Welcome to week two! For those of you just joining in, over the next couple of weeks I am sharing some of my top tips for visiting DC on a budget. Last week I shared some tips for where you should stay depending on your budget. This week is all about transportation.
Let’s start at the beginning: how are you going to get into the city? If you live relatively close by you might opt to drive, and depending on where you are staying that might be the cheapest option. Be sure to factor in gas costs and parking costs- I would budget $20/ day, and that’s if you are just going to leave it at your hotel for the duration of your trip.
Most people, however, will be coming from a little further away and as a result probably will not want to drive. That leaves two options: taking the train (for East Coasters) and flying. In my experience, the train has not ever been significantly cheaper than flying, and often it is the same price. You don’t have to deal with security or baggage fees, but it often takes longer, so it’s a personal preference thing. When flying, there are many airlines to choose from, and I’m sure you have your favorite. Personally I prefer to fly the cheapest possible, but when I can I fly Southwest. The number one tip I have for flying is to consider your arrival airport. Southwest started flying into Reagan (DCA) within the last two years and so now all the major airlines fly into the three DC hubs: Reagan, Dulles (IAD) and Baltimore (BWI).
From a cost-alone perspective, it is usually the same or nominally more to fly into Reagan, and here’s why. Even if you save a little money on airfare into a suburban airport, you will pay more to get into the city. Now if you are renting a car or staying in the ‘burbs that’s fine, but for those of you headed into the city center they money you will spend on a cab, or public transport (Amtrak or connecting bus lines), or Super Shuttle will cancel out any savings flying into a different airport the vast majority of the time. If you fly into Reagan, the Metro stops directly at the airport and you can save some cash getting to your lodgings.
Getting around once you’re here
So you’ve managed to make it into the city and dropped your things off at your hotel. That’s definitely my recommendation of what to do first because there are few places you can haul them to and leave them, and you don’t want to drag them around all day. Incidentally I believe Union Station has some lockers, although I have never used them; Reagan does not, more’s the pity. Next up is whatever you have decided you are going to do for the day, and to do that you need transportation.
Now if you have a car, that might or might not be your preferred way of getting around; you will quickly find out that parking in the city center is not only expensive, it’s dang hard to find. But kudos if you have what I once heard someone refer to as “park fu.” If you opt to not drive, the best way of getting around is, hands down, public transport. DC has a variety of options and I’ll go over those with you.
First things first, and my number one money-saving tip in regard to getting around: BUY A SMARTRIP CARD. Yes, it’s a hassle. Yes, you might never use it again. But do you realize that if you don’t you will be allowing WMATA to seriously rip you off? Seriously. For those who don’t know what I am talking about, when taking the Metro/ underground/ whatever your city calls it, you can use either a paper fare card or a reusable, reloadable card. You used to have to go to Metro Center stop to buy one, but now there are automated machines in most stations with varying reliability. BUY ONE, even if you have to check a few stops before you find a functioning machine (and welcome to WMATA’s incompetence). If you do not buy one, you will pay $1 extra every time you take the Metro, and that’s IN ADDITION TO the fact that the fares are already a premium from the fares paid on a plastic card.
You can also use the SmarTrip card on buses and the Circulator, which I highly recommend, because here’s another tip: Bus drivers WILL NOT give you change, nor do they care if you have to pay an extra dollar or three because you only had a 5. If you plan on paying cash, take small bills (I believe it’s $1.80 for the bus and $1 for the Circulator). And another tip: take the bus and the Circulator! Spend that little bit of extra time to figure out what goes where. I made the mistake of thinking it was too complicated and definitely could have taken them a lot more when I was in school and saved myself some money. The buses go everywhere and the Circulator hits all the main stops, including Dupont, Georgetown, etc. Since I don’t mind walking, I also pay attention when I’m on the Metro and avoid transferring if possible, since that incurs an extra fee. For example, if you’re headed from Dupont Circle (red line) to a museum at Farragut West (orange and blue), you can actually exit at Farragut North (red line) and avoid that change fee and still be in the same square, just a different corner. Sometimes this takes a little more work, but if you’re really pinching pennies, it helps.
Two more quick tips, and then I’m off for the week. Number one: if you are going to a performance at the Kennedy Center, they have a shuttle that picks you up directly in front of Foggy Bottom station and drops you off at the front doors— save yourself the horrible parking garage feet and/ or your sore feet. And two— when it comes to escalators, real DC people stand on the right and walk on the left, and no, I’m not kidding. At just about any Metro station the fastest way to really make a DC person angry is to delay them on the way to work by standing on the wrong side of the stairs.
Walk fast and you’ll blend right in! Stay tuned for next week’s update on cheap eats in the city.