DC Metro Guide for beginners

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 a trip to Washington back in 2004, I decided enough was enough. I was going to tackle the DC Metro. It was surprisingly easy to use — and inspired this DC Metro Guide for Beginners.

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

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

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Some tips for first-time metro riders (wherever you are)

Before I get into the DC Metro Guide, let me share some universal tips for using the metro.

  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. Staying at a hotel near a major metro station gives you more options on where to go quickly — often without having to transfer from one train to another.

If you have never considered the metro before, then please try it — especially the Washington metro (WMATA). The DC Metro is easy, affordable and clean (well, as clean as any metro system I’ve ever used).

DC Metro Guide: How it works

Here are the essentials you need to know to use the DC Metro.

1. Recognize the Metro Station Signs.

You have to start somewhere, right?

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

Toward the top of the post, you’ll see colored stripes indicating 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.

2. 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.

Purchase a rechargeable card for $2 and add whatever fare you want to the card.

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!

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).

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.

3. Enter the 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 that indicate the next stop.

4. 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.

DC Metro Route Map

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.

5. 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.

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 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)

Man leaving DC Metro Station, headed toward the turnstiles where you pay with a Metro SmartCard

There you go — that’s your DC Metro Guide in five simple steps!

Ben and I both found the metro easy to navigate and quick. Parking throughout DC is quite expensive, so using the metro 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?

Guide to Using the 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.

The DC Metro with kids is really easy.

Because the stations are well laid out and the maps are clear, it’s easy to navigate the DC Metro with kids. My first time using the DC Metro with 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.

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 DC Metro for tourists is a really good idea!

Driving — and parking — 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!

The DC Metro maps are easy to read — and routes are clear. The DC Metro is safe for tourists — the metro stations are well-lit and WMATA attendants are available at each station to assist when needed.

My only advice for tourists using the DC Metro is take some time to see where you’re staying in relation to the DC Metro stations — and plan your route before you go. There’s a handy DC Metro trip planner on the WMATA website that makes it easy for tourists to use the DC Metro with confidence!

An added bonus for the DC Metro for tourists

The first time I flew into Dulles, I didn’t know anything about the DC Metro so I took a really expensive cab to my hotel.

The DC Metro is so easy for tourists that you can even take it from both Dulles and Reagan National Airports into the city.

And if you’re wondering if the DC Metro for tourists is safe, yes! Most issues related to the DC Metro actually involve theft from cars parked in long term parking! The Metro stations are well-lit and well-patrolled.

Learn more about Washington, DC travel!

Washington, DC is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the United States. We’ve made many trips to DC. Here’s what we have learned along the way — besides the information included in this DC Metro Guide!

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