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13 Tips for Traveling to Washington D.C. on a Budget

The United States of America certainly has no shortage of fantastic tourist destinations. Head west to visit star-studded California or go a little north from there and hike through the woods of Oregon and Washington state.

Travel to the Northeast and you’ll find the Empire State and south from there are the beautiful beaches of Florida. And don’t forget about all the delicious food in the South and Midwest!

Another popular tourist destination is none other than the country’s capital city of Washington D.C. If you’ve never been there before, you’re missing out.

Washington D.C. has so much to offer in terms of cultural and natural attractions. Now is as good a time as any for you to consider traveling to Washington D.C. on a budget.

In this article, we will provide all the tips you’ll need to pull off that budget-friendly vacation. Check them out and see how easy it is to enjoy a Washington D.C. family vacation on a budget.

1. Decide when to visit Washington D.C.

image of travel prep including a map, a planner, glasses and a notebook

Prior to anything else, you should decide when you want to visit DC. The timing of your trip can have a substantial impact on how much it will ultimately cost.

With a budget in mind, you’ll want to avoid heading there during the summer. Summer is the peak season for DC tourism. The onset of peak season means that you’ll have to pay more for rentals and accommodations.

The warm summer temperatures can also cause you to spend more. You may be tempted to stop by more restaurants during your trip in order to avoid the summer heat and humidity.

Spring is a better time to visit Washington D.C., but you’ll still have to deal with crowds. If you’re going on spring break, prices may also still be on the high side. Arguably the best time to visit Washington D.C. on a budget is during the winter.

Winter nights do get very cold in the city, but if you do your touring during the day, you can walk around relatively easily. Just make sure to bring some winter coats.

See Related: Best Day Trips from Washington D.C. by Train

2. Search for a place to stay BEFORE leaving

a picture of a room with a bed, bedside and a window to outside

Preparation is key if you’re traveling to Washington D.C. on a budget. Get ready for your DC trip by finding a place to stay online. Booking sites will highlight numerous options for you to choose from. Staying in Washington D.C. on a budget is easier if you learn to use those sites properly.

Look through different accommodation options until you find one that suits your needs best. Heading to Washington D.C. on a budget, figuring out where to stay means steering clear of hotels. They tend to be quite expensive. Browsing online for a more affordable place to stay is definitely the way to go.

3. Purchase travel insurance

Travel Insurance Form and Travel Documents
photobyphotoboy / Adobe Stock

A lot of tourists are still unfamiliar with travel insurance. Given how expensive family vacations can be, spending more money on insurance doesn’t come off as a good idea to some thrifty travelers. It’s a good idea to get travel insurance, even if it adds to your costs.

Travel insurance can get you out of some really tough spots. If you’re taking a rental car to Washington D.C., travel insurance may provide coverage for that.

You could also receive coverage for gadgets you’re bringing along. You may receive compensation if you lose some of your gadgets thanks to the policy you purchased.

Travel insurance also has you covered in the event of an emergency. One can never be sure how a vacation will pan out. There’s nothing wrong with erring on the side of caution because of that.

When planning a trip to Washington D.C. on a budget, don’t forget about your travel insurance. It’s better to have and not need than need and not have.

See Related: When is the Best Time to Travel to Puerto Rico? (Ranked)

4. Drive a rental car to Washington D.C.

close up view of a car's rear end with several cars in the background

Do you live relatively close to DC? In that case, you should consider making the drive there. Driving to DC in your rented vehicle has two main benefits.

First, renting a car and driving is often cheaper than hopping on a flight. Going by car will obviously take longer, but the savings help make up for that.

The other main benefit is that you now have a vehicle to use while in the city. You can save on public transportation that way.

This is especially helpful if you have young kids who may get tired quickly from walking everywhere.

See Related: Skiplagged Review

5. Find a cheap flight to Washington D.C. online

Going Webpage
Going / Going

Don’t worry if you can’t drive to DC. Traveling to Washington D.C. on a budget can still be done even if you have to fly there. You just have to know where to look for flights.

