I originally wrote this as a guest post for plonkee, who was coming to tour in DC, where I’m currently living. She agreed to let me repost it here while I’m on vacation. I’ve also updated some information about the passes.

Here’s some tips from a DC resident, long but I hope it’s helpful.

Use the Metro, not cabs!

The good news is that the bizarre “zone” system is gone. Now DC cabs run on meters like everyone else and a two-block trip won’t cost some crazy amount. But don’t use them. Renting a car will kill you with parking costs and DC traffic.

Use the Metrorail system; it’s much cheaper and takes you almost everywhere. Before you come, print out a map from the WMATA site. This is the classic system map. It doesn’t overlay the streets, but it gives you a pretty good idea of where things are. You can also buy maps in DC which go into more detail about streets and stations.

If you have internet access while in DC, consider also using the handy trip planner to help you figure out where you’re going.

When it comes to metro fares, DC has two options which would be good for plonkee.

The first is the 7-day short trip pass. During “peak hours” 5:30-9:30am and 3-7pm on weekdays, it’ll cover any trip up to $2.65. That works for most trips within the DC area proper (if you’re going into Virginia or Maryland, it may cost more).

And the rest of the time, you can go as far as you want. It’s good for 7 consecutive days. If you do go farther than $2.65 will take you during peak hours, you have to put in additional fare (keep some coins on you!!) at the kiosks right before the exit. Cost: $26.40. I’d recommend using this one and keeping a bit of change on hand just in case.

Or you can use the 7-day fast pass. Go wherever you want whenever you want and never add money. It costs $39.00. Good buy if you don’t want to keep change on hand or if you’re in a hurry. Or you’re just making lots of really long trips.

If you want a day pass, they sell those for $7.80, and you can go anywhere for a day. Better buy if you’re only in town for less than 4 days (3 days = $23.40; 4 days = $29.20). From 4 days on, you want the short trip card.

You can buy all these kinds of passes in any metro station farecard machine. Just select the pass option and pick the one you want. Most will accept credit cards, but if the machine’s connection isn’t working it may only take cash. Stupid machine.

And now a little warning about the DC metro system: allow extra time. Hopefully you won’t be in a rush because you’re a tourist. Various lines will go on the fritz or will be down for routine maintenance. Or there’ll just be a sick passenger holding up the trains.

Oh, and for the love of everything you hold dear-the left side of the escalator is for walking. The right side is for riding. It’s very simple. DC tourists can lead to some real traffic jams. DC residents and workers, in particular, are generally very fast-moving. We walk rapidly. And we will walk up or down the Rosslyn, Dupont Circle, Zoo, and Wheaton escalators even if they’re some of the longests single-span uninterrupted escalators in the Western hemisphere. And it’s just awkward for everyone if we have to ask you to move.

If you want, you can do all your touring for free!

All the National Gallery and Smithsonian branches are free! The National Archives are free! The Botanical Gardens are free! The National Mall (not a shopping center) is free! The Library of Congress is free! The National Zoo is free! The Capitol building and White House are free! The monuments are free!

Most of these places offer free tours, though check their sites for more details of when they’re offered. And in some places like the Capitol and the White House, you have to be on a tour — national security and all that. (And I’m not sure you can get on a White House tour without scheduling it ahead of time….it seems confusing. But there’s a visitors’ center, anyway.)

The Old Post Office Building is now a food court, but the tower is really cool and it feels so full of history. There are free tours of the tower. Even as a food court, the building gives you a great understanding of Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal!

National Geographic has a site with a huge list of things you can see free. It’s much too long to copy here. Don’t forget to check and make sure the hours are still the same ones they list.

Essentially, there’s a lot of free stuff to see. Take advantage of it. Then you have money left to visit places like the spy museum — which looks fun but costs $16 for a normal adult.

And sometimes, it’s nice just to walk around and enjoy the history.

Fine (and not-so-fine) Dining: where it gets expensive!

If you’re in the downtown area, where all the important buildings and monuments are, you’ll find a mix of cafes and restaurants. I’m sorry to say that I don’t really eat there, but I know there’s a number of places. Most of these are higher-end. And museum food is really expensive, so don’t do it!

One chain I enjoy is Chipotle-it offers reasonably priced burritos and such. They’re absolutely delicious and it’s much higher-end than your average fast-food place, but it’s also good for someone on a budget.

Silver Spring, Maryland offers lots of good options, most within an easy walk of the Red line Metro station. Their city’s site has dozens listed.

Georgetown’s site has a handy feature which lets you sort by price (as well as cuisine and features).

Rosslyn, VA (part of Arlington) doesn’t have as many restaurants, but there are still quite a few. Note, I’d recommend Cafe Asia as a good one, I’ve actually been there! Most of them are within easy walking distance of the Rosslyn Metro station (Orange and Blue lines).

These are the “good” areas of town. If you venture into my area, I can’t guarantee much—not even a good diner.

DC has food options for every budget—though the food tends towards being expensive. It’s just a matter of finding them. And, of course, you can stick with a simple appetizer at a higher-end place or split an entree/appetizer if you’re traveling with someone.

If your hotel room has a microwave, consider saving money by buying microwave meals and eating in. Or have half of last night’s dinner if you’ve got a fridge to store it in. Then eat out for lunch, which is less expensive overall. Don’t forget these standard PF tips while traveling.

