(Broken Down By Day!)
I woke up the morning of my trip bushy tailed and wide-eyed so excited to explore D.C. My goal was to determine just how affordable I could see all the best D.C. had to offer. Not only because I wanted to, but also because I had to. With little extra spending money, I booked my ticket and hoped that I could survive without completely missing the beauty of the city with my spare change. I was going to travel on a budget, save as much as possible and still get the most amazing experience.
Lucky for me, D.C. is the absolute perfect place to see a lot without having a lot. Being the nation’s capital the list of free things to do and see is endless. Make sure to check out the Free Things to do in D.C. for a great list of things you don’t want to miss. Also, I was lucky enough to have friends that live in the city so I avoided the cost of housing. If this isn’t you, don’t stress, even though hotels and air bnbs are an additional cost, they aren’t the one that will break your bank.
Before I break my expenses down day by day let me tell you the most substantial way to save money while you travel. (And this is for every trip, not just Washington D.C.) GROCERY SHOP. I know this sounds so silly but if you can, try to get an air bnb or hotel room with a mini fridge. It is well worth the up charge to be able to keep things to make salads, sandwiches, and fruits.
I’m not saying you can’t ever eat out. After all, you’re on vacation, but take notice of how much you’re spending on food. When we’re walking around all day long being the little travelers we are, sometimes we turn to whatever is most convenient when it comes to food. Spend a little time prepping and I promise your wallet will thank you later for it.
Try limiting yourself to one meal or one treat out a day. You can eat something for breakfast before you head out for the day, a packed sandwich with chips and then all of a sudden, you have much more space for a nice dinner in the city. (And a lot less guilt.)
As soon as I landed in D.C., I went to the store and bought veggies, fruit, salad, chicken and a couple of odd snacks and even coffee. It cost me a total of 29 dollars and 11 cents. You can barely get a nice dinner in town for that price, and this fed me for the whole week. For my day-by-day cost breakdown below, I’m going to divide that number by 8. (The number of days I spent in D.C.) That puts me at a whopping total of around $3.64 a day I spent on meals for myself.
Of course, I’ll log whenever I bought other food or meals, but I just write this section to show you how possible it really is to avoid the cost of eating out if you’re smart and plan just a little bit ahead. At the bottom of each of my days, you’ll see I add the food cost per day into my breakdown.
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I arrived from the airport in the late evening with not really any time to do anything except figuring out how the metro system worked. (Any other small town people out there?) However, I was determined to figure it out. Especially if you’re traveling solo, take advantage of public transportation!
You can also feel free to use public buses, trains and even ride share programs. I picked the metro because it’s is affordable, efficient, and convenient. Chances are, most of the places you want to visit will be in close walking distance from a metro station.
However, you might want to bring your Kindle fire to read or music to listen to because if you’re going to one end of the city to the other it will take some time. Most of the big stops are less than 20 minutes from each other. If the metro scares you, remember, it is so much easier than it looks, D.C. is where you want to start before you work yourself up to more complicated systems like in New York and Chicago.
In D.C. you have to purchase a card and then load money on that card to ride. I bought a 7-day pass for $19.50 and with no knowledge of how much would cost to get around loaded $16 dollars. My goal was to get to a bed safely without catching the wrong train! Only one train change with lots of nicely labeled signs and 20 minutes later I made it to my destination from the airport.
When I got to my friend's house I was exhausted and when they asked if I wanted to go out for dinner I leapt on the opportunity. After some delicious Mediterranean food, ($7.95) we swung by the grocery store and headed back home. It was an early night because I knew the next day would be much longer!
Day One Breakdown
• Dinner Out Step Count: (Just for the fun of it) 14,570 Money Spent:
• Metro- $19.50 + $16 load
• Food Cost Per Day- $3.64
• Dinner (Pita)- $7.95
Day One Total: $47.09
Still exhausted from traveling, I slept in and even went for a run before I felt like sightseeing the second day. I had a long list of things I wanted to do and no idea how to get to them, in what order I was going to do them or what I should prioritize. Around 2 I hopped on the metro to the National Mall and decided I would have a better idea of the city when I was actually in the heart of it.
Hoping to see at least the Capitol building and the memorials nearby I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the National Mall really is the heart of D.C. Most of the Smithsonian Museums line it’s borders, along with the many memorials. If you want to do D.C. properly you will need more than one day. There is just so much history.
