Guide to Washington DC Metro for Beginners

If you’re traveling to Washington, DC and feeling a little unsure about using public transportation, don’t worry! The fact that you are here is a great first step. We pulled together some important tips to help explain DC Metro for beginners.

Washington DC Metro for Beginners

What is the DC Metro?

The DC Metro usually refers to the MetroRail system (to distinguish it from the MetroBus system). MetroRail is the third busiest system in the country, after the New York City Subway and Chicago El. Downtown, DC Metro is an underground subway. However, outside of downtown there are also above-ground sections.

How do you know where to get on and get off?

When a business provides Metro directions, they will ask you to ride to a certain station and then provide walking directions from there. For example, if you want to visit the White House, the DC Metro directions would ask you to ride the orange, blue or silver line to the McPherson Square station and then walk two blocks to the south.

When navigating the Metro, the system map is your best friend. Click here to view and then download a Metro map on your phone. That way, you will have access to the map no matter where you are or how strong your cell signal is.

A helpful app for navigating the city is CityMapper. With this app you can enter your destination and it will find where you are and give you step-by-step directions to get to your destination. It will tell you how to walk to the closest Metro station, which line to ride, whether to transfer, if necessary. And lastly, it will tell you how to walk from the destination Metro station to your final destination. 

How do you pay for the DC Metro?

When it comes to DC Metro for beginners, paying is often the most confusing part of the experience. There is only one way to pay for Metro rides: a SmarTrip card. Everyone in your group needs their own SmarTrip card. There is no sharing allowed.

You can buy a SmarTrip card at any DC Metro station. Look for one of the blue and orange fare machines. Go up to the machine and select either “purchase single card” if you’re traveling by yourself or “purchase multiple cards” if you’re in a group. The physical cards cost $2.00 and then you add value to the cards beyond that. For a typical visitor, you should push the “purchase value” button. This will add the default $8.00 value to start. You can pay with cash, credit or debit card.

The most confusing part of this process is when the machine asks if you want to buy a pass. For most visitors, passes aren’t worth it. It’s simpler and easier just to add value to your card and it deducts from your balance as you ride.

Time to ride!

Once you have your SmarTrip you are ready to go. Walk up to the fare gate and find the target on your right side. Tap your SmarTrip card against it. The gate will open and can go through. It is important to remember that you tap, not swipe. This is a mistake beginners tend to make. All you need to do is physically touch your card right on the target. When you get to your destination station you will do the same thing to exit.

Now that you’ve got the basics down check out our 10 Dos and Dont’s for riding on Metro.

Coming to Washington DC, and want us to show you around?

Trip Hacks DC was founded by Rob, a veteran tour guide in the Nation’s Capital. Trip Hacks DC provides tips, tricks and travel hacks for planning your trip; and guided tours to show you around once you get here. Our tours are family and school group friendly and our guides specialize in the major Washington, DC sites. Click here to check out the upcoming tour options and to book your tour here today! Feel free to contact us if you have any tour questions.

About Trip Hacks DC

Trip Hacks DC was founded by Rob, a veteran tour guide in the Nation's Capital.

Everyone wants to get the most out of travel experience; we know that planning a trip can be fun but sometimes stressful. The tips and travel hacks offered here will help you make the most of your trip and avoid missing out on the best things the city has to offer. Our trip planning e-book is the perfect resource for every first-time Washington, DC visitor.

If you're looking for a guided experience once you arrive, Trip Hacks DC specializes in private tours; but has public tours options as well. Visit the Guided Tours section to learn about some of the suggested tours and the trip planning resources section for help preparing for your trip. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions!

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