Three airports serve the Washington, D.C. area. General information follows that should help you determine which airport is your best bet.
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) lies 4 miles south of D.C., across the Potomac River in Virginia, about a 10-minute trip by car in non-rush-hour traffic, and 15 to 20 minutes by Metro anytime. Its proximity to the District and its direct access to the Metro rail system are reasons why you might want to fly into National. Another reason: A climate-controlled pedestrian bridge connects the terminal directly to a Metro station; Blue and Yellow Lines stop here and will whisk you inexpensively into the heart of the city. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority oversees both National and Dulles airports, so the website is the same for the two facilities: www.mwaa.com. Check there for airport information, or call tel 703/417-2400. For Metro information, go online at www.wmata.com or call tel 202/637-7000.
Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) is 26 miles outside the capital, in Chantilly, Virginia, a 35- to 45-minute ride to downtown in non-rush-hour traffic. Of the three airports, Dulles handles more daily flights, with about 30 airlines flying nonstop to 129 destinations, including 48 foreign cities. The airport is not as convenient to the heart of Washington as National, but it’s more convenient than BWI, thanks to an uncongested airport access road that travels half the distance toward Washington. The airport’s website is www.mwaa.com and its information line is tel 703/572-2400.
Last but not least is Baltimore–Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI), which is located about 45 minutes from downtown, a few miles outside of Baltimore. A vast expansion has added 11 gates to a newly improved concourse and skywalks from parking garages to terminals, and the number of parking spaces has tripled. One factor especially accounts for this tremendous growth, the same that recommends BWI to travelers: the major presence of Southwest Airlines,whose bargain fares and flights to more than 50 cities seem to offer something for everyone. (Southwest also serves Dulles and National airports, but in a much smaller capacity.) Call tel 410/859-7111 for airport information, or point your browser to www.bwiairport.com.
Getting into Town from the Airport
Each of the three airports offers similar options for getting into the city. All three airports could really use better signage, especially because their ground transportation desks always seem to be located quite a distance from the gate at which you arrive. Keep trudging, and follow baggage claim signs, because ground transportation operations are always situated near baggage carousels.
Taxi Service -- For a trip to downtown D.C., you can expect a taxi to cost close to $15 for the 10- to 20-minute ride from National Airport, $57 to $60 for the 30- to 45-minute ride from Dulles Airport, and about $90 for the 45-minute ride from BWI.
SuperShuttle -- These vans offer shared-ride, door-to-door service between the airport and your destination, whether in the District or in a suburban location. You make a reservation by phone or online (www.supershuttle.com; tel 800/258-3826) and then proceed to the SuperShuttle desk in your airport to check in. The only drawback to this service is the roundabout way the driver must follow, as he or she drops off or picks up other passengers en route. If you arrive after the SuperShuttle desk has closed, you can summon a van by calling customer service at the above number. The 24-hour service bases its fares on zip code, so to reach downtown, expect to pay about $14, plus $10 for each additional person, from National; $29, plus $10 per additional person, from Dulles; and $37, plus $12 per additional person, from BWI. SuperShuttle also tacks on a $1 to $2 fuel charge in certain vicinities, Maryland being one.
Transportation Options by Airport
From Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport -- If you are not too encumbered with luggage, you should take Metrorail into the city. Metro’s Yellow and Blue Lines stop at the airport and connect via an enclosed walkway to level two, the concourse level of the main terminal, adjacent to terminals B and C. If yours is one of the airlines that still uses the “old” terminal A (Sun Country, AirTran, JetBlue, Air Canada, Frontier), you will have a longer walk to reach the Metro station. Signs pointing the way can be confusing, so ask an airport employee if you’re headed in the right direction; or, better yet, head out to the curb and hop a shuttle bus to the station, but be sure to ask the driver to let you know when you’ve reached the enclosed bridge that leads to the Metro (it may not be obvious, and drivers don’t always announce the stops). Metrobuses also serve the area, should you be going somewhere off the Metro route. But Metrorail is fastest, a 15- to 20-minute non-rush-hour ride to downtown. It is safe, convenient, and cheap; the base fare is $2.70 for a paper fare card, $1.70 if you use a SmarTrip card, and goes up from there depending on when (fares increase during rush hours) and where you’re going.
