A Travel Guide for How to Visit Washington, D.C. on a Budget

The U.S. Capitol is among the most popular attractions in Washington, D.C.
(c)Mark Kahler, under an arrangement with About.com


Welcome to Washington:


This is a travel guide for how to visit the nation's capital without destroying your budget. As with most tourist meccas, Washington offers plenty of easy ways to pay top dollar for things that won't really enhance your experience. 


When to Visit:


The preferred days for a visit: cherry blossom time each spring. The blooms are beautiful. Temperature and humidity levels are not yet uncomfortable. Autumn can be very enjoyable, too. Summer is the season when most tourists come to town. If that's your choice, bring cool, loose-fitting clothing and plenty of sun screen. Winters are mild compared to interior America, but snow and cold arrive nearly every year. Shop for flights to Washington.


Where to Eat:


If you want to find reasonably priced food in Washington, think like a college student. Many visitors forget that this is one of America's premier "college towns." Restaurants near the various campuses must keep their prices within reason, and many cater to the cosmopolitan make-up of those student bodies. Check out the Washington Post's best cheap eats listings for some ideas on where to find good food at a great price.


Where to Stay:


It really pays to check Washington room rates prior to your trip. Priceline can put you in some good situations along the Mall or near Reagan National Airport for a fraction of the rack rate. Hint: Be certain your hotel is within walking distance of a Metro stop. This will save you a great deal of time and money on transportation. Four-star hotel for under $150: Kimpton Mason & Rook Hotel on Rhode Island Ave. between Logan and Scott circles.

Getting Around:


Airport trains make ground transportation cheaper here. It is possible to fly into Washington and see everything on your itinerary without renting a car or stepping into a taxi. The excellent Metro system delivers you from Washington airports to destination with minimal expense and solid efficiency. A one-way ticket is $2.15, and you can purchase a one-day SmarTrip pass, with no time restrictions, at Reagan National Airport for $14.50 USD. It's good at peak commuter times. If your itinerary is complicated or shaped by business needs, shop for car rentals carefully.


Official Washington:


One of the greatest things about a visit to Washington is all government buildings, Smithsonian Museums, memorials and monuments do not charge for admission! You will spend valuable time in lines, so prioritize carefully. For a good list of Capitol Hill planning links, visit House.gov. Requests for public tours of the White House must be submitted through a member of Congress and are usually approved about a month before the planned visit. Tours form in groups of 10.


Cultural Washington:


The Cultural Alliance offers half-price, day-of-show tickets to the public. There are many fine events on Washington's cultural calendar. So many cultures are represented here, and their finest representatives often consider Washington a must-stop on any U.S. tour. It's worth checking with the Smithsonian Institution for a schedule of their cultural offerings during your stay.


More Washington Tips:


Allow time for added security

In wake of domestic terrorist attacks, barricades and security checkpoints surround government buildings where none existed previously. Some of the added precautions could cut into your touring time. Know where security is likely to be greatest and take along an added dose of patience.

Escape one capital city for another

If heavy traffic and big-city noise get you down, you might want to trade a day in the nation's capital for a day in Maryland's compact capital of Annapolis. It's a 35-mile drive from Washington. Annapolis is a beautiful small city that is also home to the U.S. Naval Academy. A fascinating tour of the academy is available for  $11 USD (discounts for children and seniors), and walks through the city's historic district are a treat.

Don't overlook sights beyond "official" Washington

The National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institution, but is often overlooked as visitors plan their trips. On the Virginia side of the Potomac, Alexandria and Arlington offer some pleasant shopping areas and historic districts. About 40 miles to the north, Baltimore offers the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and Fort McHenry.

Taxi fares are confusing, even for the drivers.

The fares are based on a complicated "zone" system that few drivers will be able to explain to your satisfaction. Ask them to make the attempt, because you can wind up paying too much if you're seen as an easy mark. The zone maps are posted in each taxi.

Think weekend

Bureaucrats flee the city each Friday, and business people are on the way home. As they leave, your chances for finding manageable traffic and low-cost hotel rooms will increase. Be sure to check closing times and Metro timetables for changes.