Family Vacation Ideas to Washington DC on a Budget
There are endless reasons why planning a family trip to Washington, D.C., is worthwhile. The city is a popular tourist destination for people of all ages and backgrounds. For your history buff, future politician, or museum-goer, our Nation’s Capital provides a wealth of things to do for your entire family.
However, the thing about vacations, especially family vacations, is that costs can 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. Once you’ve got that covered, here are some more ideas for your family trip to Washington D.C. on a budget.
Planning a Family Trip to Washington, D.C.
Arriving in the Capital couldn’t be easier. Washington, D.C., is easily accessible from three major airports.
- Reagan National (DCA) is located in Arlington, just over the Virginia/Washington, D.C., border on the Potomac River.
- Dulles International (IAD) is a few miles west of Washington, D.C., in Dulles, VA.
- Baltimore Washington International (BWI) is northeast of the District and south of Baltimore City.
Each of these three airports is just a short cab or Uber ride away from all that our Nation’s Capital has to offer. This means you’ll have plenty of flight options in every price range.
Getting Around Washington, D.C.
Many attractions within the District are within walking distance of each other. However, to get the full Washington, D.C., experience, you’ll probably need to spend some time on the Metro. The great news is that a single metro trip by bus or train typically costs between $2 and $6, making it a perfect mode of transportation for a family trip on a budget.
Planning Food Budget
Food costs can 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 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 fastcasual 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 many inventive food trucks that offer any cuisine you can imagine. Try a classic southern combo at Capital Chicken and Waffles, home-style Egyptian cuisine at Favapot, breakfast at Lincoln’s Waffle Shop, or indulge the kids’ sweet tooths at Captain Cookie and the Milkman. In short, the options for easy, tasty, budget-friendly meals in D.C. are endless.
Budget-Friendly Activities in Washington, D.C. for Families
Many of Washington, D.C.’s best attractions are free to the public, and you’ll also find several activities that 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., that will keep everyone entertained on a budget.
Hop-On/Hop-Off Washington, D.C. Tours
City tours are a great way to orient yourself and get a taste of all the city has to offer. With one-day tickets starting at $54 for adults and $45 for children ages 3-12, Big Bus provides a full day of activity for a single price and is 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 that you can explore the city at your own pace. Simply hop off at any attractions that interest you, such as the Jefferson Memorial, the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, and more. Explore each site for as long as you like, then hop on the next tour bus as it continues along the route.
In addition to Big Bus tours, try a hop-on/hop-off Old Town Trolley Tour! The structure of the tour is the same: hop off the trolley at any site you (or your family members) wish to visit, take as long as you like to enjoy, then hop on the next trolley that comes to your stop. One-day tours start at $70 for adults and $32 for children ages 4-12.
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 for kids and adults alike.
Mount Vernon was the home of George and Martha Washington and is located just a short drive or ride from downtown. There are so many options for exploration at the Mount Vernon Estate that you could easily spend an entire day on these historic grounds. There’s plenty for kids to explore and do, including an Adventure Map that allows them to be spies for George Washington!In addition to Washington’s house itself, the grounds offer a robust assortment of things to see. Visit George and Martha’s tombs, see a real working farm, learn about the lives of Washington’s enslaved people in their own words, or taste some of the whiskey Washington made at his own mill and distillery.
Sightseeing on the National Mall
The National Mall in Washington, D.C., is a great picnic spot for the family. Stretching from the U.S. Capitol Building to the iconic Lincoln Memorial, this historic site is managed by the National Park Service and promises a memorable experience no matter how old you are.
With no reservations needed, you can explore the historic monuments and memorials at any time, day or night. Knowledgeable Park Rangers are available during the day to assist you with any inquiries. Families planning a trip to Washington, D.C., will find the National Mall an ideal starting point for their sightseeing adventure, offering an array of free attractions.
