4 Underrated Smithsonian Museums You Must See

December 8, 2019 in Blog

It’s no mystery why Smithsonian museums are such popular destinations for DC visitors. They contain priceless pieces of art, science, and history and admission is completely free! There are 17 Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC. However, they are not all equally well-visited—leaving many underrated Smithsonian museums to explore on your trip.

As you may suspect, the most popular Smithsonians are the National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of Natural History, and the National Museum of American History. Unfortunately the lesser-known museums can get overlooked. So if you’re looking to beat the crowds and see some fascinating stuff, here are four underrated Smithsonian museums that you should put on your itinerary.

Underrated Smithsonian Museums in DC

1. National Portrait Gallery

As you’d suspect, the National Portrait Gallery is a museum full of portraits. It’s excellent because it’s the perfect mix of art and history.

The most popular exhibit is “America’s Presidents,” because it gives visitors a glimpse into the lives of all past presidents in our country’s history. There are also other permanent exhibits portraying early Americans, 20th century Americans, and many other people who shaped our country.

Another thing to love about the portrait gallery is its number of rotating exhibits. So even if you’re been here in the past, you can always visit again and you’re sure to see something new. 

Honorable Mention: Smithsonian American Art Museum

In addition, an honorable mention for an underrated museum is the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The good news is the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum share the same building. In other words, you can hit two underrated Smithsonian museums with one stone (that’s the expression, right?).

The two museums are connected by the Kogod Courtyard, which is an event space and fun architectural marvel to visit in itself. With indoor seating, it’s a cool space to take a seat and relax if your feet could use a break. It’s an especially nice spot if you’re visiting DC with kids or you’re looking for a late evening hangout in the summer once all the other museums are closed.

2. National Postal Museum

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. There is nothing less interesting in life than going to the post office. While that may be true, going to the National Postal Museum is nothing like your run-of-the-mill trip to the USPS. In fact, if you want to buy stamps, you can even spare yourself a trip to the post office by picking them up at the Postal Museum.

The Postal Museum tracks America’s history through the lens of the postal service. So in a way, it’s a history museum with a unique twist. Moreover, if you’re a stamp collector, prepare yourself. The museum has one of the largest and most impressive collections of stamps in the world—not just from the U.S. Postal Service, but from around the world.

Lastly, another reason I love this underrated Smithsonian museum is that even if you visit during the busiest days of spring of summer, this museum never feels especially crowded. 

Best of all, this museum is directly across from Union Station. So even though it’s not right next to the other museums, it’s easy to get to. Plus, chances are you’ll already be in that neighborhood at some point during your trip. 

3. Renwick Gallery

The Renwick Gallery is an offshoot of the American Art Museum, but since it has its own building I consider it its own museum. The building is located a stone’s throw from the White House, over on 17th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

The Renwick is a collection of contemporary craft and decorative art and I’m always impressed with what’s in there. They are also known for putting together excellent rotating exhibits. For example, one past favorite was on The Art of Burning Man. If you’ve heard of the Burning Man festival held in the Nevada desert, you can let your imagination run a little wild about what kind of art that exhibition had. So as you can guess, The Renwick is excellent for this kind of thing.

4. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

The Freer and Sackler Galleries are located right in the middle of the National Mall. So, in many ways these great museums are hidden in plain sight. For example, the entrance is just steps from the big Smithsonian Castle

Note: In 2019 this museum was renamed: Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art.

These are The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. You’ll find pieces from China, Japan, Korea, and other places from that part of the world. What’s more, this museum has one of the best kept secrets in DC – the Peacock Room. This is probably the best room in the entire city. Photos don’t do it justice, you have to see it with your own eyes to really appreciate it. 

The Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery of Art.

Washington DC Gift Guide

November 24, 2019 in Blog

Our Washington, DC gift guide will help your pick out a great gift for anyone who is visiting Washington, DC. Whether you’re shopping for a gift for the holidays, birthday or any other special occasion, these are five ideas to help someone you know have a great DC experience.

Commemorative Metro SmarTrip Card

When you visit Washington, DC a SmarTrip card is required to get around on the Metro. Sure, you can easily buy one at any Metro station, but imagine how cool your friend or family member will feel with a special commemorative SmarTrip. Plus, each commemorative card comes pre-loaded with $8, so they won’t have to worry about paying for their first few rides. You can order one of these cards online at the SmarTrip Store.

Trip Hacks DC Guide to Washington DC E-book

There are no shortage of Washington, DC travel books on the market, but ours is different. Our book is for the modern traveler who wants insider tips and travel hacks to help plan your trip. We’re not padding pages with lists of hotels or restaurants or out-of-date paper maps. We’ve all got smartphones these days for that stuff! Get this book if you want to help your family member or friend get a ton of useful information about their trip without spending a bunch of time on fluff that doesn’t matter.

Museum Tickets

Washington, DC has more great free museums than you can shake a stick at. So it may seem odd to include paid museum tickets in a Washington, DC Gift Guide, but if you only stick to the free museums you’re going to miss some of the best exhibits in the city! The International Spy Museum is a must for kids or kids-at-heart. The National Building Museum is a great spot for anyone interested in architecture, planning and design. And the National Geographic Museum is a great little spot for anyone who likes the magazine.

