What to Expect While Riding the Washington D.C. Metro

Photo of the Washington D.C. metro train tracks.

I ride the Metrorail (aka- “metro”) every day to work and sometimes on the weekend when I venture to the heart of the city from outside the beltway. It’s the fastest and most cost effective way for me to get to my destination without having to worry about the usual hiccups: ridiculous parking fees or mobile parking apps, fines, social demonstrations, sporting events, concerts, road closures, parades, a presidential motorcade, or crazy traffic conditions. With that being said, there are a few unspoken rules about riding the metro that I learned when I first moved to the area that I thought I’d pass along just as tourist seasons reaches its peak.

A crowd of people waiting for the metro cars to arrive.
It’s tourist season! This crowd is pretty light before 7am.

In theory, commuting D.C./Maryland/Virginia (DMV) residents should be gracious enough to pardon visitors of clueless behavior, but not so much when it comes to the metro. I say this affectionately- most DMV residents, especially during the week, are caffeine and power addicted black-suit wearing soldiers who are doing very important things, or so they like to think. They have to be somewhere doing something NOW, so visitors, pedestrians, locals, and anyone in their way is an “inconvenience.” That sounds a bit harsh but it’s the truth. As a survival tip, don’t be an inconvenience, or worse, a tourist. Know exactly what to expect before naïvely jumping on the DC metro and you’ll blend right in with everyone else like a BOSS.

Visitors (and locals) should expect…

… to pay no less than $10 for a SmartTrip Card

Photo of fingers holding a SmartTrip card inside the metro.
This credit card-sized pass holds the key to the D.C. underground.

This is the way of the future, they say. Last year they, the metro execs at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), decided to no longer accept paper fare cards. Before you had a choice: a temporary paper ticket (a temporary, tourist fave) or a hard plastic card. You no longer have a choice now, but that’s a good thing. The card costs $10 ($5 for the physical card with $5 fare value preloaded on it). It is reloadable, meaning you can add more money using cash or a credit/debit card at the time of purchase or any time online or at the fare gates. No expiration.

…to be confused by the fare system

Photo of three fare vending machines.
Take a deep breath and read everything from top to bottom, left to right.

There is a wide, confusing chart at the top of every fare machine listing the price for each ride. Unlike NYC or other metro systems, prices vary based on a few things: the distance you are traveling, time of day (rush hour vs. other times), and age (Sr. Citizens, kids under 5, and school children receive discounted or free admission). Prices always seem to increase so I don’t want to tell you what they are now, but they can range from $1.75 to $5 a trip. Your best bet is to check out the Trip Planner section of the website to chart your course before you travel and load more than enough money on your card.

Close up photo of a metro fare chart. Headlines ask customers when and where are they going.
Confused, yet? You don’t have to be. Find the time you arrive, current station, and your final destination to calculate the fare.

If you are confused about which train heads where, download a map in advance and store it on your phone. If you’re confused on the platform without a map, ask a station attendant or mature looking individual if you’re headed in the right direction (groups of people may purposely direct you off-course).

…to stand right, walk left

Photo of a large escalator staircase transporting patrons out of the underground system.
Bless these beautiful people who know where to stand on the escalator! Notice how they packed lightly- it’s a long ride up.

I cant. I really can’t when people interrupt the natural flow of the escalators. Like I said before, people have places to be. They need to go to a meeting or go home or go to District Taco for a quick bite. They’re going somewhere and don’t appreciate people blocking their path. So when you come to DC and take the metro, expect to walk on the left side of the escalator stairs. It doesn’t matter if the escalators are moving up or down, the left side is reserved for those people that have somewhere to be. OMG it makes me, and other locals, so mad to see people standing in the walking lane! If you have large bags that you can’t carry, small children, physical limitations, or are just one of those indecent individuals who elect to stand on the escalator, stand to the right. I can not stress this enough! I’ve seen people get yelled at by anxious commuters for not following this unspoken rule; plus it may even cause a few fights. Actually, if you’re going to block the entire stairway with your idleness you might as well take the elevator, which leads me to my second point, expect…

….some of the elevators to be broken

Photo of an elevator in the metro.
Luckily, this elevator is fully functional.

When you walk on the platform there might be a large digital sign announcing a broken elevator. Other times you have to listen to the announcement in English or Spanish. Most of the time the elevators are working but there are always times when a few may be broken, so don’t pack anything you can’t carry up a large flight of stairs.

…air conditioning

Photo of people walking on a the metro platform.
It may be 97°F out there, but it’s a cool 65 in here.

Yeah, we’re bougie here *flips hair*. The stations are cool in the summer and moderately warm during the winter. I guess it’s a perk, especially when compared to other metros. The cars are climate controlled, too, so fear not, for ye shall be comfortable.

…the car doors to shut in less than 20 seconds

Photo of a floor sticker that reads, "6 car train ends here."
Run little silhouette person, RUN!