We recommend signing up for Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) to get cheap flight alerts sent directly to your email inbox. You sign up for the free trial to see what kind of deals can come your way to Washington D.C. or nearby airports.

Some websites make it easier for tourists to find the most affordable flights available. After a few minutes of searching, you should be able to find more than a few cheap flights going to Washington D.C. There may even be options that fit perfectly into your desired schedule.

Make it a habit to look through those websites often, as deals, cancellations, and changes are updated frequently. That way, you can land a great deal as soon as it becomes available.

See Related: Best Winter Destinations in Washington State

6. Walk around Washington D.C. whenever possible

Crowd walking around the  Washington Monument
Roman Babakin / Adobe Stock

You may be wondering about how to see Washington D.C. on a budget. Sure, you can travel during the off-season and find a cheap rental car or flight, but actually touring the city itself is still going to cost money, right?

One of the best things about exploring Washington D.C. is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to do so. It’s one of the USA’s best big cities to easily explore on foot.

Put on your favorite pair of walking shoes and start strolling through the city. Many of the best attractions the city has to offer are also bunched close together, making walking around a great option for tourists.

Certain neighborhoods in the city are easier to traverse than others. Dupont Circle, Mount Vernon Square, and U Street are the neighborhoods in question. Plan your day in DC around one of those neighborhoods if you just want to walk to all your target destinations.

See Related: AARDY Travel Insurance Review

7. Participate in a walking tour

Walking Tour and African American Museum in Washington D.C.
Walking Tour and African American Museum / GetYourGuide

Walking is an essential part of traveling to Washington D.C. on a budget. You can save so much money by walking as much as you can. Understandably though, you may be hesitant to walk all over the place due to fears of getting lost, which is a justifiable concern.

Avoid that potential problem by participating in a walking tour. Put on your favorite walking sneakers once more and seek out walking tours in the city.

Multiple tours operate in the city regularly. You should be able to find one to join pretty easily. After joining the tour, you should develop a better understanding of how to move around DC, which should help you walk around on your own without getting lost in the future.

Tipping your tour guide is recommended, but that shouldn’t cost too much.

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8. Traverse Washington D.C. by bus or through ridesharing

Washington D.C.: Big Bus Hop-On Hop-Off Tour
Washington D.C.: Big Bus Hop-On Hop-Off Sightseeing Tour / GetYourGuide

Renting a car after you arrive in Washington D.C. is still an option. But what if you can’t or don’t want to drive? Are there other ways to move around the city without walking all over the place?

There are indeed! To get around the city better, many residents and tourists take the bus. The DC Circulator Bus is the one you should specifically look for.

The DC Circulator Bus has routes that run through the National Mall, Dupont Circle, and Georgetown. It also has other routes that you can check out if you have the time.

Note that those Circulator Buses also have their set schedules. If you intend to travel through the city with their help, you should look up the schedules for each route beforehand.

You can also get around Washington D.C. on a budget by taking advantage of ridesharing apps. Finding a ride should be easy enough if you’re in the city during the off-season.

Riding a taxi is not recommended if you want to keep your expenses down. The taxi rates are on the high side in Washington D.C. so steer clear of them.

See Related: Best Things to Do in West Seattle, Washington

9. Visit galleries, monuments, and museums throughout Washington D.C.

Tourists with Umbrellas checking the National Gallery of Art building
Tim / Adobe Stock

Traveling to Washington D.C. on a budget and having fun there is easy because many of the attractions are free. If you’re interested in seeing some incredible works of art, you can visit the many galleries in the city. Art lovers should reserve time to visit places such as the National Gallery of Art and the National Portrait Gallery.

The National Gallery of Art makes some of the finest works created by American artists accessible to the public. The National Portrait Gallery displays a wide array of paintings featuring presidents and numerous other notable figures in American history.

While in Washington D.C., you shouldn’t pass up on the opportunity to explore the history of the United States. Visit the Library of Congress and the National Archives if you wish to learn more about the history of the government of the US.

Those interested in studying ages long past and the incredible history of the world we live in must also stop by the National Museum of Natural History.

