How to use DC Metro: Guide for Tourists

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Growing up in a small town, and claiming small towns as home most of my life, I have always found metro systems and subways intimidating. But, on my first trip to Washington, DC back in 2004, I decided enough was enough. I was going to figure out how to use DC Metro to get around, in part because I don’t like parallel parking!

If I can master the DC Metro, you can too!

And, if you’re planning a family trip to Washington DC on a budget, knowing how to use a Washington DC Metropass for tourists is key.

Rosslyn Station entrance at the DC Metro with words saying "A beginner's guide to the DC Metro."

Since my first trip, I’ve braved many metro stations in major cities, all without fear! But, I credit learning how to use DC Metro, which is particularly user-friendly, for giving me the confidence to use public transportation whenever I can.

Tips for using the Washington DC Metropass for tourists

Before I get into how to use the Washington DC Metropass for tourists, here are some universal tips for using metro systems anywhere you go.

  1. Metro routes only go two ways. If you know which line you need, the worst that can happen is you ride the wrong way. Just hop off and get on the same train going the other way!
  2. If you’re lost or confused, just ask! Even in Paris, the so-called “snobs” of France offered help (and they aren’t snobs).
  3. Consider an unlimited or multi-day pass. Rates are available online for all metro systems, so you can determine which pass works best. Sometimes it’s the pay-per-ride if you’ll only use it a couple of times per day. Often, the unlimited pass is a better value, especially on longer trips.
  4. Consider recommendations when made by locals. Believe it or not, locals appreciate when visitors to their city use the metro. It shows an interest in the culture, not just the sites. AND, they are generous with restaurant recommendations and tips for things to do. They’re usually spot on, too.
  5. Book your hotel near a major metro station. When planning a trip anywhere, like a Washington DC family vacation on a budget, stay near a major metro station with direct connections in different directions (North-South and East-West) to quickly get around the city.

If you have never considered the metro before, I hope this post convinces you to try it. The Washington DC Metropass for tourists is especially easy since the Washington metro (WMATA) well laid out, affordable and clean (well, as clean as any metro system I’ve ever used).

How to use DC Metro

Hopefully, I have convinced you that the Washington DC Metropass for tourists is a good idea. Now, let me explain how to use the DC Metro.

Look for Metro Station Signs

You have to start somewhere, right?

All DC Metro stations are marked by the square posts outside each station, labeled with the station name (see the photo below for Clarendon Station).

At the top of the post, colored stripes indicate which line(s) goes to that station.

Many stops are like the Clarendon Station, with covered escalators that take you down to the trains. Some stations are marked by the square post, but the entrance is under a building, so there is no cover or visible escalator.

DC Metro Station for Clarendon Station showing the Metro Sign with colored route stripes and covered escalators down to the station.

Purchase your DC Metro card (SmarTrip card).

Purchase a DC metro fare card, called the SmarTrip card, at any metro station, online or at a number of retailers throughout the area.

The easiest thing to do is purchase a rechargeable card for $2 and add whatever money to it as you need it. It can be “recharged” at any time should you need more money. In the metro station, look for these machines and follow the instructions. It’s really that simple!

Of course, you can also recharge your SmarTrip card online or add your card to your Mobile Wallet to recharge it anytime and skip the kiosks!

PRO TIP: Compare different Washington DC Metro prices before you go. Ticket prices and pass options are all provided at the DC Metro website (called WMATA). And, if you’re looking for a Washington DC Metropass for tourists, consider the unlimited 1, 3 or 7 day pass OR the 7 day short trip pass. Both are explained here.

TIP TWO: Fares differ based on time of day! Peak fares basically coincide with rush-hour, from opening to 9:30 a.m. and from 3:00 to 7:00 p.m. If you get an unlimited pass, fare rates don’t matter!

Enter the DC Metro station.

When you enter the DC Metro station, you’ll probably encounter an escalator or two. The escalator at Rosslyn station is really, really, really long!

Rosslyn Metro Station Escalator, a really long escalator.

Head to the turnstiles and place your SmarTrip card on the circle that matches. This signals to your account where you are boarding the DC Metro.

Follow the signs to your platform and wait for your train to arrive. Several trains run on the same line at major stops (such as Rosslyn), so make sure you board the right train. Signs at the platform indicate which train it is.

Board the train and enjoy the ride. Just listen for your stop to be announced. Newer trains have LED signs onboard, as well, that indicate the next stop.

Right side of image shows my son smiling at the camera as he waits for the DC Metro after finding it on his own.

