Washington DC on a Budget: How a Family of Five Toured our Nations Capital City for Under $80 a Day
Our family is on an educational tour of the United States and we have visited many state capitals, so of course we had to include a stop in our nations capital. Washington DC is an amazing city. It is also a very family friendly city with so many things to see and do with kids. The amount of choices available can be a little overwhelming especially because it all sounds not only fun, but educational too. This was our first time in Washington DC and we weren’t quite sure what to expect. The costs can really start to add up sometimes when visiting a metropolitan area, but we managed to spend less than $80 a day while exploring this exciting new place. We are a very budget oriented family as we are trying to take our children to see every state so saving money is important to us. Traveling with our travel trailer makes our lodging different than some peoples, since we can prepare our meals and our grocery bill is about the same no matter where we are. I realize that not everyone is interested in traveling the way we do, but if you are interested in how we manged to spend 6 days exploring Washington DC area for less than $80 a day please read on.
Going into Washington D.C. can be overwhelming and this first day is your chance to see how the main thorough fares are laid out. We didn’t want to plan to much our first day so we decided to wander around some and check out the monuments. This is a great time to find a ranger and pick up the junior ranger books, if you want to participate in the program. We also picked up a map to use for the duration of our visit. After visiting several monuments and having a picnic lunch, we then headed over to the American History Museum. Now spending a few hours in one of these large museums is fun, but it isn’t enough time to see everything. We only saw about one sixth of the entire museum and we were there for several hours, so be prepared to not see everything. This first museum visit doesn’t have to be the American History Smithsonian either, it is just located closer to the monuments than some of the other ones.
Tip: Get Junior Ranger activities to interest the kids, but bring your own pencils because they might not have anything to write with.
Day 2- The National Botanical Garden and Capitol Tour
We parked at Union Station and then walked to Capitol Hill to take our tour. Before the tour we had a little time so we visited the National Botanical Gardens and wandered around enjoying all the plants. There isn’t a junior ranger program at this Smithsonian, but they do have field journals for the kids to work on while exploring the gardens. Afterwards we headed over to a building adjacent to the Capitol where our state representatives office had directed us to meet our guide. He took us through an underground tunnel lined with art done by high school student from every state in America and then into the Capitol Building. Our tour was amazing and getting a personal tour, instead of being in a large tour group, was awesome, but no matter how you see the Capitol it is a grand building full of beautiful statues, art work, and epic architecture.
Tip: Arrange your Capitol Building Tour through your state representative early. It will provide you with a better tour experience.
Day 3- White House Tour and Natural History Smithsonian
Getting to walk inside the White House was worth all of the security check points, background screening, and waiting. We are still in shock that we actually got to walk through the White House where so many great people have accomplished so many great things! The house is historic and grand, we really enjoyed this tour. The Natural History museum wasn’t to far from the White House so we walked over and spent the rest of the day exploring it. If you bring a bag in to the Smithsonian you will have to go through the bag check line, this may take a little longer, but is worth it if you want to bring in water or snacks. There were so many interesting displays, artifacts, and even a room full of hands on stuff for the kids. Touring the White House and spending the day in the museum made for a long, but great day.
Tip: Arrange this tour three months in advance through your state representative. You might not get to tour the White House, but you can still get photos from outside and check out the White House Visitor Center.
Day 4- Post Office Smithsonian
We decided that we wanted to have a shorter day in the city so we paid for two hour meter parking right outside the Postal Museum. This museum is located near the Union Station so I think it gets missed by many tourists. It wasn’t very busy and we really enjoyed it. We barely had enough time to see it all in two hours, but we managed it. This museum is a great one for kids because they have many hands on activities throughout the museum. We all got to pick out stamps to start our own collections, see the very first postage stamp, and learn about how the mail gets sorted. They even have a scavenger hunt for the kids (big and small) to complete and they got an already stamped post card when they were done! It was educational, fun, and we even got to take some stuff home with us.
Tip: Plan a light day that isn’t so busy so that everyone doesn’t get burnt out.
Day 5- Air and Space Smithsonian
After having been to a few of the Smithsonian’s we know how big they are, so we decided to dedicate the entire day to exploring the Air and Space Museum. It was a good thing too because it is huge. The layout is done very well in the form of a timeline from the beginning of flight to space stuff. It was cool to get to see some of the Russian space suits and other things they had. The kids enjoyed getting to try out the controls in a plane that really moved the control flaps around. We also got to see a fun program and learn more about life in space. They even had part of the space station to walk through. We stayed until they were closing there was so much to see.
