How to Use the Washington DC Metro

This post covers how to use the Metro subway in Washington, D.C., including tips on SmartTrip Cards, tourist passes, and how to navigate the public transport system. While the DC Metro is great for getting you around the city, it can’t get you around the National Mall.  Let DC by Foot get you around on one of our pay-what-you-like tours.

 


DC METRO PASSES

First, you will need a SmarTrip card to enter and exit the system.  A SmarTrip card is required for each rider aged 5 and older (up to two children under age five may travel free with each fare-paying adult).  

SmartTrip cards can be ordered online or you may buy a card at the station. They cost $10/each, $2 for the card itself and they come preloaded with $8 of credit. 

SmartTrip cards can only be purchased from SmartTrip card vending machines like the one below, found at every Metro station.

 

 

There are also apps you can download onto your phone to purchase cards, check for trains, see the map, etc. There are a number of apps to choose from. Some apps we recommend are DCMetro Transit, MetroHero, and CharmPass mobile app. They all offer variations of the same stuff, so we recommend choosing your favorite, no need to download all of them!


Pay-As-You-Go Fares

One way to travel is by paying as you go.  There is no set fare for all trips. Fares between stations depends on distance as well as the time of day.  

There are two prices for rides, peak and off-peak.  Peak hours for DC Metro are from opening until 9:30 am and between 3 pm and 7 pm on weekdays.  There are no peak hours on weekends.  

Each vending machine will show you what it costs to go to any station in the system.  

 

 

For trips within the urban core that ends up being about $3/trip during peak rush and about $2/trip during off-peak hours for a full fare trip.

Note: You can only use the same debit/card three times in one day before the machines will stop taking it!


1 Day and 3 Day Passes for Tourists

If you don’t want to worry about loading your card throughout the day,  you can purchase a 1-day pass for $15/person. While this may seem like a great deal, you’ll want to do the math on how much you’ll be traveling.  The farther out your hotel or accommodations are, the better off this deal will be.

There are no travel restrictions, which means that you could use this pass anytime and without any additional charges.

For most people, this pass really makes sense if you plan on making more than 2 round trips and/or you are traveling with children under 5.

For those visiting DC for a weekend, we recommend the 3-day pass. It costs $30 and allows unlimited Metro and Metrobus transportation for 3 consecutive days starting from the first time you tap your card. 

Both of these passes cover the first $2 fare on Metrobus Express and Airport routes, but does not cover bus fare on regional buses.

If you’re moving to DC or going to be spending a while in DC, there are 7-day pass and monthly commuter pass options. These packages are specifically tailored to you and will give you unlimited rides for a set price. To learn more, click here


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DC METRO RAIL MAP, LINES, AND STATIONS

Metro stations are throughout the city, some stations with multiple entrance/exits. You can locate them easily by looking for the tall brown post with the large letter M at the top.

 

 

The name of the station will be written on the side and the color lines that service that station will be encircled at the top of the post. For example, Dupont Circle is only on the Red Line.

The Metro Lines

  • Red: serves the northern part of the city. Main stations are: Union Station, Metro Center, Chinatown and Dupont Circle.
  • Blue: runs west-east through the city and then south. Main stations are: Capitol South, Smithsonian, McPherson Square (White House), Arlington National Cemetery, National Airport.
  • Silver: runs west-east through the city. You can take this line to get as close to Dulles Airport as you can on public transportation.
  • Orange: runs east-west through the city. The orange/silver/blue lines follow the same tracks inside downtown. You will only need to pay attention to which train you’re on if you’re leaving the central area of the city.
  • Green: runs north-south. Take the Green line to get to Navy-Yard/Nats Park Baseball Stadium. You can also use a bus from Greenbelt to get to BWI Airport.

