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Family Vacation Ideas to Washington DC on a Budget

Washington, D.C. is a popular tourist destination for people of all ages and backgrounds. Whether you’re a history buff, political enthusiast, or parent hoping for a fun family vacation, our Nation’s Capital has something for you.

The thing about vacations though – especially family vacations – is that costs add up quickly! Since D.C. tourism typically peaks in the spring and summer months, planning your vacation during the fall or winter will definitely save you some money. For this year (2021) as restrictions ease, there will be less demand and more specials to take advantage of. Once you’ve got that covered, here are some more ideas for your Washington D.C. family vacation on a budget.

Arriving to Washington, D.C.

Arriving in the Capital couldn’t be easier. Washington D.C. is easily accessible from three major airports:

  • Regan National – located in Arlington, just over the Virginia/D.C. border on the Potomac River.
  • Dulles International –a few miles west of Washington D.C. in Dulles, VA.
  • Baltimore Washington International – northeast of the District and south of Baltimore City.

Each of these three airports is an easy cab or Uber ride from all that our Nation’s Capital has to offer. This means you’ll have plenty of options for incoming flights in every price range.

Budget-Friendly Activities for Your Family

Many of the most popular attractions in D.C. are free to the public. You’ll also find several activities which, while they may have an associated cost, certainly won’t break the bank. From sightseeing tours, to museums, to historical parks, it’s easy to enjoy a family trip to Washington D.C. on a budget.

Hop-on/Hop-Off Washington, D.C. Tours

With one-day tickets starting at $35, hop-on/hop-off bus tours provide a full day of activity for a single price, and are a fantastic way to visit the most impressive and iconic sights in Washington D.C. These tours include several busses along the same route, so you can explore D.C. at your own pace. Simply hop off at any attractions that interest you, explore for as long as you like, and then hop on the next tour bus as it continues along the route.

Big Bus Tours offers three different routes, including a night tour that travels through the district offering views of the most famous monuments, which are illuminated during the evening hours.

United States Capitol Panorama at Night

Mount Vernon

When planning a Washington D.C. family vacation on a budget, you’ll want to look for activities that provide plenty of bang for your buck. The Mount Vernon Estate does just that.
Mount Vernon was the home of George and Martha Washington, and is located just a short drive or ride from Downtown D.C. There are so many options for exploration at the Mount Vernon Estate that you could easily spend an entire day on these historic grounds.

Adult admission is $28 (with less expensive tickets for children) and includes access to the estate grounds and a full audio tour. Discover George Washington’s beloved gardens. Meander through 23 galleries and theaters as you view artifacts and exhibits that teach you about Washington’s day-to-day life. Even watch costumed interpreters demonstrate the farming practices of the period.

Several additional tours are available for $10 each. Options include a Hamilton the Musical Guided Tour and Mrs. Washington’s Mount Vernon, which takes you through the grounds and mansion with Mrs. Martha Washington as your guide.

Historic Mount Vernon, George Washington's Residence

Sightseeing on the National Mall

No trip to our Nation’s Capital would be complete without a visit to the monuments and memorials at the National Mall. The Mall extends from the U.S. Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial and is run by the National Park Service. Most of the monuments and memorials do not require reservations, are open 24/7, and are staffed with Rangers during the day to answer questions. The National Mall is a perfect place to start your sightseeing adventure, especially if you’re taking a family trip to Washington D.C. on a budget, as most of its attractions are free to visit. For a day full of fresh air and historical fun, be sure to check out the following:

  • Lincoln Memorial
  • Thomas Jefferson Memorial
  • World War II Memorial
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
  • FDR Memorial
  • Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Washington DC National Mall

Arlington National Cemetery

The 1,100 acre plot of land now home to Arlington National Cemetery, was once the site of Freedman’s Village, which provided housing, education, training, and medical care to slaves transitioning into freedom. When other D.C. cemeteries couldn’t keep up with Civil War casualties, a section of the property became a burial ground. The first military burial took place in 1864, and by the end of the war 200 acres had been set aside for use as a cemetery. Thousands of service members and former slaves had been buried here.

Today, Arlington National Cemetery is the largest shrine to those who have served our Nation, and is the resting place of over 400,000 service men and women and their families. ANC is open daily from 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM. Visit the Welcome Center to grab maps and brochures, check out interactive exhibits, and purchase tickets for bus tours ($15 for adults, $7.25 for children). If you’d rather explore on your own, be sure to download the ANC Explorer app which allows you to locate points of interest throughout the cemetery.

