Getting there & around
Flights, tours and rail tickets can be booked online at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel_services.
Taxicabs are plentiful in central DC; hail them with a wave of the hand. Diamond (202-387-4011), Yellow (202-546-7900) and Capitol (202-545-8900) are three major companies. The fare structure works on a complicated zone system rather than by the traditional metered system. DC consists of eight concentric zones (zone maps are posted in taxis), and rates are determined by how many zones you cross, the number of passengers and time of day (there's a $1 rush-hour surcharge). You pay a base fare of $5 to travel within one zone. Each additional zone costs $1.50. Each additional passenger costs $1.50. More fees are added for extra services (large bags, ordering a taxi by phone, traveling during snow emergencies). Taxis in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs use the usual metering method. Taxi drivers are usually tipped about 10%.
DC's bus system (technically called 'Metrobus') is operated by the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, or Metro. It provides a clean and efficient bus service throughout the city and to outlying suburbs. Stops are marked by red, white and blue signposts. The fare is $1.25 ($3 on express routes), or 35¢ with a Metrorail transfer. Kids under four ride free. Automatic fare machines accept paper dollars, but you must have exact change. Useful bus routes include:
30, 32, 34, 36, Wisconsin Ave Runs from Friendship Heights down Wisconsin Ave (through Georgetown) to Foggy Bottom-GWU.
98 (the Link) Traverses Adams Morgan from Woodley Park-Zoo to U Street-Cardozo Metro stations.
L2, 18th St NW Connects Woodley Park-Zoo to Foggy Bottom-GWU via Adams Morgan.
D2, P St NW Connects Georgetown to Dupont Circle.
Intercity bus service in the US is relatively cheap, but not the most pleasant - although it's useful if you're on a tight budget.
The main bus company is Greyhound (fares & schedules 800-229-9424, customer service 202-289-5101; www.greyhound.com; 1005 1st St NE), which provides nationwide service.
Peter Pan Trailways (800-343-9999), which travels to northeastern US, uses a terminal just opposite Greyhound's. This run-down neighborhood is deserted after dark, and the nearest Metro station is several blocks south (via 1st St NE) at Union Station. Cabs are usually available at the bus station, and you should use one; don't walk across town from the bus station at night.
Your cheapest option to New York is the Chinatown buses by New Century Travel (202-789-8222; 513 H Street NW), which only charges $20 (one way) to get to the Big Apple. The buses are generally clean, and very popular.US Visa section of this website.***
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, air travel in the United States changed drastically. Heightened security means only ticketed passengers are allowed through the security screening and into the gate area, and some items are no longer allowed to be carried on board. What is allowed in your carry-on seems to change daily, but lighters, knifes and box cutters are always prohibited. Make sure you arrive at the airport two hours before your flight as sometimes security checkpoint lines are very long at Washington's airports. When flying into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport passengers are not allowed to leave their seats (or even stand up) for the last half hour before the plane lands - the flight crew will warn you well in advance, but make sure to use the bathroom if you need to. This extra security measure was put in place following September 11 because the flight path into National Airport crosses over many of DC's most important buildings.
Most major airlines offer service to DC. Here's a nonexhaustive list of those with toll-free telephone numbers (free within the US).
Air Canada 888-247-2262
Air France 800-237-2747
Air New Zealand 800-262-1234
All Nippon Airways 800-235-9262
American Airlines 800-433-7300
British Airways 800-247-9297
Canadian Airlines 800-426-7000
Continental Airlines 800-525-0280
Delta Air Lines (& shuttle) 800-221-1212
Ethiopian Airlines 877-389-6753
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines 800-374-7747
Korean Air 800-438-5000
Northwest Airlines 800-225-2525
Qantas Airways 800-227-4500
Southwest Airlines 800-435-9792
United Airlines 800-241-6522
US Airways (& shuttle) 800-428-4322
Virgin Atlantic 800-862-8621
Three major airports serve DC.
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (703-417-8000; www.metwashairports.com), across the river in Arlington, VA, handles domestic service plus some flights to Canada. After a huge renovation a few years back, National was renamed and now contains two fancy terminals (B and C) of shops and restaurants in addition to the original Terminal A. It is easily accessible by Metro (Yellow or Blue Line).