If you’re renting a car from an on-site car rental agency—Alamo (www.alamo.com), Avis (tel www.avis.com), Budget (www.budget.com), Enterprise (tel www.enterprise.com), Hertz (www.hertz.com), or National (www.nationalcar.com)—go to level two, the concourse level, follow the pedestrian walkway to the parking garage, find garage A, and descend one flight. You can also take the complimentary airport shuttle (look for the sign posted at the curb outside the terminal) to parking garage A. If you’ve rented from off-premises agencies Dollar (www.dollar.com) or Advantage (www.advantage.com), head outside the baggage claim area of your terminal, and catch the Dollar or Advantage shuttle bus.
To get downtown by car, follow the signs out of the airport for the George Washington Parkway, headed north toward Washington. Stay on the parkway until you see signs for I-395 north to Washington. Take the I-395 north exit, which takes you across the 14th Street Bridge. Stay in the left lane crossing the bridge and follow the signs for Route 1, which will put you on 14th Street NW. (You’ll see the Washington Monument off to your left.) Ask your hotel for directions from 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Or take the more scenic route, always staying to the left on the GW Parkway as you follow the signs for Memorial Bridge. You’ll be driving alongside the Potomac River, with the Capitol and memorials in view across the river; then, as you cross over Memorial Bridge, you’re greeted by the Lincoln Memorial. Stay left coming over the bridge, swoop around to the left of the Memorial, take a left on 23rd Street NW, a right on Constitution Avenue, and then, if you want to be in the heart of downtown, left again on 15th Street NW (the Washington Monument will be to your right).
From Washington Dulles International Airport -- The Washington Flyer Express Bus (www.washfly.com; tel 888/927-4359) runs between Dulles and Metro’s Orange Line station at West Falls Church, where you can purchase a Metro farecard to board an Orange Line train bound for New Carrollton, which heads into D.C. In the airport, look for signs for the Washington Flyer Coach, which leaves from door 4 on the arrivals level (follow the ramp up to the ticket counter, where you can buy a ticket). Buses to the West Falls Church Metro station run daily, every 30 minutes, and cost $10 one-way.
More convenient is the Metrobus service (no. 5A) that runs between Dulles (buses depart from curb 2E, outside the Ground Transportation area) and the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station, located across from the National Mall and the Smithsonian museums, and downhill from nearby Capitol Hill. The bus departs every 30 to 40 minutes weekdays, hourly on weekends. It costs $6 (you must use a SmarTrip card) and takes 45 minutes to an hour.
If you are renting a car at Dulles, head down the ramp near your baggage claim area and walk outside to the curb to look for your rental car’s shuttle-bus stop. The buses come by every 5 minutes or so en route to nearby rental lots. Almost all the major companies are represented.
To reach downtown Washington from Dulles by car, exit the airport and stay on the Dulles Access Road, which leads right into I-66 east. Follow I-66 east, which takes you across the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge; be sure to stay in the center lane as you cross the bridge, and this will put you on Constitution Avenue (Rte. 29). Ask your hotel for directions from this point.
From Baltimore–Washington International Airport -- Washington’s Metro service runs an Express Metro Bus (“B30”) between its Metrorail Green Line Greenbelt station and BWI Airport. The airport has two bus stops on its lower level, one in the International Concourse, the other in Concourse A/B. Look for public transit signs to find the bus, which operates daily, departs every 40 minutes, takes about 30 minutes to reach the station, and costs $6. At the Greenbelt Metro station, you purchase a Metro farecard and board a Metro train bound for Branch Avenue, which will take you into the city. Depending on where you want to go, you can either stay on the Green Line train to your designated stop or get off at the Fort Totten station to transfer to a Red Line train, whose stops include Union Station (near Capitol Hill) and various downtown locations.
You also have the choice of taking either an Amtrak (www.amtrak.com; tel 800/872-7245) or the Penn line of the Maryland Rural Commuter train, or MARC (http://mta.maryland.gov/marc-train; tel 866/743-3682), into the city. Both trains travel between the BWI Railway Station (tel 410/672-6169) and Washington’s Union Station (tel 202/906-3104 for MARC info, 202/906-3260 for Amtrak info), about a 30- to 45-minute ride. Both Amtrak’s service ($15–$45 per person, one-way, depending on time and train type) and MARC’s service ($6 per person, one-way) are daily. A courtesy shuttle runs every 12 minutes or so between the airport and the train station; stop at the desk near the baggage-claim area to check for the next departure time of both the shuttle bus and the train. Trains depart about once per hour.
BWI operates a large off-site car rental facility. From the ground transportation area, board a shuttle bus to the lot.