The Smithsonian Museums alone will eat your days away without you even realizing. If your time is limited, make sure to check out The Smithsonian Museums- A complete break down to pick which ones you want to prioritize and for a breakdown in about how long they take to get through.
I explored the Hirshhorn and Native American Museum until they closed at 5:30, ate my dinner I packed for myself and walked from one side of the mall from the other. (Yes, it’s longer than it looks and yes my feet hurt.) Then back to the metro and almost straight to bed! (Only staying up long enough to schedule a free walking tour of the Arlington Cemetery the next morning.) Another exhausting day!
Day Two Breakdown
• Smithsonian Native American Museum
• Smithsonian Hirshhorn
• U.S. Capitol
• U.S. Supreme Court
• Library of Congress
• Washington Monument
• WWII Memorial
• Vietnam Veterans Memorial
• Korean War Veterans Memorial
• Lincoln Memorial
• Countless more memorials around the area (Even Einstein made a showing!)
Step Count: 24,170 (Told ya it was rough. I almost rented a bike or scooter which is also a cool thing you can do and pretty affordable, but again, my budget only allowed for walking!
• Food Cost Per Day- $3.64
Day Two Total: $3.64
My alarm went off early as my legs, still not quite ready for another day, slowly pulled me out of bed. My tour was early and I was ready to get a jump on the day cause I had big plans! If you’ve already visited Free Things to do in D.C. you’ll have seen that Tour by Foot offers absolutely free walking tours of many major cities.
Just remember as your amazing guide finishes the typically very informative and fun tour to tip him. This is a full-time job for most guides and trust me when your tour is over, you’ll definitely want to show your appreciation.
Arlington Cemetery was not at the top of my to-see list. I picked it solely because the tour was at a decent time of the day and free. Plus multiple people had recommended to me to go watch the changing of the guard. I am so extremely thankful I didn’t miss this spot.
It was a beautiful memorial of all of the loved ones that fought and served this country. It was brimming with honor, beauty, pain, love, and so much respect. It is a must see.
Also, I strongly recommend doing this one with a guide. The cemetery is huge and slightly confusing if you don’t know which way to go. The guides will make sure you see the changing of the guard in front of the unknown soldier, all the most popular graves and typically give you so much more information about the cemetery, it’s history and stories behind all the graves that you never even knew you needed. With my limited military history knowledge prior to this trip, I doubt I would have appreciated the experience half as much without my guide.
After leaving the cemetery, the IWO Jima Memorial (U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial) is in walking distance and definitely a beautiful monument to see so I headed in that direction. My original plan was to head back to the National Mall and continue to see the Smithsonians but my brain was brimming. I stopped for a salad I packed, fell into temptation and bought a Starbucks coffee ($5.57), and hopped back on the metro a few stops up to the National Zoo.
Unfortunately, what I thought was going to be open until 7 pm, closed at 4 pm and my zoo trip was cut extremely short. I took advantage of the opportunity and walked to the Cleveland Public Library to debrief, write and take in the sunshine. (If you can slow down from time to time when you’re traveling, you’ll appreciate the time more I promise!)
On the metro home for dinner, I had to reload my card ($14) since I’d been traveling a decent amount during rush hours.
Metro Tip: If you can avoid riding during the metro rush hours, your prices will be lower. Sometimes, it’s better to just pay the extra couple of dollars to get an early start on the day, but I tended to stay out a little longer after the evening rush and my tolls were cut almost in half!
Knowing I still had lots of time to explore D.C. and that most attractions were open morning-late afternoon, after dinner, I started developing plans for the next day, went for a run and called it a night. Maybe a night ghost tour tomorrow night?
Day Three Breakdown
• Arlington Cemetery
• U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial
• Part of the National Zoo
• Cleveland Public Library (Maybe Libraries aren’t for you, but I decided to list it cause it’s cool for me!)
Step Count: 14,604
• Metro re-load: $14
• Food Cost Per Day- $3.64
• Starbucks- $5.57
Day Three Total: $23.21
My plan for day four was to see as many museums as I possibly could before meeting my friends for happy hour and dinner. (You have to let yourself spend money every once in a while okay?) Unfortunately, if you’re like me and like to read literally every sign in the museums as you go through them, they’re not as quick as you once would think.