Tickets to a Tour, Show or Game

Washington, DC is not just museums and monuments. We’ve got a thriving theater scene as well as professional sports teams in almost every league. That said, everyone should see the museums and monuments, and walking around on your own is just one way to do it. Trip Hacks DC runs tours of the monuments including the fun and popular Monumental Trivia tour during the spring and summer months.

Trip Hacks DC Official Merch

This one is shamelessly self promotional, but we could write a Washington, DC gift guide without including our own souvenir merchandise. If you’re a fan of the Trip Hacks DC YouTube channel or Podcast or took a tour with us and want something to remember it, our shirts and merch is the perfect option. There are t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats and a few other cool items. If you wear it on your trip to DC maybe you’ll make friends with some other Trip Hacks DC fans!

DC in December: How to Plan for Your Visit

November 17, 2019 in Blog

December is an excellent month to visit Washington, DC. The city is filled with holiday cheer and you might be able to find a great deal on a hotel. So if you’re the kind of person who likes to wear a Santa hat and sing Christmas Carols, DC in December is a great place to be. 

Tips for Visiting Washington DC in December

DC in December is More Affordable

Hotel rates in DC are driven heavily by business and conference travel. As a result, some months are more expensive than others. However, the last two weeks of December are relatively inexpensive when it comes to hotel accommodations. That’s because no conference organizer is going to schedule a big business event the week between Christmas and New Year’s. 

So similar to the week of Thanksgiving (that we mentioned in our video on November in DC), you can stay at a really nice hotel for relatively little. 

DC Weather in December

December marks the transition from fall to winter, so packing for December can be a little tricky. You probably need to bring your winter coat. Check the weather forecast before you leave to see if hats, gloves, and a scarf might be a good idea.

That said, December is generally much milder than January and Feburary.

  • Average daily highs are around 48°F.
  • Average daily lows are around 32°F. 

If you’re looking for more details about DC weather in December, this Trip Hacks DC podcast covers everything you could ever want to know about weather in DC.

This is also the month when it gets dark really early. Sunset during December is between 4:45 and 5:00pm, depending on the exact date. What does that mean for you? To offer an example, during our winter monuments tour, it’s completely dark the entire time—even though we start pretty early at 5:00pm. 

Holidays in December

There are a handful of religious holidays in December, including Chanukah. The National Menorah has been set up every year since 1979 near the White House and is now over 30 feet tall. However, there is only federal government holiday in December: Christmas.

I’m not going to go in depth on Christmas in this article, because we already have several Christmas-specific videos, as well as a holiday podcast.

One important thing to note is that most holiday festivities begin in late November. The one exception is the Capitol Christmas Tree, which has its lighting ceremony about one week into December. If you have your heart set on seeing that tree, plan to come a little later in the month. 

Some Sites and Restaurants May Be Closed

If you’re going to visit DC on Christmas Day, make sure you have your day planned in advance. This is the only day of the year that Smithsonian museums are closed. Many restaurants will be closed as well. To see which restaurants are open and to make a reservation, Open Table is a handy tool.

Christmas Eve is not technically a holiday, so most sites will remain open. The same goes for New Year’s Eve. Bear in mind, if you are coming to DC for New Year’s Eve hoping for fireworks or a big ball drop, spoiler alert: we don’t really do that here.

Things to Do in DC in December

There is an abundance of things to do in DC in December. This is a helpful Trip Hacks article on five things to do during the holidays in DC. We even have another on less “touristy” holiday activities.

Outdoor Activities

If you want to do some holiday shopping during your trip, you can head over to Georgetown, which has many great shops. Or if you want to support local businesses, I recommend going downtown to checkout the Downtown Holiday Market. Keep in mind that the market ends around Christmas Eve, so you won’t see it once Christmas has passed. 

December is also an excellent month for ice skating and we have several rinks around town. The rink at the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden is the most popular, but the Washington Harbour rink in Georgetown is the biggest. There are also rinks at the Wharf and in the Navy Yard neighborhood, which feel more like neighborhood rinks. 

Indoor Activities

Unsurprisingly, December is also an excellent month for indoor activities. Season’s Greetings at the U.S. Botanic Gardens is extremely popular. You can also check out the museums and experience them with smaller crowds than you’d find in the summer. 

December is also an excellent month to explore the theater scene at places like the National Theatre and the Warner Theatre.

And if you’re into sports, the NBA and NHL seasons are in full swing. You can buy  Capitals and Wizards tickets directly on Ticketmaster or check around on StubHub and Seat Geek for good deals or hard-to-find tickets.

HomeShare or Hotel? 4 Pros and Cons of Airbnb

October 20, 2019 in Blog

One of the most important decisions you will make when you visit Washington, DC is where to stay. DC has a lot of great hotel options, and we at Trip Hacks DC have a ton of resources about picking a good hotel and getting a great deal on your DC hotel. But people still ask about Airbnb all the time. If you’re considering this option, here are some pros and cons of Airbnb that you should consider.