So while you’re in DC:

  • Travel cheap-walk and use a 7-day metro pass.
  • Tour cheap-seriously, you can spend 7 days sightseeing and not pay a dime. Or spend your money on a few things you really want to see and do the rest for free.
  • Eat… well, you can eat cheap but it’s not always easy outside of fast food. Just do your best on the other stuff and save your money for this. Maybe if I ate out more I’d be more help. Clever Dude recommends the Chinatown Express for big portions and low prices. I like Chipotle.
  • Stay… I didn’t cover this in the post because I know very little about it. Consider alternatives like hostels and house/apartment swapping. Also, make sure your hotel isn’t too far from a metro station. Otherwise you’ll have to ride the bus, get a bus pass, or walk. Long walks in DC can be nice, but not at night in some parts. So distance from the station may mean you’ll be paying some cab or bus fare which you could have otherwise avoided.
  • And have fun! There’s lots to see and do in DC, I hope you enjoy it!


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August 6, 2008 at 10:00 am

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Frugal Urbanite August 5, 2008 at 2:59 pm

“Oh, and for the love of everything you hold dear—the left side of the escalator is for walking. The right side is for riding.”

There is nothing quite as annoying as running like mad to catch a transfer and finding some clueless tourist with a enormous suitcase blocking the escalator. Or worse, stopping at the top and causing a pile-up. Keep walking people!

Richard @ Student Scrooge August 5, 2008 at 3:22 pm

Great list — I absolutely love DC. You’re right that the Metro can pretty much take care of you the entire trip, with the only real exception being that its a little difficult to get to Georgetown via the Metro. It’s also great how easy it is to get from National Airport to the heart of the city via the metro.

As for the sights, I agree that the way to go is free museums. The Spy Museum always seemed like a bit of a tourist trap to me at $20 or so, and I was definitely disappointed that the new Newseum costs about $20 to get into. Who pays that much for a museum in a city with so many amazing sights for free?

The National Mall is probably my favorite tourist thing to do in the city, but fair warning: it involves quite a bit of walking!

Megan August 5, 2008 at 4:22 pm

I love the Spy Museum. I went on a friend’s recommendation years ago and I recommend that people go when they come here. Yes, it costs money, so it’s not the most frugal option, but it’s a very different sort of museum, and worth the cost. I always come out of there wanting to know more about spies and about history in general. I was just there a few weeks ago when my family was in town, and they all agree that it was absolutely worth the price of the tickets.

James August 5, 2008 at 4:42 pm

This is kind of funny, but I’m actually in DC for a conference right now and I can vouch, the Metro is great (and cheap). But also be prepared to WALK.

make art every day August 6, 2008 at 10:43 am

i’m laughing at the escalator comment. my aunt and uncle live in DC and we have visited them there the last two years. they live in rosslyn and kindly bought us metro passes. and the first thing my aunt told us on the escalator was to get out of the way of the walkers.

Katy August 6, 2008 at 11:35 am

Re: restaurants, you can often get a delicious meal at a much better price in international restaurants than in places that serve fancified American cuisine. Near the Woodley Park/Zoo stop there’s a wilderness of small Asian, Italian, Ethiopian, Indian, Lebanese, you-name-it places; from what I’ve heard, you can’t really go wrong.

In general (in any city, not just DC), you’ll do better if you have your big sit-down meal at lunch when prices are lower, then opt for a light dinner.

Chandoo August 6, 2008 at 1:05 pm

Very good post, Last time I visited DC, I followed all of them except the first, since I stayed only 2 days, we took the rental car to the national mall and parked it there.. its free on the weekends btw.

One more restaurant I liked very much is Potbelly’s, its not really costly, with $5 sandwiches and soups. And boy, they taste good :D

thanks for writing this …

Stephen August 6, 2008 at 1:37 pm

Don’t forget Pollo Rico in Arlington, a couple blocks walk from the Clarendon stop on the Orange Line. I swear I’ve never had food served this fast, before I could even pay. Great Bolivian style chicken, fries and a drink for $5.

Lisa August 6, 2008 at 1:42 pm

Don’t forget the red Circulator buses (www.dccirculator.com) – fare is only a dollar, or you can get a 7-day pass for $11. The buses come by every 10 minutes, and can save you a lot of shoe leather if you don’t want to hike from museum to museum. It’s also a convenient way to get to Georgetown.

deepali August 6, 2008 at 2:54 pm

As a *real* Washingtonian (ie, one who has been here more than 5 years), I have to point out the best area of the city – U Street! It was the heart of the civil rights movement – you can go on a walking tour (even a self-guided one) of some history’s most interesting places.

Dupont Circle and Georgetown also have historic elements with walking tours. And despite popular opinion, all three locales have TONS of cheap eats.

mrsmicah August 7, 2008 at 10:02 am

@Stephen, mapgirl just introduced me to that Pollo Rico! I agree, it’s delicious and cheap. And I recommend the yucca (sp?).

@deepali, I still haven’t gotten around to exploring that area. I suppose it’s because we’re on the other side of town and don’t eat out much.

@Lisa, thanks for sharing that, I’ve seen those buses but didn’t know much about them.

Caroline August 7, 2008 at 5:27 pm

Keep up with all those free events:
http://www.culturaltourismdc.org/calendar2532/calendar.htm

Thanks for mentioning Silver Spring :)

sara l August 10, 2008 at 10:15 am

I think all planes, trains, and buses into DC should have to broadcast the ‘walk left, stand right’ rule. Tourism provides a lot of DC’s income, but boy can it be annoying.

One thing I’d ad- bring good walking shoes. During the day you’ll be doing a lot of walking and sacrificing cuteness (or having cute walking shoes) will be well worth it. Save the cute shoes for going out in the evening.

As a DC native take issue with Silver Spring, Roslyn, and Georgetown being the “good” area’s of town- especially since only one is in DC proper. All three are nice, but Dupont Circle, the area around 22nd and P, Adams Morgan during the day, and Woodley Park offer great options.
These are the “good” areas of town. If you venture into my area, I can’t guarantee much—not even a good diner.

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