Here’s how you reach Washington: Look for signs for I-195 and follow the highway west until you see signs for Washington and the Baltimore–Washington Parkway (I-295); head south on I-295. Get off when you see the signs for Rte. 50/New York Avenue, which leads into the District, via New York Avenue NE. Ask your hotel for specific directions from New York Avenue NE.
More than one third of visitors to Washington arrive by plane, and if that’s you, don’t worry about renting a car. In fact, it’s better if you don’t, because the traffic in the city and throughout the region is absolutely abysmal, parking spaces are hard to find, garage and lot charges are exorbitant, and hotel overnight rates are even worse. Furthermore, Washington is amazingly easy to traverse on foot—so easy, in fact, that assorted sources, from Prevention magazine to the Brookings Institution, name D.C. among the most walkable cities in the country. Our public transportation and taxi systems are accessible and comprehensive, as well.
But if you are like most visitors, you’re planning on driving here. No matter which road you take, there’s a good chance you will have to navigate some portion of the Capital Beltway (I-495 and I-95) to gain entry to D.C. The Beltway girds the city, its approximately 66-mile route passing through Maryland and Virginia, with some 56 interchanges or exits leading off from it. The Beltway is nearly always congested, but especially during weekday morning and evening rush hours (roughly 5:30–9:30am and 3–7pm). Drivers can get a little crazy, weaving in and out of traffic.
The District is 240 miles from New York City, 40 miles from Baltimore, 700 miles from Chicago, 500 miles from Boston, and about 630 miles from Atlanta.
Amtrak (www.amtrak.com; tel 800/USA-RAIL [872-7245]) offers daily service to Washington from New York, Boston, and Chicago. Amtrak also travels daily between Washington and points south, including Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta, cities in Florida, and New Orleans. Amtrak’s Acela Express trains offer the quickest service along the “Northeast Corridor,” linking Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. The trains travel as fast as 150 mph, making the trip between New York and Washington in times that range from less than 3 hours to 3 hours and 45 minutes, depending on the number of stops in the schedule. Likewise, Acela Express’s Boston–Washington trip takes anywhere from 6 1/2 hours to more than 8 hours, depending on station stops.
Amtrak runs fewer Acela trains on weekends and honors passenger discounts, such as those for seniors and AAA members, only on weekend Acela travel.
Amtrak offers a smorgasbord of good-deal rail passes and discounted fares; although not all are based on advance purchase, you may have more discount options by reserving early. Tickets for up to two children ages 2 to 15 cost half the price of the lowest available adult fare when the children are accompanied by a fare-paying adult. For more information, go to www.amtrak.com and click on the website’s “Deals” section, where you’ll find assorted discount possibilities. Note: Most Amtrak travel requires a reservation, which means that every traveler is guaranteed, but not assigned, a seat.
Amtrak trains arrive at historic Union Station, 50 Massachusetts Ave. NE (www.unionstationdc.com; tel 202/371-9441), a short walk from the Capitol, across the circle from several hotels, and a short cab or Metro ride from downtown. The station connects with Metro service and taxis are almost always available.
Bus travel is now in vogue, thanks to the rise of fabulously priced, comfortable, clean, and fast bus services. Quite a number of buses travel between Washington, D.C. and New York City, and a growing number travel between D.C. and cities scattered up and down the East Coast.
Check out one of these fleets: BoltBus (www.boltbus.com; tel 877/265-8287) travels multiple times a day between D.C.’s Union Station and NYC for $1 to $25 each way. Megabus (www.megabus.com; tel 877/462-6342) travels between Washington, D.C.’s Union Station and NYC (also many times a day) for as little as $1 and as much as $43, one-way (most fares run in the $13 to $25 range); and travels between D.C. and 17 other locations, including Boston, Toronto, and Knoxville, Tennessee, for similarly low fares.
Vamoose Bus (www.vamoosebus.com; tel 212/695-6766) travels between Rosslyn, Virginia’s stop near the Rosslyn Metro station and Bethesda, Maryland’s stop near the Bethesda Metro station, and NYC’s Penn Station, for $30 to $40 each way, with a coupon given at the end of each trip: Collect four and ride one-way for free.
Greyhound (www.greyhound.com; tel 800/231-2222) is actually the company behind BoltBus, but oddly, it’s often more expensive and slower on its routes (many of which are doubled by BoltBus). The D.C. Greyhound bus depot is at Union Station.