This post is a how to use the Metro in Washington, D.C. as well as other ways to get around. We cover ticket options and offer tips on how to get around the system. Operating from 5 am – 11 pm on weekdays and 7 am – 11 pm on weekends (8am on Sunday), the D.C. Metro system is a reliable and safe way to get around the nation’s capital city. However, it can be frustrating to use, if you aren’t prepared, which is why we prepared this guide. And remember, the Metro can’t get you around the National Mall. Let DC by Foot get you around on one of our pay-what-you-like tours.
From our DC Tourism Guide, with budget advice, travel guides, attraction discounts, and information about local Washington DC attractions, including alternative transportation with hop-on, hop-off buses.
First, you will need a SmarTrip card to enter and exit the system. The DC Metro no longer uses paper fare-cards. A SmarTrip card is required for each rider age 5 and older (up to two children under age five may travel free with each fare paying adult). SmartTrip cards can be ordered online or you may buy a card at the station. They cost $10/each, but they come preloaded with $8 of credit. SmartTrip cards can only be purchased from SmartTrip card vending machines, which are the smallest machine on the left side of the image below.
One way to travel is by paying as you go. If you need to add money to your card, you will need to use one of the larger vending machines in the image above. One machine is cash only and the other also accepts credit cards. There is no set fare for all trips. Fares between stations depends on distance as well as time of day. There are two prices for rides, peak and off-peak. Peak hours for DC Metro are from opening till 9:30 am and between 3 pm and 7 pm on weekdays. There are no peak hours on weekends. Each vending machine will show you what it costs to go to any station in the system. For trips within the urban core that ends up being about $3/trip during peak rush and about $2/trip during off-peak hours for a full fare trip.
Note: You can only use the same debit/card three times in one day before the machines will stop taking it!
1 Day and 7 Day Passes for Tourists
You can also get 1 day pass for $14.50/person, which may seem like a great deal, but you’ll want to do the math on how much you’ll be traveling. The farther out your hotel or accommodations are, the better off this deal will be. There are no travel restrictions, which means that you could use this pass anytime and without any additional charges. For most people, this pass really makes sense if you plan on making more than 2 round trips and/or you are traveling with children under 5.
There are also two types of 7 day passes. One is called a Fast-Trip Pass, which costs $59.25/person and has no time restrictions. The other is called a Short-Trip Pass, which costs just $36/person, which includes unlimited rides. However, if your ride during peak-time (rush hour) is more than $3.60, then you will have to pay the difference with extra money stored on your card. The Short-Trip Pass is popular, if you are planning on spending at least 3 days in the city using the Metro rail or bus.
These passes cannot be bought on their own and can only be added to SmarTrip cards, so you’ll need to purchase one of those first. The passes start at the first use.
There are Metro stations throughout the city and some stations have more than one entrance/exit. You can locate them easily by looking for the tall brown post with the large letter M at the top.
The name of the station will be written on the side and the color lines that service that station will be encircled at the top of the post. For example, Dupont Circle is only on the Red Line.
The Metro Lines run:
Washington DC Metro Map (click here to enlarge)
Keep your SmarTrip card handy, even after you tap in at a fare gate. In many cities, you only have to tap into the system, but in DC you also have to tap out of the system. The fare gates have a circular target on top to touch your card. When the gate reads your card, the gate opens.
You’ll repeat the process on the way out, but keep an eye on the gate as you exit where a small digital display on the gate will update the cash remaining on your card.
Depending on the station, you’ll likely have to go to lower level to get to the train platform. If the train tracks are in the center, you’ll want to take the correct escalator to get to your platform. If the platform is in the center, just head down and figure out which side you need to be on when you get downstairs.
Center Platform vs Center Tracks
When finding the platform you need look for the end-of-line destination. There are signs listing all of the destinations in order, find where you’re heading and then look for the last stop. For platforms with center tracks, these are usually listed at the top of the escalators so you know which side to be on. For the platforms with center platforms, you’ll find it at the bottom. Both sides which have signage on the tracks as well.
For example, on the Red Line the end-of-line destinations are Glenmont and Shady Grove. So, if you’re traveling from Metro Center to Dupont Circle you would need to board a Red Line train heading to Shady Grove. Trust me, it’ll make sense once you’re in the system!
Note: Sometimes trains don’t go all the way to the end of the line but instead will say the last stop that it will service. As long as you’re going in the right direction and your stop is before the last stop, you’ll be fine!
When on the platform, the signs will list the next three-four trains. It will tell you:
LN (Line) – which color line that train serves. This matters if you’re leaving downtown as the lines split as you leave downtown. For example, Arlington National Cemetery is only on the Blue line!
CAR – this tells you how many cars are on that train. If you’re at the end of the platform, a shorter 6 car train might pass you and you’ll have to run back to the center to board. If you keep an eye on the platform floor, there are decals to show you were shorter 6 car trains end so you won’t miss the doors.
DEST (Destination) – the last stop this train will stop at. This can help you make sure you’re going in the right direction, but also make sure you get on the right train if you’re headed to the end of the line – since not all trains go all the way to the end. Some stop short!
MIN (Minute) – how long you have to wait. Sorry in advance, New Yorkers. Don’t expect our trains to run as frequently.When a train is approaching, the red circles along the edge will flash letting you know the train will be arriving soon.
Once you’re on the train, don’t count on being able to hear the train operator announcing stops. Unless you speak garble-ese you probably won’t be able to decipher what’s being announced so keep an eye out for the station you need. You can see which station you’re at as the train pulls in. Some newer trains will display this information inside the car. There are maps in the middle of every car, there are also maps in every station and graphics listing the stops in the direction you’re traveling.
Q. What are Peak and Off-Peak hours?
A. Peak and Off-peak are essentially rush hour and non-rush hour for the purposes of commuting. Weekday Peak hours are opening (5am) through 9:30am and 3-7pm. Weekend Peak hours are midnight to close (3am).
Q. What are the differences in metro fares between Peak and Off-peak?
A. Peak fares are between $2.25 minimum and $5.75 maximum, depending on the distance you are travelling on metro. Off-peak fares are between $2 minimum and $3.50 maximum. (rates accurate as of 2016. Check the wmata site for up to date rates)
Q. Does this apply to buses as well?
A. Yes, using a Smartrip instead of cash will save you 20 cents per ride. Unlike Metro, all non-express bus fares are the same no matter how far you are travelling.
Q. Do I have to purchase a Smartrip for every member of my party?
A. Any paying customer may travel with up to 2 children under 5 years old for free. Otherwise, everyone in your party must have their own farecard or Smartrip. More than one person cannot use the same Smartrip at the same time.
Q. I am staying outside the city and have parked at a Metro parking lot before taking the Metro into the city; can I use Smartrip to pay for parking?
A. If you are staying at a Metro parking lot, you may use your Smartrip to pay for your parking, exactly as you would if you were riding the Metro.
Q. How do I calculate how much my trip will cost?
A. If you know where you are going, go to Metro’s Trip Planner and in put the details.
Use the DC Metro like a Local
Some tips to make it seem like this is old hat to you:
If you’re worried about being stranded thanks to a Metro breakdown, don’t fret. Trains are only one piece of the complex transit nexus of the District. Buses serve even more territory than trains and they are cheap, clean (mainly) and frequent. Most are operated by Metro, but the Circulator routes are operated by the DC Department of Transportation. With that said, you’re SmarTrip card works on all buses. Of course, you can always opt for ride-hailing services like Uber or Lyft or their low-tech cousin: cabs.