March, 2004 -- Nearly 20 million visitors come to the nation's capital each year plotting itineraries that list Washington, D.C.'s most famous "best" experiences: tours of the presidential memorials, the White House (at least from the outside), the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Smithsonian museums, and other of D.C.'s premier museums. Your own itinerary should include all of these and more.
In at least one major way, the nation's capital is the frugal traveler's dream destination: Nearly all of the city's tourist attractions, including the monuments, memorials, and museums, are absolutely free. If it weren't for those pesky lodging, eating, and transportation expenses, you'd be coming to town all the time, I'll bet. The fact is, if you are traveling to the capital on a limited budget, you need to plan wisely and in advance. Here's when our "&80-a-day" premise comes in handy. The idea is this: With good planning and a watchful eye, you can keep your basic daily living costs-accommodations and three meals a day -- down to as little as $80. This budget model works best for two adults traveling together who have at least $160 a day to work with and can share a double room (single rooms are much less cost-efficient). This way, if you aim for accommodations priced around $90 or $100 for a double (far easier to achieve on a weekend), you'll be left with about $30 or $35 per person per day for food.
If you want to spend even less on accommodations, I have a couple of suggestions for you. For the most part, however, the basic, "from $80 a day" premise assumes that your preference is for a private room, even if it comes with a shared bathroom, and for decent restaurant fare, rather than fast food at every meal. The $80 a day premise does not include transportation and entertainment expenses. But don't worry -- I've got plenty of suggestions on how to keep those costs down. It helps that the capital is such a walkable city, that so many of its attractions are free, and that various venues stage free performances daily.
1. Before you leave, contact the Washington, D.C. Convention & Tourism Corporation, 1212 New York Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20005 (tel. 202/789-7000; www.washington.org) and ask them to send you a free copy of the Washington, D.C., Visitors Guide, which describes hotels, restaurants, sights, shops, and much more. They'll also be happy to answer specific questions. Their website posts packages and deals from time to time.
2. Visit a travel agent to inquire about airfares, hotels, car rentals, and combination packages. These services are free. Remember that not all travel agents are created equal: Often a budget travel agency will dig up exotic fares a mainstream agent will insist are impossible to get. If you're traveling to Washington from Europe, you can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars by calling several different agencies.
3. Buy a money-saving package deal. A travel package that includes your plane tickets and hotel stay for one price might just be the best bargain of all. In some cases, you'll get airfare, accommodations, transportation to and from the airport, plus extras-maybe an afternoon sightseeing tour or restaurant and shopping discount coupons -- for less than the cost of a hotel room alone, had you booked it yourself.
4. If you belong to a travel club, such as AAA, obtain maps and tourist information, and find out about discounts available to club members. In fact, if you belong to any club or organization, find out whether your membership entitles you to travel benefits in Washington. (For that matter, families, seniors, travelers with disabilities, gay or lesbian travelers, and students may be entitled to discounts.) AARP members receive discounts on car rentals, lodging, and cruises. A private club to which you or your corporation belongs may grant reciprocal membership privileges, including reasonably priced lodging and free use of health-club facilities, at a signatory club in Washington. The University Club of the City of Washington, D.C., participates in such an arrangement with 150 clubs worldwide.
5. Keep your eyes peeled for discount coupons. A good place to start is your monthly American Express bill, which may include discounts you'll receive at various establishments, sometimes in the Washington area.
6. Order coupon books, which offer money-saving vouchers for participating hotels, restaurants, stores, car-rental agencies, and other enterprises. Entertainment Publications Inc. publishes yearly editions of coupon-crammed books that offer you great values at restaurants, hotels/motels, car rentals, and so on. More than 150 versions exist, covering major cities and regions in the United States and Canada. You have to pay for Entertainment books, and the price fluctuates from year to year. In 2003, two separate editions covered Washington, D.C.: the Maryland/Washington, D.C. book, and the Northern Virginia/Washington, D.C. book, each costing $40, plus shipping and handling charges. Call 800/933-2605 for more information, or log onto www.entertainment.com.
