Getting around in Washington DC: guide to the subway and public transportation

Who I am
Martí Micolau

Now that you have arrived in the American capital, in addition to wondering what to see in Washington, the other question you will be asking is what is the best public transport to get around the city. With this article we are going to understand how the subway works, public buses, bike rentals and all the other options you will have to visit the monuments of Washington on your own.


  • Washington Metropolitan
    • How many Metro lines are there?
    • What are the times?
    • Washington Metro Fares
    • The SmarTrip Card how it works and how it is used
    • How many dollars do I have to top up the card with?
    • What if there is unused credit left on my card?
  • Bus
    • Circulatory
    • Metro Bus
    • Better public buses or Hop-On Hop-Off?
  • Is it worth buying a public transport pass?
  • Getting around by car in Washington
  • Bike Share or Bike Rental?
  • Water Taxi
  • What is the best way to get around the city?
  • How to get to Washington airport

Washington Metropolitan

As in many American cities, even in Washington DC the subway can be one of the most comfortable means of getting from one place to another, but in this case there are some additional factors to take into account.

How many Metro lines are there?

The Washington subway lines are six identify each with a different color. Let's go and see in detail what they are.

  • Red Line: the two terminus are Shady Grove and Glenmont
  • Blue Line: the two terminus are Franconia – Springfield and Largo Town Center
  • Orange Line: the two terminus are Vienna and New Carrollton
  • Yellow Line: the two terminus are Huntington and Mount Vernon Square (during rush hour) and Fort Totten (at other times)
  • Green Line: the two terminus are Branch Avenue and Greenbelt
  • Silver Line: Wiehle – Reston East and Largo Town Center. In 2020 this line will reach Washington Dulles Airport.

Below you can see the map of the Washington Metropolitan, click on the image to get the pdf with a more extended version.


What are the times?

The times in which the service is carried out varies according to the days of the week

  • Monday to Thursday from 5:00 to 23:30
  • Friday from 5: 00 1 to: 00
  • Saturday from 7: 00 to 1: 00
  • Sunday from 8: 00 to 23: 00

However, keep an eye on the official WMATA website to check for any changes.

Washington Metro Fares

The cost of a ride on the Washington subway it is not fixed but it is influenced by two factors:

  • The distance traveled
  • The timetable

The calculation of the road fare in fact depends on whether you use the subway during the so-called rush hour (peak hours), or during the rest of the day. The peak times are:

  • during the week: from the opening of the metro until 9:30 and from 15:00 to 19:00.
  • on weekends: from midnight until closing.

At these times the race It costs more for this reason, if you can, better organize yourself to use the subway at normal times in order to save something.

The SmarTrip Card how it works and how it is used

To use the Washington subway, you need to have one SmarTrip Card. It costs $ 2 and can be purchased at the automatic ticket machines at each station. Once you have reached the turnstiles you will have to place (not swipe) the card on the appropriate sensor both at the entrance and at the exit. The following video (in English) visually illustrates the simple process.

How many dollars do I have to top up the card with?

8$ is the default choice. For a tourist who does not intend to spend many days in the city, I would consider about $ 3 as an average cost per trip. If you want a more precise calculation you will have to use the official website of the Washington Metro. The procedure is very simple: once the departure station has been selected, just click on metrorail fares and select the arrival station to display the fare.

In the example in the photo you can see how much a ride from L'Enfant Plaza station to Arlignton will cost you both during peak hours (Peak Fare) and normal hours (Off-Peak).

If, after entering the subway, you realize at the exit that you do not have enough credit in the SmarTrip Card, you can still top up the card at the automatic ticket machines named Exitfares which are located near the turnstiles. But be careful: at the time of writing this article, even if we are in full 2018, these machines accept cash only. Therefore, always check your remaining credit and the cost of the ride so as not to incur unpleasant episodes.

What if there is unused credit left on my card?

Every time I buy a card and the rates are calculated in a variable way as in Washington, the question always arises spontaneously, and I always have the certainty that at the end of my trip I will have given a few dollars to the local public transport company. In this case, however, it seems possible to request a refund on the unused credit. In fact, from the FAQ of the official website we read that:

If you live outside of a 100-mile radius of the Baltimore or DC area, you may be eligible to request a refund of the value on your smart card. Please contact SmarTrip Customer Service to discuss.

