There are so many fun tours and experiences in Washington, DC. The options can sometimes feel overwhelming. You might wonder: are free tours any good? Is it worth it to splurge on a private tour? What’s the best mode of transportation to see the monuments? What’s the deal with foodie tours? In this episode we tackle all of these questions (and more) so you can pick out the best Washington DC tours when you visit. Check out our recommended list of local tour companies to get started.
Travel industry veteran and world traveler Shane Whaley joins Rob for this conversation. Shane hosts Tourpreneur, a podcast that deep dives into the journey of the tour business owner. He also hosts Spybrary, a Spy Podcast for fans of spy books and movies; as well as Radio GDR, a podcast in English all about the life and times of East Germany.
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Best Washington, DC Tours Show Notes:
How do you navigate the huge number of tour options in Washington, DC? A great place to start is our recommended list of local tour companies. These are all small businesses owned by Washington, DC locals who want nothing more than for you to have an amazing visit. Beyond that, here is a rundown of what to expect.
How Washington, DC tours are priced
Whether you’re on a budget or looking to splurge, there are plenty of tours and experiences at all price points. That said, there are pros and cons to consider for each of the options.
Despite the name, “free” tours aren’t really free. Most companies use the “pay what you wish” model or “tip for excellent service” model. The benefit of this type of tour is that you get to decide exactly how much you think the tour is worth. These tours come with added flexibility because many of them don’t require advance reservation, so you can decide on the day of the tour whether or not you want to go. One disadvantage to free tours is that it can be confusing or stressful to determine what a fair amount is to pay! You don’t want to shortchange a hardworking guide. Another downside is that tour group sizes can get very large. During peak tourist season free tour groups can have 20 or more people on them.
These are also called “group tours.” Public tours are similar to free tours in that travelers from different groups all share one tour guide. However, on public tours you pay for your ticket in advance and group size is usually capped. For example, the Trip Hacks DC Trivia Tour is a public tour. Tickets cost $45 per person and the group size is capped at 12 people per tour. The biggest benefit is that you know exactly what it costs and that you won’t be in a huge tour group. The downside is that if you have a larger traveling group those tickets can get expensive.
On a private tour it’s just your family (or traveling group) and your tour guide. It’s a VIP experience! The tour moves at your pace, you can ask as many questions as you want, and you’ll never have to compete with other tourists for your guide’s attention. The disadvantage to private tours is that they are expensive. Typically the price per person will be higher on a private tour than on a public tour. Sometimes the price can be considerably higher.
Transportation on Washington, DC tours
Now that you know how tours are priced, the next question is: how are you going to get around to see the sites?
The humble walking tour is a favorite of ours. Trip Hacks DC tours are all walking tours. Sure, walking around to see the sites may not be as exciting as riding on a personal electric vehicle, but it has plenty of advantages. Many travelers are comfortable walking and walking tours offer a ton of versatility. Small children can participate in strollers. And those with mobility challenges can participate with a wheelchair or mobility scooter. The biggest advantage to a walking tour is that the tour guide can show you all the sites up-close since they don’t have to worry about driving or parking a vehicle.
Bus tours come in different flavors. Most travelers know about the “hop on hop off” style bus tour. Hop on hop off buses run on a route and you can use it to get around to various sites at your convenience. An inexpensive alternative to the hop on hop off in DC is the Circulator bus. You can also take a traditional bus tour where a tour guide will ride around with you on the bus, narrating the route, then get off the bus at major stops to show you the sites up close.
Bike tours are fun! There’s no doubt about it, riding a bike is a fun way to see the sites. The advantage of the bike tour is that you can cover ground more quickly than on foot. The disadvantage is that you can’t take bikes into most of the Washington, DC sites. This means your tour guide will tell you about each site from a distance, then send you in on foot to see them up close.
The most common reason why people sign up for a Segway tour is to experience the novelty of riding a Segway. These devices were once heralded as the future of personal transportation but are mostly used now for tourism and airport security. Segway tours often follow the same route as bike tours, but cost more. In Washington, DC riders must be at least 16 years old to ride a Segway, so they are de-facto “adults only” tours if that appeals to you.
At first glance, a running tour seems like a walking tour on speed. They have the similar benefits to walking tours, like letting you go up close to the sites with your guide. Obviously you can cover ground more quickly running than walking. Running tours are great for runners who are new to a city. Running tour guides can do more than show you sites, they can tell you about good running routes and tips for running on your own.
Specialty Washington, DC tours
Not all tours are history tours or tours to take you to major sites. These are a few specialty tours you might want to check out.
You don’t have to be an architect to appreciate these! Washington, DC has some incredible architecture and what better way to learn about it than on a specialty tour. Architecture tours are great because they tend to be neighborhood-oriented. So you can get into the neighborhoods and get a different experience than you would by hanging around the National Mall.
One of the fastest growing segments in tourism is the food tour. There are a huge number of amazing restaurants in Washington, DC but most travelers only have a few meals during their trip. A food tour gives you a chance to taste several different restaurants as well as take in the neighborhood culture in the area where the tour is located.
These tours aren’t just for Halloween! Ghost tours are a fun and creative way for guides to tell stories about people and places. In Washington, DC it is well known that the U.S. Capitol is haunted by several spirits, including a tabby cat! Ghost tours are often performative, with guides dressing up in costume. Don’t expect someone to jump out and scare you from behind the bushes though.
Practical tips for Washington, DC tours
No matter which tour you choose, make sure to book direct with the tour company. Third party websites like TripAdvisor are convenient but take a huge cut of your money. Not only that, this extra middleman makes it harder for the tour company to communicate with you and if anything goes wrong, more of a headache to deal with. Booking direct is easiest for all involved.
Make sure to understand that not all tours run year-round. In Washington, DC, some tour companies close down during the winter months (December – February). And they increase capacity during the summer when there are a lot of visitors in town. During those busy months, make sure to book your tours in advance as they can and do sell out!
Finally, consider booking an experience with a local tour company, rather than a chain company with locations all over the country. When you spend money with a local company your money stays in the local economy, rather than going to a big corporation elsewhere. Post pandemic the small tour companies are best positioned to give you the best experience when you return to DC. Your can return the favor by touring with them.