How to Ride DC Metro: 10 Dos and Don’ts

Every visitor to Washington, DC should brush up on how to ride DC Metro. There are a lot of written and unwritten rules, but don’t worry, follow these dos and don’ts and you will become a Metro pro in no time.

How to Ride Washington DC Metro

1. Do get a SmarTrip card

This used to be a suggestion but now it is a requirement. If you visited DC prior to 2016 you probably paid for the Metro using a paper fare card. It was a piece of cardboard, had a couple cute pandas on it, and would print your balance on the card every time that you used it. Go ahead and put it in a scrapbook because you’re not going to need it anymore. The good news is that SmarTrip cards are just as easy to get at the old paper fare card.  

When you arrive at your first Metro station look for one of the orange and blue colored fare machines. You’ll need to decide if you want a single fare card or multiple. If you’re traveling with a family, you will need multiple cards. Unlike in other cities, every person in the group needs their own SmarTrip card. Then you’ll need to decide if you want to add money or buy a pass.  

For a typical tourist we recommend starting off by adding the $8 default value and topping up your card as you go. Unless you’re going to ride the Metro all the time a pass probably isn’t worth the money. You can pay using either cash Or credit or debit card. Try to use exact change if you have it.

Once you’ve got your card, walk up to the fare gate, tap it against the target and go through once it opens. When you get to your destination you’ll do the exact same thing to exit.

2. Don’t stand on the left

This is probably the single most important piece of advice you’re going to get when it comes to how to ride DC Metro. When you’re riding a Metro escalator, never, ever stand on the left side. If you’re walking you walk up on the left side and if you’re standing you stand on the right side. Simple enough!  

One of the reasons why tourists get such a bad reputation among locals here is because they don’t follow this simple rule. On a similar note, if you’re coming from the airport or Union Station when you’re riding the escalator, put your suitcase in front or behind you. That way if someone’s trying to walk up they’re not going to get blocked by your luggage. Or find an elevator and use it.

3. Do download a Metro app

There are a lot of Metro apps out there and people have varying opinions on which one is the best. Some apps have more bells and whistles than others, but at the end of the day they all basically do the same thing: tell you how long you have to wait for your train.

Yes, there are electronic boards in every station that technically give you this information; but they have a really annoying habit of scrolling through a bunch of announcements when all you’re really looking for is the amount of time until the next train.

Our favorite Metro app is called MetroHero. Regardless of which app you choose, just make sure you also download a jpeg of the Metro map to your phone. That way if you’re in a tunnel, or you have spotty service you will always be able to access the map even when you’re online.

4. Don’t ride during rush hour

There are two reasons to avoid riding the DC Metro during rush hour.

First, it actually costs more money to ride Metro during rush hour than it does at any other time. That’s because metro fares are based on the distance that you travel and whether it’s rush hour or not. More importantly, DC is a working city and people commute so it gets slammed and can feel pretty miserable to ride during rush hour.

5. Do plan for delays

A lot of people come to DC absolutely love our Metro system. Typicall that’s because it is so much better than what they have back home. That hardly means that it’s perfect though and the truth is that Metro is in pretty bad shape. Unfortunately, some locals now consider Metro unreliable.

So if you have tickets to an event, dinner reservation, or a scheduled tour, just plan to arrive a few minutes before it’s supposed to start. It’s much better to arrive early than it is to be disappointed because Metro let you down.

6. Don’t block or hold the doors

Other than standing on the left this is one of the biggest offenses that someone can make on the Metro. The important thing to know is that Metro train doors are not like elevator doors. You can’t hold them open by putting your hand in. And if you do try to hold it open the door is going to close right on your arm. Metro operators usually try to get the doors closed a few times before they eventually give up and kick everybody off the train. Trust us, you don’t want to be the one who inconvenienced hundreds or even possibly thousands of travelers because you messed with the doors.

7. Do wait for people to get off the train before you try to board

When a train pulls into the station and you see some empty seats it is tempting to rush in as fast as you can and grab them before anybody else can. However you really need to wait until everybody is off the train first before you can try to get on. Metro doors are not very wide and it becomes a huge mess when people aren’t even off the train yet and other people are already rushing into the car. So just have a little patience you’ll get on the train. Don’t worry.

8. Don’t wait for the fare gates to close in front of you before you go through

This trip hack is particularly useful during rush hour or after a game or any other busy period when there are a lot of people trying to move through the Metro at the same time. All you have to do is stand behind the person in front of you who’s going through the fare gate. Once they’ve tapped their SmarTrip card, tap yours and go on through. You don’t actually have to wait for the gate to close before you can tap. Doing it this way will save a lot of time. Locals will also really appreciate that you’ve been clued in to this little hack.

9. Do avoid transfers and bad routes

Sometimes transfers are unavoidable and that’s OK. But a lot of times people actually make unnecessary transfers. A lot of the problem stems from the fact that the Metro map is not to scale. It doesn’t help that some stations have names that are confusing and make you think you need to use one station when you should really use another.

Say you want to ride the Metro from U Street to the Air and Space Museum. A lot of folks would look at the Metro map, ride the green line to L’Enfant Plaza, transfer to the Orange, Blue, or Silver lines, then get off at the Smithsonian station. This is a total rookie mistake! The walk from the Smithsonian station to the Air and space Museum is actually twice as far as the walk from the L’Enfant Plaza station, not to mention the time that you wasted making a transfer to a line and riding a train that you didn’t have to.

This is the reason why apps like Citymapper are so helpful. They do all the work for you. So, you don’t need to know all this information to figure out which station is actually closest to the destination where you’re trying to go.

10. Don’t stop at the top of a Metro escalator

It can be disorienting when you are at a new Metro station in a new neighborhood. The first thing you want to do when you get off the escalator is pull out your phone and use Google Maps to figure out where you are. But people are still coming up the escalator behind you and if you don’t move you’ll cause a pileup!

It’s totally fine if you need to check your surroundings once you get off the Metro. However, make sure to walk a few yards away from the station and away from the escalators before you take out your phone or take out your map to figure out where you are.

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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.

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