If you’re visiting with children, there are a few things to keep in mind. The National Mall provides ample space for little ones to run and play, making it an excellent spot for a family picnic. Additionally, many monuments and memorials hold historical significance that can be engaging for kids. Just don’t tell them they’re educational, too!
Make sure everyone in the family wears comfortable shoes and sunscreen, and bring water bottles as the Mall spans a significant distance. The weather in Washington, D.C., can be unpredictable, so pack some ponchos.
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
The 1,100-acre plot of land that is now home to Arlington National Cemetery has a rich history. It was once the site of Freedman’s Village, which provided housing, education, training and medical care to enslaved people transitioning into freedom. When other Washington, D.C., cemeteries couldn’t keep up with the casualties of the Civil War, 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, formerly enslaved people and other notable Americans have since been buried here. Today, Arlington National Cemetery is the most significant 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 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Visit the Welcome Center to grab maps and brochures, check out interactive exhibits and purchase tickets for hop-on/hop-off bus tours ($19.50 for adults, $10.75 for children ages 4-12).
If you’d rather explore on your own, download the ANC Explorer app, which allows you to locate points of interest throughout the cemetery. Notable points of interest at ANC include the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Nurses Memorial and the gravesite of President John F. Kennedy.
The Smithsonian operates 19 museums, galleries, gardens and a zoo, providing 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. Here are a few family favorites, sure to please even the most stubborn traveler in your group.
The National Museum of Natural History will delight visitors of all ages as they explore the wonders of the natural world and our place within it. With captivating exhibits and artifacts spanning various eras, you can trace the evolution of our planet in a single visit.
Be prepared for an immersive experience, as this expansive museum covers an area equivalent to over 18 football fields! Families with children should plan for a substantial amount of time to appreciate the exhibits fully. Remember to bring comfortable shoes, snacks and water to keep everyone energized.
Some highlights include:
- A triceratops skull
- The Hope Diamond
- Paleozoic fossils
- Insect zoo
- African voices
You and your family can enjoy the experience of the American story from colonial times to the present. With a collection of nearly three million historical objects, this museum offers a comprehensive exploration of the scientific, cultural, social and technological evolution that has shaped our nation.
Families with children can journey through time, discovering the stories behind iconic American artifacts and gaining a deeper understanding of America’s rich heritage. We recommend prioritizing planning enough time for your visit, as there is much to see and absorb.
The rich African American experience of the past three centuries comes to life at the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Engage with culturally and historically significant artifacts like Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, Michael Jackson’s fedora and a historic plantation cabin from South Carolina.
The genealogists of your family can utilize the Freedman’s Bureau Search Portal to find long-ago names, places and dates. Be sure to check the Exhibitions page to find out about special temporary exhibits you won’t want to miss! Consider reserving free timed-entry passes in advance, as the museum’s popularity may lead to high demand and utilize the museum’s mobile app to optimize your visit.
You’ll probably never find another city full of so many parks with historical significance. From sites that 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 doesn’t cost a thing!
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 1870s, 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.
Experience the natural beauty of Rock Creek Park, a sprawling recreational area spanning over 1,700 acres. This park, established in 1890 for public enjoyment, offers a diverse landscape of meadows, forests, waterways, trails and recreational spaces. Explore landmarks like the Old Stone House, Washington, D.C.’s oldest standing structure and Pierce Mill. Families with children can take advantage of the park’s nature center, where educational programs and interactive exhibits provide insights into the local flora and fauna. Pack a picnic and enjoy a day of outdoor fun, whether hiking, biking, or simply appreciating the tranquility of nature in the heart of a bustling city.
Theodore Roosevelt Island is a serene retreat within the capital city’s woodlands and natural spaces. Families can enjoy hiking or running along the island’s scenic trails and admire the year-round wildlife that calls the island home. There are Ranger-led, interactive programs for kids that help them learn about and appreciate nature!
Book Your Family’s Stay Near Washington, D.C.
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 the 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 exploring Washington, D.C. Contact us today to learn more or book your stay!