Tips for using AIRBNB

There are a lot of appealing things about picking an Airbnb for your trip, but it’s also really important to do your homework and pick the right one. For the purposes of this article, when I say Airbnb I’m referring to “entire apartment” rentals. You can also rent a single room in someone’s house through Airbnb, but there are a whole host of other tips for that. For an in-depth discussion on this topic, check out the podcast episode we recorded with Wolters World.

There are a host of pros and cons to Airbnb. Let’s start with the pros:

1. Airbnb might be cheaper than a hotel.

Hotel rates in Washington, DC vary dramatically. The rate you get depends heavily on the dates that you’re visiting. If you’re coming during a time when there are big conferences and conventions in town (like October), hotel rates will be high. If you come at a time of year when not very many business travelers are here, they will be much more affordable.

Business travelers tend not to stay at an Airbnb. So especially if it’s a business-heavy time of year, you might be able to find an Airbnb for less than the price of a hotel.

2. Airbnb lets you stay in unique places.

At the end of the day, most hotel rooms look generally the same, but apartments can really be unique places. For example, with Airbnb you could have an entire row house to yourself.

In one of our previous Airbnb recommendation articles, we also included a houseboat that you can rent on the platform. I mean seriously, how often do you get to stay on a boat during your vacation?! 

3. Airbnb gives you a chance to stay in a less-touristy neighborhood.

One of the most common reasons I hear people say they like Airbnb is that they get to “live like a local.” In my opinion, it’s not entirely possible to live like a local when you’re on vacation. But it is true that hotels tend to be in central downtown locations. Airbnb can really be in any neighborhood, so you can stay in more off-the-beaten-path locations. 

4. Airbnbs may have a host that can help you during your stay.

Some of the better hosts do helpful things—like write a guide that they leave for their guests. It might have how-to tips on how to get around or recommendations for nearby restaurants and bars. If you pick an Airbnb that’s in the basement apartment of someone’s house, the host might actually live right upstairs. 

If they’re willing, they can be a helpful resource. Or—if mayhem strikes—a valuable contact if you get lost, sick, or have some other emergency on your trip.

But there are both pros and cons of Airbnb. Here are some of the down sides:

1. Beware the hidden fees of Airbnb.

Unfortunately, the first price you see on Airbnb is usually much lower than what you eventually pay. As of 2020, Airbnb travelers will pay a service fee, tax, a cleaning fee (which most hosts add), and sometimes even additional fees.

For example, you might see a listing advertised at $92 per night. But after taking into account all the taxes and fees, you’ll actually spend $147 per night for a two-night stay. That’s a 60% premium over the advertised price! 

So depending on these hidden fees and which dates you travel, Airbnb may wind up being no cheaper than a hotel. 

2. Variety isn’t always a good thing.

When you stay at a Hilton Garden Inn—whether it’s in Washington, DC; Orlando, FL; or Lincoln, NE—you pretty much know what to expect.

When you stay at an Airbnb, you really have no idea what you’re getting into until you’re there. You don’t know what the room is going to look like. You don’t know how the mattress is going to feel. 

Yes, sure, there are pictures, but don’t be fooled. A skilled photographer can make any space look really nice. Showing up to an Airbnb that’s shabbier than it looked in the pictures can put a damper on your whole trip.

3. Just because you can stay in a neighborhood doesn’t mean you should

Hotels are generally in areas that are safe, comfortable, and close to the sites (or public transportation to the sites). Your Airbnb, on the other hand, could be miles from the stuff you want to see—and a long walk to transportation to get there. 

When people ask Trip Hacks DC about safety, we tell them that if you pick a downtown hotel and stick to the beaten bath, you probably won’t have to worry much about it. 

But with Airbnb you have to do extra research to make sure you’ll feel comfortable in the area you pick. Or that you don’t have to spend a small fortune on Ubers and cabs to get around.

4. An illegal Airbnb could ruin your trip to DC.

Now, when I say “illegal” I don’t mean you’re at risk of going to jail over it. An “illegal” Airbnb means the host is violating their apartment lease or their condo association’s bylaws. Most renters in the DC metro can tell you that any lease we’ve ever signed prohibits sublets or short-term leases. Anyone staying in the apartment (other than the person on the lease) requires the landlord’s permission.

Many apartment buildings will take it even further—not just banning subleases, but specifically banning Airbnb and a number of similar websites by name. And guess what? People still will put their apartments on Airbnb. Maybe they don’t realize it’s against their lease, maybe they’re trying to sneak one past their landlords. Either way, when management finds out, they shut them down.

This is why it’s risky to rent an Airbnb. Imagine you booked a place months in advance, paid for your flight, mapped out all your activities. Then a week before the trip, your host gets busted by their landlord and has to cancel all their upcoming stays. That’s going to put you in a sticky situation. 

And it happens. Not all the time, but it happens. 

If you are considering an Airbnb, I would recommend this podcast on the good, the bad, and the ugly of Airbnb to help you choose the most reputable option.

Which is better—hotel or Airbnb?

So, the big question is: Which is better—hotel or Airbnb?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. For most travelers, a hotel will be better simply because it’s easier. It’s easier to book, you know what you’re getting, and it’s easier to check in and navigate once you’re here.

