When people talk about a trip to Washington D.C., the first thing that typically gets discussed is the fact that most of the museums are FREE. So that means, that a trip to Washington D.C. should be really cheap, right? Not necessarily. There are many costs and hidden fees that you need to consider when you are planning a trip to Washington. Since my family and I just returned from a trip to the Capital, I feel like I have some good information to help you plan your next trip.
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How Much Does a Trip to Washington DC Cost?
When you are planning your trip to Washington DC, you need to do some planning and then figure some things in your budget.
Plan Your Tickets
Even though most of the tickets for the museums and buildings are indeed free, you need to have timed tickets for many of the tours. The best way to get these tickets for some of the locations is to order them online before you go. But make sure you reserve your ticket early since most of the reservation dates fill up very quickly, especially during peak season. There is typically a $1.50 or $3.00 fee for reserving the tickets online but that is better than hoping you will be able to get a ticket the day of your visit.
Some of the attractions like the Holocaust Museum and Bureau of Engraving open their ticket office early each morning. You can stand in line and hope to get a ticket, but if you have a large family or group, you may or may not even be able to get a ticket.
Real life tip: Make a list of the attractions you want to see when you are in Washington D.C. Start going through the list to reserve tickets as soon as you know your tour dates. It’s well worth the reservation fee to get your tickets confirmed online!
If you are hoping to tour the White House, Capitol Building or Supreme Court, you would do well to contact your Senator or Congressman’s office. Each of their websites has a place to request tour information. You will fill out a brief form and they will get in touch with you. This is a great way to get a guided tour of the Capitol instead of having to stand in line.
There are some food & ice cream trucks on the National Mall, but don’t plan on these for your main source of food. There are also cafeterias in the basement or main floor of many of the historic buildings. On the day we were taking our tour of the Capitol building, we were able to grab a slice of pizza in the Longworth Office building adjacent to the Capitol. When you start thinking about your lunch plans, ask the closest information desk at whichever museum or building you are entering. They will be able to tell you where the best place is to get food from that place.
And of course, there’s not much more fun than eating a giant hot pretzel while you do some people watching outside the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum!
If you are planning on visiting the Capitol building, remember that you cannot have food in your bags. You will probably be asked to remove any water bottles or snacks. So on the day you tour the Capitol, just plan to consume any snacks prior to arrival.
Our best option was to pack a water bottle and granola bar for the mid-morning recharge and then spend money at the cafeteria or food trucks for a quick snack around lunch. We rarely eat a full lunch when we’re on these type of city tours. We just snack until we get to the end of our day and then eat a good dinner closer to the hotel when we have finished our tour for the day.
Real Life Tip: There are several parks with picnic benches and a few tables scattered around the National Mall area. Across from the National Archives is a great place to recharge, rest and eat a quick granola bar and drink some water in the National Sculpture Garden!
Parking for most of downtown D.C. is minimal and difficult to find. Do yourself a favor and just plan to walk or take public transportation.
Be aware that the Metro works a bit different than in cities like New York City or Boston where you pay one fee to ride anywhere. The Washington DC Metro requires you to tap your card to enter and then tap again when you leave. You pay when you leave based on how far you ride. If you don’t have enough money on your card, there are recharge stations at the turnstiles.
There is also serious construction going on with the Blue line on the Franconia-Springfield leg of the trip. While we were there we were able to take a free shuttle from Franconia-Springfield to the Pentagon stop which eliminated much of the delays and hassle of the Safetrack construction work. If you are staying outside the city, check with your hotel to see what they suggest.
If you are downtown near the National Mall and want cheap transportation, check out the DC Circulator Bus. You can board at most of the major museums and monuments for $1.00 and ride wherever you need to go in the downtown tourist area. This is not a sightseeing tour bus and provides no narration or local tour information on the ride.
If you are looking for a more fun touristy thing to do to help you enjoy the city, check out Old Town Trolley Tours!
Depending on when you are planning to visit the Capital you will find that hotels can be extremely pricey downtown. In a perfect world, we could all plan to visit tourist destinations during the off season when things are cheaper; but since most of us don’t live on that particular schedule, we have to just figure out ways to save money.
We found that we were able to save several hundreds of dollars by choosing to stay in Springfield, Virginia and take the metro rail into the city each day. If your party is small and you are able to stay in the city, then you will be able to benefit from less public transportation costs and less time navigating the Metro.
Tips for Services
We stayed at the Homewood Suites in Springfield, Virginia which offered a free shuttle to the Metro station each morning and evening. This is a valuable service offered by many hotels. But don’t forget that while tips are not required they are considered good manners. Keep out several dollars for your ‘free’ shuttle services to tip the drivers for their pick-up and delivery to your destination.
If you stay for several days, don’t forget to tip your hotel maid service as well.
A trip to Washington DC is a great family experience and well worth the planning involved to make it a success! Have you visited the Capital? Got any tips for others who are planning their first visit? Please share! I’d love to hear from you1