Area Codes -- Within the District of Columbia, the area code is 202. In Northern Virginia it's 703, and in D.C.’s Maryland suburbs, the area code is 301. You must use the area code when dialing a phone number, whether it’s a local 202, 703, or 301 phone number.
Business Hours -- Most museums are open daily 10:30am to 5:30pm; some, including several of the Smithsonians, stay open later in spring and summer. Most banks are open from 9am to 3pm Monday through Thursday, with some staying open until 5pm on Friday and some open for business on Saturday mornings. Stores typically open between 9 and 10am and close between 5 and 6pm from Monday to Saturday.
Customs -- For customs information, consult your nearest U.S. embassy or consulate, or the U.S. Customs website, www.cbp.gov. In Washington, D.C., the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has an office at 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20229 (www.cbp.gov; tel 877/227-5511).
Disabled Travelers -- Although Washington, D.C. is one of the most accessible cities in the world for travelers with disabilities, it is not perfect—especially when it comes to historic buildings, as well as some restaurants and shops. Theaters, museums, and government buildings are generally well equipped. Still, for least hassle call ahead to places you hope to visit to find out specific accessibility features. In the case of restaurants and bars, I’m afraid you’ll have to work to pin them down—no one wants to discourage a potential customer. Several sources might help. Destination: D.C.’s website offers some helpful, though hardly comprehensive, information, http://washington.org/DC-information/washington-dc-disability-information, including links to the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, which publishes accessibility information on its website, www.wmata.com.
Doctors -- Most hotels are prepared for medical emergencies and work with local doctors who are able to see ill or injured hotel guests.
Drinking Laws -- The legal age for purchase and consumption of alcoholic beverages is 21; proof of age is required and often requested at bars, nightclubs, and restaurants, so it’s always a good idea to bring ID when you go out. Do not carry open containers of alcohol in your car or any public area that isn’t zoned for alcohol consumption. The police can fine you on the spot. Don’t even think about driving while intoxicated. Liquor stores are closed on Sunday. District gourmet grocery stores, mom-and-pop grocery stores, and 7-Eleven convenience stores often sell beer and wine, even on Sunday. Bars and nightclubs serve liquor until 2am Sunday through Thursday and until 3am Friday and Saturday.
Electricity -- Like Canada, the United States uses 110–120 volts AC (60 cycles), compared to 220–240 volts AC (50 cycles) in most of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Downward converters that change 220–240 volts to 110–120 volts are difficult to find in the United States, so bring one with you.
Embassies & Consulates -- All embassies are located here in the nation’s capital. If your country isn’t listed below, call for directory information in Washington, D.C. (tel 202/555-1212) or check www.embassy.org/embassies. The embassy of Australia is at 1601 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036 (www.usa.embassy.gov.au; tel 202/797-3000). Consulates are in Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. The embassy of Canada is at 501 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001 (http://can-am.gc.ca/washington/index.aspx?lang=eng; tel 202/682-1740). Other Canadian consulates are in Buffalo, New York; Detroit; Los Angeles; New York City; and Seattle. The embassy of Ireland is at 2234 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20008 (www.embassyofireland.org; tel 202/462-3939). Irish consulates are in Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and other cities. The Embassy of New Zealand is at 37 Observatory Circle NW, Washington, D.C. 20008 (www.nzembassy.com/usa; tel 202/328-4800). New Zealand consulates are in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and Seattle. The embassy of the United Kingdom is at 3100 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20008 (www.gov.uk/government/world/usa; tel 202/588-6500). Other British consulates are in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle.
Emergencies -- Call tel 911 for police, fire, and medical emergencies. This is a toll-free call. (No coins are required at public telephones.) If you encounter serious problems, contact the Travelers Aid Society International (www.travelersaid.org; tel 202/546-1127), a nationwide, nonprofit, social-service organization geared to helping travelers in difficult straits, from reuniting families separated while traveling to providing food and/or shelter to people stranded without cash to offering emotional counseling. Travelers Aid operates help desks at Washington Dulles International Airport (tel 703/572-8297), Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (tel 703/417-3975), and Union Station (tel 202/371-1937). At Baltimore–Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, a volunteer agency called Pathfinders (tel 410/859-7826) mans the customer service desks throughout the airport.
Family Travel -- Field trips during the school year and family vacations during the summer keep Washington, D.C. crawling with kids all year long. More than any other city, perhaps, Washington is crammed with historic buildings, arts and science museums, parks, and recreational sites to interest young and old alike. The fact that so many attractions are free is a boon to the family budget. Look for boxes on family-friendly hotels, restaurants, and attractions in their appropriate chapters.
