I’ve been to Washington DC twice, and I loved it. I loved how it’s so easy to go around, and I loved that their museums are free. Yes, it’s possible to visit the United States capital without going broke, and I’ll definitely write about it someday!
In the meantime, check out these tips for budget travel in Washington DC by Robert Schrader, the blogger behind Leave Your Daily Hell.
Washington DC is one of America’s most expensive cities for travelers, with a 3-star hotel averaging $243 per night and budget hostels costing around $30 per day for a bed in dorms.
The district does provide a high return on this investment, offering visitors world-class museums, diverse neighborhoods, and some of the most iconic buildings in the world, but you’d still do well to minimize costs.
Here’s how to make the most of a weekend in DC while spending the least.
Avoid Special Events in Washington DC
Washington DC hosts a number of important events annually, from presidential inaugurations and official celebrations of US national holidays, to concerts, conventions, and exhibitions.
Not surprisingly, DC hotel prices go up (and availability goes down) during events, multiplying the cost of your trip before you even arrive.
This is unfortunately also the case during the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival, which sees the shores of the Tidal Basin painted pink, thanks to the dozens of Yoshino Cherry trees planted there.
While it’s certainly worth a trip to see cherry blossoms in Washington DC, you would do well to avoid the capital during this time if you are on a budget (see an official list of upcoming DC events here).
There are a Lot of Free Things to Do in Washington DC
Although the cost of traveling to DC goes up during cherry blossom season, seeing the trees themselves is free.
More generally, while the cost of sleeping, eating, and transporting yourself in Washington DC tends to be on the high side, the city is home to a large number of free attractions, including many of its most essential.
The list of free DC activities includes US government institutions such as the White House, Washington Monument, and Lincoln Memorial, museums like the National Gallery of Art and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and green spaces like the National Mall and Rock Creek Park.
It’s also free to stroll through interesting DC neighborhoods like Georgetown, DuPont Circle, and Adams Morgan, which is home to fascinating “Little Ethiopia.”
Eat, Sleep, and Get Around DC on a Budget
I bring up Little Ethiopia because DC’s Ethiopian restaurants are one of the city’s best places to eat big on a small budget.
The same can also be said for restaurants in Chinatown, and most “ethnic” food in general, like Indian, Korean, and Salvadorean cuisines, to name just a few of the types of food on offer in DC.
Kill two birds with one stone by staying in an Airbnb, which provides you with a kitchen you can use for cooking. Airbnbs in DC tend to be cheaper than hotels, too, and often situate you in the city’s best neighborhoods, allowing you to have a local experience.
Another tip is to take advantage of the DC Metro and the district’s generally good walkability — except for in an emergency, you shouldn’t need to take a taxi or Uber.
Take a “Weekday Weekend”
Want to spend two or three days in Washington DC, but don’t need them to fall on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday? Consider taking your “weekend” trip to Washington DC during the week.
Even if you can only manage this partially (for example, arriving on Thursday instead of Friday, or Sunday instead of Saturday) it will lower the cost of your trip immensely.
Taking a weekday-weekend trip to DC will also have some other benefits. First, tourist attractions will be less crowded, allowing you to enjoy your time with less stress.
Secondly, visiting the headquarters of the US government when it’s actually in operation allows you to feel an energy that’s difficult to put into words, an exhilarating buzz of power and money (and, probably, scandal) that will make you feel like you’re in an episode of House of Cards.
The Bottom Line
Visiting the US capital is expensive, yes, but budget travel in Washington DC is possible. Whether you avoid special events, take advantage of free activities, or visit at least partially during the week, being strategic will bring the cost of your DC weekend down.
Even if you can’t manage any of these, staying in an Airbnb, eating cheap, and walking or taking public transportation instead of relying on taxis will see your costs plummet. O say can you see (the savings)?
About the Author
Robert Schrader is a writer, photographer and world traveler who would totally live in DC if it weren’t so expensive. For now he’s making his home in Bangkok, which makes a much more convenient base for Asia-Pacific travel than anywhere in his home country. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram, or visit his award-winning blog Leave Your Daily Hell.