Washington DC for a few hours...
July 13, 2016 5:27 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to be passing through DC on a layover and need some advice on how to get around and see the main sights quickly!

I'll be heading from Orlando to LA with a layover in DC and am travelling with my partner who has never been to DC before, and would like to see the main sights - Capitol, White House, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument (and other suggestions welcome). We'll be there on a Friday, arrving at DCA at 1pm, and leaving again at 5:30pm. Literally quite happy to just go to these places, take a few photos and move on. Any ideas on the best way to get around and do all of these in the shortest possible time, at a relatively cheap price? Any local issues I should be aware of (traffic etc.)?
posted by ryanbryan to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (19 answers total)
Does your flight leave at 5:30pm, or do you need to be back at the airport by 5:30pm?

Either way, the most efficient (but least economical) way to do this would be via Uber/Lyft/taxi. You can take a cab from DCA to Lincoln, then walk down the Mall to see the Washington Monument. The White House is just North of that. And then you can keep walking until you get to the Capitol, and get a ride back to DCA.

Traffic is going to be bad, particularly on your way back to DCA - everyone leaves the city early on Friday afternoons in the summer, so rush hour is even worse than usual. Allot plenty of extra time for that.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 5:53 PM on July 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Oh, yeah - you could theoretically do this in the other direction (start at the Capitol, end up at Lincoln) but frankly the Capitol looks like shit right now thanks to some exterior renovations they're doing, so I'd save that for last in case you have to skip it due to time considerations.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 5:54 PM on July 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

One thing to flag--the metro system is doing major work and there will be limited or no service to National Airport through July 18th. More details here: http://wmata.com/rail/safetrack.cfm. Definitely consider a cab, bus, or rideshare.
posted by whitewall at 5:58 PM on July 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Be warned: a summer Friday afternoon? Expect rush hour traffic to ramp up by 3pm if not earlier, as everyone who can heads out of town.
posted by easily confused at 6:10 PM on July 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sorry, should have clarified, trip is in October. And have to be back at airport for 5:30pm departure. Realise the timing is tight. Thanks for the feedback/comments to far!
posted by ryanbryan at 6:19 PM on July 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I hate to say it, but given timing, Metro and traffic concerns, I wouldn't try to use the little time that you have available to squeeze in sightseeing on the Mall. What about picking a restaurant that looks appealing and just chilling out for two or three hours? You could stretch your legs in Alexandria, grab a bite to eat, stroll along the Potomac. Or head over to US Marine Corps Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery. You'd have great views of the city and your partner would have a chance to see some national monuments without being snarled in the mess of it all.
posted by the thought-fox at 6:34 PM on July 13, 2016 [6 favorites]

I would not do this. It will take you 45 minutes minimum to get to the mall, and 60-90 minutes to get back, and that is if traffic is perfect. So that means you'll get to the mall at around 2, and you'll have to leave by 3 to get back to catch your flight, and that's only allowing 60 minutes to get back through security. If even one single thing goes wrong, you'll miss your flight.

If you still want to do this, here's my suggestion: check and make sure the metro is running before you go, then hop on the blue line toward Largo to go to Arlington Cemetery. Climb the hill to Arlington House, where you will get a truly awesome view. You'll be able to look across the river to the mall, and you'll see all the monuments. If you have a little extra time, go inside the house, or walk around a bit to look at the cemetery. It's beautiful. Then hop back on the metro back to National to catch your flight.
posted by OrangeDisk at 6:40 PM on July 13, 2016 [10 favorites]

Wow, yeah as a DC native (ish), I totally would not do this myself. Can you at least get security precheck status to avoid security lines? I usually just read a good book when I have a 4 hour layover somewhere, but have you considered having a friend roll up to the airport, and having a meet and greet at the airport restaurants?

If not that, then maybe Uber from the airport (can uber pick up there now? Double check that first). Then I'd ask for a driving tour of the monuments and (this is key): don't get out of the car. I discovered to my chagrin that it can be REALY hard to get an Uber pickup at some monument locations-- the last time I tried, I watched about 6 drivers attempt to pick me up and veer off at the last minute. I am not a scary person. I was just trying to get a pickup during rush hour near the tidal basin, which didn't provide a clear enough pickup spot, if I can make a guess.
posted by instamatic at 7:39 PM on July 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

You can do this, but I'd only do it with precheck. I'd totally do this. You'll get an hour in DC.

1:30 An Uber to Lincoln Memorial is 15 mins/$15
1:45: get to Lincoln Memorial
2:45 walk the mile or so to the smithsonian metro stop (hour)
3:45: Take the metro back (or check google maps for traffic time and try to get a cab/uber). Should take about a half hour or 45 mins max
4:15-30: Be back at airport
4:45: If you have precheck, be at your gate.
posted by sandmanwv at 7:49 PM on July 13, 2016

How exciting! DC is a great city and surely worth the whirlwind tour if flight details work out. I would be back at the airport for check-in no later than 3:30 p.m. so you have adequate time for security: you might zip through or it could get tight.

