Money & costs
Gratuities are not optional in the US. Wait staff, hotel-room attendants, valet parkers and bellhops receive the minimum wage or less and depend on tips for their livelihoods. Service has to be pretty dreadful before you should consider not tipping. In restaurants tipping 15% of the total bill is the accepted minimum. If service is good, 20% is a decent average tip, while it is appropriate to tip more if service is exceptional. Hotel-room attendants should get $1 per guest per day, eg $10 for two people who have stayed five days. Tip taxi drivers about 10% of your fare. Airport baggage handlers get about $1 per bag. Hairdressers usually get tips, too (20%), as do coat-check staff ($1).
The greater Washington area is the third-largest regional economy in the United States, with a gross regional product of nearly $246.8 billion in 2005. While the federal government is the main story in DC, thriving private-sector industries include information technology, bioscience, international business, professional services and tourism. The federal government provides fuel for all of these industries. In the 1990s, the high-tech industry in particular benefited from government spending, and sprouted up - seemingly overnight - in northern Virginia along the Dulles corridor.
Washington, DC, is an expensive place to live and to visit. Once in Washington, the bulk of your travel expenses will be for accommodation. Although fancy hotels in Washington can cost as much as you are willing to pay, it is possible - taking advantage of discounted web rates - to stay in a central, four-star hotel for $150 to $200. Midrange hotels run from $120 to $350, while the hostels in DC cost around $30 for a bed. Eating in DC is also not cheap. Three sit-down meals per day, including one at an upscale restaurant, will easily cost $80 per person. Forgoing drinks or grabbing a meal at a less-expensive venue trims that estimate to $50. At best, self-catering and cheap eats make it possible to eat for about $20 per day.
Keep in mind that Washington offers many opportunities to save money. With free federal sites, museums, concerts and festivals, it's entirely possible to find yourself fully entertained - day and night - without paying a dime. The Smithsonian museums are always free, and galleries like the Phillips Collection and the Corcoran Gallery of Art have reduced entry or free admission on certain days of the week. Happy hours offer excellent value for eating and drinking, and many upscale restaurants have fixed-plate and pre-theater menus that are good value.
Most DC businesses accept cash, credit and/or debit cards and traveler's checks; for security and convenience, it is useful to have all three. A credit card may be required for renting a car or making reservations at some hotels.
Most banks have 24-hour ATMs affiliated with various networks, including Exchange, Accel, Plus and Cirrus. If you use a credit card, however, you probably will be charged a small fee and incur interest on the withdrawal until you pay it back. Furthermore, if you use an ATM that doesn't belong to your own bank, you'll be charged $2 per withdrawal.
Although the airports have exchange bureaus, better rates can usually be obtained at banks in the city.
American Express (202-457-1300; 1150 Connecticut Ave NW; Farragut North)
Thomas Cook (202-237-2229; 5335 Wisconsin Ave NW; Friendship Heights)
Carry copies of your credit-card numbers separately from the cards. If you lose a card or it's stolen, contact the company. Following are the main companies' toll-free numbers:
American Express 800-528-4800
Diners Club 800-234-6377
Traveler's checks are generally as good as cash in the US. Their major advantage is that they are replaceable if stolen. American Express and Thomas Cook have efficient replacement policies. A record of the check numbers is vital should you need to replace them - note them carefully and keep the record separate from the checks themselves. Buy checks in US dollars and in large denominations to avoid excessive service fees.
Some tax is charged on nearly everything you buy in the USA. It may be included in the price or added onto advertised prices. When inquiring about lodging rates, always ask whether taxes are included. Unless otherwise stated, prices given in this book don't include taxes. Airport departure taxes ($6 for foreign-bound passengers) are usually included in the price of tickets bought in the US, but they may not be included with tickets bought abroad. A US$6.50 North American Free Trade Agreement tax is charged to foreigners entering the US from abroad. Both fees are essentially 'hidden' taxes added to the purchase price of your ticket.