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Washington, DC on a Budget

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Washington, DC on a Budget

Welcome to Washington:

This is not really a story about what to see and do in Washington, DC. It is an attempt to get you around 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. Get a National Geographic Destination Map of Washington, DC.

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 here.

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 shop prior to your DC 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: L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in the location of the same name.

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. Washington's excellent Metro system delivers you from airport to destination with minimal expense and solid efficiency. A one-day pass purchased at Reagan National Airport for $6.50 USD could get you everywhere you need to go. Just purchase it after 9:30 a.m. 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. Although public tours of the White House were canceled indefinitely in March 2013 due to budget politics, they are likely to be restored when the politicians tire of playing their games. When available, groups of 10 or more people may take the tour. Requests must be submitted through a member of Congress and are usually approved about a month before the planned visit.

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.

    If you haven't been to Washington since September 11, 2001, you'll find it has changed a great deal. 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 $6 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. The same is true of the National Aquarium. On the Virginia side of the Potomac, Alexandria and Arlington offer some pleasant shopping areas and historic districts.

  • 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.

    Step by step tips for visiting any large city on a budget

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