Hospitals -- If you don’t require immediate ambulance transportation but still need emergency-room treatment, call one of the following hospitals (and be sure to get directions): Children’s Hospital National Medical Center, 111 Michigan Ave. NW (tel 202/476-5000); George Washington University Hospital, 900 23rd St. NW, at Washington Circle (tel 202/715-4000); Medstar Georgetown University Hospital, 3800 Reservoir Rd. NW (tel 202/444-2000); or Howard University Hospital, 2041 Georgia Ave. NW (tel 202/865-6100).
Insurance -- As a rule, check your health insurance policies to make sure you’re covered should you get sick away from home. If you require additional medical insurance, try Travel Assistance International (www.travelassistanceinternational.com; tel 800/821-2828 or 410/987-6233). Also consider buying travel insurance that covers costs incurred due to trip cancellation or interruption. You can get estimates from various providers through InsureMyTrip.com, or try one of these recommended insurers: Travel Guard International (www.travelguard.com; tel 800/826-4919) or Allianz Travel Insurance (formerly Access America; www.allianztravelinsurance.com; tel 866/884-3556).
Internet & Wi-Fi -- More and more hotels, resorts, airports, cafes, and retailers are going Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity), becoming “hotspots” that offer free Wi-Fi access or charge a small fee for usage. To find public Wi-Fi hotspots in Washington, go to http://v4.jiwire.com/search-hotspot-locations.htm; its Hotspot Finder holds the world’s largest directory of public wireless hotspots (1,466 within the city of Washington, last time I checked). Or you could just head to your corner Starbucks, which has offered Wi-Fi service with its lattes for quite some time. Likewise, all three D.C. airports offer complimentary Wi-Fi. All of the D.C. hotels listed in chapter 4 offer Internet access, and nearly all of the hotels offer it for free.
Legal Aid -- While driving, if you are pulled over for a minor infraction (such as speeding), never attempt to pay the fine directly to a police officer; this could be construed as attempted bribery, a much more serious crime. Pay fines by mail or directly into the hands of the clerk of the court. If accused of a more serious offense, say and do nothing before consulting a lawyer. In the U.S., the burden is on the state to prove a person’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and everyone has the right to remain silent, whether he or she is suspected of a crime or is actually arrested. Once arrested, a person can make one telephone call to a party of his or her choice. The international visitor should call his or her embassy or consulate.
LGBT Travelers -- The nation’s capital is most welcoming to the gay and lesbian community. In fact, as of March 9, 2010, same-sex couples can now legally marry each other in the nation’s capital. Even if you’re not planning to get married here, you should know that D.C.’s LGBT population is one of the largest in the country, with 10% of residents identifying themselves as such. The capital’s annual, week-long Capital Pride celebration is held in June, complete with a street fair and a parade. Dupont Circle is the unofficial headquarters for gay life, site of the annual 17th Street High Heel Drag race on the Tuesday preceding Halloween, and home to long-established gay bars and dance clubs but the whole city is pretty much LGBT-friendly.
Mail -- At press time, domestic postage rates were 34¢ for a postcard and 49¢ for a letter. For international mail, a first-class letter of up to 1 ounce costs $1.15; a first-class postcard costs the same as a letter. For more information, go to www.usps.com.
Medical Requirements -- Unless you’re arriving from an area known to be suffering from an epidemic (particularly cholera or yellow fever), inoculations or vaccinations are not required for entry into the United States.
Mobile Phones -- If you are American and own a cellphone, bring your phone with you to D.C., making sure first, of course, that your cellphone service does not charge excessively—or at all—for long-distance calls. In fact, if you are from outside the country and own an international cellphone with service that covers the Washington area, bring that phone along. The point is that hotels often charge outrageous fees for each long-distance or local call you make using the phone in your hotel room. AT&T, Verizon, Sprint Nextel, and T-Mobile are among the cellphone networks operating in Washington, D.C., so there’s a good chance you’ll have full and excellent coverage anywhere in the city. International visitors should check their GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) wireless network to see where GSM phones and text messaging work in the U.S.; go to the website www.t-mobile.com/coverage. In any case, take a look at your wireless company’s coverage map on its website before heading out. If you know your phone won’t work here, or if you don’t have a cellphone, you have several options: You can rent a phone before you leave home from InTouch USA (www.intouchusa.us; tel 800/872-7626 in the U.S., or 703/222-7161 outside the U.S.). You can buy a phone once you arrive. All three Washington-area airports sell cellphones and SIM cards. Look for the Airport Wireless shops at Dulles International Airport (tel 703/661-0411), at National Airport (tel 703/417-3983), and at BWI Airport (tel 410/691-0262). You can purchase a pay-as-you-go phone from all sorts of places, from Amazon.com to any Verizon Wireless store. In D.C., Verizon has a store at Union Station (tel 202/682-9475) and another at 1314 F St. NW (tel 202/624-0072), to name just two convenient locations.
