How Do You Save Money While Traveling to Washington D.C. & New York City?

by Katy on March 17, 2014 · 43 comments

My family is soon to spend a week and half visiting Washington D.C. and New York City. This trip kind of fell in our laps as my husband recently learned that he was being presented with an award in D.C. Luckily, this means that the airfare, housing and food are paid for while in D.C. (Yay!) Unluckily, we decided to include our 15 and 18-year-old sons since this is all happening during spring break. Which means yes, their flights were ridiculously expensive. Pretty much the same price for their two tickets as four cheap tickets would have cost.

Not frugal people, not frugal!

However, we’re taking full advantage of being on the east coast to jam in a trip to New York City for a full ten day vacation. My sister lives in Manhattan, so we’ll stay with her, and my husband and I lived in the city from 1988-1990, so we’re very comfortable with getting around NYC without breaking the bank.

Remember my Cheap-Ass Katy in The City post?

Here’s what we have planned so far to keep the budget from getting out of hand:

  • We’ll take full advantage of all the free meals while in D.C. If it’s free, then we’ll fill up!
  • Many museums in D.C. are free, so yeah, we’ll be doing that!
  • We’ll bring our own snacks and food on the airplane.
  • We’ll hit up the free museums in D.C., which are luckily walking distance from our hotel.
  • We’ve booked Bolt Bus tickets rom D.C. to NYC which is costing our family of four a whopping $60. (Such a deal!)
  • We’ll stay for free with my sister and her family. And since she’s stayed countless times with us in Portland, there’s zero moochiness guilt.
  • An old college chum had offered us Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) passes when my younger son and I were in NYC in October for my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah. (He gets them for free through his employer.) Unfortunately we didn’t have time to advantage of this generous offer on that trip, so I e-mailed him and asked if the offer still stood. Since MOMA admission is $25, this is a $100 value!
  • We don’t own four nice roll aboard suitcases, so we borrowed the extras from my friend Sasha.
  • We will not be taking any taxis, seeing Broadways shows, eating in tourist trap restaurants, buying souvenirs, paying for city tours or partaking of any other overpriced tourist trap opportunities. (Okay, I’d actually love to see a Broadway play, but simply can’t justify the expense.)
  • My husband, younger son and nephew will be attending a New York Red Bulls soccer games with old friends. (However, they’ll sell the tickets for the Portland Timbers game that they’ll be missing so it should come out about even.) I’m thinking this will be the highlight of the trip for my soccer obsessed fellows.
  • We’ll most likely eat lunch out while in NYC, but eat dinner at my sister’s apartment.

Do you have any New York City or Washington D.C. frugal travel tips to share? Please share your wisdom in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

Lana @ The Oakley Office + the getlog blog March 17, 2014 at 10:53 am

Ride the Staten Island Ferry! Relaxing and offers fun views of the city. 🙂



Katy March 17, 2014 at 11:01 am

We did that back in October, and it was a randomly sad experience:


Lana March 18, 2014 at 10:37 am

oh my dang!


Joanne T. March 17, 2014 at 11:05 am

When you’re in DC, if there’s going to be much transportation going on, get a SmarTrip card for every member of the family. Yes, they cost $5 (I think) each, but if you don’t have one, each trip on the Metro costs an extra buck. Also, you can use them if you take the MetroBus, and your transfer is included (that is, if you pay a MetroBus fare with cash, you don’t get a free transfer to anywhere–you have to pay 1.75 per person per bus). I don’t know all the details of in-DC use (I mostly use my SmartTrip card in the Maryland suburbs) but in Maryland at least (and I suspect DC too) your transfer is good for all trips within 2 hours (so if you get off one bus and get on another, your second ride is free–and if you get off that bus and get on a THIRD bus, that one’s free too, as long as it’s within 2 hours). I think there’s a discount if you get on a Metro bus immediately after getting off the Metro, but I’m not sure. I also think there’s a discount on your Metro if you’ve ridden the bus within a certain amount of time, but again, I’m not sure. I suggest you look at Metro’s website at wmata. com for details. They also have a trip planner where you can input your requirements and it will tell you what bus or Metro to take and how much it will cost, along with transfers.