7. Try to schedule your trip during holidays, off-season, or on weekends, when room rates are sometimes half the weekday or in-season rates. Peak seasons in Washington correspond roughly to two activities: the sessions of Congress and springtime, starting with the blossoming of the cherry blossoms along the Potomac. Specifically when Congress is in session, from about the second week in September until Thanksgiving, and again from about mid-January through June. Hotels are fairly full with guests whose business ties in with Capitol Hill and with those attending the many meetings and conventions that take place here. You get the best room rates on weekends throughout the year, around holidays, and on weekdays and weekends during the periods of July through the first week of September and late November through January.
8. First things first: Find out whether a low-fare carrier travels between your city and Washington. Low-fare airlines are on the rise and offer great deals, especially up and down the East Coast, and west from Chicago. Which leads to the next tip:
9. Consider all three airports when you're shopping around. Fares can be markedly different depending on which airport you fly into -- Ronald Reagan Washington National, Washington Dulles International, or Baltimore-Washington International.
10. Search the Internet for cheap fares-though it's still best to compare your findings with the research of a dedicated travel agent, if you're lucky enough to have one, especially when you're booking more than just a flight.
11. It always helps to be flexible. If you can purchase your ticket long in advance, don't mind staying over Saturday night, or are willing to travel on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday after 7pm, you'll pay a fraction of the full fare. Many airlines won't volunteer this information, so be sure to ask.
12. Always ask specifically for the lowest rate, not just a discount fare. Yes, reservations and travel agents should take for granted that you want the lowest possible fare -- but they don't always do so. And, as with every aspect of your trip, ask about discounts for groups, seniors, children, and students.
13. Keep an eye out for airfare sales. Check your newspaper for advertised discounts or call the airlines directly and ask if any promotional rates or special fares are available; whether seniors, children, and students receive reduced rates; and if the airline offers money-saving packages that include such essentials as hotel accommodations, car rentals, and tours with your airfare. Read the Sunday travel sections of the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Times column, "Lowest Air Fares for Popular Routes," highlights bargain airfares, while the Post's "What's the Deal?" lists "the week's best travel bargains around the globe, by land, sea, and air," which means that you can also find out about specials offered by hotels, cruise lines, and travel companies.
14. You'll almost never see a sale during the peak summer vacation months of July and August, or during the Thanksgiving or Christmas seasons. If you don't mind traveling on Christmas Day or Thanksgiving Day, itself, however, you might snag a cheaper fare (most people would rather not be on an airplane on the actual holiday). If your schedule is flexible, ask if you can secure a cheaper fare by staying an extra day or by flying midweek. (Many airlines won't volunteer this information.) If you already hold a ticket when a sale breaks, it may even pay to exchange your ticket, which usually incurs a $50 to $75 charge. Note, however, that the lowest-priced fares are often nonrefundable, require advance purchase of 1 to 3 weeks and a certain length of stay, and carry penalties for changing dates of travel.
15. Consolidators, also known as bucket shops, are a good place to find low fares, often below even the airlines' discounted rates. Basically, they're just big travel agents that get discounts for buying in bulk and pass some of the savings on to you. Before you pay, however, ask for a confirmation number from the consolidator and then call the airline itself to confirm your seat. Also be aware that consolidator tickets are usually nonrefundable or come with stiff cancellation penalties. One way to choose a consolidator is to check with professional organizations whose members, including consolidators, must satisfy certain solid requirements. For example, the United States Tour Operators Association includes a number of tour operators who also handle consolidator business; all USTOA members are listed on its website at www.ustoa.com. Also, when using a consolidator, try booking your ticket through a travel agent experienced with consolidators and always use a credit card to pay. Several reliable consolidators are worldwide and available on the Net. STA Travel (tel. 800/781-4040; www.statravel.com) is now the world's leader in student travel, thanks to their purchase of Council Travel. It also offers good fares for travelers of all ages. Flights.com (tel. 800/TRAV-800; www.flights.com) started in Europe and has excellent fares worldwide. It also has "local" websites in 12 countries. FlyCheap (tel. 800/FLY-CHEAP; www.1800flycheap.com) is owned by package-holiday megalith MyTravel and so has especially good access to fares for sunny destinations. Air Tickets Direct (tel. 800/778-3447; www.airticketsdirect.com) is based in Montreal and leverages the currently weak Canadian dollar for low fares.
