities for Less feature comes from  Maria K. Haase, a travel, food and lifestyle writer sharing her love for the world and its different cultures on MariaAbroad.  As a serial expat for the last ten years, she has called three continents her home, traveled to almost 30 countries and eaten too many sticks of mystery meats to count on the way.

She wants to encourage others to discover the world through traveling, trying exotic recipes, books and learning about other cultures. Besides her love for exploring and traveling the world, Maria earns a living as an Online Marketing Consultant, working with Universities and Travel companies to improve their online presence.

Today she is going to take us on a tour of Washington, DC with tons of tips for saving money on your travels. I am heading out to Washington in November to meet up with the Boarding Area gang (eek…so excited!) so this post comes at a perfect time for me to start my planning.

the Capitol Washington DC
the Capitol Washington DC (photo courtesy of Maria)

Washington DC –  the capitol of the United States of America. Most people think of fancy bars and restaurants and five star hotels worthy of statesmen and world leaders so you may be surprised to discover that you can actually get quite a lot for your money in this city. I have visited Washington quite a few times in the past couple of years and discovered some great, fun stuff to do that won’t break the bank.

Getting there

Washington DC has three airports and quite a few budget airlines fly in and out of these. From my experience, BWI in Baltimore although a bit further away, often offers the best flight deals for domestic flights and some great international deals to Europe. Domestic flights to Washington DC usually range from less than $100 (East Coast/MidWest/Central) to $250 (West Coast) one-way.

For cheap flights to Washington from Europe, you can get one-way flights from $100 on a budget airline to $500 round trip on an established airline. If you want to add another city to your trip, you could also fly into New York and take the train or bus down to Washington DC. It only takes about 4.5 hours and costs ~ $20 per person (Anne: blimey that is cheap. Don’t be expecting those kind of fares in the UK peeps – a fare from Sheffield to London which takes just over two hours will likely set you back over £100!)

at the airport for a transatlantic flight
Source: Pixabay

From the Airport to the City

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is the closest airport to the city and very convenient. It is just across the river from Washington DC and you can take an Uber, Taxi or even the Metro to get to your final destination.

From Dulles International Airport by car it is a 45 minute drive, so taxis and Ubers are quite expensive, especially if you are traveling solo, in which case I recommend taking a Shuttle service, which will cost you around $30/per Person one way. Alternatively by public transportation, it will take you around 1.5 hours as you have to take a bus and two metro lines to get to the city, which is quite a hassle with luggage.

If there are 3-4 people, an Uber or Taxi might be cheaper but unless you get a super cheap flight deal to this airport, I would avoid it and try to find a flight to the other two airports.

From Baltimore Airport (BWI) it is over an hour by car to BWI and it is pretty convenient to use the train. To do so, you take the free shuttle from the Airport to the MARC Train Station, where you buy your ticket. It takes about 1 hour to get to Union Station, but it only costs $7 per person and from Union Station you can take the metro anywhere in the city (Anne: now this really is fantastic advice and if you have time to could have a quick tour of an extra city!)

Getting around

Washington DC is a great city to visit by public transportation. I love hopping on and off the Metro and I have to say that even when I used the Metro late at night by myself, I never felt unsafe. Just keep your wits about and make sure you have an eye on your belongings.

Get a SmarTrip Card and depending on how long you stay, you can either load it up with a set amount or buy a 1 day pass ($ 14.50) or 7 day pass ($ 59.25) or a 7 day short trip pass ($ 36). You can benefit from various discounts with your SmarTrip card, such as 35% off a visit to Madame Tussauds and a $15 discount off select Comfort Inn Hotels.

I highly recommend using public transportation as parking is sparse and can cost an arm and a leg. If you are driving in from out of town, consider parking your car at a park and ride and take a shuttle to the city. Many hotels charge $50 (Anne: ouch, are you kidding me??!) and more per day for parking, so this could save you a big chunk of money.

