Getting around in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area

On my recent visit to Washington D.C., I solely relied on public transportation. First I was thinking about renting a car and use my free day coupons, but the airport station was sold out for my day of arrival. As I would spend most of the time anyway in the inner city, I wasn’t even going to rent it for the second day of my stay. I started to figure out the public transportation system and used the Metro which is Washington’s subway all the way to the hotel.

I did some research before I arrived and was pretty confident that I would be able to figure it out. My plan was to buy a SmarTrip® Card which is a reloadable card to be used as your ticket for travels on public transportation. It is similar to Hong Kong’s Octopus card, to which I was already used to. However, Hong Kong is way ahead of the United States, as you can use your Octopus card not only to buy fares on train and busses you can also pay at a lot of retailers in the city and get food and other things.

Anyway, back to Washington D.C. While I was waiting for my luggage at the baggage claim, I decided to head off to the train station and already see how to get there, once I have my bag. The airport metro station is just a short distance away. From American’s baggage claim I took the escalator one level up, then walked on the overpass over the airport driveway straight to the train station.

To get your SmarTrip® Card you have to look for the blue ticket machines at the metro stations. Go there and use the option to buy a single pass and after that, you can select how much money you want to load to the card which costs $2. You can also order the SmarTrip cards online and have them shipped directly to your house. This is only useful if you know well ahead of time when you are be traveling to Washington D.C. The card costs you online $10 and comes with $8 to be used for fares and $2 are charged for the card itself.

As it was already late afternoon when I arrived, I decided I need only enough money to get to the hotel. To figure out how much that is, you can look at the charts on top of the ticket machines or use the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) online trip planner.

Washington Metro 7000-Series Train

It indicated that the price would be $2.30 to get from the NATIONAL AIRPORT METRO STATION to METRO CENTER METRO STATION where I can get straight to the hotel from the metro station, without going up the escalator to ground level. The trip planner also tells you which line to take and what direction. It shows you the route of the train on a map to get a better idea of which way you are going.

Update: Check your hotel about free/discounted SmarTrip Cards

The Grand Hyatt Washington added a destination fee of $20/night for every reservation. Included is also a free SmarTrip card loaded with $3.00. However, that doesn’t help you to get from the airport to the hotel as you won’t get the card until you arrive at the hotel. I actually had to wait another day, because they ran out.

Figuring out the basics was easy but there are a few odd things you should remember. This is very helpful and saves you time and eventually money when you hopped on the wrong train.

  1. Remember where you want to go and where the train terminates

    You will have to get a sense of what the termination stops of your line would be. Once you passed the gate, where you swipe your SmarTrip card, you have to look for the sings and follow the one where the train will terminate going your travel direction. This is because not all metro stations are created equally. Some of them have the platform on either side of the tracks. So one platform per direction. This means if you go down to the wrong platform and have to look for a map or route information, you might miss the next train and have to walk back up and over to the other platform. However, some platforms are in the center of the two tracks and this makes it easy as you can go either track from the same platform. It took me a while to figure out what my termination points would be to get to the right platform. Unfortunately, it’s not marked if the platform is split and located on either side of the tracks or if its located in the center.

    WMATA Bus and Rail Map

  2. Know your way out

    Most Metro Stations have more than one Entrance and Exit. It helps to visualize your destination on a map and look where the metro station is in the relation of the place you want to go. Now see which streets would take you there. If you are a first-time rider with the metro you won’t know which exits are available at each station. But the exits are marked with the street names. So if something is close to a metro station you might want to check which street would lead you there. And again, here Hong Kong has another advantage. You can even see the exits of the train stations on Google Maps. Just something which could be improved here as well.

    Know which exit you have to take.

