Getting around Washington DC on a Budget

Getting Around Washington DC on a Budget with Public Transportation

Last updated on August 16th, 2019

With everything so close in DC and parking costs the highest in the nation, is no wonder everyone tells you to not rent a car when you visit. But your first time walking between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, you’ll soon find that things are not as close as they seem. Just because you don’t have a car, doesn’t mean you stuck walking the whole time. You can get around Washington DC on a budget using a variety of different methods of public transportation.

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Getting around Washington DC on a Budget

The Capital BikeShare

The Capital Bikeshare program is a great way to get around the city on shorter trips. Utilizing a docking system that is completely self-service, users can pick up a bike whenever they want at a bunch of different location throughout the city. It costs $2 for a 30-minute ride or $8 for unlimited rides in 24hrs. You just have to keep the ride under 30 minutes. It is all done through an app on your phone, or credit card at a kiosk. A three-day pass is $17.

To get the bike, you’ll use your credit card at the pay station. Once you’ve gone through all the terms and conditions and liability disclaimers, you’ll receive a passcode to unlock any of the bikes. When you get to your destination, find another docking station and park your bike. The bike rentals are everywhere, so you are bound to find one within a few blocks of your destination.

How to use the Bike Share program

What if I want to bike for longer than 30 minutes?

No problem. After the 30 minutes is up, you’ll get charged $2 more for the next 30 minutes and $4 for an hour and so on. Just don’t have it out for longer than 24hrs or you may be charged for the cost of a new bike. If you do not want to pay extra for your ride, find the nearest dock as you get near the 30-minute mark and dock your bike. Wait 1 min then grab a new bike. If you get to a bike dock that is completely filled and you’re almost out of time, you can request an additional 15 minutes at the terminal without paying more.

The Capitol Bike Share Program
Image by Mr.TinDC licensed under Creative Commons.

Do I need a Helmet?

If you are under 16, the law requires you wear a helmet in Washington DC. If you are 16 and over, it’s optional. Wearing a helmet is a personal choice. When you are in a town that you are unfamiliar with and on the streets, I recommend wearing one. Unfortunately, you’ll have to bring your own from home. If you rent a bike through a traditional rental company, like Bike and Roll DC, they include a helmet. The other option is to buy one when you get there, but that cuts into valuable sightseeing time. When you get to your destination, throw it in a backpack and move along.

There are two places where you cannot bring a backpack into. The White House and the Senate Gallery. The Senate has a place to store your backpack. The White House doesn’t. It’s best to either skip the helmet or walk to it if you are visiting these locations. Otherwise, bring a small bag with you to store your helmet.

Capitol Bikes on the Washington DC Mall

Where to bike in DC – Where you can and cannot go?

Washington DC is very bike friendly. They are one of the first cities to start offering a bike share program. There are bike lanes on many of the major roads. Normally I like to use sidewalks whenever I bike, but in DC’s case, there is a section of the city that doesn’t allow bikers on the sidewalks. I found this rule was more for locals. We did ask one of the police officers about it and he said: “As long as you don’t hit anyone, feel free to use the sidewalks”.

If there is a bike lane, or if the sidewalks are congested, use the road. I ran into this a few times. Otherwise, feel free to use sidewalks! When in doubt on the preferred bike-friendly route, grab your phone and get on Google Maps. Select the bike icon and they will give you the best possible route.

Washington DC Bike Lanes

How easy is it to use?

The bike system is slick. But we did run into a few issues along the way. First, download the Capital Bikeshare App! It lets you know where every dock is and will help you plan out your route, just like google maps. It also tells you if bikes are available and if there is a free spot to dock your bike when you get there. The fill levels were spotty because of the demand. At 9 pm at night, anywhere near the Washington Monument, there were no bikes. Even if there were when we checked the app, by the time we got there, people were already grabbing them.

The second problem we faced was that not all the bikes would release. If it had a red light on the bike’s keypad, it was out of service. But others without the light would not release either. During the day, it was a lot easier to get bikes.

You can rent up to 2 bikes with the same credit card. When you get your bike, you’ll be given a code to unlock it. If you are getting two bikes, they will both use the same code. You cannot unlock the two bikes using the same code at the same time. Have one person unlock the bike, wait one minute and have the other bike release. Otherwise, it will lock up on you and you’ll have to wait another minute.

DC Scooters

There were multiple companies renting electric scooters. These things go fast and are a great way to zip around the city. Scooters are a good alternative to those that may not be comfortable biking or would like to not use as much energy getting from point A to B.

Renting a Scooter

Before you can rent a scooter, you must get the app for the appropriate scooter. Scan the scooter’s barcode or enter the code located on the scooter and then start riding!

There are multiple companies renting and each uses their own app. You’ll see them everywhere and I mean everywhere. One over there, one in the middle of the sidewalk… and then a group of 10 over by a monument. Most of the apps will show exactly where they all are. When you are done with the scooter, just drop it and go. There is no need to doc it. This makes it easier to get around. But at the same time makes them harder to find one, or two if you are traveling together.

Here are the companies I saw renting. You may want to download their apps before going.

DC Scooter Rentals

Each scooter company is a little different but the average cost to ride is $1.00 per ride + $0.15 a minute. The cost can add up. A single 30-minute ride on a Capitol Share Bike is $2. A scooter would cost you $5.50. I was walking by someone who was complaining that it took her 15 minutes just to get the thing to work. So if you are unfamiliar with riding one, it may cost you a little more initially.

They can be dangerous. Trust ME! I saw multiple people running off them trying to stop. One businessman drop is briefcase, scooter and fall flat on his face. The police, pedestrians and others hate them!

Renting a Scooter in Washington DC

The Metro Train

The metro is a cost-effective way to get into the Mall. Once you are in the Mall area, it is not as helpful. The best way to utilize the bus is to get to some of the sights on the outskirts, like Arlington National Cemetary or the Zoo. Arlington National Cemetary has a station walking distance from the entrance. The zoo’s closest station is about .7 miles away. But in DC miles, that’s nothing.

Before deciding to use the Metro over walking from point A to point B, do a quick google maps calculation. Sometimes it will take as much distance to detour to the train, than it would be to walk to the destination.

The metro map of Washington DC.

The Circulator Bus – FREE

When all else fails, use the bus. The great thing about the Circulator is that it’s currently free. In February of 2019, they did a test run offering free rides to everyone. It got such great feedback, the city has extended the program indefinitely. The bus has multiple loops, including around the Mall! Every 10 minutes it stops at all the popular spots in DC, including all the Smithsonian’s.

The Circulator Bus in DC
Image by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

Uber and Lyft

Using ride share programs like Uber and Lyft were amazing. A lot of people use it as their primary method of transportation. I preferred to use this as a last resort at the end of the day. When it’s HOT and you can’t bike another minute. In all honesty, I logged anywhere from 10-12 miles of walking each day, so when you get the opportunity to get in an air-conditioned car at the end of the day, you go for it. We were staying at the JW Marriot in DC, a few blocks from the White House. The largest fair was paid was $15.

The Best Way To Get Around Washington DC

There is not going to a best way to get around. Depending on your situation, do a mix of everything. The best part about DC was that you never had to go far to find the next best thing and way to get around Washington DC on a budget. Just keep your eyes open!

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