The only way to stay in Washington DC affordably is at a hostel, and unfortunately there are not a whole lot of them. Here are two very different options:
300 Carrol St. NW
Regular hostellers will recognize this type of hostel. A large Victorian house with common areas downstairs (living room, dining room, kitchen and patio/backyard). The bedrooms on the second and third floors are crammed full of the standard hostel bunk beds. Decent mattresses, thin blankets, 8 beds to a room. Most of the action and the fellowship takes place downstairs. Very easy to meet people and strike up conversations. Internet is WiFi plus one incredibly, ridiculously, absurdly slow computer.
The hostel is a bit far north of the main part of town, but for $24 in DC it’s still a great deal. Fortunately, it’s right next to a Metro stop so it’s easy to get into town. Unfortunately, it’s right next to a Metro stop so you’ll hear trains all night along. Requesting a room in the back of the house may help.
There’s not much to do in the neighborhood, especially after dark. Late-night food options are CVS (a chain drug store) which is open until midnight and a 24-hour gas station.
Galley Inn Hotel
1850 Florida Ave, NW
(Disclaimer, I stayed in the second location down the street and wasn’t able to see the rooms in the main building where they had both hotel-style rooms and dorm rooms. This review is based on the second location.)
At first I balked at the idea of spending $40 a night for a bed in a dorm room, but if you’re looking to be smack in the middle of all the fun it’s hard to find a better place in the DC area than the Gallery Inn Hotel. It’s just a few minutes walk from Dupont Circle, a major Metro stop, and a 5-10 minute walk to the Adams Morgan district where you’ll find plenty of nightlife to keep you out all night.
At some point though you’ll want to head back to your hostel and enjoy the super-nice rooms and beds. With the possible exception of Pateys Place in Kona, Hawaii, these were probably the nicest hostel beds I’ve ever seen. Plush thick blankets and comfy mattresses. Plus, as an added bonus, they come and make the beds for you every day. The Galley Inn Hotel is sort of like a hotel with shared rooms (there are also private rooms, priced at the going rate for the area, about $180-$220 a night). The dorm rooms are basically converted studio apartments. Each room has its own kitchen, bathroom, closet, and TV, and bunk beds.
In addition to your maid service, you get complimentary soaps and shampoo plus “breakfast” (toast or bagels) in the reception area.
The downsides are the price and a lack of the normal hostel community. You may see the other guests at breakfast, but aside from that you’ll likely only meet the people in your dorm.
At $40 a night (plus DC’s 14.5% hotel tax) it’s hard to call this budget accommodation even though it’s super-cheap for the area. If you’re trying to save money while staying in DC for a long time this isn’t the place for you.
The Hilltop Hostel is close to the Metro and it may take you a bit longer to get downtown, but it’s easy and you will save money while meeting more travelers. If you’re traveling with someone else (or like sight-seeing on your own) and only have a few days in DC then the Gallery Inn Hotel is an excellent compromise. A bit more money, but an excellent location; walking distance from great nightlife, but far enough away that it’s not too loud at night. I stayed here with someone who had never been to a hostel before and was a bit hesitant about the whole idea. This was an excellent (if perhaps misleading) first example.
There are a few other hostels in the DC area. If you’ve stayed at any of them please leave a comment. I’d love to hear about other options.