Last updated on November 20th, 2022 at 10:00 pm
Washington DC is one of the more expensive cities in the world in which to live, but that doesn’t mean it has to be over-the-top expensive to visit. In fact, it’s one of the most affordable cities for a family vacation thanks to so many activities and attractions that are either free or very affordable.
You can visit Washington DC on a budget. Keep reading for all our best tips.
How to Visit Washington DC on a Budget
1. Stay Outside of the City Center
The biggest expense you’re likely to incur while in Washington DC is your hotel or other accommodations. Hotels in the city itself are quite expensive, even for budget options. Thanks to lots of tourists, business, and government work, there is always a high demand for rooms.
So, instead of staying right in the city, stay in one of the suburbs. The great public transit system in the DC metro area means you can stay quite far away from the city and head in each day without a lot of trouble.
Many suburban hotels offer shuttle service to the local metro station for free. You’ll also find extended stay accommodations in the area. If you plan to visit for a week or more, this can be a great option. It can be cost effective and give you the added savings of having a kitchen to prepare some of your meals.
On our recent visit, we found a great hotel in Arlington that provided a shuttle to the metro station. It was also near a shopping district with some good restaurants.
You can also check out VRBO to compare the cost of a short-term home or apartment rental versus a hotel.
2. Free Museums and Attractions
There may be no other city in the world that has as many free museums and attractions as Washington DC. All of the Smithsonian museums, including the National Zoo, are free – all the time!
You won’t be able to visit everything in one visit, so make a list of what you’d really like to see and plan accordingly.
You also can visit the US Capitol for free. If you’d like a tour, get in touch with your Senator or Representative ahead of time to secure tickets.
These amazing museums and attractions are all free. Click below to learn more about each of them, and decide where you’d like to visit.
On our family’s last visit, we didn’t have time to go to see very many of them, so we want to plan another trip soon.
Washington DC Free Attractions
- National Museum of American History
- National Museum of African American History & Culture
- Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
- Lincoln Memorial
- National Museum of the American Indian
- National Museum of Natural History
- Smithsonian’s National Zoo
- National Gallery of Art
- National Air & Space Museum
- U.S. Botanic Garden
- National Building Museum
- U.S. Bureau of Engraving & Printing
- World War II Memorial
- Korean War Memorial
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial
- Jefferson Memorial
- U.S. Capital Building
- The White House
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- Arlington National Cemetery
Yes, these are Dorothy’s famous “ruby slippers” from the Wizard of Oz!
We saw many of the memorials at night, and they were illuminated beautifully. This is part of the Korean War Memorial.
The White House was beautiful at night too.
In addition to free museums, there are almost always events happening in Washington DC that are cheap or free. Follow Visit Washington DC on Facebook, or visit their website before you go to see the latest event listings.
3. Parks and Outdoor Activities
Even though Washington DC is an urban center, there are plenty of green spaces. Rock Creek Park is a great place to go for a hike near the Potomac River. You’ll also find dozens of other neighborhood parks that are great for letting kids run off some energy.
Maybe the most interesting park is near Washington Reagan airport. At Gravelley Point Park you can sit near the river and watch while planes take off and land, quite literally right above your head!
4. Public Transportation
Even if you drive to Washington DC, public transportation is your friend. There are trains and buses that run at all hours across the city and suburbs. It’s affordable, and you’ll never have to worry about parking.
My kids loved riding the train, since this isn’t something we do at home. Take advantage of public transportation as much as possible to save yourself headaches!
By the way, the workers at the information booths in the stations are extremely helpful. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about tickets or which are the best stops for where you’re heading.
One thing to note, rush hour in the mornings and evenings can mean extra full trains heading to and from the suburbs.
5. Food Options
There are plenty of fine dining options in DC, but there are just as many good food choices that are affordable. Thanks to its international nature, you’ll find every kind of ethnic food imaginable.
Visit the hole-in-the-wall, mom and pop restaurants for delicious food at affordable prices. Visit a grocery store and pack a picnic a few days to save even more.
6. Time Your Visit
The bottom line? Visit Washington DC! It has so much to offer. Don’t let the reputation of a high cost of living scare you away – it’s much more affordable than you might think.
Have you taken a family vacation to DC? What are your favorite tips for keeping it fun and affordable? We’d love to read your comments.
And, check out more photos from our short, but very worthwhile trip!