It’s true that Washington, D.C. is an expensive city to live in, but did you know that you can visit without breaking the bank?
Washington, DC is one of those places you should have on your bucket list no matter your age or interests. Not only is it the nation’s capital, but it’s deeply rich in tradition and culture. There’s literally so much to do that you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t visit at least once.
I live outside of the city, but call the DC area my home. The city can be costly, but if you plan your visit, you’ll be surprised at all there is to discover in the city.
DC is more than just politics and you’ll find many cheap and free things to do in Washington. Here are a few budget travel tips to Washington, D.C., that will make your trip affordable.
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How to Travel to Washington DC on a Budget
Plan Your Trip in Advance
There are cities you can just make an impromptu visit to…D.C.’s not one of them. Unless you have quite a bit of money on hand, you’re best to put a plan into motion if you plan to visit Washington, DC.
If you’re not careful, you could end up spending a lot of money during your trip. Being a tourist to a major city such as D.C. should be fun – not a budget buster.
Go During the Off-Season
If your vacation falls during the summer, there are still plenty of cheap and free things to do in Washington. Watch the fireworks over the National Mall on July 4th is an experience locals and nonlocals flock to in droves.
DC usually has colder temperatures in the winter and is warmer in the summer. This means that the tourist season is usually during the warmer months. Don’t be discouraged. However, you may find cheaper rates during the fall and winter. Look for discounts on sites such as Cheap Flights or Skyscanner.
Find Airfare Deals
If you have to fly to get to DC, don’t bust your travel budget with airfare. Research the best deals before you plan your trip to the city. Though DC has three major airports, I recommend coming into Reagan National Airport. You may save on airfare through Dulles or BWI, however, you’ll have to pay for travel costs to DC if you decide to come in through these two airports.
Stay Outside of the City
The hotels in D.C. can be pretty expensive. Visitors from all over the world travel to the city and hotels can be quite distinguished (i.e. high-priced). Staying out in the suburbs will often have cheaper rates.
Stay in cities such as Arlington, VA, Alexandria, VA, Silver Spring, MD or Hyattsville, MD have decently priced hotels and are accessible by public transit or ridesharing (Uber or Lyft).
You can also skip the hotel and Airbnb it instead. As a tourist city, there are plenty of places to stay if you’re looking for a more homey feel. In fact, you may be able to stay closer in DC if you go this route.
Ride Public Transportation
We have one of the best transit systems in the country, so forgo the car and hop on the Metro bus or rail. Parking is a headache (or nonexistent) in many parts of the city.
You can pay cash to ride the bus, however, you will need a SmartTrip fare card to ride the train and pay for parking at the Metro stations (so you might as well purchase one anyway).
Go to WMATA for more information or to purchase a SmartTrip fare card. Get a day pass and save even more money.
Free or Low-Cost Activities to Enjoy While in Washington, DC
Sign Up For a Walking Tour
The city is filled with history and taking a tour is a must-do for anyone visiting the city. Walking tours are a great way to learn interesting facts about the city you may not learn otherwise. Led by a native, or a native at heart, you’ll get to see the city from a guide who can give you an experience you won’t forget.
Walking tours are great not only for your pocket, but you’ll get some exercise as well. Some tours cost money, such as the Haunted DC Walking Tour on Capitol Hill ($20), but most walking tours are free.
Free Walking Tours in DC to Try
Visit the Smithsonian Museums
The museums are a national treasure and visiting them is a must-do when visiting Washington, DC. The best thing?
There’s something for everyone at the Smithsonian museums. Interested in space? Try out the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery at the National Air and Space. Or visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture museum for exhibits such as Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom, which explores the plight of African Americans right after Reconstruction.
Visit Smithsonian for a list of museums as well as their hours and locations. (Parking isn’t available, so plan to take public transportation or a cab.
See the Pandas at the National Zoo
No trip to DC is complete without a visit to the National Zoo. Part of the Smithsonian, the zoo is a great way to see animals you wouldn’t otherwise see.
The zoo is open 364 days a year, just check their website for important information and hours. They keep a schedule posted for special events, animal feedings, and cleanings, so if you would like to see a particular animal – check out the times before you go.
Wear comfy shoes, because you will do an enormous amount of walking. The National Zoo is huge! Parking is available, but very limited and comes at a cost. Just ride the Metro (there are two stops near the zoo).
Take a Stroll Around the Monuments and Memorials
Grab a pair of comfy walking shoes and hit the payment. If walking tours aren’t your thing, you can still get a feeling of the history and culture of the city by exploring on your own. Grab a travel guide if you haven’t already.
You’ll not want to miss visiting the Lincoln, Jefferson, or World War II Memorials. You’ll also find the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, which hosts the Films at the Stone film series during the summer.
One of my first dates was in front of the Washington Monument at night. Not only was it romantic, but FREE. Such a beautiful site, especially at night.
Don’t Ignore the ‘Burbs
We don’t call this the DMV (DC, Maryland, and Virginia) for nothing. DC has a lot to offer and you will not be able to explore everything on one trip. However, if you are staying for an extended time (a week or more), you may want to make a trip over state lines and see what it’s neighbors have to offer.
It’s a toss up if Old Town Alexandria is better than Georgetown, but you’ll find quite a bit to do across the Potomac River in Northern Virginia. Visit George Washington’s Mount Vernon and the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington.
Maryland is best-known for their crabs, so if you’re a seafood lover you owe it to yourself to go. You will need a car to travel to places such as the US Naval Academy in Annapolis or the National Aquarium in Baltimore, but the National Harbor sits right on the water in Oxon Hill, MD.
Love Washington, DC as much as I do? Are there any places I missed that should be added to the list? Share them in the comments.