Washington Library of Congress
Visit Washington Library of Congress for free (photo courtesy of Maria)

Accommodation

Accommodation will most likely be your biggest expense besides the cost of getting here, so it makes sense to look for a good deal. I like to save some money on accommodation in Washington DC because I am rarely in the hotel anyway and just need a clean place that is close to public transportation. Here is some advice on how to snatch a good price and still find a decent place to rest after a long day in town.

  1. For cheap hotels in Washington visit DC on the weekend. A lot of hotel chains that usually cater to business travelers have huge discounts on the weekend.
  2. Stay out of DC proper, for example choose Arlington or Crystal City. You’ll be in DC in about 10-15 minutes with the Metro and even an Uber won’t cost you an arm and a leg.
  3. Don’t travel during “patriotic” holidays, as DC is a very popular travel destination during 4th of July, Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day etc.
  4. Compare your prices. I once stayed at a Marriott for less than $25 a night, because I bought a flight and hotel bundle, so it is worth shopping around. Sometimes you can snatch a deal for a flight and stay at one of the luxury hotels for a major discount.
  5. Consider Couchsurfing or AirBnB for cheaper alternatives. You will usually have access to a kitchen and can save some money by cooking some meals at home and you can talk to a local who can give you tips on cheap or free things to do.

Things to do in DC

This is why I would consider DC a budget destination: The major attractions are all FREE. Want to do a tour of the White House or Congress? Free. Want to visit some of the best museums in the world? Free. Want to see the Monuments and Memorials? Free. You can easily fill two weeks in Washington DC and only do free stuff. Here are some ideas for free things to do in Washington DC:

  • Monuments and Memorials
  • Arlington National Cemetery
  • The Supreme Court
  • Washington DC museums:
    • Natural History Museum
    • National Air and Space Museum
    • National Museum of American History
    • National Museum of African American History
    • National Museum of the American Indian
    • National Postal Museum
    • Holocaust Museum
    • National Geographic Museum
Washington monuments and memorials for free
Washington monuments and memorials for free (photo courtesy of Maria)
  • Art Museums and Galleries
    • American Art Museum
    • Renwick Gallery
    • National Portrait Gallery
    • National Museum of African Art
    • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
    • Freer Gallery of Art
    • National Design Museum
    • Arthur M. Saeckler Gallery
    • Phillips Collection
    • National Gallery of Art
National Arboretum, Washington
National Arboretum, Washington (photo courtesy of Maria)
  • Washington Zoo
  • National Arboretum
  • Rock Creek Park
  • Library of Congress
  • National Archives
  • Trip To Georgetown
  • Free tours at Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site

Anne: blimey you are not kidding, that definitely gives London a run for its money in the free attractions arena!

Eating out

The price range for eating out in Washington DC ranges from $ 5-500 per person. Since it is such an international city, you can literally eat your way around the world. Ethnic restaurants in Washington DC tend to be cheaper than American restaurants, so here are some suggestions:

  • Kabob Palace, 1000 N Randolph St, Arlington, VA 22201: Amazing Lamb chops and huge portions ~ $10 – $15/person
  • Indigo, 243 K St NE Washington, DC: Great Indian food near MOMA Metro stop ~ $10 – $15/person
  • Tabard Inn, 1739 N St NW, Washington, DC 20036: Great Brunch Spot near Dupont Circle with addictive donuts ~ $15 – $20/person
  • Food Trucks for lunch: Around the parks and museums, you will find an abundance of food trucks offering plates from $5-$15 for delicious food and usually pretty decent portions.
Russian/Usbeki food in Washington
Russian/Usbeki food in Washington (photo courtesy of Maria)

Washington DC has some serious good eats and if you are a foodie, you’ll be in heaven. While there are some excellent fine dining options, there are also great options to fill your belly with equally delicious and yet affordable options.