16. Book a seat on a charter flight. Discounted fares have pared the number available, but they can still be found. Most charter operators advertise and sell their seats through travel agents, thus making these local professionals your best source of information for available flights. Before deciding to take a charter flight, however, check the restrictions on the ticket: You may be asked to purchase a tour package, to pay in advance, to be amenable if the day of departure is changed, to pay a service charge, to fly on an airline you're not familiar with (this is not usually the case), and to pay harsh penalties if you cancel -- but be understanding if the charter doesn't fill up and is canceled up to 10 days before departure. Summer charters fill up more quickly than others and are almost sure to fly, but if you decide on a charter flight, seriously consider cancellation and baggage insurance.
17. Join frequent-flier clubs. Accrue enough miles, and you'll be rewarded with free flights and elite status. It's free, and you'll get the best choice of seats, faster response to phone inquiries, and prompter service if your luggage is stolen, your flight is canceled or delayed, or if you want to change your seat. You don't need to fly to build frequent-flier miles -- frequent-flier credit cards can provide thousands of miles for doing your everyday shopping.
18. Join an online, discount travel club such as Moment's Notice (tel. 888/241-3366; www.moments-notice.com) or Sears Discount Travel Club (tel. 800/433-9383 or 800/255-1487 to join; www.travelersadvantage.com), which supply unsold tickets at discounted prices.
19. For many more tips about air travel, including a rundown of the major frequent-flier credit cards, pick up a copy of Frommer's Fly Safe, Fly Smart (Wiley Publishing, Inc.).
20. If you're traveling from New York City (or another city on the East Coast), you may find that it's cheaper to take the train or bus. Because trains and buses take you right into the heart of town, you may save time and money on transportation to and from the airport.
21. Have a flexible schedule when booking train travel, and always ask for the lowest fare. When you're offered a fare, always ask if you can do better by traveling at different times or days. You can often save money by traveling at off-peak hours and on weekends (when Amtrak's Metroliner fares are substantially reduced). And don't forget to ask for discounts for kids, seniors, passengers with disabilities, military personnel, or anything else that you think might qualify you for a lower fare.
22. Inquire about Amtrak Vacations and other money-saving Amtrak packages that may include hotel accommodations, car rentals, and tours with your train fare.
23. Like the airlines, Amtrak offers several discounted fares; although not all are based on advance purchase, you have more discount options by reserving early. The discount fares can be used only on certain days and hours of the day; be sure to find out exactly what restrictions apply. Tickets for children ages 2 to 15 cost half the price of a regular coach fare when the children are accompanied by a fare-paying adult. Go to www.amtrak.com and click on "Rail Sale," where you can purchase tickets for one-way designated coach seats at great discounts. Likewise, Amtrak's Savings and Promotions section lists ticket discounts to various destinations.
24. Take the bus: Greyhound is dirt-cheap, as you can see by going to its website's home page at www.greyhound.com, and clicking on "Super Friendly Fares." There, you will see that you can travel as far as 500 miles for $49, and across the continental U.S. for as little as $119.
Getting Around the City by Public Transportation
25. Eschew motorized transportation altogether, and hoof it. Washington's magnificent architecture and lovely parks, gardens, and green spaces make it an ideal city for walking.
