Metro: A Newbie’s Guide


May 1, 2013 by toursbybecca

Washington, DC is a wonderful city to visit for many reasons but one of the major advantages of taking a trip to our nation’s capital is its public transportation system.  The Metro is a rapid rail system (it’s not really a subway because it’s not always underground) that extends into Virginia, Maryland, and throughout the District to provide you a chance to get where you need to go safely, quickly, inexpensively, and without having to worry about driving and parking!

There are many benefits to utilizing the Metro during your visit – and also a few things you should watch out for.  A little bit of preparation and knowledge of the system will go a long way in making your trip more enjoyable, cost-effective, and pleasant to the locals who are used to riding daily!

1.  Know your route.  Visit Metro’s website in advance to familiarize yourself with where you’ll be staying and what sites you’ll be visiting.  Chances are, you’ll often be trying to get to stations near popular sites on the National Mall – getting off at Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, L’Enfant Plaza, or National Archives will all get you within walking distance of most places you want to see without having to change lines.  Make note of the nearest station (or two) near your hotel so you’re able to get back quickly.  Metro Etiquette has a great beginner’s guide to help get you oriented for your public transportation experience!

2.  Go paperless.  Another reason to know where you’ll likely be traveling to is you need to estimate what you might spend on Metro fares.  You can always walk into a station and buy a paper farecard for any trip, but that will cost you a $1 fee per trip.  If you plan to ride more than 3 or 4 times, invest in a SmarTrip card (one for each person traveling with you!)  The card costs $5 but it gets you lower fares, can be reloaded online, and can be replaced if lost or stolen.  Depending on the length of your visit and how often you’ll be riding, one of the day or week passes might be a bargain.  Also, you can register your card online to earn a $3 rebate on the card cost, track your balance, add money via the website or app, and to report your card missing or stolen if needed. Plus the card never expires!

3.  There’s an app for that. Preparing your Metro travels before you leave home is useful, but what about when you’re out and about?  Metro’s mobile site can tell you at a glance what route to take, how much it will cost, and when the next trains leave all at the touch of a fingertip.  You might also try a third-party app to enhance your experience.  App Advice has a great list of apps, while the new Metro Master has quickly become a favorite.

4.  No food – no joke!  If you’ve ever seen photos of DC’s rail system and compared to some other cities, you may be impressed with how clean it is.  One of the major reasons the system looks as good as it does is Metro has a no food or drink policy.  Bottled water is generally okay but any other food you have should be wrapped up and stored during your trip.  It can be an inconvenience but it’s worth not having to worry about rats.

5.  Get ON the road.  When we talk about Metro, it’s often assumed that it’s just the rail system but WMATA also includes the massive bus transportation options in the city.  If you’re transferring to/from a station to a bus, there is a 50 cent discount; you get free bus-to-bus transfer within two hours.  If road traffic is light or you have a short distance to travel, a bus can often be a faster, less expensive option – plus you get the benefit of seeing the city fly by you.  In particular, the DC Circulator can be a great resource for traveling within downtown DC.

6.  Walk left, stand right.  If you want to make every other Metro rider love you, obey our basic tenet of escalator etiquette – walk on the left side, stand on the right.  If you have luggage, bags, kids, pets, etc with you, try to keep them on the right side so the left side is clear for walkers.  You are likely on vacation when here and may not have a tight schedule but someone who needs to catch the train leaving in one minute in order to make a business appointment or graduate class will thank you for letting them through!

7.  Delays happen.  The Metro is a public transit system and as such, delays are part of the game.  You can minimize delays by traveling during non-peak hours and by following WMATA on Twitter to stay aware of delays as they happen.  Be aware that many weekends include track work, which is listed on the Metro website and can cause delays.  If you have an appointment you must make (Capitol Tour, dinner reservations, a special performance), factor in a little extra time for the ride just in case.

8.  Enjoy the ride.  One of my favorite things about riding Metro is I tend to meet a lot of great people (the DC tour guide name badge often acts as an icebreaker.)  If your neighbor feels like chatting, don’t be afraid to ask about the city – locals love to share their favorite spots.  If you want to kick back and enjoy 15 or 20 minutes off your feet, put on your headphones and veg out.  Take advantage of the free Express newspaper, available at every station – it’s a modified version of the Washington Post that can give you a bit of the day’s news as well as events and happenings around town.  Mostly, be respectful of other riders, throw on a smile, and have a great Metro trip!

If you have any questions or great stories about Metro transit, email me at toursbybecca [at] gmail [dot] com or leave them in the comments!

One thought on “Metro: A Newbie’s Guide

  1. […] Celebrating our nation’s holidays in our nation’s capital is always a special, unforgettable experience.  One of our most special holidays in Memorial Day, which started following the American Civil War.  In those early years, it was known as Decoration Day.  In the 20th century, the holiday was renamed Memorial Day and extended to honor veterans of all wars.  With Memorial Day weekend almost upon us, here are some of my suggestions and tips for enjoying the long weekend in Washington, DC.  For some tips on using the Metro system to attend any of events during the weekend (which I highly recommend – parking will be scarce!), take a look at my Newbie’s Guide to Metro post. […]

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