I headed to the National Museum of American History and before I was out, 3 and a half hours and my whole morning most of my afternoon was gone! I stopped for a muuuuuccchh needed coffee break to debrief (Starbucks $4.90).
With only a little over an hour until the museums closed for the day, I needed to find one that I could get through quickly (aka not another history one.) After searching in my handy apple maps, I found out I was very close to the National Archives. Not usually a huge nerd about treaties and constitutions and such, I figured it would be fast and I’d cross it off my list.
Again, I underestimated it. The archives are filled with everything from the Declaration of Independence, The Bill of Rights and Constitution to smaller but almost equally famous documents such as the Emancipation Proclamation. It was actually super cool to see all these original documents and the security was lovely and helped point out typos to us as we scanned the pages. However, I did resist my urges and avoided a National Treasure heist this time through.
Next came happy hour (one of the few ways I can actually afford a drink in D.C.- $12), and a late dinner ($18). After catching up with friends, the rest of the night flew by and it was time to head to bed. Next day museums for sure…at least I hope.
Day Four Breakdown
• National Museum of American History
• National Archives (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, The Bill of Rights, etc.)
• Downtown Drinks and Dinner
Step Count: 13,006
• Starbucks- $4.90
• Food Cost Per Day- $3.64
• Drinks/Dinner- $30 (For one meal….and now we know why packing food is key and why I don’t do this every day!)
Day Four Total: $38.54
Determined to see the Holocaust Museum, after quite a few metro delays stalled my process, I headed out early Saturday morning to try to beat the rush of getting the same day tickets. I lucked out and spent my morning and part of my afternoon reading and seeing the tragedies of the Holocaust. Not able to pass up a cheap, good read, I found a book in the museum gift shop of a teenager’s survival story on sale and giddily purchased it for a good metro read the rest of the week. ($2.98) Turned out to be awesome btw so make sure to check it out! (It was called Passport to Life and you can find it on amazon!)
Side note: If you have any extra reading time at all, you really should look into getting a quick read from a holocaust survivor...they're stories are absolutely incredible and heartbreaking at the same time. They deserve their voices to be heard.
Constantly surprised with how fast time flies while I’m in a museum I rushed across the street to the next closest museum-The Sackler Gallery. Not a huge fan of art, I did appreciate the Asian gallery and culture that went into many fragile pieces but didn’t spend quite a long time before heading to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Super cool and probably up towards the top of favorite things to do, soon I heard the “The museum will be closing in ten minutes” over the intercom and finished looking at Oprah’s wardrobe before heading out for a picnic lunch next to the Washington memorial. (See how I went right back to packing after just one meal out haha)
Enjoying my last D.C. on Foot tour so much, I booked an evening into the early night tour highlighting Ford’s Theatre and other key points leading up to Lincoln’s death. (My step count was barely 10,000 for the day so clearly, I hadn’t walked enough.) It was a super cool two hours where we went into detail about all things Civil War, John Wilkes Booth, and his conspirators. The tour ended with the infamous theatre and I enjoyed walking around D.C. at night before heading home to sleep.
Day Five Breakdown
• National Holocaust Museum
• Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
• National Museum of African American History and Culture
• Ford’s Theatre
• White House
• Andrew Jackson Memorial
• The International Presidential Hotel
• China Town Step Count: 13,016 Money Spent:
• Holocaust book - $2.98
• Food Cost Per Day- $3.64
Day Five Total: $6.62
Waking up my last (half) day in D.C. I felt like despite constantly running, there were so many things I wanted to go to that I didn’t have time for. However, being pretty history-ed out, I opted for a slow morning over some coffee and headed towards the National Zoo for my remaining time in the nation’s capital. (Anyone else like red pandas and monkeys obsessively?)
Despite it being a hot day, the time flew and before I knew it, I was back on the metro, re-loaded my card headed to Union station.
Farewell D.C…for now.
Day Six Breakdown
• National Zoo
Step Count: 12,540
• Food Cost Per Day- $3.64
• Last Metro Load- $8.00
Day Six Total: $11.64
And the grand total is....drum roll please!
After six days and a frankly amazing vacation if I might add, my absolute grand total of money spent while in D.C. came out to $130.74. People after averaging between those six days that's a whopping...