Money & Costs -- If you are traveling to Washington, D.C. from outside the United States, you should consult a currency exchange website such as http://www.xe.com/currencyconverter to check up-to-the-minute exchange rates before your departure.
Anyone who travels to the nation’s capital expecting bargains is in for a rude awakening, especially when it comes to lodging. Less expensive than New York and London, Washington, D.C.’s daily hotel rate nevertheless reflects the city’s popularity as a top destination among U.S. travelers, averaging $204 (according to most recent statistics). D.C.’s restaurant scene is rather more egalitarian: heavy on the fine, top-dollar establishments, where you can easily spend $100 per person, but with plenty of excellent bistros and small restaurants offering great eats at lower prices. When it comes to attractions, though, the nation’s capital has the rest of the world beat, because most of its museums and tourist sites offer free admission.
In Washington, D.C., ATMs are ubiquitous, in locations ranging from the National Gallery of Art’s gift shop to Union Station to grocery stores. MasterCard’s (www.mastercard.com; tel 800/424-7787) Maestro and Cirrus, and Visa’s (www.visa.com; tel 800/336-3386) PLUS networks operate in D.C., as they do across the country. Go to your bank-card’s website or call one of your branches to find ATM locations in Washington. Be sure you know your personal identification number (PIN) and daily withdrawal limit before you depart. If your PIN is five or six digits, you should obtain a four-digit PIN from your local bank before you leave home, because four-digit PINs are what most ATMs in Washington accept.
Note: Many banks impose a fee every time you use a card at another bank’s ATM, and that fee is often higher for international transactions (up to $5 or more) than for domestic ones (where they’re rarely more than $2).
In addition to debit cards, credit cards are the most widely used form of payment in the United States: Visa (Barclaycard in Britain), MasterCard (Eurocard in Europe, Access in Britain, Chargex in Canada), American Express, Diners Club, and Discover. Beware of hidden credit card fees while traveling. Check with your credit or debit card issuer to see what fees, if any, will be charged for overseas transactions. Fees can amount to 3% or more of the purchase price. Check with your bank before departing to avoid any surprise charges on your statement.
Newspapers & Magazines -- Washington’s preeminent newspaper is the Washington Post, available online and sold in bookstores, train and subway stations, drugstores, and sidewalk kiosks all over town. These are also the places to buy other newspapers, such as the New York Times, and Washingtonian magazine, the city’s popular monthly full of penetrating features, restaurant reviews, and nightlife calendars. The websites of these publications are: www.washingtonpost.com, www.nytimes.com, and www.washingtonian.com.
Also be sure to pick up a copy of Washington Flyer magazine, available free at the airport or online at www.washingtonflyer.com, to find out about airport and airline news and interesting Washington happenings.
Passports -- Virtually every air traveler entering the U.S. is required to show a passport. All persons, including U.S. citizens, traveling by air between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda are required to present a valid passport. Note: U.S. and Canadian citizens entering the U.S. at land and sea ports of entry from within the Western Hemisphere must now also present a passport or other documents compliant with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. Children 15 and under may continue entering with only a U.S. birth certificate or other proof of U.S. citizenship.
Police -- The number of different police agencies in Washington is quite staggering. They include the city’s own Metropolitan Police Department, the National Park Service police, the U.S. Capitol police, the Secret Service, the FBI, and the Metro Transit police. The only thing you need to know is: In an emergency, dial tel 911.
Safety -- In the years following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon, the federal and D.C. governments, along with agencies such as the National Park Service, have continued to work together to increase security, not just at airports but also around the city, including at government buildings, tourist attractions, and in the subway. The most noticeable and, honestly, most irksome aspect of increased security at tourist attractions can be summed up in three little words: waiting in line. Although visitors have always had to queue to enter the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and other federal buildings, now it can take more time to get through because of more intense scrutiny when you finally reach the door.
Besides lines, you will notice the intense amount of security in place around the White House and the Capitol, as well as a profusion of vehicle barriers. A tightly secured underground visitor center at the Capitol, which opened in late 2008, was built in great part to safeguard members of Congress as well as all who work for them. Greater numbers of police and security officers are on duty around and inside government buildings, the memorials, and the Metro.
Just because so many police are around, you shouldn’t let your guard down. Washington, like any urban area, has a criminal element, so it’s important to stay alert and take normal safety precautions.
