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save money on your trip to DC: prudent financial planning - a guest post

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A guest post from the wonderful Mrs. Micah who blogs about finance and life. If When you enjoy this post, consider subscribing to her feed.

Since Plonkee’s visiting DC this week, I thought it would be appropriate to make my guest post about DC. DC’s a great place to visit. It doesn’t have to be expensive…the best way to save money is to prepare ahead of time.

Here’s some tips from a DC girl, kind of 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. And renting a car will kill you with parking fees and DC traffic. Plus, there’ve been enough carjackings in DC that I wouldn’t want to drive downtown.

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 $2.20. That works for most trips you’d want to take, I don’t think I’ve ever traveled farther than that.

And outside those hours, you can go as far as you want. It’s good for 7 consecutive days. If you go farther than $2.20 will take you, you have to put in additional fare (keep some coins on you!!) at the kiosks right before the exit. Cost: $22.00. I’d recommend using this one and keeping a bit of change on hand just in case.

Or you can use the 7-day unlimited pass. Go wherever you want whenever you want and never add money. It costs $32.50. 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 $6.50, and you can go anywhere for a day. Better buy if you’re only in town for less than 4 days (3 days = $19.50; 4 days = $26.00). 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. The Red line has particularly sucked in the last few weeks and some bad stuff has been happening on the outer limits of the Blue and Orange lines.

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. I’m sure plonkee’s fine at this, but DC tourists can lead to some real traffic jams. DC residents will already be in a bad mood from the metro delays and won’t be happy with you.

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

All the National Gallery and Smithsonian branches (that I know of) 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’s free tours of the tower. And 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.

Basically, there’s a lot of free stuff to see. Take advantage of it. Then you can 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 a 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, but there’s 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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16 comments for “save money on your trip to DC: prudent financial planning - a guest post”

  1. this was great, but I’m not expecting to go to DC any time soon- is it feasible that people across the m-network (and guest posters) do similar stories for their own home towns?

    Pretty sure there’s a demand…

    Posted by Pippin | November 29, 2007, 2:12 pm
  2. I lived in DC for 11 years and it was great. I highly reccommend Cafe Asia as well (I used to eat at their branch in downtown DC, my favorite item was the schezuan tofu, they also had great fresh sushi). don’t forget the BBQ places as well.

    Old Town Alexandria has some great resteraunts. The hotels just over the Potomac River (in VA) are a bit cheaper than the ones in DC.

    Capitol Hill has some good resteraunts and walking around Eastern Market on a Saturday and Sunday is alot of fun, I used to buy a great mixed bouquet of flowers every weekend from one of the vendors. Ah things I missed……

    Posted by Bouncing Betty | November 29, 2007, 2:26 pm
  3. Great article. Some things to note though:

    1. Metro all-day passes: Valid for one day of unlimited Metrorail travel on weekdays after 9:30 a.m. or all day on Saturdays, Sundays and some federal holidays. That means you have to wait until 9:30 (after rush hour) to use it. It’s good for the evening rush hour though.

    2. Since D.C. has the largest Ethiopian population (outside of Ethiopia of course), you HAVE to try Ethiopian food. I always tell people that if you like Indian food, you’ll love Ethiopian food. The bread is quite different (injera), and you eat with your hands, but the food is amazing. I highly recommend Zed’s Ethiopian in Georgetown (a bit of a walk though), or Meskerem in Adam’s Morgan. There’s at least a half-dozen Ethiopian options in Adam’s Morgan alone.

    Posted by Clever Dude | November 29, 2007, 3:15 pm
  4. Good points, Clever Dude. I never use day passes so I’d forgotten that. My friends do when they visit, but we never leave before 9:30am. ;)

    I second that about the Ethiopian food, though I base my recommendation on hearsay, which is why I didn’t include it. But many people say good things. :)

    Posted by Mrs. Micah | November 29, 2007, 4:41 pm
  5. Plus, don’t forget the Washingtonian has their Dirt Cheap Eats reviews, in which they recommend restaurants where the meals are less than $15 dollars. I have to confess, I haven’t done nearly enough exploring of these as my roommate and I have favorites in Silver Spring we like to frequent, but the one I have tried (Malaysia Kopitiam) is amazing; the regular Cheap Eats list has many that I have tried and liked but I don’t know the price range. Thai Derm in Silver Spring is very tasty and gives you a ton of food for a great price.


    Ethiopian is on our list, we just haven’t made it out yet. Dim Sum keeps sucking up all of our fun money.

    Posted by Becca | November 29, 2007, 4:55 pm
  6. I’m originally from the DC area, and visit a few times a year to see my family. Great tips Mrs. Micah. I have a few more:

    1) If you take the Metro to the Smithsonian stop (and as Mrs. Micah said, you should), when you enter at the mall you will be surrounded by various people trying to help you with directions. DO NOT talk to them, just keep walking. They will either try to charge you for a map that you get free at any of the Smithsonian museums, or will charge you for them providing you directions. They won’t tell you this of course until after they give you a map or directions. If you refuse to pay, it can get ugly.

    2) I highly recommend taking the Metro to the Rosslyn station and just riding on the escalator. It is one of the tallest escalators in the world if I remember correctly.

    3) Hang out by the reflecting pool, and bring some food…the squirrels are INCREDIBLY friendly. We have a great shot of one sitting on my wifes leg eating popcorn. Very neat experience.

    The metro rocks, very clean, modern and best way to get around. I haven’t driven into DC in years, plus our kids love riding the trains, especially when you go under the Potomac coming from the Vienna station (orange line).

    Posted by glblguy | November 30, 2007, 12:37 pm
  7. @Pippin - I think that is a GREAT idea. Plonkee, let’s propose that to the other M-Network folks…it would make a good group writing project.

    Posted by glblguy | November 30, 2007, 12:37 pm
  8. Glblguy, I ride that escalator twice a day. I would not be at all surprised if it’s one of the tallest in the States. Nearly fainted a few times on it.

    I made Mr. Micah join me once just because he loves them so much. But I wouldn’t recommend it for someone with a fear of heights. ;)

    Posted by Mrs. Micah | November 30, 2007, 12:40 pm
  9. As a Washingtonian, I think this is a great post. Just a couple things to point out - the museums on the mall alone are a week’s worth (or a summer’s worth) of things to do. And all free. The monuments are fabulous to check out as well - I recommend doing the tour twice, by day and night.

    The cabs are still on zones. And I agree - don’t take them.

    The busses in the city are great - the circulator is $1, and it goes from Gtown to Union Station. Transfers tend to be free within 3 hours. More info on WMATA’s site.

    If you like to go out and you’re female, look for ladies’ night. But don’t waste your time. Instead check out some of the small dive bars/clubs - they often have $5-$10 admissions for local bands. Lots of bars have great happy hour/drink specials too.

    And the best Ethiopian food is neither in Adams-Morgan OR Georgetown. It’s in the U St/Cardozo/Shaw area, and it’s cheap and plentiful.

    Oh, and yes, yes, yes to Chinatown Express. Big bowl of yummy FRESH noodles for $6. You can’t beat that.

    I am the queen of cheap eats (and cheap fun). :)

    Posted by deepali | January 6, 2008, 10:08 pm

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