I am amazed at how inexpensive Washington, D.C. can be, particularly if you are using points for your hotel. Most of the sights are free and you can find some great food finds, particularly during happy hours. We just got back from a brief trip only spenting 3 1/2 days there but we could have easily spent more.
FREE HOTEL — Our Hotel Using IHG Certificates & Points
My husband and I had two free night certificates with IHG and we had IHG points from our credit card sign-up bonses so we splurged and booked three nights at The Willard InterContinental. The IHG certificates are valid at any IHG property so we decided to use them for one of the most expensive in the country and really get value for our money. Before booking I checked the best available rate on the IHG website and the rooms are $784 per night! (We each get a free night certificate with our Priority Club Visa Signature cards. We got 80,000 points each when we signed up for the card with the first year fee waived. Upon our anniversary we had to pay a $49 fee to keep each card but we also got the free night certificates.) So, we got to stay for three nights in the best location in D.C. (steps from the White House) for $89 ($49+$49) and 50,000 points. That’s an incredible value!!
**The 80k Priority Club Visa is no longer available. Now there is a 60k Priority Club MasterCard at this link.
FREE TOUR GUIDES! — Congress as Your Travel Host
I contacted our Congressman online and his staff arranged most of our visit. The only way to visit inside the White House is through your Congress person and they offer several other great tour options. We visited the White House, then had a private tour of Congress led by one of his interns, and we also had a private group tour of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving (the place they print paper money.) We could have set up more tours including the Library of Congress but we didn’t have enough time in our schedule. All of our tours set up through our Congressman went like clock work and each one was incredibly interesting.
FREE TOUR GUIDES! — Free Ranger Talks & Tours in the National Mall & Memorial Parks
Each of the monuments in the National Mall offers free ranger talks on the hour from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.. The talks last about 20 minutes depending on how many questions people ask so it’s just enough time to take part in the ranger talk, walk around the monument and then walk to the next monument to catch the tour. You can spend an entire day doing just this.
Ranger Bike Tour — On Saturdays & Sundays from 2:00-5:00 p.m. the U.S. Park Service offers Ranger-led bike tours of the National Mall. You must have your own bike and helmet. Check the NPS website for more information.
You can rent bikes with BikeTheSites. Pricing varies but a full day only costs $40.
Other National Park Service events occur throughout the month, every month. Check the NPS website for a list.
FREE TOUR GUIDES! — Docent Tours at Museums and Public Buildings
The Smithsonion is free to visit but even better is to catch the docent-led tours to get the highlights of each part of the museum. We caught the tour at the National Air and Space Museum and it was fantastic! Be prepared because they are fairly long at about an hour for each tour but we learned so much more on the tour than we would have wandering around on our own.
We had a private group tour of the Bureau of Printing & Engraving through our Congressman but it also offers free public tours you can book on your own. Here are just a few that offer free tours: U.S. Supreme Court, Library of Congress, the National Archives Museum, Voice of America Studio Tour, Department of the Treasury, and many more.
Value Dining Options
You can spend less than we did but we treated ourselves to some special restaurant selections. These are the places we went that offered a great value for the money.
Old Ebbitt Grill – Offers happy hour 7 days a week from 3-6 p.m. Drinks are regular price (avg. $7 for a good beer) but oysters are 50% off. You can get a dozen oysters (several varieties) for $15. Regular menu items are fairly reasonable. Tons of atmosphere, this restaurant claims to be the oldest saloon in D.C.
The Woodward Table – I picked The Woodward Table because it was near the hotel and it only had two $$ signs on Yelp.com but actually it was our favorite restaurant during our stay and the least expensive. The atmosphere is sort of chic yet casual. I saw several people obviously in on business dinners as well as families who were obviously tourists.
For lunches while sightseeing, I suggest you pack a picnic from Subway. There’s nothing notable nor cheap near the National Mall. We heard rave reviews of the cafeteria in the National Museum of American Indians but it was very expensive, crowded and the food was below average. The distances between museums and monuments is vast, you’ll be walking a lot during your stay so just take a sandwich in your purse or backpack and enjoy the rest on a park bench rather than fight cafeteria crowds.
FREE AIRFARE — How We Got to Washington, D.C.
I have become one of Southwest Airlines biggest fans! Last year I applied for both the personal and business Southwest Rapid Rewards Visa cards and got 50,000 points for each card PLUS I spent a little more and earned a companion pass so my husband flies free wherever I go. I used points for my ticket and Bob flew with me for free. Total spent for transportation–$28 for 2 roundtrip tickets on MARC trains for the 30-minute trip from the Baltimore airport (where Southwest flies) to Union Station. Here’s a past blog post explaining how you can take advantage of this great Southwest program.
Be a VIP in D.C.!
Washington, D.C. is a city where you can pretend to be a VIP and spend thousands of dollars, or plan ahead and use loyalty points to stay at a great hotel for free and then benefit from your hard-earned tax dollars with tons of free activities. Once again, careful planning is the way to travel more, for less.