For more experienced travelers or those willing to research the pros and cons of Airbnb, it could be a great option. But make sure to do your research. Is the neighborhood safe? Is it close to where you want to go (or to public transportation)? Does their post raise any red flags?

If everything checks out, you might find a unique accommodation and possibly save a little money. 

DC in November: How to Plan for Your Visit

October 13, 2019 in Blog

November is perhaps the most underrated month to visit Washington, DC. Kids are back in school and the holidays are coming up, so a family vacation is not on a lot of people’s minds. But if you can swing a November trip, this is a great time for a visit. 

Tips for Visiting Washington DC in November

Who’s Visiting DC in November?

Some schools do take November field trips, but it is not nearly as crowded as during the big field trip season from March through June. If you do want to learn more about what to expect, we have an entire article about 8th grade field trip season

There is very little business or conference travel in DC leading up to Thanksgiving, so it is one of the single cheapest weeks of the year for hotel accommodations. That means you can stay at a really nice hotel for a bargain price.

DC Weather in November

In general, DC weather in November is pretty mild.

  • Average daily highs are 59°F
  • Average daily lows are 43°F

November weather is really nice if you like nice fall weather. The first half of November also tends to have nice fall colors—so don’t think that it’s too late to see changing leaves. Because DC is somewhat far south, the leaves change color weeks later than those in New England. 

It’s also worth noting that it’s usually the first weekend in November when daylight savings ends, so it starts getting dark really early. On November 4th, sunset in Washington, DC is at 5:05 pm—and it only gets earlier throughout the month. If you’re looking for more information on DC weather, we have a whole podcast episode that tells you everything you need to know about weather in DC.

What to Pack for DC in November

They key to packing for November is layers. On a typical November day, you could start with jeans and a t-shirt. Then put a sweatshirt over that. If you’re going out early in the morning or later at night, you could even add a light jacket on top of that. And of course, like every month, comfortable walking shoes are a must. 

Holidays in November

There are two federal government holidays in November. The first is Veterans Day, which is on November 11th. This is a government holiday that is not always observed on a Monday, which means it could fall any day of the week. If it falls on a Saturday, it will be observed on Friday. If it falls on a Sunday it will be observed on Monday. 

When you visit on Veterans Day, you will find that it is relatively quiet downtown, since a lot of office workers get the day off. If you visit the war memorials, you will likely find special events and services being held to honor the veterans of our armed forces. 

Thanksgiving in DC

The other government holiday in November is Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is one of the biggest travel holidays of the year, but typically people travel to visit family, not to go on vacation. As I mentioned before, this means you can get a killer deal on a nice hotel.

The other cool thing about Thanksgiving is that the Smithsonian Museums are open on the holiday, but tend to be relatively quiet. This makes Thanksgiving a perfect day to visit if you’re looking to avoid the crowds.

Black Friday and Shopping in DC

People who are visiting family in the area want to get out after Thanksgiving and are looking for something to do. The Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving are a little more crowded. Black Friday is not an official holiday, but many people do take the day off of work.

If you want to do Black Friday shopping, you can head over to Georgetown, which has a great mix of boutiques and chain retail stores. Or if you want to be indoors and have the mall experience, Tysons Corner Center is a huge mall about 15 miles outside of Washington, DC. You can take the Metro’s Silver Line to get there.

You can also take the Yellow or Blue Lines and visit the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, which is a bit smaller, but also metro accessible and closer to the city. The Downtown Holiday Market also kicks off on Black Friday. That’s a great place to shop for local goods and to support local small businesses.

What to Do in DC in November

The end of November marks the beginning of Season’s Greetings at the U.S. botanic gardens. This is a winter holiday wonderland and a very popular place to visit at this time of year. Zoolights at the National Zoo starts at the end of November, as well. So if you’re around the last week of the month, you can really start to get into the Christmas spirit. 

If you’re looking for more holiday things to do, you can check out this article on five Christmas activities in DC, along with a few less touristy DC holiday activities.

Everything You Need to Know about Tipping in Washington, DC

September 29, 2019 in Blog

For many travelers, tipping is a big source of anxiety, but it doesn’t have to be. When you travel, knowing the local customs can take a lot of the worry out of the equation. Tipping in Washington, DC is very similar to tipping in most parts of the U.S. So if you are a domestic traveler you are probably more knowledgeable than you think. Here’s how you can prepare yourself for tipping in Washington, DC.  

How much to TIP in Washington DC

Tipping Drivers in DC

When you arrive at the airport, the first person you’ll probably find yourself tipping in Washington, DC is your driver into the city. Unless you’re taking the Metro, you will probably use a taxi, Uber or Lyft. For taxi drivers, expect to tip 15%. If they help you with your large luggage or are especially friendly, go up to 20%; the same goes for Uber and Lyft.

Uber is actually very hotly debated when it comes to tips. When Uber launched it was exclusively a luxury car service, with Towncars and black SUVs. The prices were more expensive than a taxi and Uber very clearly stated that the tip was included. 

However, over time, once Lyft and Uber X were created, that model didn’t make sense anymore because the rates were so low. Lyft has always allowed tips. Uber eventually relented and did the same. So now for both services you tip in the app at the end of your ride. 

