The Washington DC Metro may seem complicated to Washington, DC visitors. However, it is actually quite simple once you get the hang of it.
How do Washington DC metro fares work?
The Washington DC Metro seems like a really confusing fare system. What you pay depends on how far you travel and whether it’s peak time or not. The longer the distance, the higher the fare. Peak periods roughly coincides with rush hour. It’s from open to 9:30 in the morning and 3:00 to 7:00 in the afternoon every weekday. And it’s worth noting that this applies to when you tap into the system, not when you tap out. This is often why you’ll see people standing around at 6:55 in the afternoon.
For example, say you’re starting at Metro Center during an off-peak hour and riding the Silver Line towards Virginia. If you ride one stop to McPherson Square you’ll pay the minimum fare: $2.00. In fact you can ride as far as Rosslyn and still only pay the minimum fare. Then the fare starts increasing, $2.10 for Court House, $2.25 for Clarendon, and it keeps going up until you hit the maximum fare of $3.85 at McLean. So, you can go all the way to the end of the line for $3.85.
But of course that’s only during off-peak hours. If you ride during peak hours then the price goes up across the board, as high as $6.00 if you ride all the way to Wiehle–Reston East. It’s a good idea to avoid peak hours if you can. However, it is understandable that they make up about 40% of a total weekday. So, it’s not always completely reasonable to avoid them entirely.
Should I buy a 1-day or 7-day Washington, DC Metro pass?
For a typical tourist using the Washington DC Metro, your options in 2018 are: a 1-day pass for $14.75, a 7-day unlimited pass for $60.00, and a seven-day short ride pass for $38.50. The short ride pass only covers you for rides of up to $3.85 each (which is basically all non-peak fares and short peak fares).
So unfortunately, there is no universal answer to this question and you need to evaluate your own situation, figure out how many days are going to spend in DC, and how often you’re going to be planning on riding Metro.
The 1-day pass is almost never a good deal for anybody. But the 7-day pass could be a good deal if you are going to spend a decent amount of time in town and you’re going to be riding the Metro at least twice every day. Otherwise, it’s just easier to pay per ride and top up your SmarTrip card as you need to.
Should I order my SmarTrip card online before my trip?
The answer to this one is “no” with a few exceptions. In the past, you could only buy SmarTrip cards at a limited number of Washington DC Metro stations, from a limited number of vending machines ,or you had to go to a place like CVS to get one. It was a real pain.
Now, you can get a SmarTrip card at any Metro station so the transnational pain is mostly gone. If you buy a SmarTrip card online, you have to order it far enough in advance to make sure that you receive it before you leave for your trip. However,if you buy it too far in advance and then forget that you have it and don’t pack it, then you basically just bought an expensive souvenir.
There are a few exceptions. The first is if you want a commemorative SmarTrip card. They have these, for example, for the inauguration every four years, when a new museum opens and for our sports teams.
The other exception is if you want to use it to ride the bus but don’t really think you’re going to be riding the Metro. So for example if you want to ride the MetroBus from Dulles airport or BWI, and you don’t want to mess around with cash, then, you could order your SmarTrip online and have it loaded up and ready to go.
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