Washington, DC Travel Tips: 10 Things You Must Know Before You Visit

June 18, 2019


Washington, DC - a tourist destination or a place to call home? It's been both for me at various points in my life. I loved living in DC for 10+ years and I'm excited every time I get a chance to visit now. To help you discover how great DC is, I'm sharing these 10 helpful travel tips to get you started off right in the nation's capital! 

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1) Choose Your Airport Wisely

Flying into Washington, DC, you'll arrive at one of these three nearby airports: 

Let me break them down for you so you can choose the best one for your trip.

Map of Washington, DC Airports with BWI, IAD, DCA highlighted

Reagan National Airport (DCA)

Located just across the Potomac River and with its own metro stop, Reagan National Airport is by far the most convenient to Washington, DC.

For domestic flights, it's always my first choice. When you arrive, hop on the DC Metro's blue or yellow lines and you'll be in downtown DC in ~20 minutes. 

If you prefer to take a taxi from DCA to downtown Washington, DC, it will cost roughly US $25-$30 with tip.

Dulles International Airport (IAD)

If you're flying into DC from abroad, you'll most likely fly into Dulles International Airport. Located ~25 miles from DC, you can still easily reach downtown by public transportation but it will take closer to ~1-1.25 hours.

Currently the Metro does not run all the way to Dulles (perhaps by 2021?). So you'll need to catch the Silver Line Express bus (follow signs in the Arrival Hall; US$5 pp). This bus takes you to the end of the Metro's silver line at Wiehle-Reston. Here you'll jump on the metro into the city which takes ~40 minutes.

If you prefer to take a taxi from IAD to downtown Washington, DC, it will cost roughly US $75-$90.

Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI)

The Baltimore/Washington International Airport should be your last resort and only if you find extremely discounted tickets. Located practically in Baltimore, BWI is DC's least convenient airport option.

To get from BWI Airport to downtown DC, you'll take a shuttle bus from the airport to the BWI rail station to catch the MARC train. The MARC train is primarily a commuter train so it runs more frequently during rush hour on weekdays. You can check the MARC schedule online for train times.

Once on the train, it's about a ~35-minute ride to Washington, DC's Union Station.

If you prefer to take a taxi from BWI to downtown Washington, DC, it will cost roughly US $75-$90.

2) Driving in DC is Not for the Faint of Heart

Perhaps you'd like to save money on flights and drive to Washington, DC instead? Great idea! Just be sure to consider a few factors first... 

Accommodation Parking

Does your hotel/Airbnb have parking? How much does it cost per night?
These are important questions to answer when booking your accommodation. Some downtown hotels charge as much as US$50 per night for parking.

Or they may not offer parking at all. In this case, you'd need to find a local garage which may also charge hefty fees.

But you don't necessarily want to stay so far outside of the city that you'd need to drive in each day for sightseeing. I'll tell you why...

Daytime Parking

If you drive from home to Washington, DC, I highly recommend leaving your car at your hotel and taking public transportation for sightseeing.

Daily parking garage rates downtown are typically as much as ~$10 per hour/~$20 per day. Also, some fill up early during weekdays with commuters. Street parking during weekdays is very limited and it's difficult to find spots.

Traffic... and More Traffic

Lastly, driving in DC is not for the faint of heart. I've heard many people say DC drivers are bad drivers. I have a different theory - since people move to DC from all over the U.S., everyone has a different driving style, so they clash with each other. Who's right? I don't know.

But not helping is the fact that DC has lots of traffic circles plus roads that randomly disappear, sometimes reappearing a few blocks away. This road layout is guaranteed to make anyone not familiar with it scream in frustration. 

But above all - there's TRAFFIC. Lots of traffic. Also sometimes road closures for motorcades. You don't want to spend hours of your day stuck in DC traffic instead of exploring the sights, do you? (Trust me, you don't.)

3) Book on Airbnb or VRBO to Save Money

Hotels in DC are expensive! Most are concentrated in the downtown business district/tourist area. Because of the high demand, they charge outrageous prices plus taxes are high. 

So, my biggest tip to save money on your trip to Washington, DC is to book your accommodation through Airbnb or VRBO. Both are sites with vacation rentals listed by owner and are usually much more affordable than hotels. 

What I love about vacation rentals in DC

Quiet Neighborhood Locations

Washington, DC is a city full of residential neighborhoods, some of which have few to no hotels in them.

As Airbnb and VRBO have gained popularity, more people are listing their homes in these neighborhoods. This means you can find a wide range of accommodation types at more reasonable prices.

Neighborhood street in Washington, DC - Woodley Park with shops and restaurants and empty sidewalk

I stayed in the quiet Woodley Park neighborhood on my last visit to DC - convenient to a metro stop & downtown DC.