The cards cannot be shared in that you can’t buy just one for the whole family to use together, but they are not personalized so that if you’re not all going to be using the card together, you can hand it off. I mean, if you’re all traveling in a group, you can’t use just one card to pay all the fares. But if only one is traveling at a time, you can hand off the card to the next person who will be traveling.

I know you said the museums are within walking distance of your hotel, but there may be other places you are interested in going while you’re in town.

I guess it’s obvious that I ride public transportation a lot…


Katy March 17, 2014 at 11:13 am

This is great information, Thanks!


Jamie March 17, 2014 at 11:45 am

It’s always a good idea to check with your Senators and/or Representative. Oftentimes, their staff can hook you up with great opportunities–you may be able to check out the Capitol from an insiders perspective by taking a tour with a home-state intern or obtain advanced tickets for National Parks Service visits (we used to offer set time Washington Monument tickets).

If you’ve never been to the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, that’s a neat visit, and your congressperson can assist you with scheduling. They might be able to give you some insight on the Cherry Blossom Festival–there are usually events throughout the month, so you may find a unique experience there.

Have a great trip!!


reprince March 17, 2014 at 12:06 pm

Plz try to get to the National Zoo….that’s free too! and its a fantastic zoo…on the metro line..


Nicole March 17, 2014 at 12:21 pm

Look for a rush ticket (at the theatre of the show) or half-price day of ticket (probably a separate kiosk handling multiple shows and theatres) for Broadway shows. Or ask your family to buy you a ticket for an early birthday/whatever reason/belated Hanukkah.


Maggie March 17, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Whenever we visit a city, we bring our reusable water bottles with filters built in. Walking can make you very thirsty (especially if you’re pregnant!) and city water available for free at restaurants can be kind of icky. The filter bottles help it taste better.


Marguerite March 17, 2014 at 1:37 pm

The Kennedy Center’s Millenium Stage has free perfomances every evening, and there’s a free shuttle which will picks up from the nearest Metro station. The Spy and Holocaust Museums aren’t free, but they’re very good, and sometimes you can find deals on Living Social and Groupon.


WilliamB, museum lover March 17, 2014 at 6:14 pm

The Spy Museum is very expensive, given that it’s competing with the Smithsonians. It’s fun, but it’s something like $20/person now. The Newseum is not quite as expensive but I thought it was meh (and I went on a day it was free).

The best food on the Mall in DC is at the American Indian Museum. It’s not cheap but get great tasting, unusual food for the price. Do NOT, for the love of god, buy anything from the food trucks on the Mall. Overpriced, over salted junk. Bring your own – I think they let you eat your own at the Museum cafeterias – or go into Chinatown.

In NYC, several of the Museums are pay what you choose even though they have suggested prices. Really, you *can* pay a penny. Go ahead and do so. Even if they give you the hairy eyeball you’ll be out of sight very soon.

The Zoo in DC is free; the Zoo in Central Park isn’t but it’s fun.

NYC: subway, baby!

You can’t take water into the airport but you can take empty bottles. Fill them up after you pass through the security t/h/e/a/t/e/r/checkpoint. If you like a flavored drink, bring powdered drink mix with you as well.


Jane_F March 17, 2014 at 1:59 pm

Although there’s plenty of cheap street food and bagels in NYC, you might consider buying some fruit, bread, peanut butter and jelly/jam and pack sandwiches for lunch. That’s what my friend and I did when eurotripping. Have fun!


Bridget March 17, 2014 at 2:54 pm

If you are flying Southwest – I would pack an entire suitcase of snacks. Checking luggage doesn’t cost anything with Southwest, so when we went to Disney – I packed an entire suitcase of snacks. It allowed us to have snacks the entire week.
I would also re-think seeing the Broadway show. You can probably research how to get cheap tickets. That is one of the best parts of NYC. If you are in NYC – you should definitely try to see a show.
I would also plan a day in NYC where you just explore. There is so much to see and explore in NYC just by walking around and people watching. Central Park is a great place to do that!