Tipping Hotel Staff in DC

When you arrive at your hotel, a bellhop may help you with your bags. If they bring your bags up to your room (or if they store them because you arrived early), then you should tip around $2-$3 per bag. 

Assuming you don’t use the “Do Not Disturb” sign during your entire trip, you can tip cleaning staff $3-$5 per day. It’s important to leave these tips daily because the staff rotate and different people may clean the room on different days. If you wait and leave one lump sum at the end, you could unintentionally shortchange someone who cleaned the room earlier in the trip.

In general, you don’t need to tip the front desk staff. Whether or not you tip the concierge depends on what they did. If they just recommended a restaurant or a tour, no tip is necessary. If they did something that takes a bit of work, like getting you show tickets or sports tickets, $5-$10 is about right.

On the other hand, if they did something exceptional, like get you into the hottest restaurant on a Saturday night, then tip $20 at least. Keep in mind that concierges often earn commissions from the businesses they refer to, so if they book you on a tour, they might be earning 20%-30% from that tour company. Doing your research beforehand can help you be aware of things like this.

Tipping Tour Guides in DC

How much you tip your tour guide depends entirely on what type of tour you picked. If it’s a public tour, where you paid per person and are going around with other tourists, $5-$10 per person is about right. So if you’re a family of four, that’s $20-$40 for the family. 

If it’s a free tour or a “pay what you’d like” tour, then it goes up to $10-$20 per person. So a family of four would be $40-$80. If it’s a private tour, then I would start with 10% of the tour price. Or ask the tour company what their policy is. Some of them will specifically say that tips are not required on a private tour. 

Lastly, if you’re attending a park ranger talk or a Capitol tour led by a government employee then no tip is necessary; it is actually illegal for a federal employee to take a tip.  

Tipping Your Servers and Bartenders

When you eat at a restaurant, the tip should be 20% of your total bill. An easy hack to calculate this is to take 10% by moving the decimal point one spot, then doubling that amount. So if your bill was $40.00, ten percent of that would be $4.00 (by moving the decimal one spot to the left). Double four and your tip is $8.00.

Bartenders are a little tricker. If you’re just walking up to the bar to order a beer or wine, then a dollar per drink is fairly standard. If you’re ordering a fancy cocktail, go with 20%. Same goes for ordering a bunch of drinks on a tab: go with 20% when you close out at the end of the night. 

DC in October: How to Plan for Your Visit

September 15, 2019 in Blog

If you’re planning a trip to the U.S. capital and your schedule is flexible, it’s hard to beat DC in October. The summer weather and crowds have cooled down, the leaves are changing colors—it’s an all-around pleasant time of year. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting DC in October.

Tips for Visiting Washington DC in October

Who Else Comes to DC in October?

DC in October is reliably less busy than the summertime. However, there is an uptick in traffic the first couple of weeks when kids are on fall break. Fall break is not as common as spring break, and not all school districts take fall break, but a lot of families do take advantage of the time off to make a trip. 

October is also when DC’s secondary 8th grade field trip season begins. We have an entire article about field trip season, but the gist of it is: the primary field trip season is March through June. But the secondary one is October through Thanksgiving. It shouldn’t scare you from visiting DC in October, but it is something good to keep in mind as you plan.

Another thing to note: October tends to have higher hotel rates than other months of the year because there is increased business and conference travel. So make sure to check out our video series about getting a great deal on a DC hotel.

DC Weather in October

October weather is the most reliably fall-like. Average daily highs in September are 68 degrees Fahrenheit and average daily lows are 50 degrees Fahrenheit. But our favorite part about DC in October? There’s almost no humidity.

Do be aware that October is during the tail end of Atlantic hurricane season and DC does occasionally get affected by storms off the coast. If you want to know more about that and lots of other weather phenomenon, check out the Trip Hacks DC podcast episode about weather. It will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about weather here in DC.

October is also when the leaves start to change color. Since DC is farther south, the leaves do change several weeks later than they do up in New England. We typically find the second half of October (or even the first half of November) to be the best time for fall colors. If you really want to check out the colors, consider doing a hike in Rock Creek Park, the huge park in the middle of the city. 

What to Pack for DC in October

They key to packing for October is layers. On a typical October day, you could start with jeans and a shirt. Having a sweater or sweatshirt on hand during the day is helpful. And if you’re going out early in the morning or later at night, you might even add a light jacket on top of that. It should go without saying that, like every month, comfortable walking shoes are a must. 

Holidays in October

There is one federal government holiday in October­: Columbus Day. This is not a holiday where you will find much happening in terms of special events. But one very special thing you can do is tour the Library of Congress’ main reading room. This is typically only accessible to official researchers, but on Columbus Day they hold an open house and anyone can go. 

The other noteworthy holiday in October is Halloween. This is not a government holiday and nobody gets off of work or school, but it’s a popular and fun holiday in DC. Depending on which day of the week it falls, you’ll find lots of Halloween nightlife the weekend before and possibly even the weekend after October 31st. You’ll see lots of houses decorated for the holiday, as well as public buildings. 

Trick or treating in DC is always on Halloween day itself. If you have kids and want to trick or treat, Capitol Hill is a popular area, with lots of houses close together and people handing out candy. East Capitol Street, in particular, is famous for being an excellent place for candy. 

