Being one of those people that is fortunate enough to be able to walk to work everyday, I cringe at the thought of driving around a city that seems difficult to navigate. DC is one of those cities that I feel is better suited for public transportation and walking rather than rental cars. I made the mistake of renting a car during my first visit and had difficulty finding parking for it during the days when I was exploring sites and during the nights. The hotel valet was very expensive, but this seems to be the going-rate for night parking in the downtown area.
Alas my last few trips I have foregone the rental car route and have found it very easy to get around DC without a vehicle. All three large airports in the area are convenient to some sort of public transportation. MARC service (Maryland commuter rail) is available from BWI to DC’s Union Station. Shuttle buses are available every half-hour from Dulles to the West Falls Church Metro stop and back. Regan (National) Airport has a metro stop right inside one of its terminals.
DC’s metro system is one of the most sophisticated in North America. On every platform are lighted signs letting people know when the next subway will be arriving and its destination. Subway service is very consistent and well-timed; even in non-rush hour times I never waited for longer than five minutes for a train. I personally am not a fan of "exit fares" (additional fares that must be paid on the way out of a station) and the fact that one cannot eat or drink on the subway (in Boston this is not the case), but overall the DC metro system earns high marks for consistency and service. One-way fare tickets within the downtown are about $2, to reach the suburbs it can get up to $7.
Downtown Metro stops are not very far from each other; I don’t recall ever walking more than a half-a-mile without running into one. They are also located conveniently near area attractions (Capitol Buildings, the Smithsonian, Federal Triangle) so are perfect for tourists. Most stops are handicapped accessible with elevator and escalator access as well.
Shuttle Buses from Dulles are $10 for each direction to West Falls Church. If you buy the roundtrip ticket from the kiosk in the Dulles airport (by Exit 4 on the Arrivals level) you can save a few dollars. This is a great way to get to and from Dulles also because the shuttles use dedicated lanes and do not get stuck in as much traffic as you would if you tried renting a car or taking a cab from here.
I found it very interesting to learn that there was a cap to the amount cabs can charge fares if staying within downtown DC. Cabs are still expensive and probably should be used sparingly, but it’s nice to know that they do have some laws in place to prevent tourists from "being taken for a ride".
With a little advance preparation, even the most novice user of public transportation could plan out their itinerary without needing a rental car. The DC Metro’s www.wmata.com is a great site for area transportation maps and schedules. There are also various other resources online for planning purposes. Some good websites include those of area airports (they often give public transportation directions both to and from) and the Maryland and Virginia transportation authority websites. You’ll never need to spend extra money and sit in traffic again!