Lisa March 17, 2014 at 3:15 pm

Ditto the sentiment on going to a Broadway show. When DH and I were dirt poor, we splurged on half price tickets (sold at Times Square or the World Trade Center then) and saw The Scarlet Pimpernel and Les Miserables. Well worth the half price! 🙂

For DC, if you are close to the Washington Mall limit your activities to that area and walk. You’ll walk A LOT. Metro tickets, SmarTrip cards are EXPENSIVE. There is plenty to see and do on the Mall. The only place we eat on the Mall is the Native American Museum. I’ve never been all that impressed with the food at the other Smithsonian museums. If it is still available, go to the top of the Old Post Office Building for a view. Plan a night stroll of the Mall to see the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials after dark.


Sue March 17, 2014 at 3:32 pm

I would definitely look for cheap tickets to a show. Check out the TKTS booth for same day tickets. Live theater, especially on Broadway, is something everyone should experience if they can afford it. The free walking tour of Grand Central Terminal is very nice Just walking around the city is great fun.


Tara Morrison March 17, 2014 at 6:34 pm

Walking around Union Square Green market if the weather isn’t too bad. 4/$1 dumpling and pancakes in China town.

I second Grand Central Terminal tour.


Margaret March 17, 2014 at 4:40 pm

The Kennedy Center has a free concert/event every day at 6:00pm. Check out their website for the current schedule, and get there early or be prepared to stand.


Krissy March 17, 2014 at 5:17 pm

Don’t give up on your Broadway dreams! As others have mentioned, try the TKTS booth (South Street Seaport location is considerably less crazy than Times Square, and worth the trip for a look-around in that area).

Best Reward for Getting Caught in the Tourist Trap (imho): Circle Line Tours. The three-hour tour around Manhattan has been worth every penny each time I’ve taken visiting family and friends.

Best Cheap Eats: Mamoun’s Falafel in the Village, 119 MacDougal. Seriously satisfying for less than $5 per person. I usually get 2 falafel sandwiches; my husband likes a shawarma. Don’t dilly-dally with your order; the guys working there get more annoyed than the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld. On a nice day, walk two blocks to Washington Square Park to sit and eat and people watch.

Finally, a practical tip because you’re “crashing” at your sister’s place: Unless she has a big apartment, beware that luggage etc. is one of the most difficult things about hosting guests in the city. Be sensitive. Of course you will be.


Jen March 17, 2014 at 5:30 pm

I second looking up your legislative respensitives. My husband works on capital hill but still waxes poetic about his parents contacting their Indiana representatives and getting an awesome behind the political scenes experience on a long ago family vacation! Have fun on you trip.


Jen March 17, 2014 at 5:40 pm

I second contacting your local legislative representatives. My husband works on capital hill; but waxes poetic about a childhood trip when his family got the royal treatment from their Indiana congressmen. Have fun on your trip!


Kim March 17, 2014 at 6:01 pm

If you re at the Mall/ Smithsonian area and you are hungry ( didn’t bring enough food, whatever) the food vendors on the outside of the mall rectangle are significantly cheaper than the ones in the museum or inside the rectangle.


Lynda D. March 17, 2014 at 7:57 pm

I also second checking out what you might find at the TKTS kiosk (it isn’t always a win but worth trying) AND apparently TKTS has an APP now so that might be helpful?! Here’s the TKTS website–

Many years ago I was visiting my brother in NYC. We went to TKTS and got half price tickets to see an unknown (to us) show called The Vagina Monologues. The seller described it as a comedy. If you’re familiar with the show you know that only parts of it are funny but it turned out to be an amazing, moving show. And, here’s the thing – we saw a famous Broadway show presented by the author! (Eve Ensler), at 8pm on Christmas Eve in a theater packed full of mostly New Yorkers. No way I could have afforded such a great NYC experience without using TKTS.


Angie March 18, 2014 at 2:14 am

The Washington Monument is closed–still being repaired after earthquake damage. Smartcards are expensive–the metro in general is expensive, so I would walk. Definitely walk around the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms, but it will be mobbed. Go early in the morning if you can. Ditto on the food trucks a block or so away from the National Mall being less expensive. For a splurge, go to the bar on the rooftop terrace at the top of the Hotel Washington (next to the Willard Hotel) for a drink and a lovely view on a sunny afternoon.


Melissa March 18, 2014 at 5:03 am

The best meal we ate in NYC was at Prosperity Dumpling in Chinatown. (46 Eldridge St
New York, NY 10002).