26. Consider skipping a rental car. Washington's public transportation system is comprehensive and reliable. In fact, you may find that parking nuisances outweigh the convenience of a car. Use the Metro, which, unlike the subways in some other big cities, is delightfully clean, efficient, safe, and user-friendly. It's also the fastest and cheapest way to get around; buy a One-Day Rail Pass and you can travel around the city all day long for only $6. If you're going to be here for several days, you can get an even better deal by paying $20 for the Seven-Day Short Trip Rail Pass, which allows you almost unlimited transportation throughout the week. (Rush hour travel, between 5:30-9:30am and 3-7pm weekdays, may require you to use the Exitfare machine in the station to add money to your fare card if the fare for your route exceeds $2.)
27. Tourmobile (www.tourmobile.com) and Old Town Trolley Tours (tel. 202/832-9800; http://www.trolleytours.com/washington-dc) stop at many Washington sightseeing attractions. A one-price ticket can save you money getting around town if you plan your itinerary to make the most of it.
28. When you're choosing a place to stay, ask whether the hotel offers free shuttle service to the airport, nearby Metro station, or attractions.
29. Getting downtown is easiest, fastest, and cheapest from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Moving sidewalks transport you from the gates within the terminal to the terminal's entrance, which connects by climate-controlled pedestrian bridges to the Metro platform. Purchase a $1.20 fare card, hop aboard, and 15 to 20 minutes later, you're downtown. For now, the Metro is an option at National only.
As stated above, because Washington is such an easy city to navigate, whether on foot, by Metro, or by taxi, you probably won't need a car. But should your visit require one, you should know that car rental rates vary even more than airline fares. The price you pay will depend on the size of the car, where and when you pick it up and drop it off, the length of the rental period, where and how far you drive it, whether you purchase insurance, and a host of other factors. Follow these guidelines and you may save hundreds of dollars.
30. Call all the major rental firms and compare rates before you book (and don't forget to check their websites, which usually have special deals). Even after you've made your reservations, call again and check rates a few days or weeks later-you may stumble upon a cheaper rate.
31. Ask for the cheapest rate on the smallest car. If there are only two of you traveling, get a compact. The $5 or more per day you save can add up -- and you'll save money on gas and have an easier time parking. If the agent tells you that all the economy cars are booked, this may be a ploy to get you to upgrade; thank them and book with another company.
32. Ask if weekend rates are lower than weekday rates -- if the rate is the same for pickup Friday morning, for instance, as it is for Thursday night.
33. Book at weekly rates when possible -- you can save a bundle. Even if you only need the car for 4 days, it may be cheaper to keep it for 5.
34. If you arrive at the rental desk with a valid car reservation with a confirmation number, the agents are obligated to honor the rate you were quoted -- even if they have to give you an upgrade. A ploy some rental companies use when they're all out of the grade of car you booked (economy cars often get booked up first) is to tell you that for just a few more dollars a day, they'll put you in a "better car." Make them stick to their original quote.
35. Always return your rental car full of gas. The prices the rental companies charge you to fill your tank when you don't are well above the already high price per gallon charged at local filling stations. Skip the agencies' offers of refueling packages.
36. Find out if the agency assesses a drop-off charge if you don't return the car to the same location where you picked it up. Is it cheaper to pick up the car at the airport compared to a downtown location?
37. Are special promotional rates available? If you see an advertised price in your local newspaper, be sure to ask for that specific rate; otherwise you may be charged the standard cost. Terms change constantly, and there's no charge to change or cancel an existing reservation if you find a better deal later.
38. Inquire whether discounts are available for members of AARP, AAA, frequent flyer programs, or trade unions. If you belong to any of these organizations, you may be entitled to discounts of up to 30%. There's no charge to join the agencies' own frequent-renter clubs, which may also help you rack up discounts.
39. Ask how much tax will be added to the rental bill, including local taxes and surcharges, which can vary from location to location, even within the same car rental agency. Don't forget to ask if the company charges for adding an additional driver's name to the contract. And find out how many free miles are included in the price. Free mileage is often negotiable, depending on the length of your rental.
40. Check out packages that include airfare, accommodations, and a rental car with unlimited mileage. Compare these prices with the cost of booking airline tickets and renting a car separately to see if these offers are good deals. 41. Surfing the Web can make comparison shopping easier.
