The Washington DC metro system may not have the storied history of some of the country’s other subterranean trains, but any newcomer to the city will be pleased with its efficiency and convenience.
Metro stations are surprisingly clean, modern-looking affairs with highly accurate arrival boards and spacious turnstiles that won’t grip you like an arcade claw machine. (Looking at you, MTA.)
Don’t be alarmed at the seemingly never-ending entrance escalators; these trains will whisk you away to your destination ahead of schedule. Once you have the hang of the system, a single SmarTrip card can take you across the city and even beyond its borders.
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The DC metro is made up of six different colored lines: orange, silver, blue, red, green, and yellow. They all intersect at several key stations near the center of town: Metro Center, Gallery Place, and L’Enfant Plaza.
You’ll notice that most of the lines run on the same tracks closer to the center of town and then diverge as you go further out. Zooming out, the red, green, and yellow lines run generally North to South, and will take you into Maryland eventually, to Bethesda and Glenmont on the red and to College Park on the green or yellow.
Silver, Blue, and Orange will be your go-tos in Virginia.
A SmarTrip card is a must have for any traveler hoping to navigate the streets and rails of DC. The easiest method to purchase a new card is at the big blue boxes labeled “Fare Vending” located at the entrance of every Metro station.
You can also buy a card at a number of Commuter Stores scattered across the tri state area, as well as the central Metro Sales Office on 12th and F Streets. A full list of all locations is available on the official website of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).
You can even order a card online and have it delivered wherever you like on the same site’s SmarTrip store page.
Each new card costs $10 in total: $2 for the card itself, and $8 preloaded value. Once you have used up those first few trips, you’ll have a few options to reload:
Pay As You Go
The same blue boxes you used to purchase your card are also the place to reload. After tapping your card to the reader, you will be prompted to choose “Add Value” or “Add Time.” If you choose to add value, you can select an amount to on the next screen using the toggle keys next to the card reader and then pay for that amount using cash or card.
If you’re visiting the city and plan to use public transportation multiple times a day, a timed pass will be the best option. After selecting “Add Time,” you can choose a 1, 3, or 7 day unlimited pass, which cost $13, $28, and $58 respectively.
Another good option for travelers is the 7 day short trip pass, which will cover any fare at an off peak time, or a peak time up to $3.85, and takes $2 off the fare for a Metrobus Express or airport shuttle.
Those sticking around even longer can look at the monthly unlimited pass, which ranges anywhere from $72 to $216, depending on the length of your usual commute. WMATA’s Monthly Unlimited Pass Calculator will give an estimate of the cost.
Lastly, 7 day bus-only passes are also available for $12, but I advise that car-less travelers will probably want to hop a train sometime, especially when DC rush hour hits!
Tap and Go: How to Get Through the Turnstile
To get through the turnstiles, all you’ll need to do is tap your card on the reader. On Metrobuses, you’ll see the same reader next to the driver where you get on. The readers are powerful enough to scan through a wallet, so there’s no need to pull your card out. (Yes, I am still picking on MTA.)
When riding the train, you’ll also need to tap your card on the reader again to exit the station. If your card doesn’t have enough value for a longer ride and the exit turnstiles won’t let you out, don’t panic! The “Exit Fare” boxes next to every exit will allow you to add the remaining amount.
Tech savvy travelers will be happy to hear that SmarTrip cards can easily be transferred to your phone’s Apple Wallet or Google Pay account. (Note: your physical card won’t be usable once you transfer it to a digital wallet.) There’s also a SmarTrip app, which allows you to see your card’s balance and add more value or passes on the go.
Fares and Peak Times
Here’s where it gets slightly trickier: the fare for each ride will depend on how far and when you’re riding. Fares will be more expensive at rush hour, or peak times, between 5 am and 9:30 am in the morning and between 3 pm and 7 pm in the afternoon. Peak fares run anywhere between $2.25 and $6, while off peak fares won’t net you more than $3.85.
The Metrobus, on the other hand, is just $2 for any ride, and $4.25 for any express route. You can find the cost of any ride from your current station from a chart on the top of the same “Fare Vending” boxes used to buy SmarTrip cards.
Even better, you are free to transfer between buses as many times as you want in a two hour period without any extra charge. Going train to bus, on the other hand, will incur a slight fee, but less than a regular ride.
Those commuting from outside the city proper will also be happy to know that SmarTrip cards work with almost any regional bus systems in Virginia and Maryland.
Navigation apps like Google or Apple Maps sometimes don’t have accurate train or arrival times. I recommend downloading one of several apps that receives direct information, like the DC Metro and Bus app. There, you can search any station or route and receive real time arrival estimates.
Waiting for the bus? Take a look at the bus stop sign and you’ll see a 7 digit number code. You can plug this into either an app or the WMATA website to get real time arrivals for that specific stop!
Lastly, I’ll put a second emphasis on checking arrival times directly from WMATA as of the winter of 2021. The city began renovation efforts after a minor accident at Arlington Cemetery in October, and although trains have supposedly resumed running on schedule, I’ve noticed that wait times at some stations still seem a little longer than usual.
Now, you’re ready to hit the rails and roads with your Washington DC Metro SmarTrip card in hand!