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Washington, DC on a Budget

Updated on December 7, 2014

The White House

White House from the Pennsylvania Avenue side.
White House from the Pennsylvania Avenue side. | Source

Whether you are already planning a DC vacation and want to save money or wonder if you can afford to visit our nation's capital, you've come to the right place. I first moved to DC almost 20 years ago and it took many of those years to figure out how to navigate the city and get the most out of the DC experience on a limited budget. The good news is:

1) You don't need years to plan, all the information you need you will find here (please let me know if you couldn't find information here and I will consider adding it!)

2) Other than transportation and lodging, much of what Washington, DC has to offer is FREE!

3) I do not work for a hotel, museum, airline or other business where you might spend your money. While I do provide links to websites I am not being paid by those businesses or organizations so no need to worry that I am "directing" you with anything other than the best of intentions. Most of the links provided are to sites I have used personally, others come highly recommended.

I won't spend a lot of my time or yours on things that you can find on hundreds of other websites. If you have any questions about budget travelling to DC please let me know in the comments and I will do my best to answer as quickly as possible!

Washington Monument, DC

Washington Monument through the trees on the southwest side of the National Mall - late summer.
Washington Monument through the trees on the southwest side of the National Mall - late summer. | Source

Best Low-Budget Times to Visit DC

If like me you don't have an unlimited expense account or access to a trust fund, you should avoid visiting Washington, DC in spring and between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. These are the peak tourist times and travel and hotel rates can be double or triple what they are during off-peak. You won't get to see the cherry blossoms or a session of Congress but with the money you save you could buy your own trees (and maybe a Congressperson).

Off-Peak #1: Thanksgiving through February: DC residents were outraged at having to shovel snow three times in the winter of 2013-2014. If you scoff at us, winter may be the best time for your DC vacation. The downside is that you may have to pack additional clothing. DC winters are generally mild, but we do get the occasional ice or snowstorm.

Off-Peak#2: July and August: If you prefer the heat, July and August are also great months to find deals on travel and hotels. You won't have to pack nearly as much but should plan on drinking a lot of water as DC is hot and humid in the summer months. If you are interested primarily in the museums they have great air-conditioning!

Union Station, Washington, DC

Union Station in Washington, DC. near the main entrance.
Union Station in Washington, DC. near the main entrance. | Source

Getting to Washington, DC

Flying: While it can be the most expensive way to travel to DC, planning your trip during off-peak tourist dates and well in advance can cut down on your costs. There are several travel sites that you can use to find fares, including sites that allow you to compare prices from multiple sites without having to go to each individual page.

Train: Purchase your tickets well ahead of time to maximize your savings, failing to do so could result in prices as high as taking a flight. There advantages to taking an Amtrak or MARC train into DC, trains offer more seat and leg space and it is much easier to walk around to avoid the claustrophobic feeling some people get on airplanes. Many trains are also equipped with internet service, this gives you and/or your family more time to finalize the plans for your visit. Best of all, your trip will end at Union Station. Union Station is a marvel in its own, and is also only a few blocks from the Capitol Building.

Bus: Most people shy away from buses but you're here because you're looking to save some money and a bus trip is what you make of it. This won't be the best option if you are more than a day trip away, unless you can consider the journey as much fun as the destination. In some cases the major bus lines can be more expensive than flying. A search on a major bus line on Aug. 23, 2014 for a trip in December resulted in a round-trip fare from Chicago that was $100 more than a round-trip flight. However, there are some incredibly cheap options out there if you are travelling along the East Coast. Boltbus, Bestbus, and Megabus all offer fares ranging from $13 - $30 each way depending on your city of origin.

Car: Most people will advise you not to drive to DC as parking here is difficult to find and/or very expensive. However, since you are travelling on a budget you likely will not be staying in a hotel in the city center. Once you are here you can park your car and use public transportation to get to all the major sites in DC. Most travel websites allow you to choose amenities such as parking as part of your search. Please call the hotels you are considering to inquire about any parking rates. You should then use the trip planner function on the home page of the DC transit site WMATA to be sure you can then use public transportation to get into the city.

Lodging in Washington, DC

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Where to stay in DC on a budget

Hotels - There are hundreds of hotels that are either in Washington, DC or in areas of MD and VA that are easily accessible. Choosing the right hotel is a matter of your needs, your budget, and how far you are willing to travel to get into Washington, DC once you arrive. A chain hotel that costs $200 per night in DC may be as much as $100 cheaper outside the city. Hotels that are not near Metrorail stations are even cheaper, and price decline as you leave the city. My suggestion is to use one of the popular travel sites mentioned above and first find a hotel that fits your needs. If you are travelling on a budget this hotel may well be outside the city, but that's no problem. Visit the WMATA website and plan your trip into the city. If you do not get a planned itinerary from WMATA don't give up yet! You should also visit the websites of other bus lines that run outside of the WMATA system but will still get you into the city for the same price. You can find those bus lines and links to their homepages at Using the Bus in Washington, DC.

Hostels in Washington, DC - I have not personally stayed in a hostel, and tales I have heard from others range from the worst to the best of experiences. If you are willing to stay at a hostel it is certainly one of the cheapest forms of housing for travellers to Washington, DC. There are several hostels in Washington, DC, more information can be found at Hostel World, Hostelling International USA, and Hostel Bookers.