Ask your hotel front-desk staff or the city’s tourist office if you’re in doubt about which neighborhoods are safe.
Avoid deserted areas, especially at night, and don’t go into public parks at night unless there’s a concert or a similar occasion that will attract a crowd.
Avoid carrying valuables with you on the street, and don’t display expensive cameras or electronic equipment. If you’re using a map, consult it inconspicuously—or better yet, try to study it before you leave your room. In general the more you look like a tourist, the more likely someone will try to take advantage of you. If you’re walking, pay attention to who is near you as you walk. If you’re attending a convention or event where you wear a name tag, remove it before venturing outside. Hold on to your purse, and place your wallet in an inside pocket. In theaters, restaurants, and other public places, keep your possessions in sight. Also remember that hotels are open to the public, and in a large hotel, security may not be able to screen everyone entering. Always lock your room door.
Senior Travel -- Members of AARP, 601 E St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20049 (www.aarp.org; tel 888/687-2277), get discounts on hotels, airfares, and car rentals. AARP offers members a wide range of benefits, including AARP The Magazine and a monthly newsletter. Anyone over 50 can join.
With or without AARP membership, seniors often find that discounts are available to them at hotels, so be sure to inquire when you book your reservation.
Venues in Washington that grant discounts to seniors include the Metro; certain theaters, such as the Shakespeare Theatre; and those few museums, such as the Phillips Collection, that charge for entry. Each place has its own eligibility rules, including designated “senior” ages: The Shakespeare Theatre’s is 60 and over, the Phillips Collection’s is 62 and over, and the Metro discounts seniors 65 and over.
Smoking -- The District is smoke free, meaning that the city bans smoking in restaurants, bars, and other public buildings. Smoking is permitted outdoors, unless otherwise noted.
Taxes -- The United States has no value-added tax (VAT) or other indirect tax at the national level. Every state, county, and city may levy its own local tax on all purchases, including hotel and restaurant checks and airline tickets. These taxes will not appear on price tags. The sales tax on merchandise is 5.75% in the District, 6% in Maryland, and 6% in Northern Virginia. Restaurant tax is 10% in the District, 6% in Maryland, and varied in Virginia, depending on the city and county. Hotel tax is 14.5% in the District, from 5% to 8% in Maryland, and an average of 6% in Virginia.
Telephones -- Most long-distance and international calls can be dialed directly from any phone. To make calls within the United States and to Canada, dial 1 followed by the area code and the seven-digit number. For other international calls, dial 011 followed by the country code, the city code, and the number you are calling.
Calls to area codes 800, 888, 877, and 866 are toll free. However, calls to area codes 700 and 900 (chat lines, bulletin boards, “dating” services, and so on) can be expensive—charges of 95[ce] to $3 or more per minute. Some numbers have minimum charges that can run $15 or more.
For reversed-charge or collect calls, and for person-to-person calls, dial the number 0 then the area code and number; an operator will come on the line, and you should specify whether you are calling collect, person-to-person, or both. If your operator-assisted call is international, ask for the overseas operator.
For directory assistance (“Information”), dial 411 for local numbers and national numbers in the U.S. and Canada. For dedicated long-distance information, dial 1 then the appropriate area code, plus 555-1212.
Time -- The continental United States is divided into four time zones: Eastern Standard Time (EST)—this is Washington, D.C.’s time zone—Central Standard Time (CST), Mountain Standard Time (MST), and Pacific Standard Time (PST). Alaska and Hawaii have their own zones. For example, when it’s 9am in Los Angeles (PST), it’s 7am in Honolulu (HST), 10am in Denver (MST), 11am in Chicago (CST), noon in Washington, D.C. (EST), 5pm in London (GMT), and 2am the next day in Sydney.
Daylight saving time (summer time) is in effect from 1am on the second Sunday in March to 1am on the first Sunday in November, except in Arizona, Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. Daylight saving time moves the clock 1 hour ahead of standard time.
Tipping -- In hotels, tip bellhops at least $1 per bag ($2–$3 if you have a lot of luggage) and tip the chamber staff $1 to $2 per day (more if you’ve left a big mess for her to clean up). Tip the doorman or concierge only if he or she has provided you with some specific service (for example, calling a cab for you or obtaining difficult-to-get theater tickets). Tip the valet-parking attendant $1 every time you get your car.
In restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, tip service staff and bartenders 15% to 20% of the check, tip checkroom attendants $1 per garment, and tip valet-parking attendants $1 per vehicle.
As for other service personnel, tip cab drivers 15% of the fare; tip skycaps at airports at least $1 per bag ($2–$3 if you have a lot of luggage); and tip hairdressers and barbers 15% to 20%.
