Planning a trip to Washington D.C.? On a budget?
We've been there. Our first family trip to Washington D.C. was over the 4th of July. We wanted to stay within walking distance of the National Mall without paying a fortune. The hotels were all so expensive!
We eventually found a hotel in a great location that fit our budget. From there, we walked nearly everywhere. There are so many free things to do in Washington D.C. that it's one of the best cities to visit for families on a budget.
Here are my tips to help you visit Washington D.C. on a budget.
Load your itinerary with all of Washington D.C.'s free attractions. It costs nothing to visit the monuments, memorials and many important buildings like the U.S. Capitol, the National Archives Museum and the White House. All the Smithsonian museums are free too.
Click the button to get our big list of free activities for families in Washington D.C.
You can save up to 47% by bundling paid activities like Mount Vernon and a Big Bus Tour with the Go Washington D.C. Card. Pay once for 3, 4 or 5 popular activities. There are many activities to choose from, and you can decide which are best for your family as you go.
Washington D.C. is served by three major airports: Reagan National, Dulles and Baltimore. If there isn't a big difference in fares, we prefer Reagan National (DCA) because it's closer to downtown D.C. and transportation to our hotel is both less expensive and more convenient.
With kids, we usually use Uber or Lyft for a ride from the airport to our hotel and back. However, if the timing is right and you can manage the luggage, you can take public transportation from any of the airports. We used Metro for our last flight home and it worked well.
Walking is the best way to see Washington D.C. So many of the city's top attractions are on or near the National Mall. I walked about 7 miles a day on our last trip, so be sure to pack comfortable walking shoes.
Metro trains and buses are an efficient way to get around. Buy Metro cards at kiosks inside stations, and add money to them when they get low. Expect to pay about $2-6 per ride. Fares are higher during peak hours when trains are most crowded. Kids under age 5 ride free.
Bicycling is a good way to get around Washington D.C. You'll find inexpensive Capital Bikeshare rentals all over the city. These are full-size bikes. If you need youth bikes or trailers, look into bike rental businesses. Bike N Roll DC Bike Rentals is one of the options on the Go Washington DC Card.
I do not recommend renting a car in Washington D.C. It's tricky to drive and park here – especially if you're not familiar with the city. Hotel rates for parking a car can be steep.
If you will be driving your own car anyway, look for hotels that don't charge an arm and a leg for parking. A couple of our hotels charged $50 per night. It may cost less for large families to pay for parking near attractions than to take Metro.
Uber and Lyft are both good options for when you want a ride from the airport late at night with all your luggage, or when you're worn out after walking the Tidal Basin on a hot summer afternoon and the closest Metro station is a mile away. Download both apps on your phone to compare costs and availability. Remember that families of 5 or more will need to pay more for a larger vehicle.
Click the button to read more of my tips for riding with Uber and Lyft with kids.
We have found that taxis are not a lot more expensive than Uber/Lyft in Washington D.C. Look up the cost on the app, then ask for the taxi rate to compare. Taking the taxi that is in front of you makes more sense than waiting for another ride if there isn't a big difference in cost.
It may make sense to book a hotel or vacation rental farther away from downtown to save money, but figure out how much you're likely to spend on Metro fees (and what your travel time is worth) before you commit. A family of 5 can easily spend $50+ in transportation on just one round trip on Metro from the suburbs.
On our 4th of July trip, we wanted to stay within a short walk of the National Mall. We found Hotel Harrington to be the most affordable option, and it was so nice to relax there in the middle of the day, and just walk back after the fireworks when streets were congested and Metro stations were packed. We didn't use Metro at all during our two-night stay.
Hotel Harrington is old, and for that reason, it gets middling reviews. However, if price is your top priority, click the button to learn more about Hotel Harrington on TripAdvisor.
Vacation rentals can be a great way to get more space and a full kitchen for less money in Washington D.C. It pays to check several sites, including AirBnB and HomeAway. Remember that vacation rentals usually tack on more fees than hotels, and fees vary between renters, so look at the final cost, not just the nightly rate to compare prices. Click the button for all our tips for booking a great vacation home.
I like booking a hotel with an in-room fridge or a vacation rental with a full kitchen. It allows us to eat fast and inexpensive breakfasts in our room and pack sandwiches or snacks in a purse or day pack. With a full kitchen, you can cook dinner too. When you eat like you would at home, you can keep your extra food expenses close to zero.
Washington D.C. has a CVS drug store on practically every corner. If you don't have easy access to a full grocery, we found basic provisions for fast breakfasts and snacks at CVS.
Washington D.C. has restaurants to fit every budget. The Capitol Cafe inside the U.S. Capitol Building is an affordable food court where everyone in my picky family found something they liked. Shake Shack is a favorite Washington D.C. burger chain. You'll find food trucks all over the National Mall.
That's how we save money in Washington D.C. I hope that these tips help your family plan a great trip, for less money.