Washington Dulles International Airport (703-572-2700; www.metwashairports.com), designed by Eero Saarinen, looms like a space-age castle in the Virginia suburbs 26 miles west of DC. Take I-66 west to the Dulles Toll Rd. Both domestic and international flights (to Asia, Europe, South America, the Middle East and Africa) depart from here. Dulles is not on a Metro line, although Washington Flyer (888-927-4359; www.washfly.com; round-trip/one way $16/9; 6am-11pm Mon-Fri, 8am-11pm Sat & Sun) operates a shuttle from West Falls Church Metro station. Average length of shuttle trip is 20 to 30 minutes.
Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI; 800-435-9294; www.bwiairport.com) is 30 miles, or about 45 minutes' drive, northeast of DC in Maryland. Get onto the Baltimore- Washington Parkway via New York Ave NE, follow the parkway until you see the I-195/BWI exit. Often you will find that cheaper fares are available to/from BWI than to either National or Dulles; so despite its geographic inconvenience, this is a handy airport for those on a budget. Both Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC; weekends only) and Amtrak trains travel between DC's Union Station and a terminal near BWI.
All the major car-rental agencies and many small local ones are represented in DC, especially at the airports. Many big agencies maintain offices downtown and at Union Station. Airport rates are often better than those at downtown offices. Car-rental rates do fluctuate radically, but weekly rates are often the best deal. An economy-sized car typically costs $120 to $150 per week. Expect to pay more during peak visitor times, such as the Cherry Blossom Festival, and when big conventions and political demonstrations are in town. Add 5.75% sales tax in DC (up to 8% at the airports). The cost of petrol, at an all time high and currently showing no likely future decrease, is shockingly pricey in the city. Your best bet for cheaper fuel is to fill up further out of town.
Basic liability insurance, required by US law, is generally included in the rental price, but check the contract carefully. You can also purchase Loss/Damage Waiver (LDW) insurance, usually about $8 to $13 per day. Your personal auto-insurance policy may also cover car-rental insurance (if so, bring along a photocopy of your policy). If a rate seems too cheap, it may be because you'll get a mileage charge. Make sure you ask if the rate is for unlimited miles. Return the car with a full tank of gas. Booking well in advance of your visit usually yields the best rate.
Unfortunately for young drivers, most major agencies in DC won't rent to anyone under 25. Some local companies rent to drivers over 21 who have a major credit card, but their rates generally aren't competitive. Agencies in DC include the following:
Alamo (800-327-9633, 703-260-0182; Dulles airport)
Avis (800-331-1212, 202-467-6585; 1722 M St NW); National airport (703-419-5815); Dulles airport (703-661-3505)
Budget (800-527-0700, 202-289-5373; Union Station); National airport (703-920-3360)
Dollar National airport (800-800-4000, 703-519-8700); Dulles airport (703-661-6630)
Enterprise (800-325-8007, 202-393-0900; 1029 Vermont Ave NW); National airport (703-553-7744); Dulles airport (703-661-8800)
Hertz (800-654-3131, 202-628-6174; 901 11th St NW); National airport (703-979-6300); Dulles airport (703-471-6020)
National (800-328-4567, 202-842-7454; Union Station); National airport (202-783-1590); Dulles airport (703-471-5278)
Thrifty (800-367-2277, 202-783-0400; 1001 12th St NW); National airport (703-658-2200); Dulles airport (703-481-3599)
In addition to the Metro, two commuter train systems serve downtown DC from the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Remember they're commuter lines: most trains run weekdays only, with the most regular service during rush hour.
Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC; 800-325-7245; www.mtamaryland.com; 5am-midnight Mon-Fri) is a 40-station, 187-mile system connecting DC, the northern Maryland suburbs, Baltimore and eastern West Virginia. It has three lines, one of which stops at BWI airport. A fare from Baltimore to DC would cost about $7. The MARC train's only DC stop is Union Station.