Toilets -- You won’t find public toilets or “restrooms” on the streets of D.C., but they can be found in hotel lobbies, bars, restaurants, museums, and service stations, and at many sightseeing attractions. Starbucks and fast-food restaurants abound in D.C., and these might be your most reliable option. Restaurants and bars in resorts or heavily visited areas may reserve their restrooms for patrons.
Visas -- The U.S. State Department has a Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allowing citizens of the following countries to enter the United States without a visa for stays of up to 90 days: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom. (Note: This list was accurate at press time; for the most up-to-date list of countries in the VWP, consult www.travel.state.gov/content/visas/english.html.) Even though a visa isn’t necessary, in an effort to help U.S. officials check travelers against terror watch lists before they arrive at U.S. borders, visitors from VWP countries must register online through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) before boarding a plane or a boat to the U.S. Travelers must complete an electronic application providing basic personal and travel eligibility information. The Department of Homeland Security recommends filling out the form at least 3 days before traveling. Authorizations will be valid for up to 2 years or until the traveler’s passport expires, whichever comes first. Currently, there is one $14 fee for the online application. Existing ESTA registrations remain valid through their expiration dates. Note: Any passport issued on or after October 26, 2006, by a VWP country must be an e-Passport for VWP travelers to be eligible to enter the U.S. without a visa. Citizens of these nations also need to present a round-trip air or cruise ticket upon arrival. E-Passports contain computer chips capable of storing biometric information, such as the required digital photograph of the holder. If your passport doesn’t have this feature, you can still travel without a visa if the valid passport was issued before October 26, 2005 and includes a machine-readable zone; or if the valid passport was issued between October 26, 2005 and October 25, 2006 and includes a digital photograph. For more information, go to www.travel.state.gov/content/visas/english.html. Canadian citizens may enter the United States without visas but will need to show passports and proof of residence.
Citizens of all other countries must have (1) a valid passport that expires at least 6 months later than the scheduled end of their visit to the U.S. and (2) a tourist visa.
For information about U.S. visas, go to www.travel.state.gov and click on “Visas.”
Visitor Information -- Destination D.C. is the official tourism and convention corporation for Washington, D.C., 901 7th St. NW, 4th Floor, Washington, D.C. 20001-3719 (www.washington.org; tel 202/789-7000). Before you leave home, order (or download) a free copy of the bureau’s Washington, D.C. Visitors Guide, which covers hotels, restaurants, attractions, shops, and more and is updated twice yearly. Call tel 202/789-7000 to speak directly to a staff “visitor services specialist” and get answers to your specific questions about the city.
Besides using Destination D.C.’s website to obtain a copy of the visitors guide, you can read about the latest travel information, including upcoming exhibits at the museums and anticipated closings of tourist attractions. The website is also a source for maps, which you can download and print from the site or order for delivery by mail.
Once you’ve arrived, stop by Destination D.C.’s offices on 7th Street NW (Metro: Gallery Place–Chinatown, H St. exit), to pick up the visitors guide and maps, and to talk to visitors services specialists. Office hours are Monday to Friday 8:30am to 5pm.
If you’re arriving by plane or train, you can think of your airport or the train station as visitor information centers; all three Washington-area airports and Union Station offer all sorts of visitor services.
National Park Service information kiosks are located inside or near the Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, Vietnam Veterans, Korean War, and World War II memorials, and at the Washington Monument (www.nps.gov/nama for National Mall and Memorial Parks sites; tel 202/426-6841 or 619-7222).
The White House Visitor Center, on the first floor of the Herbert Hoover Building, Department of Commerce, 1450 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (btw. 14th and 15th sts.; tel 202/208-1631, or 202/456-7041 for recorded information), is open daily (except for New Year’s Day, Christmas Day, and Thanksgiving) from 7:30am to 4pm.
The Smithsonian Information Center, in the Castle, 1000 Jefferson Dr. SW (www.si.edu; tel 202/633-1000, or TTY [text telephone] 633-5285), is open every day but Christmas from 8:30am to 5:30pm; knowledgeable staff answer questions and dispense maps and brochures.
Visit the D.C. government’s website, www.dc.gov, and that of the nonprofit organization Cultural Tourism DC, www.culturaltourismdc.org, for more information about the city. The latter site in particular provides helpful and interesting background knowledge of D.C.’s historic and cultural landmarks, especially in neighborhoods or parts of neighborhoods not usually visited by tourists.
Check out www.washingtonpost.com, www.washingtonian.com, www.dcist.com, and one of my favorite websites, www.welovedc.com, for the latest commentary and information about Washington happenings.