How to use DC Metro: Understand the routes

The DC Metro has six routes, labeled by color: blue, red, yellow, green, gray and orange.

All routes are labeled based on the last stop in the direction you’re headed. When determining which way to go, look at the last stop on the route you plan to take and head to that train’s platform. Easy, right?

Sometimes you need to take more than one route to get to a destination. On the map below, you can change trains at any station marked with the bullseye. Multiple trains stop at those stations so you can change routes.

Washington DC Metro Map (WMATA) showing routes by color and stations by dots.

Here’s an example from our last trip:

We stayed in Arlington, at a hotel near the Rosslyn station (lower left where Blue, Orange and Gray converge). To get to the Pentagon, we caught the Blue line at Rosslyn headed toward Franconia-Springfield, which is the last stop on the line. The Pentagon was the second stop on that route, so we got off there. Going back to the hotel, we took the Blue line again, this time headed in the direction of Largo Town Center.

Here’s an example of us using connecting trains:

Ben and I were in Pentagon City (Blue train line at the bottom of the map). We wanted to go to Clarendon (Orange or Gray trains on the left of the map). First, we took the Blue train from Pentagon City to Rosslyn and switched trains to take the Orange train to Clarendon. We did NOT leave the station between trains, just moved from the blue platform we left to the orange platform we needed. In Clarendon, we paid only one fare as we exited the station.

Leave the metro station

When you arrive at your destination, leave the station the same way you came in by placing your SmarTrip card on the circle at the turnstiles. The DC Metro automatically calculates your fare and deducts it from the balance on your card. There’s a small LED screen that shows your balance as you pay.

If you’re using an unlimited pass as a Washington DC Metropass for tourists, you have unlimited use of the DC Metro (WMATA), but they still need to make sure you actually got off the train!

If you have any trouble, the station attendant can help.

On our last trip, when my son put his card on the circle, it didn’t read for some reason. We went to the station attendant’s window and he double-checked that we had sufficient fare on the card. He walked our son through, using a different turnstile. (Maybe we could just have tried that, but we didn’t want it to eat up all our credits)

The Washington DC Metropass for tourists is easy enough that my son walks confidently through a subway station.

There you go! That’s everything you need for how to use DC Metro in five simple steps!

Ben and I both found the Metro (WMATA) easy to navigate and quick. Parking throughout DC is quite expensive, so using the Washington DC Metrocard for tourists was a budget friendly way to get around. And, I didn’t have to deal with the famous (infamous) DC gridlock!

DC Metro pros, do you have any tips to add?

How to use DC Metro with kids

If you don’t normally use public transportation and subways, it might seem a little intimidating to use a subway with kids.

But, learning how to use DC Metro with kids is quite easy!

Because the stations are well laid out and route maps are clear, it’s easy to navigate the DC Metro with kids. My first time using it with my kids, my boys were only 8 and 5. I had never used a subway system before, and I figured it out! You can, too.

What is the DC Metro children’s fare?

There is no special DC Metro children’s fare. Kids pay the same thing adults do.

SIDE NOTE: WMATA offers reduced fare for seniors, those with a disability and local SNAP recipients.

There is one exception: Up to two children under age four can ride free with a paying adult. For current Washington, DC Metro fares, check the WMATA website Cost to Ride page.

DC Metro Guide for Tourists and Visitors

The Washington DC Metropass for tourists is a really good idea! Driving in Washington, DC can be both frustrating and expensive. The DC Metro is a good alternative for tourists because you leave the driving to WMATA!

DC Metro maps are easy to read and routes are clear. Washington, DC metro stations are well-lit, and WMATA attendants are available at each station to assist when needed. You can even take the DC Metro from the airport to stations close to hotels throughout the Washington, DC area.

FAQs How to use DC Metro

Is the DC Metro safe to ride?

While safety can never be 100% guaranteed, WMATA has several safety and security initiatives to make the DC Metro as safe as it can be. Stations are well-lit with trained staff and security.

Is the DC Metro easy to use?

With six lines and 91 stations that service most of Washington, DC and major suburbs, getting around DC by metro is very easy. Purchase a reloadable SmarTrip card and add it to your Mobile Pay to easily add money when needed.

Is there a Washington DC Metropass for tourists?

There is no dedicated tourist pass for the DC Metro. Rather, WMATA offers 1,3 and 7 day unlimited passes and a seven day short trip pass. They also have a visitors guide which includes a map of the metro stations, key points of interest in the Washington, DC area and fare rates and hours.