*Disclaimer: I was a guest of Hostelling International USA for the purpose of this trip: How to Explore Washington DC on a budget.
When it comes to travel, I’m pretty bad for exploring my own continent. Despite being to 45 countries, many of them multiple times, I still have a lot to see in Canada and have barely scraped the surface of our southern neighbour, the USA. It’s not that I don’t have any interest in exploring these places; New Orleans, San Francisco, and Nashville have all been on my must-see list for years. However, the cost always seems to get in the way. Not only can they be expensive to fly to, but I also just always assumed that travel through the USA, especially given the value of the Canadian vs American dollar lately, would be too expensive. That is until I was recently challenged by HI USA to explore Washington DC on a budget.
When it comes to budget travel and backpacking, most of us tend to head over to Southeast Asia where we can easily live and explore on a few dollars a day. Or even Europe which, despite the high exchange rate, offers great value in terms of travelling around the continent. But, these destinations are also pretty far. It would be pretty silly to travel to Southeast Asia for only a week or to Europe for a long weekend. Lengthy flight times make it unpractical. But, a short flight to somewhere within North America for two to three days? That could be worth it. Especially if you can do it on the cheap.
So when HI USA invited fellow Canadian travel blogger Vanessa of Turnip Seed Travel and me to their Washington DC property to see what we could get up to without spending a lot of money, we jumped at the opportunity. As a realistic but frugal traveller, I challenged myself to see if I could get by on $50USD per day for everything except for flights included. This seems to be the average rate for most backpackers so I figured it was a good number to go with. Though as our visit got closer I have a number of people tell me that DC was one of the most expensive places in the USA and I began to wonder, was it possible to explore Washington DC on a budget?
Turns out that it absolutely is. Here’s how.
For the duration of our stay, we spent our night at the HI Washington DC Hostel which is the perfect pick to explore Washington DC on a budget for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it’s one of the most affordable options in the city. Washington DC has no shortage of swanky hotels that would have blown the budget, but the HI Washington DC Hostel offered clean, safe, and comfortable accommodation for a reasonable rate. Nightly rates depend on the type of room you get (there are larger and smaller dorms along with female-only options and, of course, private rooms) and when you are visiting. When we visited, midweek prices range from around $32-$42 per night in the dorms.
Granted, compared to hostels in SE Asia, this is pricey. But compared to hostels in western Europe, it’s pretty reasonable. Especially considering how clean and central it was. Plus, staying in the hostel came with some great amenities.
One of the biggest perks of staying at the HI Washington DC Hostel was the free breakfast. While there was no steak and eggs (which the friendly breakfast man, John, liked to joke about) there were definitely way more options than a usual hostel. Different varieties of cereals, bread, bagels, were available along with yoghurt, granola, apples and bananas. It was easy to fill up and, if you were particularly budget conscious, I bet you could even snag a bagel and some fruit and take it with you for lunch. I also loved the water fountains located around the hostel which made it easy to fill up my reusable water bottle. HI USA is big on environmental sustainability and has a #PackYourImpact program which includes promoting the use of reusable water bottles with these re-fill stations. As someone who supports ethical and sustainable travel, this was something I really appreciated (Fun fact, HI USA is the recipient of the 2018 National Geographic Leader Sustainable Tourism Award!)
Another perk about staying at HI Washington DC Hostel was the number of group tours and events they had going on during the week. During our stay, Tuesday night was the monuments by night tour (which we sadly missed thanks to plane issues) and Wednesday night was a pub crawl.
Finally, HI Washington DC Hostel has a great location. It’s less than a 10-minute walk from the metro station and a 20-minute walk from the Mall which is where you will find the Smithsonian Museums and famous monuments which makes it pretty easy to get around and explore.
Without a doubt, those looking to explore Washington DC on a budget should choose to stay at HI Washington DC hostel.
In booking our flights we strategized to fly into Reagan Airport which is connected to the city by metro making it the easiest and cheapest airport in terms of getting into the city. When we arrived we each paid $10 for a metro card ($2 for the card itself and $8 credit). The fees for each ride depend on where you go in the city, but getting to the hostel was under $2.75.
Once we arrived at the hostel, we resorted to walking for exploring. I love to walk- I think it’s the best way to get around because you get to stop, take photos, duck down random streets, and of course, it’s free. That being said, after a few hours of walking around the mall and Smithsonian Museums, we realized that walking wasn’t exactly the best choice time-wise if you didn’t plan to stop at every museum and monument along the way.