Washington DC Metro Map 

 

 


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HOW TO RIDE THE DC METRO

The D.C. Metro system is a reliable and safe way to get around the nation’s capital city. In the table below, you’ll find Metro’s normal operating hours. Please note that the schedules can be different on holidays. You can find a full Metro schedule here

DC Metro Hours of Operation

DAY TIME
Monday-Thursday 5am-11:30pm
Friday 5am-1am
Saturday 7am-1am
Sunday 8am-11pm

 

Riding the DC Metro is different than riding the subway in other cities. To enter the metro, you must tap your SmarTrip card and then tap in again on the way out. The card gets charged based on how long the ride was so don’t forget to tap out or it will charge you extra! The fare gates have a circular target on top to touch your card. Make sure you enter the ones with green lights or it will not let you through. When the system reads your card, the gate opens. When exiting, keep an eye on the small digital display, as it will update the cash remaining on your card.

Depending on the station, you’ll likely have to go to lower level to get to the train platform. If the platform is in the center, just head down and figure out which side you need to be on when you get downstairs:

Center Platform

If the train tracks are in the center, you’ll want to take the correct escalator to get to your platform:

vs Center Tracks

To decide which platform to stand on, you need to look for the end-of-line destination. There are signs throughout the station with the stops, and you need to find the stop where you’re heading and look for the last stop going in that direction. Find the platform with the corresponding final stop, and that will be the platform you need to stand on.

For platforms with center tracks, these are usually listed at the top of the escalators so you know which side to be on. For the platforms with center platforms, you’ll find it at the bottom. Both sides have signage on the tracks as well.

For example, on the Red Line, the end-of-line destinations are Glenmont and Shady Grove. So, if you’re traveling from Metro Center to Dupont Circle you would need to board a Red Line train heading to Shady Grove. Trust us, it’ll make sense once you’re in the system!

Note: Sometimes trains don’t go all the way to the end of the line but instead will say the last stop that it will serve. As long as you’re going in the right direction and your stop is before the last stop, you’ll be fine!

When on the platform, signs will list the next three-four trains. It will tell you:

LN (Line) – which color line that train serves. This matters if you’re leaving downtown as the lines split. For example, Arlington National Cemetery is only on the Blue line!

CAR – this tells you how many cars are on that train. If you’re at the end of the platform, a shorter 6 car train might pass you and you’ll have to run back to the center to board. If you keep an eye on the platform floor, there are decals to show you were shorter 6 car trains end so you won’t miss the doors. Keep in mind, not every station offers this feature. To be safe, it’s best to not wait at the end of a platform. 

DEST (Destination) – the last stop this train will stop at. Check this to make sure you’re going in the right direction and make sure you get on the right train if you’re headed to the end of the line. Remember, sometimes trains don’t go all the way to the end, some stop short!

MIN (Minute) – how long you have to wait for the train arrives. During peak hours trains will come more frequently and in the evening they will come less often. Keep this in mind if you’re staying out late, as you might have to wait up to 10 minutes for the next train. When a train is approaching, the circular lights at the edge of the platform will flash letting you know the train will be arriving soon.

Once you are on the train, be alert. Some trains don’t display the next stop. Train operators will announce stops but may be difficult to here. Count the stops and keep an eye out for the station you need.

You can see which station you’re at as the train pulls in. Some newer trains will display this information inside the car. There are maps in the middle of every car so you can follow along the routs. There are also maps in every station and graphics listing the stops in the direction you’re traveling so you know how many stops to count.

 


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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Q. What are Peak and Off-Peak hours?

A.  Peak and Off-peak are essentially rush hour and non-rush hour for the purposes of commuting.  Weekday Peak hours are opening (5 am) through 9:30 am and 3-7pm. 

Q. What are the differences in metro fares between Peak and Off-peak?

A. Peak fares are between $2.25 minimum and $6.00 maximum, depending on the distance you are traveling on Metro.  Off-peak fares are between $2 minimum and $3.85 maximum. (rates accurate as of 2019. Check the wmata site for up to date rates)

Q. Can you use your SmarTrip for metro buses?

A. Yes! Metrobus fare is $1.75 a trip. Using a Smartrip instead of cash will save you 20 cents per ride.  Unlike Metro, all non-express bus fares are the same no matter how far you are traveling.

