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.

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.