Washington DC by Night

Of course you have an abundant choice of fancy night clubs and bars, performing arts and concerts. But there are also plenty of options that are either free or very cheap. Since clubbing isn’t really my kind of thing anyway, I loved doing some of those suggestions:

Visit Washington World War Two Memorial for FREE
Visit Washington World War Two Memorial for FREE (photo courtesy of Maria)
  • Monuments by night – I loved it. They look so majestic and beautiful when they are lit up.
  • Drink a beer at my favorite book shop, Kramer Books. Yup, you read that right, a craft beer bar in a book shop. How cool is that? (Anne: OMG, this is seriously my idea of heaven!)
  • Wolly Mammoth Theatre Company “Pay what you can” performances. They offer donation based performances, usually on Mondays and Thursdays.
  • Free performances at Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage.
  • Author readings and book signings at Politics and Prose. I haven’t done this yet, but hope that it will work out next time.

Musings from Anne

So there you have it, Maria really has done us proud with those incredibly money saving tips.

Pin this for later:

Washington Pinterest
Source: Pinterest

Have your say:

Maybe you also have some awesome tips you would be happy to share. If so, go ahead and pop them in the box below as we would love to hear from you.

Top Travel Hack tips for a Washington visit

  1. Take advantage of free museums
  2. Search for hotels in Washington on Hotels.com to earn one free night in ten
  3. Use ExpertFlyer to search for rewards flights and seat alerts for your preferred flights.
  4. Use the Curve card or Supercard to cut down on international cash card transaction fees.
  5. Book flights using a search engine such as Skypicker to search all airlines quickly.
  6. Book extras such as car parking through the companies offered through Top Cashback so you can use your cashback as holiday spend or convert to air miles.

About Anne

Anne is the founder and editor of TravelTheGlobe4Less. If she isn't travelling, she is thinking of travelling or planning her next trip. She has visited over 80 countries on six continents and sampled everything from backpacking to bank bursting travel. Her mission is to help you enjoy more luxurious travel without the luxury price tag through the use of airline and hotel rewards and other money saving travel tips

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27 comments

  1. The MARC train is basically designed for those commuting to work between Washington and Baltimore. It is not available on weekends. You need to fix your piece as people would have very limited public transit possibilities on weekends–and it would probably take a lot longer than an hour (infrequent bus, infrequent Amtrak trains).

    I live in the DC area and would never advise anyone to use the Baltimore Airport if they are going to DC unless they have a lot of time and the savings are enormous. $100-200 is not enough when you consider the inconvenience–especially for a short stay.

    Staying outside the core monument area is a tactic many use–and then curse. You end up wasting a lo of time commuting on your holiday if you stay outside DC–especially now that the Metro is undergoing major renovations.

  2. Transportation: As someone else mentioned there is an express Metrobus to/from Dulles (IAD) to downtown DC. There is also a Maryland bus to/from BWI and Greenbelt Metro on the Green line, so depending on where you are staying in DC you have two choices train to Union Station or bus to Greenbelt Metro. If driving from suburbs, you can park and ride at various Metro stations.

    Be aware that for the next couple of years the DC Metro system is going through major track work with lines shut down between stations with bus bridges. Information on all Metro options is at http://www.wmata.com. They call the work “safe track” because the system hasn’t been maintained over the years and there have been serious incidents. Rider beware.

    There are also hop on hop off buses that run around the popular tourist sites so is a great alternative to touring the sites.

    Lodging: it is Crystal City not Silver City. Great views of DC just over the river in Virginia. It is adjacent to DCA so very convenient.

  3. Ah, D.C. I grew up near there and ALL of our school trips were there…probably because everywhere is free 😛 Pretty sure the White House is free too if you are an American citizen since you have to request the tickets through your congressman/woman. But there is so much amazing stuff to see and experience in DC. My favorites are the National Arboretum and the Air & Space Museum (both of them!).

  4. One of the best things about Washington D.C. is how affordable it is to visit so many of the incredible sites. Awesome job pointing out some of the best things to experience.

  5. These are great ideas especially since Washington, DC is so expensive. I love how my nation’s capitol has so many things to do for free. I can amuse myself all day in a museum and I would love to go back one day. My dad took us there when we were kids, so I’d love to visit Washington, DC with these budget saving tips!