Tip: Pick a Smithsonian that interests the whole family and spend a whole day exploring it. If you try to see them all it will be overwhelming.
Day 6- Monuments
Our last day in Washington DC we decided to see some of the monuments we missed as well as revisit some we liked. These monuments are so amazing and we enjoyed the opportunity to see them in person. The kids were able to finish and turn in their Junior Ranger books, although we did have to search out a ranger. The Lincoln Monument was always crowded, but rightly so as it is truly amazing. It was unanimously voted the favorite by all three kids, so be sure to check it out when you are there. We recommend spending some time to walk around and see these amazing monuments because they are well done and represent important people or times in the history of our nation. There are lots of monuments to see and it probably isn’t plausible to try to visit them all, but no matter which ones you see it will be worth all the walking.
Tip: Check out some of the less known monuments and you will be pleasantly surprised, plus you might get some pictures with just your family..
Souvenir- We want to have something to remember our experiences by, so we purchase refrigerator magnets from the places we visit. They are small, lightweight, and take up very little space so it works for us. Also the fact that they are usually inexpensive is great. For our visit to the DC area we wanted to remember all of the places we went, but we decided to only get a magnet for the monuments, two museums, the White House, and the Capitol Building. The souvenir is definitely an expense we could skip, but for us it helps us remember the places we go and we like it. You may choose to skip the souvenir and save the money or spend it some other way or maybe T-Shirts or postcards is your thing, either way memories are made.
Parking- While you may be aware that all the Smithsonian museums within the National Mall are free, nothing is really ever free and you could end up spending a lot of money and waste a lot of time if you aren’t prepared. What am I talking about, if the museums are free how would you end up spending money? The answer to that question is parking and/or transportation. It can be very difficult to find parking in Washington DC. The street parking is all metered and limited to two hours (three in a select few locations) and they do enforce it, you have to move your car at least two blocks if you want to stay at the meters more than two hours. Two hours is barely enough time to get to where you want to go let alone actually see anything there. Another option is parking garages, these can be tricky too because they each charge different rates and have different height restrictions, plus they can fill up. Public transportation is also an option, but again you will have to pay for it and it starts to add up when you are paying for five people. So we bravely decided to drive our own car and find parking. Our first day into Washington DC was a Sunday which was lucky because parking is free at the meters on Sundays and we easily found parking on the north-east side of the National Mall. However, this gave us a false sense that parking was going to be easy. Another day we decided to go a little later in the day to take advantage of the fact that they stop checking the meters after 6:30 pm and it took us three hours of driving to finally get a parking spot only to find we were parked at the National Park Service meter which has to be paid until 8:00 pm. On our other trips in we parked in parking garages. The Union Station garage was easy to get in and out of and there were plenty of spaces and the price was $20 for the whole day, but we did have to walk for a distance to get to Capitol Hill. No matter how you get into the city, just remember to be careful and to follow all the parking rules because otherwise your day might end with a ticket.
Camps- We stayed at two different camps during our stay. The first was Greenbelt National Park, which was inexpensive dry camping. The second was Bull Run Regional Park with full hook ups. They were both good camps and neither was too far from DC. Greenbelt was a one mile hike to the metro (we didn’t use it because the cost to park and gas was cheaper than the metro for a family of five). Driving in from Greenbelt to Capitol Hill only took twenty minutes. While staying at Greenbelt we saw a red fox, deer, snakes (non-poisonous), and two different kinds of squirrels. Bull Run Regional Park was further from DC and it took about forty-five minutes depending on traffic because one day we were in traffic for over two hours. The metro was a twenty minute drive away and then you had to pay for parking, so we once again just braved the traffic and drove into the capitol. At Bull Run Regional Park we saw lots of beavers, deer, toads, and squirrels. Both camps were nice and we would stay at either place again.
Well that is how we managed to see Washington DC with our three kids for under $80 per day. All six days cost us a grand total of $381.85, which means our daily average was actually only $63.65! Now we stayed in our travel trailer and so our lodging expenses were less than if you stayed in a hotel, but if you really wanted to save some money and you don’t have a trailer you could tent camp. We only ate out at a restaurant one time and packed our lunch most days, which was a big way we saved on the expenses. No matter how much you end up spending, the memories made with the family will be priceless.
Here are some links and pictures for some of the places we talked about:
Greenbelt National Park
Bull Run Regional Park
Washington DC Parking Guide
Another DC Parking Guide
Visiting the US Capitol Building
Touring the White House
National Mall and Memorials