Alternative Housing for the Traveller in Washington, DC - Like most major cities, timeshares are available in Washington, DC. If you choose to look for a timeshare, please do so well ahead of time to ensure availability and the best price. During off-peak seasons, timeshares are available at prices similar to hotels. Many people in DC travel for work and offer their homes/apartments for rent during their absence. You can find listings for temporary housing in DC on Craigslist, but please exercise caution when dealing with someone you do not know personally. Another option is sharing space with a DC resident who is willing to open their home to visitors. A popular site for finding this type of arrangement is Airbnb, where you may find particularly good deals during the off-season.

Three Servicemen Staue

The Three Servicemen Statue is located near the entrance to the Vietnam War Memorial.
The Three Servicemen Statue is located near the entrance to the Vietnam War Memorial. | Source

Getting Around Washington, DC

Get a SmarTrip Card! - You can purchase Smartrip cards at Metro stations or at certain retailers such as CVS and Giant. You can find a retailer that sells SmarTrip cards near your hotel here. The card costs $2, you can then add as much value to the card as you wish. Once you have a card it is very easy to add value either at a Metro station or on the bus so you want to be careful not to add too much value when you first purchase the card. You will save a significant amount of money by using a SmarTrip card rather than cash, and it opens up free and discounted transfers between trains and buses.

Metro Rail - Most visitors to Washington, DC use Metro to get around the city. The city's train lines cover most of Washington, DC as well as suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. You can get maps of the system as well as plan trips on the WMATA (Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority) website. Metro opens at 5am on weekdays and 7am on weekends. Sunday through Thursday Metro closes at 12am, it runs until 2am on Friday and Saturday. For special occasions the Metro will sometimes provide later service. Please be aware of any escalator replacement, track work, etc. as these can add hours to what would otherwise be a short trip. I recommend signing up for Metro Alerts on the WMATA website so that you can check for delays/closings during your visit.

Travelling by Metro can be expensive, especially during rush hour. While off-peak fares are reasonable, the cost of a trip does vary according to distance. A trip in from the suburbs during rush hour could cost you $4-$5 per person.

Bus - It took me many years to figure out the very best way around Washington, DC is by bus. Once you have a SmarTrip card, bus fare is only $1.75 each way, and there are free transfers for two hours for a continuous trip. I am always shocked at how much money people pay to get on one of the many tours of DC. Take the bus! The biggest advantage over Metro Rail other than the cost savings is that you can see everything. I have found many cool things in DC after seeing them out a bus window and getting off to explore. I am so excited to tell you about the bus I created a separate page with detailed information here.

View from the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial

From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial you can see across the entire Mall.
From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial you can see across the entire Mall. | Source

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Free Things to do in Washington, DC

Monuments on the National Mall - While the National Mall does not cover a huge amount of space, there is a ton to see and do there. If you are planning museum trips you will be closer to most museums if you start at the end of the Mall closest to the Capitol Building. If you are planning a monument tour, you will want to start at the end closest to the Lincoln Memorial. The National Park Service operates the National Mall, you can view a map here.

The Tidal Basin - Even if you aren't visiting when the cherry trees are blooming, the Tidal Basin is beautiful. The Martin Luther King Jr., FDR, and Jefferson Memorials are located on the Tidal Basin. If you cross the street behind the Jefferson Memorial you will come across one of the least known memorials in DC, that of George Mason. With beautiful concentric gardens, it is a nice place to take a rest and maybe eat that lunch you brought along with you to save money. So few people are aware it is there it is a very quiet place to take a break.

Museums - Some of the best museums in the world are in Washington, DC and most of them are free to visit. You could spend an entire vacation in Washington, DC and never finish getting through the various museums of The Smithsonian Institution. For a list of museums and links to operating hours, exhibits, etc. please go here.

National Zoo - The Smithsonian also runs the National Zoo, which is on the other side of town from the museums but easily accessible by bus or train. The zoo is also free to visit but word to the wise, eat before you go! There are several restaurants near the zoo and you will save a bundle by feeding yourself and/or your family before going to the zoo.

Rock Creek Park - Rock Creek Park is in the Northwest quadrant of DC and with 2,100 acres and plenty of historical sites, entertainment options and natural settings it is a great place to wind down. The National Zoo is in Rock Creek Park so if you are planning a zoo visit you are already there. You can find more information on hiking trails, historical sites, etc. here.

Free Shows at the Kennedy Center - One of the best free things to do in DC, and many people who live here don't even know about it! Every night at 6pm the Kennedy Center has a free show on their Millennium Stage. I have seen the National Symphony Orchestra, national and international musicians and musical groups, plays, the list goes on and on. All for free! It is a short walk to the Kennedy Center from the Foggy Bottom metro station, or you can take the free Kennedy Center shuttle that picks up there every 15 minutes. The 80 bus line also stops right in front of the Center. The 80 bus passes through downtown DC so there are several convenient places to pick it up. There are other bus lines that will get you a few blocks from the Kennedy Center if you are coming from a different direction, you can find a way to get there using WMATA's trip planner. While you are there you will also see the infamous Watergate Hotel right next door, and just on the other side of the Kennedy Center you can view the Potomac River. If you do go see a show, go outside on the balcony right next to the Millennium Stage for a great view of the Potomac.

The Kennedy Center as seen from the Georgetown waterfront.
The Kennedy Center as seen from the Georgetown waterfront. | Source


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