Military Headstones and American Flags on Memorial Day Shallow Depth of Field

Smithsonian Institute

The Smithsonian Institute, which operates 19 museums, galleries, gardens, and a zoo, provides amazing activities for a Washington D.C. family vacation on a budget. With free admission to each attraction, you can spend days learning and exploring without spending a dime. A few of these famous attractions include:

Museum of Natural History

This museum is dedicated to teaching visitors about the natural world and how we fit into it. Follow the evolution of our planet via exhibits and artifacts from nearly every era. Plan to spend a good amount of time here, as the Museum of Natural History takes up more space than 18 football fields!

Dad and boy watching dinosaur skeleton in museum

National Museum of American History

Explore the history of American experience from colonial times through the present. The National Museum of American History is home to nearly three million historical objects. As you peruse the museum you’ll learn all you could ever want to know about the scientific, cultural, social, and technological evolution of our country.

Museum of African American History and Culture

With artifacts such as Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, Michael Jackson’s fedora, and a plantation cabin from South Carolina, the Museum of African American History and Culture teaches all Americans about the African American experience throughout the past three centuries.

Washington, USA, National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Historic Parks

You’ll probably never find another city full of so many parks with historic significance. From sites which were key locations during the War of 1812 and the Civil War, to gardens established for the specific purpose of beautifying the District, you could spend days visiting the parks on D.C.’s register of historic places. Bonus: admission to the parks don’t cost a thing.

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park

The C&O Canal spans nearly 185 miles and connects the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. with the Ohio River in Western Pennsylvania. President John Quincy Adams turned the first shovel of dirt for the canal in 1828; however, the C&O Canal was not completed until 1850. In its prime, around the 1870’s the canal carried roughly 850,000 tons of cargo per year. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park flanks the canal for the entirety of its 185 mile span, and offers numerous activities including hiking, biking, fishing, hunting and camping.

The C&O Canal, at Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, Maryland.

Rock Creek Park

Created for the enjoyment of the American people in 1890, Rock Creek Park includes over 1700 acres of meadows, forests, waterways, trails, and recreation areas. Within its boundaries you’ll find the Old Stone House (the oldest standing structure in Washington D.C.), Pierce Mill, a nature center, and so much more.

Autumn foliage in Rock Creek Park - Washington D.C., USA

Theodore Roosevelt Island

President Roosevelt was famous for forcing his comrades to hike with him through D.C.’s woodlands and “wild” spaces. To honor Roosevelt and his notorious love of the outdoors, Theodore Roosevelt Island was established in 1930. Today visitors can hike or run the island’s trails, canoe or kayak around the island, and take in the scenic views which includes year-round wildlife. Additionally, Ranger-led programs are available throughout the year.

Theodore Roosevelt Island

Getting Around D.C.

Many attractions within the District are within walking distance of each other. However, to get the full D.C. experience you’ll probably need to spend some time on the Metro. The great news is that a metro trip typically costs between $2.25 and $6, making it a perfect mode of transportation for a family trip to D.C. on a budget. Visit the WMATA website for maps, schedules and fare details.

washington dc metro station

The Metro isn’t the only way to traverse the city, though. For just $8/day you can enjoy fresh air and historic architecture while you explore the city on bicycle with Capital Bikeshare. The WMATA also has bus services throughout the District. And of course rideshares like Uber and Lyft are always options, as well.

Eating Cheaply

Food costs eat up a good portion of any vacation budget, but being thrifty doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy uniquely delicious cuisine while visiting Washington D.C. First, we recommend warding off munchies between meals to save money. Plan ahead and pack your own portable snacks before heading out. That way, you can spend your food budget on just one or two main meals each day.

Luckily, Washington D.C. is full of fast, casual dining options that won’t break the bank. Or, you might even consider patronizing a food truck instead of a restaurant. D.C. is home to plenty of inventive food trucks that offer any type of cuisine you can imagine. Try a classic southern combo at Capital Chicken and Waffles, home style Egyptian cuisine at Favapot, or dessert at Captain Cookie and the Milkman.  In short, the options for easy, tasty, budget-friendly meals in D.C. are endless.

Lodging Near Washington, DC

While you may be inclined to look for hotel lodging in the city, this is often the most expensive option. When planning a Washington D.C. family vacation on a budget, it’s best to opt for a hotel just outside of D.C. proper.

The Hotel at University of Maryland offers easy access to the Capital and surrounding areas. Our luxurious guest rooms provide the perfect place to relax and recharge after a day of exploring Washington D.C. In fact, our Monumental D.C. Package even includes two SmartTrip Metro Cards to get your vacation started. Contact us today to learn more or book your stay!


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