And…we fed 6 people (3 adults/3 kids) for $8…and we were living high on the hog that day and ordered sodas! The dumpling are great but the show stopper was the sesame seed pancake!


Diane C March 18, 2014 at 5:45 am

Oh, a reader such as yourself will think she’s died and gone to heaven at the Library of Congress. Free and endlessly fascinating! There are always special programs going on, so check out their website. IIRC, their cafeteria used to be a good place to score a cheap meal, particularly breakfast.


Thrifty Writer March 18, 2014 at 6:16 am

For NYC, check out (or better yet, subscribe to) theskint(dot)com. Every day, it lists most of the cheap and free events in NYC – anything from performances to readings to stand-up comedy to tours to free food (when food trucks and restaurants give food away) as well as great deals on Groupon and Living Social. I have found out about many free and cheap things to do and eat in the City from the Skint (I believe you can also like it on Facebook). I actually just treated a friend to dinner at S’mac for $15 (normally around $40) because of both a living social deal AND a living social discount from the skint.
If you’re willing to travel outside of Manhattan, the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, is fantastic, and has free admission on Fridays from 4 – 8 p.m. When I was broke, I used to go here and to the Five Napkin Burger across the street before, where I’d eat off the happy hour menu ($1 and $2 things, at the time). But Astoria also has lots of good Greek food, so you could check out Zorba’s souvlaki (about two stops on the subway from MoMI) for some cheap, delicious Souvlaki.


Thrifty Writer March 18, 2014 at 6:21 am

Check out theskint(dot)com – every day, they list the free and cheap stuff to do, plus great Groupon and Living Social deals for restaurants. They’ll also tell you when restaurants and food trucks are giving out food for free. Also, check out the Museum of the Moving Image, in Astoria, Queens. It’s free on Fridays from 4 – 8 p.m. Across the street is a 5 napkin burger with a $1 – $3 per item happy hour menu, plus Astoria is full of good Greek food of varying prices. I’ve found Zorba’s Souvlaki to be the best value for money – hole in the wall with all different kinds of souvlaki.


Nancy March 18, 2014 at 6:53 am

The American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art both have “suggested” admissions, you can pay as much or as little as you want for admission. The MOMA has free admission on Fridays from 4 to 8


Drea March 18, 2014 at 7:19 am

D.C. has an incredible amount of things to see/do for free so really food, lodging, and transportation are the areas to find ways to save. We went to D.C. last spring when my husband attended a conference. Hotel was covered and his “expenses” so major cost was 3 additional plane tix, our food (1 adult, 2 tween/teens), and “fun stuff”. Bought some food items for snacks as well as OJ/milk/fruit at a nearby CVS (not much else available in the area) and had a breakfast burrito or something similar from Starbucks in hotel lobby. Tried to keep dining to less expensive take out options though we did a couple evenings out w/Thai and Ethiopian since nothing like that near where we live. We carried water bottles though in some federal buildings we had to give them up to pass security. We walked A LOT and took the train a couple of times including to/from airport. We did splurge on a “night” bus tour which we felt was well worth it. Gave a good overview of sights and a perspective we might not have otherwise seen. Limited “souvenirs” and kept brochures, ticket stubs, postcards, etc. as keepsakes.


Julia March 18, 2014 at 8:13 am

Are your guys interested in history? How about taking the bus out to Arlington? See the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Kennedy’s flame, etc, there.


Lauren (in PA) March 18, 2014 at 10:30 am

The Bolt. Just managing expectations…I haven’t taken it, but my son and his friends in Boston are often on it to see each other between Philly and Boston. It’s inexpensive for a reason. Sometimes the odor is challenging, people don’t have spectacular social graces, often it stops and sits for ages at random locations. This doesn’t stop them from riding, but they often have a very shell shocked look on their face when they step off the bus, and have an hours worth of stories each time. I will probably ride it sometime myself, but I ususally need my car when I go up there. Just keeping it real for you! Have a great trip!!! Definitely go see a Broadway show! I recommend Pippin!


tna March 18, 2014 at 10:52 am

Good grief go to Broadway and see a show. And not just the cheapest. See the show you long to see. If being a non consumer is just about working your ass off so everyone else can afford their dreams then BOO!
Katy should get a little “sumptin sumptin” for being such a wicked smart hot babe of a wife and mom.


