[Part of an occasional series of FAQs about traveling to Washington, D.C. For more, please click on the “dc-faqs” tag above.]
Washington is a huge destination for business travelers, so hotels tend to be expensive. If you are at all flexible in the times that you can visit, you can find much better prices on hotels on weekends and during Congressional holidays — particularly in August and around Christmas, Thanksgiving, and other major holidays. Transient Washingtonians tend to leave town to visit families elsewhere during major holidays and even summer weekends.
The most reliably affordable, quality (3* to 5*) hotels are those in Arlington’s Crystal City neighborhood, often marketed as being near National Airport. There are thousands of hotel rooms there, with most major U.S. chains represented, and except during conventions or other big events (cherry blossoms, Independence Day, Memorial Day) they rarely sell out. That means that you can often use Hotwire or Priceline to get low rates.*
What’s more, Crystal City is very conveniently located right on two Metro lines, less than 15 minutes from the Mall. It’s also just off I-395 and offers free weekend garage parking. Capital Bikeshare docks around the neighborhood make it easy to get onto local trails or to shops in neighboring Pentagon City. Arlington is almost laughably safe.
The downside is that it’s not the most scenic neighborhood: it’s almost entirely concrete towers from the 1970s and 1980s, and interior renovations haven’t appreciably improved that aesthetic. Since the surroundings are mostly offices, it’s really quiet on evenings and weekends. There are a few restaurants there, so you won’t go hungry, and there’s a mall half a mile away at Pentagon City, but most locals will stifle a yawn at the very mention of “Crystal City.”
Just on the other side of the city, Silver Spring has a few hotels. It’s a livelier area than Crystal City, but historically their rates have been higher as well.
Within the city, the prime neighborhoods within or adjacent to downtown (including Dupont, West End, and Georgetown) often move in lockstep, so there are few bargains to be found. Dupont has some quirkier boutique options; Kimpton Hotels, in particular, has converted several 1960s studio apartment buildings in the neighborhood into themed hotels that have quite spacious rooms, if spare common facilities.
There’s a cluster of cheap motels along New York Avenue NE; these hotels often market themselves as “near Union Station.” Beware of the low prices: NY Avenue is a loud, busy highway that offers little connection to the rest of the city, and some of these hotels have a seedy reputation.
Similarly, there are dozens of hotels around the other two large airports, Dulles and Baltimore-Washington. These are generally very inconvenient to D.C.: getting to/from town requires going to the airport, then paying extra for transit service into town. I’d book a room near BWI before Dulles, and even then it would have to be at a steep ($50+) discount to justify the added travel time and cost.
You can also, of course, look for alternative lodging arrangements like AirBNB** or Couchsurfing or even camping.
* Affiliate link to BetterBidding, a useful site if you want to try and discern the identity of a hotel before you bid
** Affiliate link that could benefit me, but probably won’t