42. Book early. The best budget hotels are usually the first to fill up. It's best to reserve them as far in advance as possible to ensure low rates. Your choices may be more limited later on. If you find a rate that seems a particularly good value, book it early. Hotels tend to offer special rates for limited periods, and the rate may not be available at a later date.
43. Consider all hotels, no matter the rate category. Almost everyone winds up paying much less than the advertised "rack" rate. Even the best and most expensive hotels may be ready to negotiate and often offer bargain rates at certain times or to guests who are members of certain groups, and you may be eligible. Upscale Washington hotels routinely offer discounted weekend packages, especially during the summer.
44. Don't be afraid to bargain. Always ask for a lower price than the first one quoted. Most rack rates include commissions of 10% to 25% or more for travel agents, which many hotels will cut if you make your own reservations and haggle a bit. Ask politely whether a less-expensive room is available than the first one mentioned or whether any special rates apply to you. You might qualify for corporate, student, military, senior, or other discounts. Mention membership in AAA, AARP, frequent-flyer programs, corporate or military organizations, and trade unions, which might entitle you to special deals as well. The big chains, such as Best Western and Comfort Inn, tend to be good about trying to save you money, but reservation agents often won't volunteer the information; you have to pull it out of them. If you arrive without a reservation (only recommended in the off-season, of course), an especially advantageous time to secure lower rates is late in the afternoon/early evening on your day of arrival, when a hotel's likelihood of filling up with full-price bookings is remote. Naturally the first price they'll hit you with is the highest (the chump rate). Counter with a lower offer. The worst thing they can do is say no.
45. Ask about rates for families, who often receive discounts, as much as 50% off on a second room adjoining the parent's room, or perhaps free fare in the hotel's restaurant (many Holiday Inns, like the Holiday Inn Georgetown listed in chapter 5, let kids age 12 and under eat free from children's menus year-round). Every hotel (but not necessarily inns or bed-and-breakfasts) included in chapter 5 allows children under a certain age, usually 12 or 18, to stay free in their parent's room.
46. When booking a room in a chain hotel, call the hotel's local line, as well as the toll-free number, and see where you get the best deal. A hotel makes nothing on a room that stays empty. The clerk who runs the place is more likely to know about vacancies and will often grant deep discounts in order to fill up.
47. Consider a suite. It sounds like the ultimate splurge, but if you're traveling with another couple or your family, a suite can be a terrific bargain. They're always cheaper than two hotel rooms. If you're traveling with your family or another couple, you can pack more people into a suite (which usually comes with a sofa bed), and thereby reduce your per-person rate. Remember that some places charge for extra guests, some don't.
48. Book an efficiency. A room with a kitchenette allows you to prepare your own meals (you supply the groceries). Especially during long stays with families, you're bound to save money on food this way.
49. Investigate reservation services, both national and local. These outfits usually work as consolidators, buying up or reserving rooms in bulk, and then dealing them out to customers at a profit. They do garner special deals that range from 10% to 50% off; but remember, these discounts apply to rack rates, that is, the published higher prices. You're sometimes better off dealing directly with a hotel, but if you don't like bargaining, this is certainly a viable option. Most of them offer online reservation services as well.
50. Consider a stay at a bed-and-breakfast, often a less costly and more personal experience.
51. Negotiate a cyberdeal.
52. If you're staying for an extended period (5 days or more), ask for a better rate for a long-term stay; hotels love a sure thing.
53. If you're traveling in a group, by all means negotiate your rate as a block. The desk clerk's eyes will light up when you say you want to book five or ten rooms -- and then you can put on the hard sell to get the best deal.
54. Business and leisure visitors who travel a lot should sign up for frequent-stay programs, which are akin to the airlines' frequent-flyer programs, with free stays, gifts, special privileges, frequent-flyer mile credits, and other perks granted by appreciative hotels to loyal customers. The Best Western Downtown-Capitol Hill offers such a program.
