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. And not only that, I was going to take my kids with me!
You know what? We survived!
Since that 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.
Some tips for first-time metro riders (wherever you are)
Before I get into how the DC Metro works, let me share some universal tips.
- 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!
- If you’re lost or confused, just ask! Even in Paris, the so-called “snobs” of France offered help (and they aren’t snobs).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
How the DC Metro works
1. Finding the Metro station.
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. Purchasing 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!
TIP: Check the current fares 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. At the station.
When you enter the station, you’ll probably encounter an escalator or two. The escalator at Rosslyn station is really, really, really long!
Head to the turnstiles and place your SmarTrip card on the circle that matches. This signals to your account where you are boarding the 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. A note about 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.
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. At your destination.
When you arrive at your destination, leave the station the same way you came in by placing your SmarTrip card on the circle. 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. When Ben 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 Ben through, using a different turnstile. (Maybe we could just have tried that, but we didn’t want it to eat up all our credits)
There you go — the DC Metro 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!
Ben and I were provided two SmarTrip cards for purposes of this post by StayArlington. All opinions are mine — and Ben’s.
Metro pros, do you have any tips to add?