From downtown DC, Virginia Railway Express (VRE; 703-684-1001, 800-RIDE-VRE; www.vre.org) serves northern Virginia's suburbs with lines to Manassas (stops include Fairfax and Alexandria) and Fredericksburg (stops include Quantico, Franconia/Springfield and Crystal City). VRE has only two stops in DC itself: Union Station and L'Enfant Plaza.
The center of train travel to/from DC is the magnificent, beaux-arts Union Station (202-371-9441; www.unionstationdc.com; 50 Massachusetts Ave NE; Union Station). It is the flagship terminal of the national train company, Amtrak (800-872-7245; www.amtrak.com), which is located on the ground floor.
Most trains departing Union Station are bound for other East Coast destinations. The station is the southern terminus of the northeast rail corridor, which stops at Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, New Haven (Connecticut), Boston and intermediate points. There is usually at least one departure per hour throughout the day. Regular (unreserved) trains are cheapest, but pokey. Express Metroliners (reserved) to New York are faster; fastest of all are the fewer-stop Acela trains that zing to New York and on to Boston at speeds in excess of 150mph.
Trains also depart for Virginia destinations (Richmond, Williamsburg, Virginia Beach), and southern destinations, including Florida, New Orleans, Montréal and Amtrak's national hub, Chicago, where you can connect to Midwest- and West Coast-bound trains. MARC and VRE commuter trains connect Union Station to Virginia and Maryland.
Fares vary according to type of seating (coach seats or sleeping compartments) and season. Amtrak also offers a variety of all-inclusive holiday tour packages along with regional rail passes and frequent specials.
DC's sleek modern subway network is the Metrorail, commonly called Metro (202-637-7000; www.wmata.com; fares from $1.35; 5am-midnight Sun-Thu, 5am-3am Fri, 7am-3am Sat, 7am-midnight Sun). It is managed by DC, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government. Thanks to ample federal funding, its trains and stations are well marked, well maintained, well lit, climate controlled, reasonably priced, decently staffed, reliable and safe. Parking is available at certain outlying stations.
To ride Metro, buy a computerized farecard from the self-service machines inside the station entrance. The minimum fare is $1.35, although it increases for longer distances and during rush hour. The posted station-to-station chart provides exact fares for each route. You must use the farecard to enter and exit station turnstiles. Upon exit, the turnstile deducts the fare and returns the card. If the value of the card is insufficient, you need to use an 'Addfare' machine to add money. Other machines inside the gates dispense free bus transfers that enable you to pay just 35¢ on connecting bus routes.
A variety of passes are available, including a one-day pass ($6.50) or a weekly pass ($32.50). Special passes are available from the Sales & Information office (Metro Center station, 12th & F Sts NW), from the website, and from Safeway and Giant grocery stores.
Cycling is one of the best ways to get around DC. In recent years, Metro has taken new measures to encourage bicycle commuting. Riders can take their bikes free of charge on trains, except during rush hour (7am to 10am and 4pm to 7pm Monday to Friday) and on busy holidays, like July 4. Bikes are not permitted to use the center door of trains or the escalator. All buses are now equipped with bike racks, so riders can transport their bikes by bus, too. Here are some options for rental:
Better Bikes Inc (202-293-2080; per 24hr $38) Delivers and picks up bikes anywhere in the DC area. Price includes helmets, locks and assistance.
Big Wheel Bikes (202-337-0254; 1034 33rd St NW; per hr/day $7/35; Rosslyn) In Georgetown, just up the hill from the end of the Capital Crescent Trail. Just below M Street, look for the bright-yellow building with a huge bicycle on it. There's a three-hour minimum with rentals.
Bike the Sites (202-842-2453; 1100 Pennsylvania Ave, Old Post Office Pavilion; per hr/day $7/35; Federal Triangle) Weekly rentals, plus guided tours also available.
Thompson Boat Center (202-333-9543; 2900 Virginia Ave; bikes per hr/day $8/25; Foggy Bottom-GWU) Easy access to Rock Creek Park and the Capital Crescent Trail. As well as hiring out all types of watercraft and offering rowing classes, Thompson Boat Center rents bicycles to suit every rider.