$21.79 per day
No, I didn't pay for housing, but by saving in other areas, a cheap air bnb is a very possible substitute for those who aren't as lucky as me to have friends in the area.
I've always prided myself on being able to travel recently affordably, but that's a number I can even be proud about! And I can happily report other than a few things that I simply ran out of time for, I wouldn't say constricting myself to this type of budget constricted my experience in any way. D.C. was definitely worth the trip!
What I learned
Yay for Public Transportation!
Always when you’re traveling and especially in big commercial commuter cities like D.C. do as the locals do. You could fight on the convenience of modern day apps like Uber and Lyft to get around but it is NOT worth it. This is about doing D.C. on a budget after all. There are endless ways to get around (honestly, just as quickly) so explore your options!
I speak highly of the metro it is so user-friendly in Washington D.C. Remember, even if everyone in you is frantic and upset about delays, you’re visiting, so take a quick breath and be thankful you’re not on your way to work and enjoy the ride. Most tourist sites (outside the museums) are open literally all the time and the memorials are even more impressive under the moonlight.
You have time.
If you’re not as big of a walker as me, there are so many other healthy and affordable alternatives from city bicycles to electric scooters to absolutely free circulating buses.
(Look into the D.C. Circulator) Do your research and find out what you’re willing to pay for and what you can cut out and maybe spend more money on a nicer dinner later!
Skip the Tourist Pass
There are so many bundle packages out there that offer discounts to different attractions that add up to more than the cost of the pass. It almost got me too. I could save so much money on museums and tours if I pre-purchased right?
I am so glad I didn’t. In D.C. there is literally so much to do that is absolutely free you will completely run out of time before you can even think about going anywhere that charges. I had a whole list of things I still wanted to do after six days of sightseeing. Remember, all the Smithsonians, the Zoo, the memorials…even my walking tours I choose didn’t cost me a penny.
If I bought the tourist pass, I would have been only encouraged to spend even more money on discounted tickets and would have been so stressed trying to make sure I made it worth it. It was so nice to be on my own schedule going in and out freely and doing what I wanted to when I wanted to for however long I wanted. Genuinely trust me on this one, don’t pre-buy any kind of bundle discount package.
Walking is Fun
Walk!! By the end of my first day, my feet were already killing me, but by the end of the week, my wallet and my calves were thanking me. I did mention earlier that there are all kinds of bikes and scooters available which still are a good option, but I would try to resist the temptation to pick up a bike when you’re destination is in walking distance.
Everything in D.C. is close by you won’t realize how much you can see on your own two feet. Try mapping out where you want to go that way you can organize your day and not re-track the same areas over and over again.
Research and Prepare
Spend the slightest amount of time looking into affordable and free things to do in advance. (This blog is a good start!) Think about your meals so you’re not tempted by all the street food and stop and pay twice as much for a meal as you should cause you’re too hungry to wait any longer.
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You’re allowed to not be perfect
When I started this, my mission was to spend less than 15 dollars a day and then it slowly turned into less than 20 before settling on 22.
There’s a fine line between traveling frugally and restricting yourself so much you don’t enjoy the vacation to the full amount!
You should soak up the cultures of every place you go, (otherwise, why do we travel?) and that sometimes involves eating the foods or buying a cheesy “I Love D.C.” t-shirt that makes you smile every time you wear it. This is not a “don’t spend money” post, it’s a “Let’s see where we’re using it” post.
Sure the title of this blog would have been catchier the lower I put that number at the top, but maybe not so practical. And we ALL deserve a nice dinner and glass of wine every once in a while especially when we’re on vacation!
Hopefully, these tips help you make the absolute best of and maybe even afford more adventures! Have you ever traveled to Washington D.C.?? What did you find to do that was just amazing that you couldn't believe was so cheap? Or maybe even worth the splurge!?
Make sure to comment below or feel free to contact me with any questions. Follow me on instagram to see where I go next! I love hearing from you guys! If you have your own travel advice for D.C. or anywhere else don’t hesitate to leave it! As always, God Bless and I hope to see you somewhere around the world.
Don't forget to get hooked up with your free checklist of things to do in D.C.! It's three pages of museums, memorials and places to visit so you definitely want to have it with you during your next trip to the beautiful capital city!