If you’re planning to ride the DC Metro then you must get a SmarTrip card. These are easy to purchase at any Metro rail station. However, a big question that many visitors have is, “how much money do I need to add to my card”?

How much money should you load on your SmarTrip card?

Unlike in other cities, our Metro does not use flat fares. What you will pay depends on how far you travel. It also depends on whether you’re riding during peak hours around rush hour or not.

For a typical visitor who is staying downtown and using Metro to get to the major sites, budget $2.50 per ride on average. $2.50 is a good starting point and nice round number.  However, for some people it might be too much; for others it might not be enough. So, if you want to get really precise about it you can actually use the Metro Trip Planner to find out exactly what the fare is going to be.

For example, in 2018, if you wanted to travel from Capitol South to Arlington Cemetery station, it costs $2.50 during peak hours and $2.20 during off-peak hours. So if you’re a really organized planner you can look up all of the fares for the trips that you plan to take and then use a calculator or a spreadsheet to total them up.¬†

Should you buy an unlimited ride Metro pass?

For most people, no. It’s probably not a good value.

Psychologically, we love unlimited. The reason is because after you’ve paid that original amount everything after that feels free – even though it really isn’t. Most visitors to Washington DC will not use Metro enough to make an unlimited ride pass worth it. Even if they do save you some money, chances are that that amount is going to be pretty minimal.

Topping up your SmarTrip

Topping up your SmarTrip is very simple. Find a fare machine in any station and start by tapping your SmarTrip up against the target. On th screen it will tell you exactly how much money you have on your SmarTrip card. If you have the cash it’s as simple as just feeding it into the machine. You can also pay with a credit card, by using the up and down buttons to change the amount. After you’re done you just tap your SmarTrip card against that target again to complete the transaction.¬†

What happens if you don’t have enough money on your SmarTrip after a ride?

This is a common source of anxiety. For example, let’s say you’re taking that $2.50 Arlington Cemetery ride but you only have $2.00 on your SmarTrip card. When you go to exit, the fare gates won’t let you out. What you’re going to have to do is use one of the “Exit Fare” machines to add more money to your card. Now the thing, about these machines is that they are all cash only, so be mindful to either check your balance before you go into the system, or carry some small bills with you.

Can you get a refund if you load too much?

The answer to this one is: maybe.

On the Metro website, it s ttates hat if you live outside of a 100 mile radius of Washington DC or Baltimore that you may be eligible for a refund on your balance. You must contact SmarTrip customer support to discuss.

Note that the words “may be eligible” and to contact customer service “to discuss” is also rather vague. So, if you have a large balance on your card, and you really want that money back it’s worth a try.¬†Alternatively there are some charities in DC that will accept a SmarTrip card with a balance on it. They will use the balance to help the less fortunate.

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