With tourism consistently on the rise in the nations capital to the tune of over 22 million people annually, there are some great insider tips to help your trip go smoothly.
Having lived her for 15 years now, you could say I have learned a thing or two about the city and how best to see it. I’ve put together this list of mistakes to avoid when visiting the city so that your trip goes off without a hitch.
The last thing anyone wants to do is show up on a trip and not be ready for the unexpected. This guide serves to go beyond basic tips like “credit cards widely accepted.”
Here we go…
Mistakes to avoid when visiting Washington, D.C.
First things first: GETTING HERE! A lot of people don’t know that we have THREE airports that service Washington, D.C. area, if you are flying.
The closest to the city is Washington Reagan International Airport (DCA). It is maybe five minutes outside of the city and a smaller airport.
Then we have Dulles (IAD) in Virginia (about 40 minutes away) and then Baltimore/Washington (BWI) in Maryland (about 40-60 minutes away).
While Reagan is the easier option by far, if you have a bigger family and are planning to rent a car anyway, you could save big bucks by flying into one of the other airports.
*One other thing to consider, Southwest services these airports but they are not on large booking sites, so you will need to go to their site directly to check prices.
Always plan ahead when driving to or in the city
Traffic is very unpredictable in that it is always busy, sometimes more than not but also, when there is in climate weather or an accident, the area can gridlock.
If you think you can arrive somewhere in five minutes, better plan for at least 15, but I say check the road conditions.
In the morning between 630/7-10 and the afternoon as early as 3-7ish, the highways and city are pretty busy with commuters. It’s a good bet that in between these hours if nothing is going on and weather is great, that you *should* be ok on timing.
I would be a liar if I did not tell you what a nightmare the traffic can be. But now that you know, you can plan for it.
Not planning ahead
While most of the big attractions (Smithsonian Museums, Monuments, etc) are free, they take time. You could easily spend a few hours or even more walking through just one museum, and we have so many!
I know a lot of people like to just “go with the flow” but I promise you, if you are only here for a few days, you will not want to just “wing it.”
If you do not want an itinerary, make a loose idea of what you would like to do, check times (museums are not open all night) and make sure you can make the most of your time here.
It is also worth noting that some attractions, while they are free, require advance planning. You can no longer just visit the White House, The Supreme Court, the Mint, and so on. You need to make advanced reservations or get tickets, but you cannot just walk in.
Not booking a long enough visit
In theory, you could visit Washington, D.C. in 1, 3, or even 7+ days. There is really no limit on visiting because the city offers such a bevy of things to do. However, if you really want to see the city, Smithsonian’s, monuments, memorials, and more – I would say book at least three to five days.
The Smithsonian Museums can take awhile to walk through. If you want to enjoy your trip and not feel like you are running through each attraction to see it before you leave, stay a little longer.
Not knowing that you can get a citation for eating or drinking on the Metro
Scandalous, I know. Just be prepared that if you get on the Metro to have your food and beverage locked away. I know this can be frustrating, especially when kids are involved. Just try and plan ahead.
*DC has cut down giving criminal citations but it is still against the law. Virginia and Maryland are still holding up their end. If you go into Arlington from Washington, D.C. to the Arlington Cemetery. just know that you are now in Virginia and they will give you a ticket.
Planning to do some Michelin dining? Book a reservation in advance!
Yes, it is true. We have one, two and three star Michelin dining! With the likes of Jose Andres, Nick Stefanelli and more – you will want to book these tables as far in advance as you can.
A lot of food enthusiasts visit the city just for that reason. You will definitely want to secure any reservations you want before visiting.
Checking to see if there are any big events happening in the city
A great example of this is Cherry Blossom season. This can gridlock areas around the Tidal Basin and Mall with the influx of visitors from both near and far.
I can tell you from personal experience that in 2018 I took an Uber to the Tidal Basin (big mistake not using the Metro) and it took me over an hour to go just under five miles. While everyone should come see the cherry blossoms, it is wise to know that the city is much busier than usual.
Not knowing that things are farther than they appear
On every map of Washington, D.C. it looks like everything on the National Mall is very close. But the Mall is almost two miles in length with the Washington Monument at one end and the U.S. Capitol Building at the other.
You can walk from one end to the next, and there is so much to see in between, but there is only one Metro on the Mall itself, and that is the Smithsonian stop.
Not wearing comfortable shoes
Word of the wise, pack good walking shoes. Washington, D.C. is heavily walked and pretty much flat.
If you plan to walk The Mall, museums, around the monuments, and use public transportation, your feet are bound to get tired. It is much easier to just pack properly and be prepared.
Pro Tip: if you want to see a lot around the city but don’t want to walk the entire city, you could get a hop on hop off ticket, where there are several buses going all throughout the District to various destinations. I swear by these.
Not booking lodging in advance
The city does see its fair share of busy events, such as Inaugurations, Cherry Blossoms season, Fourth of July, and so on. You WILL want to book those hotels in advance.
When Obama was elected for his first term, everything was sold out and people were renting rooms sky high on Craigslist and booking sites.
If you know something is going on in the city – book in advance to guarantee you get a room.
Not purchasing a SmarTrip card for local transportation
Sure, you can pay cash and get paper tickets every single time you need to use a bus or Metro in the city. You will need exact change to use the bus every time for each passenger and those flimsy tickets can easily get lost.
Save yourself some time and just get the SmarTrip card and pre-load it with money for your stay. Save yourself the time and hassle of constantly reloading everytime you want to take a bus or Metro somewhere during your trip.
If you know in advance of your trip that you are coming (six or more weeks), you can order your cards online and have them shipped right to your house and will be ready when you arrive.
*Metro is busy during rush hour traffic, but it still moves. So this is still the fastest way to get between stops when the traffic is at a standstill.
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