Katy March 18, 2014 at 3:06 pm

I’ll most likely be hanging out in the evenings with my sister and her family. Her kids will have homework, and we enjoy each other’s company. I lived in NYC for years and only saw one Broadway show, which was gaudy and not so good. (“Me and My Girl”)

And yes, I am a “wicked smart hot babe of a wife and mom.” Thank you for noticing. 😀


Skinnyflints March 18, 2014 at 11:23 am

A highlight of our last trip to NYC was visiting the High Line park. Totally free, fun people watching and great views of the Hudson River.


Trish March 18, 2014 at 3:16 pm

the New York Times has had a couple articles about the High Line – does sound interesting!


Ann Y. March 18, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Agree with the thought about the Library of Congress…take the tour, it is free, and it is wonderful. And then do the same in NYC at the big public library on 5th Ave. Last time we were there we saw a wonderful exhibit on children’s books and it was fascinating. They also have a tour, and it is well worth the time, and it is free. I agree that you should sort of splurge on a Broadway show….the TKTS on Times Square or go to and you can sometimes get cheap tickets. But, go to the box office and ask for standing room tix before the show. My friend wanted to see Pippin ( we both saw it in the 70’s and the revival is awesome. My husband and I bought – gulp – full price tickets for last summer. My friend was in town for a short time, got standing room tix, after the first act someone noticed him and said here, my friends did not show ( OMG, the waste !) so you can sit here. So cheap. Have fun and enjoy the trip and time with your family….no matter how much or little you spend…it will be priceless!


Wendy D March 18, 2014 at 1:06 pm

NYC – I would recommend going to see the 9/11 memorial. It is $2.00/ticket but well worth the effort. You can wait in line around the corner to get same day tickets so you don’t have to purchase online.

Also, really check to see what is the best value for subway tickets-One day pass or a re-chargeable card.

Finally, bathrooms are an issue in NYC. Most restaurants require you to make a purchase before they allow you to use their bathroom. I went to a Subway in October near the Trade Center site that provided the code to the bathroom at the bottom of the receipt after you paid.
If you see a free bathroom, be sure to use it.


Thrifty Writer March 19, 2014 at 6:03 am

theskint(dot)com – will tell you on a daily basis all the cheap and free things going on in NYC.
Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens – free on Friday from 4 – 8 p.m. – amazing museum.
Zorba’s Souvlaki – also in Astoria (lots of good Greek restaurants in Astoria). Good and cheap.


Anne March 19, 2014 at 10:31 pm

Check out Juilliard’s spring calendar. They have many performances that are free, but do still require a ticket. (Call the ticket office ahead of time)

If you want to see a show do a little research into the Off Broadway productions.. Some quality shows can be seen for a relatively small expense. ( There are some young person inappropriate shows there also, hence the research)


Skinnyflints March 20, 2014 at 6:56 am has a listing of free museums/free museum days in NYC. Also, NYC’s Citi Bike bike sharing program will give you a free 24 hour pass if you participate in an hour long street skills class.


Mairsydoats March 20, 2014 at 9:25 am

One of my favorite food blogs put together a list of where to eat in DC – it’s not a frugal list, but in the spirit of all info being useful, there may be something on their list that hits a sweet spot for you.


Brenda Thorn March 20, 2014 at 2:17 pm

In DC – the Holocaust Museum is a must-see. I don’t think there’s anything like it anywhere. The other Smithsonian’s are great, but Seattle and Portland have similar museums.

If you desire to see the entire mall area and take in the monuments, I’d recommend Bike the Sites. We rented bikes for the day and it was about $140 for five of us, including helmets and locks. We were able to see quite a bit and it was fun. Bike the Sites is in the courtyard of the National Post Office. Look for a $5 off coupon in DC tourist brochures. We were able to use ours for all five of us.


Carol August 30, 2014 at 10:27 am

A dual visit to the New York Public Library (gorgeous), and Bryant Square Park, right next to it, which is my favorite park in New York City. Looks like an old New Yorker cartoon.

[WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘622247445 which is not a hashcash value.


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