Amenities that Make You Feel at Home

If you need certain amenities in your vacation rental, be sure to check the list thoroughly in the home description. Some amenities I've enjoyed at various Airbnb and VRBO apartment rentals in DC include:

  • Full Kitchen: Pick a vacation rental with a kitchen and cook some of your meals to save money on restaurants. Some hosts even provide coffee and/or breakfast items!
  • Washer/Dryer: Traveling a lot and need to do laundry? Some apartments have a washer/dryer in them which you can use for free - no sitting in a laundromat!
  • Parking: During a visit last year, I drove with my mom to DC in her car. We booked an Airbnb in Columbia Heights that offered a residential parking pass as one of the amenities. This meant we could park the car on the street for free during our stay and use public transportation to get around the city.
apartment kitchen in Washington, DC

My lovely Airbnb kitchen. The table was great for a desk and for eating!

Start Searching for a Place to Stay in DC

As you start your search for the perfect place to stay in Washington, DC, use the map below to start your search. Filter by your individual preferences and input your travel dates to see what places are available and what their nightly rates are. 

This map shows both hotels and VRBO (vacation rental by owner) accommodations so you can get an idea of how they compare for amenities and costs.

See a place you like? Click on a property in which you're interested to go to either Booking.com or VRBO to read reviews and to book your stay.

4) Purchase a SmarTrip Card 

In order to use Washington, DC's public transportation system, you'll need to purchase a SmarTrip card. This permanent, rechargable card is what you'll use to pay when riding DC's Metrorail and Metrobus systems. 

Blue/green SmarTrip card on dark surface - Washington, DC public transportation card

You can purchase the card online before your trip or at any Metrorail station when you arrive.

The card costs US$2 and comes with US$8 of value (so you pay US$10 initially). You can reload the card in any Metrorail station with cash or credit card. 

What happens when I return home to DC? Check it out in my post - Reverse Culture Shock in Washington, DC - An Expat Returning "Home"

5) Stand on the Right, Walk on the Left

One of DC commuters’ most sacred laws – stand on the right, walk on the left - on the DC metro escalators.

People are in a hurry and if you are standing on the left, be prepared for someone to say something to you. Maybe in a nice way, maybe not. Usually depends on the type of day they’ve had.

escalator in DC metro

Even at night, people are standing to the right.

In general, rush hour on the DC metro is a chaotic experience if you’re not used to it. I recommend avoiding it if you don’t need to travel at that time of day. The busiest times tend to be weekdays between ~8-10 AM and ~5-7 PM, though increased rush hour pricing lasts longer.

More Tips for Good Metro Etiquette

These are especially important to keep in mind if you're riding during rush hour:

  • Allow passengers to exit the train before pushing your way onto it.
  • Give up your seat for pregnant women, elderly, or people with children, etc.
  • Do NOT jam yourself into the metro car's doors when they are closing. Though you may see commuters trying to hold the doors open and cram their way into the train – it’s not worth it. Those doors will not pop open when they get near your body parts – they will close on them. It will hurt. Just avoid it.

6) So Many FREE Activities

Smithsonian

You can spend hours in Washington, DC just on free activities! With 19 Smithsonian museums and a multitude of monuments, you may fill up your trip itinerary right there.

Reddish-Brown castle with green garden and blue sky in Washington, DC

The Smithsonian Castle in late-autumn- one of the many museums you can visit in Washington, DC.

Pro Tip:  Don't miss seeing the monuments at night! With all the lights on, they're even prettier than during the day. They are also usually less crowded with fewer tour bus groups at night.

sun setting over Washington, DC  with Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial

Other Free DC Activities 

In addition to the museums and monuments, be sure to check out some of these other free activities:

John F. Kennedy Center Millennium Stage

Offers free performances every day at 6:00 PM. Check out what's on during your visit here.

Jazz in the Garden (summer only)

Every Friday evening from May-August, the National Gallery of Art hosts a jazz performance in its Sculpture Garden. Check out the schedule here.

The Supreme Court

Watch the justices argue it out! Visitors are welcome on a first-come, first-served basis. Find out how you can visit here. 

Tour the Library of Congress

Gawk at the sheer number of books, plus admire the architecture of this beautiful building.

Visit the National Cathedral on Sunday afternoon

On Sunday afternoons, you can tour the National Cathedral for free!

During weekdays and Saturdays, tours cost US $12 for adults. The gardens behind the Cathedral are also worth a visit - especially in the spring! 

Washington National Cathedral

Washington National Cathedral - don't miss the gardens behind it either!

Hike through Rock Creek Park

DC has miles of hiking trails to explore so if you're tired of the city and want an escape - head to the trails!

7) Book Some Tours in Advance

In addition to the free activities listed above, consider booking a U.S. Capitol building tour or a White House tour.

Though both are free, they must be booked in advance and space fills up quickly (especially for the White House)!

Pro Tip:  Security at the U.S. Capitol and the White House is very strict so be sure to read all of the visit guidelines thoroughly. If you have a prohibited item in your bag or have not followed a requirement, you may not be allowed into the tour. 

