Top Ways to Save on Your Next Washington, D.C., Vacation

A trip to the nation's capital doesn’t need to break the bank. Check out these tips for visiting D.C. on a budget.

U.S. News & World Report

Ways to Save on Your Next Washington, D.C., Vacation

Washington Monument

Washington, D.C. offers an abundance of free monuments, memorials and federal museums. (Getty Images)

Planning a vacation on a budget is easy in the nation’s capital. Many of the District of Columbia's top attractions are free, and there’s plenty of options for public transportation and discounts on food and drink.

When overseas travelers come to Washington, “they’re amazed by all of the free things to do here. It’s why D.C. is such a wonderful mecca for tourists worldwide,” says Jack Nargil, concierge at the Mandarin Oriental, Washington DC.

Here are six things that penny-wise travelers should take advantage of.

Free Attractions

The city is known for its free monuments, memorials and federal museums. For people traveling in large groups, this can add up to huge savings. “We encourage people to investigate the museums. They’re paid for by the American taxpayer, so that’s why they’re free,” Nargil says.

Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of the city’s tourism site, Destination DC, recommends the live butterfly exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Timed tickets are required, but the event is free to visitors on Tuesdays. At The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a free performance at the Millennium Stage takes place every day at 6 p.m. “It could be hip-hop, ballet, opera, choral music, jazz, clowning, you name it,” Ferguson says.

Timed-entry tickets for the Butterfly Pavilion begin at 10:15 a.m. and end at 5 p.m. The Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage is open all year.

Hotels Outside the District

Staying in hotels outside the District can save you hundreds of dollars, says Erich Hosbach, director of sales and marketing at The Graham Georgetown hotel. Try a hotel across the river in Virginia, either in Rosslyn or Crystal City. It may be cheaper than a hotel in the District, and it's still just a short ride on the Metro to the city's central hub, he says.

Hosbach’s picks: Le Meridien Arlington in the Rosslyn area is a funky hotel with great service, and the Sheraton Pentagon City Hotel has amazing views of the capital.

Restaurant Discounts

Opportunities abound for reduced-price food and drinks, depending on the time of year or day you’re visiting the nation’s capital. The District is a big happy hour town, and many places offer discounts on drinks and food, says Joaquin McPeek, director of communications with the city's Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.

Greg Leinweber, general manager at Kimpton Hotel Monaco Washington DC, suggests that visitors take advantage of the discounts that hotels and restaurants offer when Congress is out of session. The twice-yearly Metropolitan Washington Restaurant Week, which starts in January and August, is another way to enjoy fixed-price menus at a great value.

McPeek’s top picks for happy hour include Ivy and Coney in the trendy Shaw neighborhood; nearby Lost & Found on Ninth Street NW, which has a selection of about two dozen beers on tap; and Black Jack on 14th Street NW.

Cheap Eats While Seeing the Sights

Another way to save on food: Seek out local sandwich shops for lunch or snacks instead of dining in tourist-heavy areas. “Prices on the Mall can be up to 15 percent more for bottled water, soda or sandwiches,” Hosbach says. Good picks near the National Mall include Teaism in Penn Quarter, which serves healthy Asian fare, or District Taco, a fun and fast Tex-Mex eatery. While sightseeing in Georgetown, try The Best Sandwich Place or Cafe Tu-o-Tu for a bite to eat.

Public Transportation

It’s not worth the expense to rent a car. “Driving and parking in D.C. is a nightmare, not to mention expensive,” Hosbach says. Use alternatives like Metrorail, taxis and ride-hailing services, like Uber or Lyft.

Julie Saunders, head concierge at the Four Seasons Hotel Washington, DC in Georgetown, recommends the DC Circulator, a bus system that costs a dollar for adults. Its routes are limited, but one in particular goes from Union Station to Georgetown, a useful route for tourists, she says. Another goes around the National Mall.

For more information about the District’s public transportation options, visit wmata.com. A special section offers advice to visitors and new Metro riders. For Circulator information, visit dccirculator.com.

Inexpensive Boat Tours

George Washington's estate in Mount Vernon(Buddy Secor)

Boat tours are great for those who want to sightsee in style and save money. Leinweber suggests taking a cruise with Potomac Riverboat Co., which picks up in Georgetown, Alexandria in Virginia and the National Harbor in Maryland. “It’s a fun way to see the city at a relative value,” he says. Visitors can choose to tour the monuments by river, cruise to Mount Vernon to tour George Washington's estate, cruise to Alexandria's waterfront to explore the restaurants, shops and historic sites, or take the Canine Cruise, where pups ride free.

Prices vary for the Potomac Riverboat tours. The Alexandria seaport cruise is $12 for adults and $6 for children ages 2 to 11.

To experience more of what Washington, D.C., has to offer, check out the U.S. News Travel guide.

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