  6. I’m planning a trip to the US soon and have had Washington DC on my mind for awhile. The museums are fantastic and well worth spending a whole week. Do you have a favourite museum?

  7. A great list to have handy when visiting DC. Certainly would need it if I ever go there. So I pinned it for later! Thanks for sharing.

  8. Really great tips! Those food places look delicious. I have another one to add. From NYC, sometimes there are MEga Busses from $1 if you buy the bus ticket at the right time!

    • I love the mega bus although I have never been able to get one of those £1 seats they advertise. Definitely a great, budget way to travel though.

  9. Everything is neighborhood based for the various happy hour and restaurant questions. No offense to the close in suburbs but they are chock full of mediocre chain restaurants. You mention a locally well known choice of Kabob Palace, of which there are TWO that stand fifty feet apart with the same name. The one with the long line and checkered banner/awning is the one you want!

    We have a ton of great independent restaurants with all sorts of cuisine. U St has a collection of historic and awesome jazz clubs. U St and Adams Morgan have plenty of spots to get sloppy drunk at…. And much more!

    Happy to help any readers with restaurant, entertainment and bar suggestions as I work downtown and live at Cleveland Park metro. Also am a soccer player and cyclist if you’re looking for a workout during the visit! Feel free to reach out!

    Schoeffphototravel at gmail

  10. Great list of DC attractions, there are so many museums you need weeks to really see them all! Driving is bad, and parking is worse – you are totally right the metro is the best way to get around DC!

  11. Thanks for these great tips! We loved our time in Washington, DC – so many free attractions and museums, it’s a great city to be in on a budget 🙂 We walked everywhere and didn’t feel the need for taxis or public transport 🙂

  12. I was in DC for Memorial Day weekend a few years ago, and it wasn’t crowded or expensive at all. All 11 universities in the district have let out, Congress is in recess, and most American kids are still in school.

  13. It’s been over 12 years since I last visited DC and I am having the urge to visit again. I agree that public transportation there is the best way to go. I don’t remember using the SmarTrip Card, so I’ll have to use that the next time I go 🙂

  14. The cost of Uber/Lyft to downtown DC is $33 from Dulles, from BWI it is about $42. Both are about 45 minutes where as National is 10 min.

    • Thanks for that update Paul. GOod to know.

    • Yes I have to agree with other comments that IAD is not as bad as you make it out to be. In addition to Paul’s tip, it only takes one metro line not two to get into the city if you choose to take metro. (Bus to Reston then silver line metro into city). Of course you can take the bus in as well as someone else mentioned or an uber which is cheaper and more likely faster then BWI.

      Also I think you meant to say Silver Spring not Silver City for places to stay right outside of DC.

  15. These are some really great tips! I always thought of DC as a cheap place to visit as there are so many free attractions but then I can see how accommodation can add up (when I visited I stayed with friends). These are some great alternative accommodation options.

  16. 1. Capital Bikeshare is an amazing way to see DC and get around. A 24-hour membership is $8 and includes rides of 30-minutes of less.
    2. IAD (Dulles Airport) is much easier to travel to than your post makes it out to be. The Metrobus 5A is a great option. It’s $5 per person and takes 55 minutes from IAD to L’Enfant Plaza. It’s an express and great ride. MUCH better than taking the Washington Flyer Service. Here is the schedule http://www.wmata.com/bus/timetables/dc/05a.pdf?n
    3. Tons of great happy hour spots.
    4. Totally agree that hotels are much cheaper on the weekend. Another option for a cheaper experience is to stay over the weekend in Tysons Corner or elsewhere in VA. Most hotels in the burbs waive parking on the weekend and Tysons is walking distance to the Metro.

    • HI there, thanks for stopping by and what fantastic tips. I love cycling round cities so an $8 pass sounds great. I’d love to know your favourite happy hours spots too as I really struggled to find the nightlife areas when I was in town. I know! Shocking right?

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