55. Do as little business as possible through the hotel. Any service they offer will come with a stiff premium. You can easily find dry cleaners or other services in most areas of Washington. And it's usually cheaper to use your cell phone or a pay phone than to pay inflated telephone surcharges in your hotel room.
56. Book a property that includes great perks in its rates, such as continental breakfast, complimentary access to a health club, and free parking.
57. Plan to eat your biggest meal at lunch, when you can often order from the same menus that are considerably more expensive at dinner.
58. Fixed-price menus, early-bird dinners, and light-fare menus that are available in late afternoon or late at night are big money savers.
59. If you're traveling with kids, find restaurants that offer reduced-price children's menus, or better yet, free meals for children, As mentioned in tip #45, above, many Holiday Inns allow children under age 12 to eat free from a children's menu when accompanied by an adult ordering from the main menu.
60. Plan a picnic. Buy the fixings at a local grocery and dine alfresco; Washington abounds with lovely outdoor parks and plazas. And there's no tipping, and no food markup.
61. Check out Washington's low-cost cafeterias and food courts. Notable among the latter are those at Union Station, the Pavilion at the Old Post Office, and the Shops at Georgetown Park.
62. Go all out on a big all-you-can-eat brunch such as the one offered at Old Glory Barbecue for just $12 per adult and $6.95 per child. You'll save money by combining two meals, enjoy a leisurely dining experience, and probably be so full you'll want only a light evening meal.
63. Many bars in Washington offer fairly extensive happy-hour buffets. If you're a light eater or you've had a big lunch, this could suffice for a meal.
64. Do your main munching in government buildings. The Capitol, congressional office buildings, Library of Congress, and Supreme Court Building, in particular, offer great deals, with most main courses costing less than $9. The dining rooms and cafeterias are open weekdays only, mostly for breakfast and lunch, and are generally very crowded with congressional staffers and government employees, so time your meal to be slightly off-peak.
65. Take full advantage of the fact that most of the capital's sightseeing attractions, and many of its best events, are free and open to the public. Visit the Supreme Court to observe the Supreme Court Justices hearing a case; tour the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and all of the other monuments and memorials; go to as many of the Smithsonian museums as you can, but also to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (www.ushmm.org) and the National Gallery of Art.
66. Plan an itinerary that takes into account the geographical proximity of the sights you're visiting; this will enable you to save money on transportation, as well as time and energy.
67. Save time and maximize your enjoyment of Smithsonian museums (,www.si.edu) by taking the excellent (and free) highlight tours they offer. Families should always call museums ahead to inquire about special (often free) programs for children.
68. Take note of days and times when admission fees are waived. For example, though it usually costs $11 (per adult) to tour the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, (www.mountvernon.org) admission is free on the third Monday in February every year, in honor of George Washington's birthday; the Corcoran Gallery of Art (www.corcoran.org) does not charge its usual $5 admission all day Monday and after 5pm on Thursday.
69. In Alexandria, purchase discounted block tickets for attractions; it's less expensive than buying individual tickets.
70. Take advantage of the many free concerts, films, lectures, plays, and other forms of entertainment staged around town all year-round, but especially in the summer. See Friday "Weekend" section of the Washington Post, and City Paper (a free Washington publication you can often find in stores and restaurants).
71. Purchase half-price theater, concert, and other same-day performance tickets at TICKETplace (tel. 202/842-5387; www.cultural-alliance.org/tickets). Check out theater listings for information on available discount tickets for students, seniors, people with disabilities, and others. Some theaters also offer discounted tickets just prior to a performance -- for example, Arena Stage's (tel. 202/488-3300; www.arena-stage.org" target) half-price program.
72. Choose a restaurant that offers entertainment during the meal (but doesn't charge extra for it), from the refined piano music played at the Bombay Club (tel. 202/659-3727) during dinner, to the captivating flamenco dancing performed every Wednesday night at Jaleo (tel. 202/628-7949).