Q. Do I have to purchase a Smartrip for every member of my party?

A.  Any paying customer may travel with up to 2 children under 5 years old for free.  Otherwise, everyone in your party must have their own farecard.  More than one person cannot use the same Smartrip at the same time.

Q. I am staying outside the city and have parked at a Metro parking lot before taking the Metro into the city; can I use Smartrip to pay for parking?

A.  If you are staying at a Metro parking lot, you may use your Smartrip to pay for your parking, exactly as you would if you were riding the Metro.

Q. How do I calculate how much my trip will cost?

A.  If you know where you are going, go to Metro’s Trip Planner and input the details.

Q. Can I get to the airport on Metro?

A. Yes! All three local airports are somehow accessible by Metro (though you may also need to use a shuttle or bus to finish the journey). Use our blog posts below to learn more.


Use the DC Metro as a Local

How to ride the DC Metro as a local:

  • Don’t stand on the left side on the escalator! The motto is: stand on the right, walk on the left. It’s the biggest pet peeve of locals.
  • If you have wheels, use the elevator. All stations have elevators, but leave it for those who need it. If you have a stroller or a bike you should be using the elevators. You may not want to wait for the elevator, but trust us, the last thing this world needs is a news story about a runaway baby stroller on the Metro.
  • Give up the seat! If you see a pregnant lady standing…give her your seat. If you see a dude leaning on crutches…give him your seat. If you see an octogenarian struggling against the forces of inertia and gravity…give up the seat!
  • On the weekends, transferring isn’t always the best option. Weekends are for track work, and that means delays. Instead of transferring, see if there’s a stop on the line you’re already traveling within striking distance of your destination. For example, if you’re heading to the National Mall on the Red Line, skip the transfer over to Blue/Orange/Silver lines by getting off at Metro Center. Sure, the Smithsonian Metro stop is smack in the middle of the Mall, but by the time you make the transfer, wait for a train, and then get back up to the surface, you could have already walked down from Metro Center. You’re already heading to a walking tour, so what’s a few more steps?
  • Check for the last train! If you’re out late, be sure you remember to check when the trains stop running so you’re not waiting on the platforms for a train that won’t come. It’s a bummer for nightlife, but you still have a bunch of options for getting home, like taking an Uber. 
  • Load before you go. If you’re in town for a busy event, like the Fourth of July, a sporting event or an inauguration, go ahead and load up the SmarTrip card with value for the return trip as well. It’ll save you from waiting in a massive line after the event.

OTHER OPTIONS

If you’re running later or worried about being stranded thanks to a Metro breakdown, don’t fret. Trains are only one piece of the complex transit system of Washington, DC. Buses serve even more territory than trains and they are cheap, clean (mainly) and frequent. Most are operated by Metro, but the Circulator routes are operated by the DC Department of Transportation. With that said, your SmarTrip card works on all Metrobuses. Of course, you can always opt for ride-hailing services like Uber or Lyft or their low-tech cousin: cabs.

Looking for a ride? Download the Lyft App and use Promo Code DCBFRIDES for $5 OFF your first ride with Lyft.

Hop On Hop Off Buses

The Metro is a great way to get around the city, but as visitors it may not get you everywhere you need to go.

For example, in the entire 5 square miles of the National Mall, there is only one Metro Station and there is no station on the Tidal Basin. Hop-On-Hop-Off buses can come in handy in this case.

DC Trails Bus TourThere are many bus companies and ticketing options, read our post on choosing the best one for you.

They all have stops at main sites around the city such as Lincoln Memorial, WWII Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and the US Capitol Building – four sites that are at least a 15 minute if not more walk from a Metro station.

Most are also included for free with the purchase of most tourist discount passes.

And don’t forget our walking tours! All tours start and end within walking distance of a station and our guides can make sure you know the best way to get to and from any place you want to see in the most direct route.

 


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