Tour & Ticket Websites vs. Booking Direct

Websites such as GetYourGuide.com, Viator.com, and ToursByLocals.com are undeniably convenient to use. In just a few minutes, you can have advance reservations and/or tickets for tours, museums, historic sites, classes, guided walks, and more. These sites also include reviews from recent customers, and sometimes offer discounts on high-volume products like bus and boat tours.

But there are downsides to using these websites. Here in Washington, the biggest downside is directly related to its greatest upside: Nearly all of the capital’s famous attractions offer free admission and tours. If you don’t know better, you could be paying, sometimes significantly, for something that is yours for nothing. Here’s an example: One tour and ticket website lists a $35-per-person, 3.5-hour “Capitol Building and Capitol Hill Walk” tour, which includes a walk from Union Station to the Supreme Court, a tour of the Library of Congress, and “reserved access and docent-led tour of the U.S. Capitol Building”—all of which cost nothing and are easy to do on your own. The outfitter’s role seems more escort than professional tour leader, since the guide does not even conduct tours at each of the stops; in fact, Capitol and Supreme Court tours are docent-led only. As one reviewer noted, “Paid money for service that is free with no additional benefit.”

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Furthermore, many of these companies tout “priority,” “VIP,” or “reserved” access for a bit extra, allowing customers access to the “reserve line” rather than the regular one. The reality in Washington, D.C., is that all visitors must process through security screenings, whether equipped with a reserved pass or not, and the going can be slow. Just a small warning.

Guided Tours

D.C. offers a slew of guided tours, from themed jaunts to sites where famous scandals occurred to Segway tours. Beyond those in this chapter are self-guided neighborhood walking trails on the Cultural Tourism D.C. website, www.culturaltourismdc.org. If you’re here in September, be sure to check out Cultural Tourism D.C.’s Walkingtown D.C. offering of 50 free tours throughout the city over the course of 8 days.

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On Foot

DC by Foot: These tours are ostensibly free, but you are highly encouraged to tip at the end. Guides for DC by Foot (www.freetoursbyfoot.com/washington-dc-tours; tel. 202/370-1830) like to spin humor with history as they shepherd participants around the sites. History is the emphasis on the popular National Mall tour, but other offerings cover such topics as spies and scandals or Lincoln’s assassination; the outfit has expanded to include food, bike, bus, and photography tours. Unlike other guided tours, DC by Foot operates year-round.

Washington Walks: Excellent guides and dynamite in-depth tours of neighborhoods off the National Mall make Washington Walks (www.washingtonwalks.com; tel. 202/484-1565) a long-time favorite. “Women Who Changed America” and “Abraham Lincoln’s Washington” are among the most popular tours. Public walks ($20/person) take place April through November; private and group tours year-round.

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DC Metro Food Tours: DC Metro (www.dcmetrofoodtours.com; tel. 202/851-2268) leads participants on 3 1/2-hour-long gastronomic adventures within a particular neighborhood, serving side dishes of historical and cultural references. For example, a Georgetown tour might include a walk along the C&O Canal, a sampling of house-made pasta at a decades-old restaurant, tales of the neighborhood’s famous residents, like President and Jacqueline Kennedy, and finishing with dessert at one of the city’s best bakeries. Inquire about pub crawls. Rates vary from about $30 to $65 per person.

The Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington, D.C.: Would you like your tour tailored to your interest in women’s history or architecture? The Guild (www.washingtondctourguides.com; tel. 202/966-4935), a membership organization for licensed, professional tour guides and companies, offers a slew of set tours, but also operates a guide-for-hire service on its website (click on “For Tourists,” then “Book a Custom Tour”). You complete the online request form and then choose from among the responders. The price ranges from $40 to $60 per hour, for a minimum of 4 hours. These guides are the best of the best, with many members doubling as docents at places like the Capitol Visitor Center.

Segway Tours (http://dc.citysegwaytours.com; tel. 877/734-8687; ages 16 and up) offers 2- and 3-hour tours year-round daily. You’ll ride self-propelling scooters that operate based on “dynamic stabilization” technology, which uses your body movements. The 2-hour tours cost $65 per person; the 3-hour tours cost $75 per person. (The cost includes training.) The operation also offers bike and walking tours and arranges tickets and passes for attractions.

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By Bus

The three major companies that offer narrated bus tours of the city all operate out of Union Station: Big Bus Tours (www.bigbustours.com; tel. 877/332-8689), City Sights DC (www.citysightsdc.com; tel. 202/650-5444), and Old Town Trolley Tours (www.trolleytours.com/washington-dc; tel. 202/832-9800). Old Town Trolley Tours provides “entertainment narration” and is the only company authorized to operate the narrated tour throughout Arlington National Cemetery. Big Bus Tours’ Red Loop, National Mall route is the official sightseeing tour of National Mall and Memorial Parks. City Sights DC offers the most flexible array of add-on options, including a bike rental and stop at the Newseum. Big Bus and City Sights tour buses are double-deckers, which provide a fun point of view; and they also have air-conditioned interiors, which the trolleys do not (enclosed and heated in winter, the trolleys in summer open their windows). So each narrated tour has its individual appeals for you to mull over.