On the other side of town, some embassies welcome trick or treaters (with either candies from their native countries or just your standard Kit Kats). And for really small kids there is trick or treating at the National Zoo

What to Do in DC in October

October is also when the Marine Corps Marathon takes place. This is one of the biggest marathons on the circuit and people travel in from all over the world to run it.

Even if you’re like me and you only run after ice cream trucks, the Marine Corps Marathon may affect your trip because it shuts down many big streets throughout the city, including on the National Mall. So make sure to check their official website for this year’s date so you can plan around it. 

October is also when the theater scene starts to kick into high gear. So check out the Kennedy Center, National Theater, Lincoln Theater and others, to see what’s playing this season. 

If you’re a sports fan, DC in October means the start of the NHL and NBA seasons. So if you’re interested in attending a game of one of DC’s many sports teams, you can check out our video and blog post about it here.

Tips for Visiting DC During a Government Shutdown

September 8, 2019 in Blog

Hopefully you are not reading this because the federal government is shut down. Government shutdowns are awful the travel industry absolutely hates how disruptive they are to the industry. But if you are concerned that you’ll be visiting DC during a government shutdown, here’s what you need to know.

Tips for Visiting DC During a Government SHUTDOWN

Should You Cancel Your Trip to DC?

When the government shuts down, people want to know whether they should cancel or keep their plans to travel to DC. Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to that question because every government shutdown is different. 

There’s a reason that you’ll often hear a shutdown referred to as a “partial government shutdown” in the news—because the full U.S. government never really closes down. The military, TSA, diplomats and other employees stay on the job. They might not get paid on time, but they show up to work and do their jobs. 

What Closes in DC During a Government Shutdown?

On the other hand, you have government agencies like the Smithsonian. It may not be an agency tasked with national security, but it’s definitely important if you are planning a vacation to DC. Still, even with agencies like the Smithsonian, it’s impossible to know what’s going to happen in DC during a government shutdown until it happens.

For example, there was a shutdown in January 2018 that lasted three days over a weekend. Very few DC sites closed, so if you visited that weekend, your trip was only minimally impacted.

On the other hand, in 2013, the government shut down for 16 days starting on October 1st. For all 16 days of the shutdown, every Smithsonian museum was closed. If you showed up, all you’d find was a locked door and a sign apologizing for the situation.

In yet another example, starting in December 2018, the government shut down for 34 days. Luckily, the Smithsonian had enough funding in reserve to stay open for ten of those days. 

So in other words, if the shutdown had ended on day seven rather than day 34, the Smithsonian wouldn’t have been affected at all. There’s only one problem: there’s simply no way to know any of this in advance.

Monuments and Memorials in DC During a Government Shutdown

Is a shutdown going to happen? Or will Congress make a deal at 11pm the night before? And if there is a shutdown, how long will it last? When it comes to government shutdowns, there’s a lot of uncertainty.

There is similar uncertainty when it comes to the monuments and memorials. In 2013, the monuments and memorials actually closed. There were barriers up around the perimeters and visitors were not allowed in. In 2018-19 they were not closed and people were still allowed to visit.

During that time, many private tour guides still ran tours. However, park rangers were not working. Garbage was not collected on a regular basis. When it snowed, sidewalks and paths weren’t cleared. And restrooms were closed, leaving only a small number of portable toilets near the sites. Not to be graphic, but since they weren’t servicing the portable toilets enough, it got really gross really fast. 

Bottom Line: Should You Cancel?

When it comes to these shutdowns, those of us in the tourism industry don’t get any special insider information. We get our information about the shutdown from The Washington Post at the same time as everybody else. But people still ask us if they should cancel their DC trip.

I think the answer is no—and I’m not just saying that because tour guides like me lose business when people cancel trips. The reality is that there are just too many unknowns and uncertainties. 

For example, if the shutdown starts ten days before your trip, but ends one day before your trip, then you basically cancelled for nothing.

On the flip side, if the shutdown happens the day before your trip and you cancel—but it turns out that many of the things you wanted to see stay open into the shutdown—then you also cancelled for nothing.

There’s Still a Lot to See in DC During a Government Shutdown

Now, what if there’s a shutdown during your trip and the things you wanted to see are closed? There’s still hope. Not every site in DC is affiliated with the federal government. There are private museums, like the Spy Museum and National Geographic Museum, which will stay open. These museums aren’t free, but they aren’t too expensive either. 

Also, many people don’t realize but Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s home, is not affiliated with the government and is open no matter what. Visiting Georgetown’s shops and historical sites, seeing a professional sports game or catching a play or concert are all still great options. It may not be the ideal scenario, but there are still a many ways like these to turn lemons into lemonade.

How to Know What’s Closed in DC During a Government Shutdown

The best way to keep up with what’s open and closed during the shutdown is the local news. The Washington Post, NBC4 and other local news will typically publish an article every few days (if not daily) with status updates on various government sites and agencies. If there is a specific site you want to know about, you can also follow them on social media for the most up-to-date information. 

Lastly, if you’re curious about past shutdowns—when they happened and how long they lasted—there is an excellent Washington Post article that has this information.

