A One Day Jaunt: Whirlwind D.C. Trip on the Cheap

By Susan Russo

A one-day trip to Washington D.C.? Are you crazy? No, I am just ultra-cheap. You won’t get to everything on your must-see list, but you can manage a lot with some planning. Maps of DC’s most popular tourist spots in what is called the “Federal District” are easily available on the Web. Most of these places are FREE. Starting on the National Mall, you can visit the Smithsonian museums—the American Art Museum, the National Air & Space Museum, the Freer and Sackler art galleries, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Museum of Natural History, the National Gallery of Art, and the National Portrait Gallery (sorry, Stephen Colbert’s portrait has been taken down.) Also free are the outdoor memorials—the Jefferson, the Lincoln, all the war memorials, and the Washington Monument (you can even go up to the top with a free pass on the day you arrive, or with a $1.50 advance ticket). Within walking distance are the White House, the Library of Congress, and the U.S. Capitol Building. The Library (Monday through Friday) and the Capitol (Monday through Saturday) offer free tours of their amazingly beautiful interiors (advance reservations are recommended for the Capitol). Easily reached on the Metrorail system (“the Metro”) is the wonderful National Zoo (also free) with grounds opening at 6:00 a.m., buildings at 10:00 a.m. and closing at 8:00 p.m., with free strollers and wheelchairs available. Also on the Metro, you can go to Georgetown, with its elegant townhouses, cafés, restaurants, and the C&O Canal Walk, and to Dupont Circle, with bookstores, restaurants, ice cream parlors, and, nearby, the impressive, varied mansions housing most of the embassies.

Walking and the Metro are my favorite ways of touring, but there are also Old Town Trolley Tours and the DC Ducks (amphibious vehicles). These can be boarded at Union Station, Washington, DC, where trains and some buses arrive. Trolley Tours (the hop-on, hop-off variety – $35/adults; $26/child; free for children under 4 years) will take you to all the places mentioned above, as well as to Arlington Cemetery and the Tidal Basin (where you can hire paddle boats). DC Ducks ($35/adult; $26/child) is a 90-minute talking tour past most of the sites above, but also onto the Potomac River. “Segway Tours” (helmets and training provided) are guided and must be booked in advance for different time periods: the Experience tour ($65/2 hours), the National Mall tour ($75/3 hours), the Food Truck tour ($65/3 hours), and the Monuments and Memorials tour ($75/3 hours).

My thrifty one-day (and longer) trips are by bus, all of which make rest stops at highway centers with food concessions and clean restrooms (more about that later). The fares I have obtained were for travel roundtrip on Saturday, September 6. Greyhound Bus Lines (starting from the Port Authority at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, and arriving at Union Station in D.C.) offers  Web fare of $45 roundtrip, if you book very early departures and late returns (e.g., the 3:45 a.m. bus stops in Maryland and arrives at 11:05 a.m.; the returning 8:00 p.m. bus arrives at 12:30 a.m.).  The BoltBus (starting near Macy’s 34th Street and arriving at Union Station) charges fares from $1 to $25 each way, depending on when you buy your ticket and on the time of day (e.g., for $23 the 6:30 a.m. bus arrives at Union Station at 10:45 a.m.; for $15 the return bus at 6:30 p.m. arrives in New York at 11:00 p.m.). GoToBus, also called Eastern, starting near Macy’s and arriving at Washington’s Chinatown, charges $25 each way (e.g., the 7:30 a.m. bus arrives at 12:01 p.m. and the returning 8:00 p.m. bus arrives at 1:00 a.m.).  I have taken the GoToBus for 30 years, starting when the fares were $10 each way, and they were called the Chinatown buses, leaving from and returning to Chinatowns in both cities.

For the more affluent, trips to D.C. can also be made on Delta and USAir shuttles, the current costs for roundtrip being $290.There is now, however, a Metro stop at Reagan National Airport, so there’s no expensive taxi ride to and from D.C.  And then there is Amtrak, which is $79 each way (or higher if the less expensive seats are sold out or if you take the Acela), but my last trip on Amtrak to and from Williamsburg, VA, was marred by the deplorable conditions of the restrooms, which I wrote about to the Directors of Amtrak, daring them to take a trip of over three hours on one of their trains. I did, however, add that the courtesy of the conductors and café staff were excellent. And the seats are really more comfortable than on the bus!