  3. Make sure you have enough credit on your SmarTrip Card

    Yes, I am a big fan of credit cards, as this gives me points over points. So if you want to use your credit card to buy or reload a SmarTrip card, you have to look out for the blue ticket machines. All the other once only accept cash.
    – Blue – Fare Vending: Here you can buy your SmarTrip card and reload the card with cash or credit card. These machines also allow you to add different kinds of passes to your SmarTrip card, for example, a day pass.
    – Black – Add Value: At these machines, you can top off your card, but they only accept cash and nothing else.
    – Orange – Exit Fare: These machines are located inside the train station before you can swipe your card to exit. In case you didn’t have enough credit on your card to exit at the station, you have to add more to be able to exit. Be warned, these machines also only accept cash. As I didn’t have any cash with me, I made sure to have always enough credit on my card to be able to at least exit. Every station has an agent at the exit and entry gates. If you can’t exit you can probably ask them if they are friendly enough to escort you to the blue machines outside to reload your card if you don’t have cash.

  4. Buy a Day-Pass

    If you know you will be doing a lot of traveling on the public transportation system, like the metro and buses, you might want to consider to buy a one day pass. This pass costs $15 and gives you unlimited rides on metro and base fare Metrobus travel. The pass will expire at midnight of the day it got purchased, no matter what time of the day you purchased it. So better buy it early and start using it all day long to get the most out of your value.

    It’s also possible to buy a day pass with the stored value on your card. However, if you don’t have enough money on your card, add first enough money to your card and then buy the pass. You can’t split the payment between stored funds on the card and any other form of payment.

  5. Check for Outages

    It’s sad to say that, but it seems WMATA has a big maintenance issue, at least on the metro side which I used the most. Lot’s of the ticket machines had a “Machine Off” or “out of order” sticker on them. But not only the ticket machines had issues. During my 2 night stay more and more of the escalators went down. It was a holiday weekend, so maintenance was probably off too. I saw only one crew working on an escalator on Saturday. While going back and forward between the hotel and different points of the city, escalators that used to work are all of a sudden not working anymore. You can check the WMATA website for status updates but they are not always up to date on things like escalators or elevators.

  6. The train is arriving

    Most of the time you can already hear the train arriving while it is not even visible. Another indicator would be the lights in the ground along the edge of the platform. When these lights start flashing, it means the train is about to arrive. Stay back and as they say in the tube in London. “Please mind the gap!”

  7. Secure your Card

    I put my SmarTrip card in my wallet, where I also have my hotel room key. This turned out to be very unpractical by using the metro a lot. Secure your card safely in an easy to access pocket like the inside pocket of a jacket. You can also get a cardholder with a retractable lanyard. This makes it easy to pull the card out and tap it, without being worried about losing it.

  8. Know your Balance

    The biggest downside, however, is to see your card’s balance. You will see it every time you tap the card, but I mean seriously if it’s busy and other people want to tap their card, you going to stand in the middle of the gate, block it, just to read your balance, which disappears anyway quickly from the display. At least that’s a recommendation of WMATA. You can also double check your card at any of the ticket machines. Again, I love Hong Kong’s approach. They have an app for the smartphone and you can just hold the card to the NFC reader of your phone and it will show you the balance right there.

    WMATA recommends to create an online account and you can also check your balance there. But honestly, that’s not reasonable for tourists or short-term visitors as you have to either fax or mail (no e-mail) your information to WMATA. Good luck doing that on a holiday weekend and get signed up right away! If you order your card online from WMATA, you are already signed up for an online account.

  9. Refund?

    If you loaded too much money on your SmarTrip card, you can request a refund through the WMATA Customer Service. You need to live outside of a 100-mile radius of the Baltimore or DC area. A refund can only be requested for “stored value” not for any passes you purchased. See the WMATA FAQ for more info. This is great news for tourists as you won’t waste any money and don’t have to worry about having the exact amount left on your card while you use it the last time. However, there is no refund for the card itself. Keep it and if you ever come back use it again.

Once you get the hang of it, the system is actually pretty easy. I mainly used the Metro and one of the main reasons for that was, that my hotel had direct access to a Metro station. However, they could improve the maps and signs a little bit, especially showing the different train lines. They only have a dot in the center instead of all the way across. I encountered many tourists who thought the train wouldn’t stop there and you have to take a specific line. For example in the picture below, people thought only the “Orange Line” will stop at the stations between “Rosslyn” and “Smithsonian”. Every line will stop at every stop along the way, this includes the “Silver Line” and “Blue Line”.

Smithsonian Station

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