As others have mentioned, the normally (somewhat) reliable Metro system is having major work done and there are major delays and changes (that aren't explained well to travelers, especially tourists.) Traffic can be intense but you will likely just miss rush hour's big start; still, it's not unusual for there to be unexpected delays.

I'd stick to taxi or Uber and book the driver for the entire block of time. They can take you on a windshield tour with perhaps a few minutes to jump out at one or two of the places; perhaps a Mefite could even lend a hand. (Wish I could!) The private driver may not be cheap but anything else probably wouldn't work due to timing. Good luck!
posted by smorgasbord at 8:51 PM on July 13, 2016

I've lived in DC for a decade and flown in and out of DCA at least a hundred times. There is absolutely no way I would attempt this unless I was absolutely willing to miss my flight. Because given traffic, the metro (especially SafeTrack, which means that there's no metro to the airport right now, and that lines that share track with the airport lines are going to be under construction for months, causing delays on the whole system), lines at DCA, unpredictable problems like motorcades and street closings, and a pretty large number of just random shutdowns of things for no apparent reason, DC is a really unpredictable place to travel. I'm not saying it's impossible--well, actually I am saying it's likely impossible to do all of those things, but you could possibly try to do 2 or 3 of them. But I think there's a decently large chance that everything goes sideways and you end up missing your flight. If you don't want to take that risk, I wouldn't try it.
posted by decathecting at 9:54 PM on July 13, 2016 [6 favorites]

You do not need to get to DCA 2 hours before your flight. It's the fastest security of any major city airport I've experienced. I used to live there and have probably flown out of DC 30 times in the last five years and it's never taken me more than 20 minutes to get through security. Usually more like 5-10 minutes, though Friday afternoons are busier.

I also don't see how it would take 45 minutes to get to the Mall in a cab unless there's a major accident.

I probably wouldn't do this myself because I get worried about missing flights, but you could certainly get there and back with an hour at the Mall if that's what you want to do.
posted by lunasol at 10:02 PM on July 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Not a resident but have been in some DC traffic and yeah bad, but, checked goggle maps and it's 7 minutes to the mall. This is a case to play it by ear and check the traffic status before you go and frequently and cut and run as soon as there's any indication of clogging. Perhaps watch it the same time the week before on your computer to get a sense how quick things can change. The cemetery is a very good option, the Airforce Memorial is on a hill with great views and on that side of the river.
posted by sammyo at 10:51 PM on July 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

lines at DCA,

My experience (admittedly more limited than hundreds of times, my travel usually puts me through Dulles) is that the worst lines are for check-in, which presumably ryanbryan&co will not need to deal with. Even before I got precheck, I always found DCA security lines to be much faster than almost any other airport I fly through.

All that said, I came in with the same idea as sammyo - the Air Force Memorial is a really neat one.
posted by solotoro at 4:28 AM on July 14, 2016

If you absolutely, positively have to do this, I'd recommend changing your MCO-DCA flight from AA862 to AA1718, which arrives at DCA around 10:30 AM instead. That should give you about two or three hours to take the DC Circulator's National Mall route for all your sightseeing before heading back to DCA. It'll cost $75 per person to do a same-day flight change.
posted by evoque at 7:57 AM on July 14, 2016

You do not need to get to DCA 2 hours before your flight. It's the fastest security of any major city airport I've experienced. I used to live there and have probably flown out of DC 30 times in the last five years and it's never taken me more than 20 minutes to get through security. Usually more like 5-10 minutes, though Friday afternoons are busier.

Security at DCA has gotten at least an order of magnitude worse in the past year. I used to try to arrive an hour before departure, and I was usually through security in time to grab food and coffee. Now I aim for 90 minutes, and even with that I had a recent scare where I was the passenger whose name was being given a final boarding call.
posted by fedward at 8:01 AM on July 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

This isn't quite what you are thinking but if you decide to skip a physical visit to the mall, reserve at least one window seat on the right/starboard side of the plane for the flight out (or a left/port side window for the flight in). If the planes are taking off towards the north, you will get an amazing view of the entire mall, the monuments, Theodore Roosevelt Island, the Potomac and the National Cathedral.
posted by BeHereNow at 8:59 AM on July 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

DCA is my home airport now. An Uber from DCA to the mall is doable, but I would be very worried in your shoes that you will get caught up in rush-hour traffic trying to return from the Mall and back to DCA.

A slightly less-risky plan would be to stay across the river in Northern Virginia. As others have mentioned, visiting Arlington National Cemetery is very doable on your schedule. You could alternately check out, say, a rooftop restaurant in Crystal City and take in a very nice view of the monuments.

Even in October, I feel that WMATA is likely to be extremely unpredictable. In your shoes I wouldn't risk taking Metro.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 12:55 PM on July 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, sounds like it might not be a wise idea to venture too far from the airport. I like the suggestion of the view! Appreciate all your thoughts :-)
posted by ryanbryan at 5:18 PM on July 14, 2016

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