Imagine having a wonderful afternoon touring the monuments, eating great food, and visiting your local senator/representative for the day on The Hill. Now you jump back on the metro around 6pm to head to your hotel. Basking in the memories of the day you stand in front of the car and see a blur of people rush out. You smile and politely let them exit the train. Before you board you hear a few chimes as the driver announces, “step back, doors closing,” but you think it’s just a warning. The doors start to shut and you stick your hand in between to stop it from closing like an elevator door, y’know? Nope. The doors are meant to seal shut and your hand is preventing it from doing its job…and it HURTS! Not only are you shocked the doors didn’t open, but now an entire train load of people are pissed because you’re stopping them from reaching their destination. You have failed. The doors are not like elevators and will shut on you or anyone else between them. I repeat, they will shut on you so haul tail inside the cars! You’re not the only one whose learned the hard way, for I have failed, too. I needed to transfer lines and ran from one train to another. I heard the chimes and knew the doors would close but tried to make it anyways. I made it, but the doors clipped my hips and shut on my backpack. I was half in, half out. Literally. The men on the platform worked to shove my backpack in the train with me and eventually the doors opened for a second- only one second. I was thrust inside but the bruises on my hips and ego were painful reminders of what to never do again. Oh the shame! For a bonus freebie tip- when the sign indicates there is a six-car train instead of 8, quickly make your way in front of the arrows on the yellow signs to avoid cramming in the last car and being shoved in or out by strangers. And speaking of boarding the train, expect…

… to stand to the side of the doors before boarding

Photo of people waiting on the platform for the train to come to a complete stop.
Wait patiently for the train to come to a complete stop, then step to the side, my friends.

There are only about 15 – 25 seconds for EVERYONE to unload and board the metro rail cars. The natural flow is for those waiting to get off the train to stand in front of the door before the next station stop then rush off. People waiting to board the train line up directly to the left and right of the doors, creating an aisle (or runway, however you look at it) for the people on board to get off. Once the last person is off the train the people on the platform rush in. That’s how it works. Please don’t block the doors or commuters will bulldoze right through you. The chimes I mentioned before will tell you when the doors are closing so rushing on and off is really a thing you have to do in a very short amount of time – especially during rush hour, so expect…

…crammed cars during rush hour

Photo of a crowd of people surrounding an open metro car door.
Proceed quickly and don’t be afraid to get comfy with a stranger while trying to board.

The busy times are 5:00-9:30am ET, 3pm-7pm, and during any major social, sporting, or political events. If you don’t want to smell some random dude’s armpits or receive non-therapeutic elbows to your back, take a seat. It’s what I do when I don’t want to be lightly shoved around and want to keep an eye on my bags. Seats are safe.

…to follow most of the rules

Photo of the metro rules.
With the exception of water, these seem pretty straight forward.

The metro is pretty clutter-feee these days and I’m pretty sure we’d all like to keep it that way. When I rode for the first few times I was quite surprised at the lack of clutter. I think most people in the area agree to a few rules of common decency (except the rebellious teens). Those rules are: don’t lean on the car doors, no drinking, no smoking, no eating, no pets, no loud music without headphones, don’t block the doors, no littering, no dangerous or flammable items, and save the first few priority seats for the elderly, disabled, or pregnant. Sounds pretty reasonable to me, right? Exactly. So when you’re riding the train don’t be surprised if you encounter…

…minimal panhandling

Photo of a small package of tissue on a metro car seat.
The ol’ tissue trick. Same gig, different day.

You will not see a lot of panhandling/begging on the metro or the platforms, but when you do they are the same ol’ gigs. A woman who stands silently, awkwardly, directly in front of you holding a cardboard sign written in black marker asking for money. The breakdancing teen duo/group that carry a sound system in a loud attempt to hype you up enough to give them a “donation.” The man or woman who silently places a travel-sized pack of tissues under an index card that asks for what? You guessed it, money. What you give to them is up to you, but don’t be surprised if you notice other people ignoring their efforts.

… to have direct access to only one of the three major local airports

Photo of metro bus signs to Dulles Airport.
Your ride to IAD doesn’t end with the metro, it’s just the beginning.

Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) is the only airport that has a direct link to the metro, meaning you can hop off the plane and connect to the metro through the airport on the blue/yellow lines. If you’re flying from Baltimore-Washington Airport (BWI) or Dulles International Airport (IAD) you’ll face more of a challenge. The metro will only take you to Union Station in the heart of Washington DC and from there you will need to purchase a ticket to ride the Penn line of the MARC train to BWI. Similarly, in order to reach IAD take the metro to the Rosslyn station then hop on the 5A metro bus. Relax, because it’s going to take a while to reach your destination, but at any rate expect…

…a pretty decent ride underneath the city

Whether you love it or hate it, the metro is undeniably a great way to transport yourself around D.C. during the busy summer tourist months. Know what to expect while riding the metro and you’ll be on your way to becoming a knowledgable and efficient traveler.


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