Hopefully no one ever needs article because we’ll never have another shutdown…but if we do, hopefully you found this helpful. 

Ideas for Free and Cheap Things to Do in Washington DC

September 1, 2019 in Blog

Washington, DC can be an expensive city; but it doesn’t have to! The great thing about visiting is that there are so many free and cheap things to do in Washington, DC. I wanted to know if it’s possible to experience the city if you had only $20 in your pocket. And not just once (that’s too easy) but for three consecutive days.

In July, 2019, I took the $20 challenge. Unfortunately, I had to exclude the price of accommodation. There are plenty of hotel choices and areas to stay. Airbnb is an option as well. However, it’s not feasible to expect anything clean and comfortable for such a low price. That said, for this challenge, food, transportation and daily activities all came from a daily $20 budget.

Day 1: Thursday

Washington DC for UNDER $20 - Day 1

The day started at Wicked Waffle – a great little breakfast spot downtown. Most folks opt for a waffle sandwich, but that was out of my price range, so I went with a simple Brussels Waffle with syrup instead. The total, with tax, was $5.23. This was also the moment I realized that I couldn’t get drinks with my meal, as they would easily push me over $20. Good thing I carry a water bottle with me!

After breakfast I took the DC Cirulator bus up to the National Zoo. At the time I did the challenge, Circulator was free! However, it’s back to the regular $1 per ride, which is still a bargain. The National Zoo is not the biggest zoo in America but it’s probably the best free zoo in America. Once I was done I took Metro back downtown. That ride cost me $2.00.

For lunch I stopped at my favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Well Dressed Burrito. I usually order an “El Gordo” burrito; but today opted for a smaller chicken burrito, which cost $7.15 with tax. Afterward I hopped on another (free at the time) Circulator bus to Georgetown. After exploring some of the Georgetown hidden gems I grabbed a falafel sandwich at Falafel Inc. for $3.30 to save for dinner later.

To close out the day I saw a free movie at the Capitol Riverfront outdoor movie series. There are free movie nights all over the city. The movie series at the Navy Memorial is convenient to many downtown hotels.

Day 1 total: $17.68.

Day 2: Friday

Washington DC for UNDER $20 - Day 2

The second day of the challenge started with a long walk from downtown over to Eastern Market in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Washington, DC is a walking city and walking is a great option because it’s always completely free.

Despite the name, Market Lunch actually has excellent breakfast. It’s located right inside the market. I ordered Blue Bucks (blueberry buckwheat pancakes). A short stack was plenty and cost $6.88. If you’re not a pancake person for a similar price you can order The Brick, a delicious and filling breakfast sandwich. Make sure to bring cash as this spot is cash only!

Eastern Market is less than a mile from the Capitol, so after lunch I walked over to the Capitol Visitor Center and hopped on a tour. During the busy times of year, a reservation is highly recommended. On this day, since I was a single person, I got lucky and got right onto a tour. Afterward, I took the tunnel to the Library of Congress, the most beautiful building in the city, in my opinion. After that I walked down the hill and spent a little time exploring at the U.S. Botanic Garden.

Around 2pm I started making my way down Independence Avenue toward the U.S. Department of Agriculture headquarters. USDA has a cafeteria that’s open to the public and every day after 2:30pm they discount buffet items by 30%. I was able to build a nice plate and after the discount and tax cost $6.19. The late afternoon discount is a great hack when you’re looking for cheap things to do in Washington, DC.

After lunch I saw some art at the Hishhorn Museum. It’s a modern art museum and generally less busy than the bigger Smithsonian museums nearby. Afterward I crossed the National Mall and stopped by the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden. On Fridays in the summer they do Jazz in the Garden. It’s a fun place to listen to music and kick off the weekend. I could only stay for a little while because then it was time to meet a group for a private tour.

Trip Hacks DC tours are not one of the cheap things to do in Washington, DC (they’re totally worth it though). But for the sake of this challenge I assumed you could see all of the monuments on your own. Self-guiding a tour is completely free. After the tour I rushed over to Roti, a great fast-casual restaurant and got a plate of food just before they closed. I used the LevelUp app and had a $5.00 credit, which meant my dinner only cost $4.68. Check out how you can use this app to get free food credits too.

Day 2 total: $17.75.

Day 3: Saturday

Washington DC for UNDER $20 - Day 3

Saturday mornings in DC are surprisingly quiet and peaceful. I woke up and walked over to Bethesda Bagels for breakfast. They are best known for their delicious breakfast sandwiches, but I went with a staple cheap eat: an everything bagel with cream cheese. It was a filling breakfast for only $3.45.

Afterward I decided to walk off the calories and headed to the Old Post Office Tower. This is one of the best views in DC. The Washington Monument gets all the attention but the views down Pennsylvania Avenue from the tower and phenomenon. It’s also great for early birds because they open at 9am, about an hour earlier than most sights. Make sure to use the door behind the building off of 12th Street NW.

Most museums open at 10am which is when I arrived at the National Museum of American History. Museums on the National Mall are huge and you could spend an entire day in a single museum if you were really into it. With limited time it’s best to focus on the exhibits you most want to see.