Old Town Trolley and Big Bus Tours allow you to buy tickets ahead of time online or at Union Station, which means you can begin your tour at any stop along the route, showing your ticket to board. City Sights DC allows you to purchase your tour online, but you must print out your voucher and redeem it at Union Station for the ticket that lets you board the bus. All three tour companies have booths at Union Station and include the station as a stop on their routes. At least one bus tour, Old Town Trolley Tours, provides scheduled free shuttle service between select hotels and a downtown stop on the tour, so be sure to inquire about that. All three of the bus tours provide hop on and off service and all three offer a night tour, which I recommend.

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The basic narrated tour for each operation takes about 2 hours (if you don’t get off and tour the sites, obviously), and trolleys/buses come by every 30 minutes or so. Rates start at $39/adult, $29/child for City Sights DC; $46.95/adult, $29.95/child for Old Town Trolley; and $49/adult, $35/child for Big Bus Tours. Check out each operation's website for full details.

By Boat

Since Washington is a river city, why not see it by boat? Potomac cruises allow sweeping vistas of the monuments and memorials, Georgetown, the Kennedy Center, and other Washington sights. Read the information below carefully, because not all boat cruises offer guided tours. Some of the following boats leave from Washington’s waterfront, whether in Southwest or in Georgetown, and some from Old Town Alexandria. The Southwest Waterfront may still be under development, so check boarding and parking information carefully online if you’re booking a cruise that leaves from a D.C. dock. Consult the website, www.wharfdc.com, for the latest information about the Southwest Waterfront’s newest cruise options.

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Spirit of Washington Cruises, Pier 4 at 6th and Water streets SW (www.spiritcruises.com/washington-dc; tel. 866/302-2469; Metro: Waterfront), offers trips daily year-round, including evening dinner, lunch, and brunch cruises, as well as a half-day excursion to Mount Vernon and back. Lunch and dinner cruises include DJ entertainment. The Spirit of Washington is a luxury, climate-controlled harbor cruise ship with four decks, including an outdoor observation deck, three bars, and windows designed for sightseeing.

Dandy Restaurant Cruises (www.dandydinnerboat.com; tel. 703/683-6076) operates Nina’s Dandy, a climate-controlled, glassed-in floating restaurant that runs year-round. You board the vessel in Old Town Alexandria, at the Prince Street pier, between Duke and King streets. Trips range from a 2 1/2-hour weekday lunch cruise to a 3-hour Saturday dinner cruise.

Odyssey (www.odysseycruises.com; tel. 866/306-2469) was designed specifically to glide under the bridges that cross the Potomac. The boat looks like a glass bullet, its wraparound, see-through walls and ceiling allowing for great views. You board the Odyssey at the Gangplank Marina, on Washington’s waterfront at 6th and Water streets SW (Metro: Waterfront). Year-round cruises available include lunch, Sunday brunch, and dinner excursions, with live entertainment provided during each cruise.

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The Potomac Riverboat Company (www.potomacriverboatco.com; tel. 877/511-2628 or 703/684-0580) offers several 90-minute round-trip, narrated tours aboard vessels that glide past Washington landmarks or along Old Town Alexandria’s waterfront; certain cruises travel to Mount Vernon, where you hop off and reboard after you’ve toured the estate. You board the boats at the pier behind the Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria at the foot of King Street, or, for the Washington monuments tour, at Georgetown’s Washington Harbour or at the Wharf (at Transit Pier, on Wharf St. SW, between Blair Alley and 9th St. SW). A concession stand sells light refreshments onboard. April through October only.

The Capitol River Cruise’s Nightingales (www.capitolrivercruises.com; tel. 800/405-5511 or 301/460-7447) are historic 65-foot steel riverboats that can accommodate 90 people. The Nightingales’ narrated jaunts depart Georgetown’s Washington Harbour every hour on the hour, from noon to 9pm, April through October (the 9pm outing is offered in summer months only). The 45-minute narrated tour travels past the monuments and memorials to National Airport and back. Bring a picnic or eat from the snack bar. To get here, take the Metro to Foggy Bottom and then walk into Georgetown, following Pennsylvania Avenue, which becomes M Street. Turn left on 31st Street NW and follow to the Washington Harbour complex on the water.

DC Ducks (www.dcducks.com; tel. 202/966-3825), operated by Old Town Trolley, feature land and water tours of Washington aboard the DUKW, an amphibious army vehicle (boat with wheels) from World War II. Ninety-minute guided tours aboard the open-air canopied craft include a land portion taking in major sights—the Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, White House, and Smithsonian museums—and a 30-minute Potomac cruise. Passengers board just outside Union Station. Departures April through October are usually 10am to 4pm, every hour on the hour.

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By Bike

Bike and Roll DC (www.bikeandrolldc.com; tel. 202/842-2453) offers a more active way to see Washington, from March to December. The company has designed several biking tours, including the popular Capital Sites Ride, which takes you past museums, memorials, the White House, the Capitol, and the Supreme Court. The ride takes 3 hours, covers 7 to 8 miles, and costs $44/adult, $34/child 12 and under. Bike the Sites provides a hybrid bicycle fitted to your size, a helmet, water bottle, light snack, and professional guide. Tours depart from a location near the National Mall, at 955 L’Enfant Plaza SW, North Building Suite 905 (Metro: L’Enfant Plaza), and the guide imparts historical and anecdotal information as you go. Bike and Roll also offers this tour departing from the steps of the National Museum of American History, on the Mall. Bike and Roll rents bikes as well.

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Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.