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In the latest installment of our “Points and Miles Destination Guide” series, TPG Contributor Whitney Magnuson explores the many different ways to maximize a trip to Washington, D.C. using points and miles.
The Nation’s Capital. The Federal City. The District of Columbia. Whatever you call it, as the home of some of the United States’ most popular tourist attractions and historical landmarks, Washington, D.C. is one of the busiest travel hubs in the world with more than 19 million visitors each year. And whether D.C. is your destination or simply a jumping-off point to travel elsewhere, maximizing airline miles and hotel points can make your trip much less expensive.
Below, I’ll outline several strategies for visiting the home of the White House, the Smithsonian and the Lincoln Memorial, all using points and miles.
D.C. is home to two main airports: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) and Dulles International Airport (IAD). You can generally search both airports at the same time by using destination code WAS. The Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI), located about an hour away, is another option for travelers to consider.
All three major airlines (American, Delta and United) are well represented, with scores of DC-bound flights each day. Saver awards on both American and United require 12,500 miles each way in economy or 25,000 miles in business/first. Because both airlines offer zone-based award charts, you’ll pay the same number of miles from any origin city in the continental 48, even if you can’t fly nonstop.
If you’re traveling from an East Coast or Midwest city, consider booking a short-haul award on American using British Airways Avios. Cities within 650 miles of D.C. — including Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia — qualify as Zone 1 awards, requiring just 4,500 Avios each way for economy or 18,000 for first. Miami falls within Zone 2, requiring a still reasonable 7,500 Avios for economy, or 30,000 for first.
Delta, on the other hand, bases its awards in part on the cash price of the ticket. If you’re willing to be flexible on travel dates and time of day, you can find economy award seats from most US cities for about 12,500 SkyMiles, or business/first-class seats for about 32,500 SkyMiles — similar to rates on the other major carriers. New Yorkers and Bostonians get a slight discount due to the sheer number of daily direct flights from LGA and BOS to DCA; economy tickets on those routes often require only 10,000 SkyMiles, while first requires 25,000.
Southwest and JetBlue also offer flights to all three airports in the D.C. area and base their award tickets on the price of a cash ticket. If you apply for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card and spend $1,000 in the first three months, you’ll earn 40,000 points. Keep in mind that earning 110,000 Southwest points in a calendar year also earns you the Companion Pass, which doubles the value of your flights by letting a designated travel companion travel with you for free.
Finally, Eastern seaboard travelers should also consider visiting D.C. via train. Amtrak offers six routes that service the capital city, including the Acela Express, Capitol Limited, Cardinal, Northeast Regional, Silver Service/Palmetto and Vermonter lines. Chase Ultimate Rewards, such as those earned with the Chase Sapphire Preferred, transfer to Amtrak Rewards at a 1:1 rate, but interested travelers should hurry — Amtrak recently announced an end to this partnership that will go into effect on December 7th.
The District is also a hotspot for international travel. Etihad Airways, for example, offers a nonstop route between Abu Dhabi and Washington, D.C. aboard its Dreamliner 787-900 series. While the experience isn’t quite as posh as flying in The Apartment or The Residence on Etihad’s A380, the airline is still known for top-notch service. Plus, Etihad partners with American Airlines, so you can use AAdvantage miles to redeem a free seat at 45,000 miles one-way in coach, 67,500 miles in business or 90,000 in first.
You’ll also find a good number of award flights to D.C. from Europe, with particularly good availability through the end of the year via Flying Blue. Flights from DC to Paris aboard Flying Blue member Air France — as well as flights from D.C. to Amsterdam aboard KLM — are both widely available for only 25,000 miles one-way in economy or 62,500 miles in business.
Unfortunately, first-class awards generally aren’t a good deal on Flying Blue, as they start at 200,000 miles. However, if you’re happy to cross the pond in economy or business, Flying Blue is a transfer partner of both Citi ThankYou Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest.
Where To Stay
Once you’ve made it to the Washington of the East, you’ll need a place to stay, and the District can be a very pricey place to lay your head. Luckily, just about all of the major hotel chains have a presence here, so award nights aren’t in short supply.
Hyatt, for example, has good options for budget and luxury travelers alike. The Grand Hyatt Washington is a giant of a property, offering nearly 900 guestrooms located a short walk from both the White House and the Smithsonian. With nightly rates starting at $180 or 15,000 Hyatt points per night, a stay here will net you a redemption value of about 1.2 cents per point. Offering a redemption value of about 1.65 cents per point, The Hyatt Place DC/Downtown K Street near Dupont Circle is another option, with rooms going for $198 or 12,000 Hyatt points per night.
As Hyatt is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, earning enough points for one of those free nights is relatively easy. The current sign-up bonus for Chase Sapphire Preferred is 50,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first three months (plus an additional 5,000 points for adding an authorized user and making a purchase in the first three months), which could get you a three-night stay at either property.
If you’re a loyal Starwood customer, the W Washington D.C. can be a great value. At this SPG Category 5 hotel, a free night starts at 12,000 points. Nightly rates go from about $332 (but can often spike to above $500), so you’re getting at least 2.8 cents per point in value.
For those who need to stay close to Reagan Airport, a great option on the lower end of the Starwood chart is the Sheraton Pentagon City Hotel. Rooms start at $132 or 7,000 points per night, netting you a redemption rate of about 1.9 cents per point.
Luxury seekers with IHG points would do well to redeem at the InterContinental The Willard Washington D.C., an absolutely stunning property with large, classically decorated rooms located right on Pennsylvania Avenue. Rooms start at about $296 and can climb dramatically, making the 50,000-point redemption rate somewhat more palatable. Other IHG properties with decent value in the city include the Holiday Inn: Washington-Capitol ($159 or 35,000 points per night) and The Hamilton by Crowne Plaza Washington DC ($263 or 35,000 points per night).
Hilton properties also offer some good redemption options, as well. The Capital Hilton is close to all the major tourist attractions and can be booked for about $159 or 50,000 HHonors points a night. The DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Washington D.C. – Crystal City offers rooms starting at about $94 or 40,000 points, or $65 or 16,000 points if you choose the cash + points option.
Lastly, if you’re looking to relive a bit of American history, consider booking a room at The Watergate, which is currently accepting reservations starting in mid-December after the completion of a $125 million renovation. While the hotel isn’t a member of any loyalty program, you can still pay with a travel credit card and earn points on the stay; rates starting at $364 per night could earn you well over 1,000 points with a 3x travel card like the Citi Premier Card.
There’s a wealth of options for getting around D.C., from private vehicles, trains, buses and rail. Reagan Airport is connected directly to the Metro’s Yellow and Blue rail lines. However, Dulles offers no such direct connection, requiring a transfer on the 5A bus to Rosslyn Station in order to connect to the Metro Rail. Travelers heading to BWI can pick up a free airport shuttle to the MARC rail station, which can connect you with the Metro Rail or commuter lines that’ll deposit you in neighboring suburbs. One-way paper Metro Rail tickets cost between $2-$7, depending on time of day. If you end up needing to use a bus transfer, that’ll be an additional $7.
If four wheels is more your style, cabs are available at every airport, and after some political wrangling that was settled just last month, car-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are once again approved for D.C.-area airport pickups.
Need more tips for exploring the Nation’s Capital? Check out these other TPG articles:
- Destination of the Week: Washington D.C.
- Hotel Review: The Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C.
- A Week in the Admirals Club: Reagan Washington National Airport
- 7 Great American Parks for Staying in Shape
Share your favorite points and miles tips for visiting Washington, D.C. in the comments below!
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