U.S. Capitol Tour

This is a free, guided tour, open to visitors from the U.S. and abroad, and must be booked in advance.

To book a tour, either contact the office of your Senator or Representative (U.S. residents) or go online to book a tour yourself. Click here for more info.

U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC

White House Tour

These self-led tours are open to visitors from the U.S. and abroad.

To request a tour, you must contact your Representative's office (U.S. residents). Non-U.S. residents should contact their embassy in DC to request a tour.

These requests can be submitted up to 3 months in advance and no later than 21 days prior to the visit. Tour slots fill up quickly so there is no guarantee you'll receive a spot.

Also, tours can be cancelled at the last minute if the White House schedule changes. Click here for more info.

Washington, DC White House with fountain in front and lots of people, framed by green trees

8) Choose Your Timing Carefully

As the nation's capital, Washington, DC has a lot going on. As a result, it's hard to pick the right time of year to visit. Below is a general guide by season to help you get an idea of what to expect.

Visiting DC in Spring

Usually kicked off with the Cherry Blossom Festival* in late March/early April, springtime is a beautiful time in DC. So many trees and flowers blooming (so many allergies for me!). It's the start of tourist season which means it gets busy.

cherry blossoms in Washington, DC

Even though DC is busy, if you hit the cherry blossoms correctly* - they're beautiful!

*If you want to see DC's cherry blossoms, check out the cherry blossom peak bloom forecast for Washington, DC to help plan your visit. 

Visiting DC in Summer

Temperatures begin heating up in DC around May. Although summer in DC (May - August) is lovely, it can be incredibly hot and humid.

Since it's prime tourist season, museums and monuments will be crowded. Certain times, like around university graduations in May and over Fourth of July, hotel costs may be even higher.

Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC seen from across the Tidal Basin with crowded steps

Visiting DC in Autumn

As school starts back up again throughout the U.S., tourist season winds down.

The city has a fair number of conferences in fall which may impact certain hotel costs occasionally, including the IMF meetings for 2 weeks in October.

The weather is still pleasant for most of fall (September-November) and the changing fall leaves are pretty.

Visiting DC in Winter

Winter tends to be the quietest season (December-February) as far as tourists go. Museums are far less crowded, with the exception of school tour groups, so this is my favorite time to visit them. 

Although DC can get cold for certain weeks during winter, it tends to have relatively mild winters. However, at the slightest hint of snow, the entire city will shut down. It's never learned how to handle snowfall.

U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC in winter with bare trees and reflection in pool

Tip:  No matter when you visit, I recommend booking in advance to get the best deals and make the most of your visit!

9) Restaurants = $$$

Restaurant dining in DC is expensive! In many places, you can have a couple drinks plus a main course and you've spent US $50 per person before you know it. 

It's important to budget for this expense when planning your visit so you don't suffer too much sticker shock when you arrive.

"How is my meal so expensive?" - Taxing and Tipping in the U.S.

Restaurant menus in the U.S. do not include tax and gratuity in their listed prices. 

Tax is determined by state/city and is added to the bill automatically. Tax is usually between 5%-10% of the bill depending on your location. DC adds 10% tax to your bill.

Gratuity is usually determined by the customer, unless you have a large party. In this case, they may add it which means you don't have to. If you've received good service, you should leave ~18%-20% as gratuity (pre-tax value). Servers in the U.S. earn the majority of their wages in tips, so be generous if you liked your server!

Any Way to Avoid High Restaurant Costs?

If you're on a strict budget (or just don't want to spend a fortune on a meal), consider going to "fast-casual" restaurants such as Pret A Manger, Devon & Blakely, Cosi, Chipotle, etc.

These restaurants where you order at the counter tend to be cheaper and some are quite good. They also tend to be magnets for the DC lunch crowd so be forewarned -12-2PM is a busy time!

Plus...

10) Happy Hour is a Way of Life

Speaking of how restaurant dining is expensive... happy hour is a great way to shave some dollars off a dining out experience! One of the ways DC'ers get around expensive restaurant costs is by finding good happy hour deals! 

Becky at Washington, DC bar for happy hour

I was never one to turn down happy hour after a long day at work!

Most restaurants/bars offer some kind of happy hour deal with either discounted drinks, food, or both! Sometimes you can eat your entire dinner at happy hour - though it may not be your healthiest meal.

Pro Tip:  Most restaurants only offer happy hour in the actual bar section of the restaurant. Be sure to let the host/hostess know you're there for happy hour so you don't wind up seated in the restaurant paying full price!

Ready for Your Visit to Washington, DC?

With these Washington, DC travel tips, I hope you're feeling prepared for your visit! Leave a comment below and let me know if there are other things you'd like to know about visiting Washington, DC. 

Other Helpful Articles on the DC Area 

If you're planning a trip to the DC area, you might also enjoy the following articles:

Happy travels!


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