For lunch I headed to the nearby Protein Bar. They have bowls and wraps that I would call healthy or at least healthy-ish. I ordered the buffalo bowl which had chicken, celery, carrots and blue cheese, on top of quinoa. It was delicious. Protein Bar also uses the LevelUp app so I was able to redeem a credit and only pay $3.84 for lunch.

Two underrated Smithsonian museums in DC are the Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum. I like these museums because they are fun an entertaining for both history buffs and art lovers. They are also connected by the Kogod Courtyard which is a great place to sit and relax during a busy day of sightseeing. It was where I planned out my evening.

Up to this point I was winning this challenge because I took advantage of all the free activities in DC. On the last day I decided to do something a little crazy. I wanted to go to a Major League Baseball game. I knew I could pull it off because there are $5.00 tickets available at the Washington Nationals box office and because you can bring your own outside food. When it comes to cheap things to do in Washington, DC this one is still kind of a secret.

From the museum I hopped on a Capital Bikeshare bike (the ride cost $2.00) and headed toward the ballpark. Instead of going to a restaurant I stopped at Harris Teeter to pick up some groceries. I walked out with a salad, bag of peanuts and bottle of water. The snacks totaled up to $5.98. I got my ticket and the box office and walked right into the game.

Day 3 total: $20.27.

Building an itinerary from free and cheap things to do in Washington DC

Even though I exceeded $20 on the third day, I would call this challenge a wild success. It took a bit of planning and limited the number of options, but there are so many cheap things to do in Washington DC that it made it possible. Plus, these were three action packed days. If you tried to re-create this itinerary you would be exhausted by the end!

DC in September: How to Plan for Your Visit

August 11, 2019 in Blog

Are you planning a visit to DC but want to avoid the summer crowds? If you can swing it, September is one of the best months to visit our nation’s capital. DC in September features all the great summertime weather without the humidity (and the hoards of middle school students). Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re planning to visit DC in September.

Tips for Visiting Washington DC in September

Weather in September

On average, September weather in DC is really pleasant. In fact, DC weather expert Jason Samenow told the Trip Hacks DC podcast that September is one of his favorite months for DC weather. That might be for several reasons:

  • The average daily high is 81°F.
  • The average daily low is 63°F.
  • Best of all, the humidity is ramping down for the season.

There still may be some muggy days in September. But unlike in July, when every day is a guaranteed sauna, September in DC offers visitors more than a sporting chance against the humidity.

Something else to keep in mind is that September falls squarely during Atlantic hurricane season. To understand what that could mean for your trip, you can listen to this episode of our Trip Hacks DC podcast about weather phenomenon in Washington, DC.

What to Pack for September in DC

Visiting DC in September, you’ll want to think in terms of “summer clothes.” Most days, shorts or a light dress would be appropriate. On colder days or if you’re doing early morning/late evening activities, a light jacket or sweater might be helpful.

If you have plans to go to an event at the Kennedy Center or an upscale restaurant, it’s a good idea to pack pants and a button-down for the gents or a dress or blouse and skirt for the ladies. Also, pants and a long jacket are a good idea if you have tickets to a baseball or soccer game; it can get pretty chilly in those stadiums once the sun goes down.

And of course, like every month, comfortable walking shoes are a must. 

Labor Day in DC

There is one federal government holiday in September: Labor Day. This is the first Monday of the month.

The most notable Labor Day event in DC is the starlight National Symphony Orchestra Concert on the West Lawn of the Capitol. This is one of three big concerts held at the Capitol every year, with the others held on Memorial Day and Independence Day. The Labor Day concert usually offers a calmer atmosphere and cooler weather than the Memorial Day and Independence Day concerts.

Also, since Labor Day is considered the unofficial end of summer, many bars and restaurants hold a lot of “end of summer” festivities over Labor Day weekend. It’s just one more reason you should consider visiting DC in September.

September Events in DC

September 11th is the National Day of Service and Remembrance. It’s not a day people will be off work or school, but you may find some events happening around the memorials, Arlington National Cemetery, or the Pentagon if you visit that day. 

Otherwise, the biggest September event in DC is the National Book Festival, hosted by the Library of Congress. It usually falls the Saturday before Labor Day. To learn all about it and plan for your trip, you can check out this Trip Hacks DC video on the National Book Festival.

September is also the month when a lot of neighborhoods host their neighborhood street festivals. This includes events like the H Street Festival, Adams Morgan Day, and Barracks Row Fall Festival. These are usually held on Saturdays (and occasionally Sundays) during September. You can learn a little about the neighborhood, the local businesses and try food from some of the restaurants. 

Another reason you might consider a trip to DC in September is if you’re running a marathon or participating in a charity walk (or run). September is when these events start to pick up, since the weather is cooler and crowds are smaller. 

DC Sports in September

If you’re a sports fan, Major League Baseball and soccer are coming to the end of their respective seasons in September. And once the kids go back to school, tickets for these games get really cheap on websites like SeatGeek and Stubub. Check out this post on Trip Hacks DC on how to score really cheap tickets for the Washington Nationals.

But watch out! September in DC may mean great weather and smaller crowds, but with more business travel into DC than in August, hotel rates are much higher. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying DC in September. Check out these tips for how to get an awesome deal on DC hotels.