Lastly, you cannot forget about the many monuments dedicated to great Americans who have long since passed. Even if you’ve seen those monuments countless times in books, seeing them in person is an incredible experience that pictures can’t recreate.

Visiting these galleries, museums, and monuments won’t cost you anything. You may have to secure a ticket to gain entry into some of those places, but payment won’t be necessary.

After experiencing those places firsthand, you can write about them as well. Detail your remarkable experiences and share them with any interested readers online; who knows, you might even get paid for it.

See Related: Best Day to Book Flights

10. Catch live performances

Kennedy Center Building and Scenery
eurobanks/ Adobe Stocks

Tickets to Broadway shows can be very expensive. That’s why many NYC tourists will forgo seeing these plays and musicals, no matter how deep their passions are. If you’re traveling to Washington D.C. on a budget, you don’t have to hold off on watching live performances.

Head to The Kennedy Center and catch a show there. The Kennedy Center hosts numerous free concerts throughout the year. Getting a ticket to one of the shows can be a challenge, but you won’t have to buy one.

The many embassies spread throughout DC also host events throughout the year. You can learn about other cultures for free by attending those events.

Every now and then, there will also be outdoor film showings and concerts that take place in the nation’s capital. Even though it’s free entertainment, you can rest assured that the performances and movies shown are top-notch.

See Related: Where to Stay in Washington, DC

11. Take a tour of the White House

garden view of the White House

The White House; the official residence of sitting US presidents is one of the most iconic landmarks in the entire world. If you’re traveling to Washington D.C. on a budget, you should definitely visit if you get the chance.

Visiting the White House is not as simple as the other notable locations in the city, however. For starters, you need to submit a request for a White House tour through your member of Congress. Tourists coming from overseas need to contact their embassy if they want a tour of the White House.

Also, note that White House tours need to be booked in advance. You should reserve your tour at least 21 days in advance. Requests can also be sent up to three months before you intend to take the tour so you can reserve your slot early.

Unsurprisingly, there are rules in place regarding what you can and cannot bring with you during the White House tour. Check out this website to find out more about the guidelines for visiting the White House.

See Related: Best Vacation Destinations in the US

12. Find affordable eats in Washington D.C.

an affordable looking dining area/restaurant

You already know where to stay when visiting Washington D.C. on a budget. Now, let’s talk about the places you should visit if you’re looking for affordable food. The nation’s capital is populated with many fantastic restaurants, including some world-renowned establishments helmed by celebrity chefs.

Needless to say, dining in one of those establishments is going to cost a lot of money. That’s not exactly a good idea if you want to stick to a small budget.

Visitors will also want to avoid dining along the National Mall. Many of the cafes and restaurants there have expensive menus too.

Since many hungry tourists walk around the National Mall, it’s hard to resist dining in one of those establishments even if they know they’re expensive. You can resist that temptation by bringing some snacks along for your walking tour.

If you want affordable eats in the city, visit the restaurants located near the colleges and universities. They are known for serving some of the most affordable treats in Washington D.C. while not sacrificing quality, quantity, or flavor.

Also, consider going on the Mangia DC Food Tour and introduce yourself to some of the top dining establishments in DC without spending an arm and a leg.

See Related: Going (Formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) Review

13. Shop for souvenirs wisely

Washington D.C.  Roadside Souvenir Shop
melissamn /

Just because you’re going to Washington D.C. on a budget, doesn’t mean you have to head home completely empty-handed. Who knows when you might get an opportunity to visit Washington D.C. next?

Now’s the time to hunt for souvenirs to commemorate your trip. Washington D.C. is home to numerous shopping centers. You won’t be lacking options if you want to go on a shopping spree.

To buy souvenirs though, the place you want to visit is the Connecticut Avenue strip in Dupont Circle. While there, you will be able to find all kinds of interesting wearables and trinkets made by DC locals. You can find some truly unique pieces while shopping there.

These souvenirs are generally quite affordable. Tourists don’t have to bust their budget just to get their hands on some fantastic finds.

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