That’s when we discovered my favourite budget-friendly find in the city: the DC Circulator bus. It’s essentially a hop on hop off bus without the added flair of commentary, headphones, and the ridiculous prices. The fare is $1 per person and, if you used your metro card, it would last you two hours (if you pay cash they have no way of monitoring you, so it’s $1 every time you get back on). The bus runs during reasonable hours and, traffic depending, passes by each stop every 10 minutes. Plus, in our experience, the drivers were very friendly, helpful, and happy to fill us in on some tips and facts about the area. The Circulator bus has a couple different routes throughout the city, making it easy to not just explore the Mall area, but also some of the local neighbourhoods. It’s cheap, easy, and a great way to get around Washington DC on a budget.
Food and Drink
When it comes to food and drink in Washington DC you will have a number of different choices at a number of different price levels. There are lots of cheap eats to be found, you just need to know where to find them.
As mentioned earlier, staying at HI Washington USA hostel includes free breakfast (and maybe lunch if you are sneaky).
If you choose to buy your lunch somewhere, keep an eye out for the number of food trucks around the area. From hot dogs and pretzels to Mexican fare, there’s a ton of different options. We totally failed at our lunchtime budget and ended up spending $8.50 each on very mediocre museum café food. We totally missed the food trucks because we explored the Mall from the inside where there are zero options. My Instagram followers later told me that the food trucks are actually along the outside of The Mall, by the main roads; particularly by 7th street.
When it comes to dinner, travellers looking to explore Washington DC on a budget should definitely consider cooking for themselves. I’ll be honest, as a solo traveller, I never cook for myself. Buying groceries for one person can be really tricky, especially if you are only somewhere for a night or two. But since there were two of us, we decided to make use of the Hi Washington DC Hostel’s massive, fully stocked kitchen and make our own meal.
There are a ton of grocery stores in the area (Trader Joe’s is a popular one) but we decided to get a little bit fancy and shopped for fresh groceries at the Eastern Market. We bought homemade cheese and herb stuffed pasta with fresh basil sauce, a French baguette, and two crispy, cream-filled cannoli. The total? $12.50 each. Could we have bought cheaper at a regular grocery store? I’m sure we could have. But, we also had a delicious two-course meal for the price of an appetizer at a normal restaurant. Can’t go wrong with that!
As for drinks, water was our best friend. Mainly because it was hot and humid as hell and I’m pretty sure I sweat faster than I could drink, but alcohol didn’t really factor into our budget either. If you are planning on going out and having a drink or two, take advantage of Happy Hour. Many bars and restaurants offer discounts and promotions on beer, wine, and cocktails pre-dinner time.
Sight-Seeing and Activities
When it comes to sight-seeing and activities, Washington DC on a budget is easy because so much is free. All the Smithsonian’s? Free. The Holocaust Museum? Free. The monuments? Free. Searching for cool street art? Free. The Capitol building? Free.
Of course, there are plenty of paid attractions as well such as the Spy Museum but, really, if you are on a budget then why bother? Save these experiences for a future trip when you have a little more money to spend and take advantage of all the free attractions. Trust me when I say there is more than enough to keep you busy for a few days.
So, Did I Stick to My Budget?
Which seems silly seeing as I just explained how easy it is to do so, but I did end up spending over $50USD per day during my visit.
Well, there were a couple of reasons.
Our flight was delayed several hours which meant by the time we arrived in DC on day one at 7:30pm there was no way we were going grocery shopping and cooking. After 12 hours of airports and flight drama we were starving and exhausted so went out for a nice dinner. Unnecessary cost? Yes. But, totally worth it.
As mentioned earlier, we also failed on our cheap food truck lunch plan and ended up buying crappy museum food that wasn’t very filling and then resulted with us buying snacks later as well. Clearly, something we should have investigated ahead of time.
We also cheated and used an uber at one point. We debated this as it was possible to take both the metro or the Circulator bus to get to our destination, however, it was our final day and we were short on time so a seven-minute drive seemed like a much better option than a 30 to 45-minute ride that involved a few transfers. We strategized that time and convenience was a better win for our situation.
All things considered, we did pretty well and while I may not have succeeded in the $50/day goal, I discovered that it is, in fact, pretty easy to explore Washington DC on a budget!