In other words it might be admissible a refund request on the remaining credit on the card for anyone living more than 100 miles away from the Washington DC area. In case you will have to contact customer service for discuss it. As you can see, nothing is given for sure but, if you have a large remaining balance on your SmarTrip Card, it won't hurt to try.


To move around Washington DC, there are basically two types of public buses, the Circulator and the Metrobus. For most tourists, the most convenient service to use will be the first, let's see why.


It is a bus line that has shorter routes concentrated in the most touristic areas of the city. In particular, the one that may interest you the most is the red line named National Mall Route that from Union Station "circumnavigates" the entire Mall in Washington, as you can see from the photo below.

The National Mall Route

The frequency is great as there is one bus each ten minutes (applies to all lines). This is the only route that has a different operating hours depending on the period:

  • months summer (April - September) Monday to Friday from 7am to 00pm. Saturday and Sunday from 20:00 to 9:00
  • months Winter (October - March) Monday to Friday from 7am to 00pm. Saturday and Sunday from 19:00 to 9:00

The fare for all routes is very convenient as the ticket costs only $ 1 which you can pay in cash (attention the driver does not give change) or by using the SmarTrip Card (but unlike the subway you will have to validate it only at the entrance).

The other lines of the Circulator service are:

  • Dupont Circle-Georgetown-Rosslyn
  • Georgetown-Union Station
  • Eastern Market – L'Enfant Plaza
  • Woodley Park-Adams Morgan-McPherson Square Metro
  • Congress Heights – Union Station
Georgetown-Union Station
Congress Heights – Union Station
Woodley Park-Adams Morgan-McPherson Square Metro
Eastern Market – L'Enfant Plaza
The National Mall Route
Dupont Circle-Georgetown-Rosslyn

For all these lines, the declared service frequency is always one run every 10 minutes. For the opening times of each single line, I invite you to check directly on the official website.

As you can see then the Circulator buses are an excellent solution not only for visiting the Washington Mall and the White House but also the lovely neighborhood of Georgetown.

Metro Bus

Used in particular by the inhabitants as it has longer routes and, mainly, it serves to connect the city to its suburbs. The service is operated by the metro company itself. A ride has a starting fare of $ 2 and varies depending on the distance you travel. If for some reason the Metro and the Circulators fail to meet your needs, you can take a look at all the Metro Bus lines directly on the official website.

Better public buses or Hop-On Hop-Off?

If you are asking yourself this question, let's see the pros and cons of each service. Keep in mind that the companies that offer the Hop-On Hop-Off service are many so, as far as prices and frequency are concerned, we can only speak by making a reasoned average.

  • Prices: public transport is much more affordable (circulator one dollar, metro bus two dollars) while a day pass for a Hop-On Hop-Off service can cost you from 30 to 40 dollars.
  • Frequency: public buses transited with a declared frequency of about one each 10 minutes , while for the Hop-On Hop-Off service it depends on the companies, but with a certain approximation I would say about one each 20 minutes. Furthermore, as we have seen, during the summer season the circulators end their service at 20:00 while in general the Hop-On Hop-Offs stop circulating between 17:00 and 18:00.
  • Information: as you can imagine this is the only entry in which the Hop-On Hop-Off winners, in fact the public buses do not give any kind of tourist information.

So, summing up, if you just want a means of transport to move between the main monuments of Washington choose public transport, if you want a narrated tour, which is not on foot, then the Hop-On Hop-Offs are the solution. improve. If you are interested in this type of service you can take a look at the link below

Tour in autobus Hop-on Hop-off di Washington

Is it worth buying a public transport pass?

In most cases the answer to this question would be no. First of all, let's see which passes you will have available.

  • One Day Pass $ 14.75: It can very rarely be considered a good deal.
  • 7-Day Fast Pass $ 60.00: this is the pass to use the subway at any time of the day.
  • 7-Day Short Trip Pass $ 38.50: Restricted rush hour pass. In fact, during peak fares it can only be used on routes that cost less than $ 3.85, otherwise you will have to pay the rest of the ride.

This type of pass could therefore only be convenient in special cases (for example a use of the subway at least twice a day for several days) but, most likely, a tourist will rarely be able to use public transport so many times. So consider what your travel needs may be once you arrive in Washington.

Getting around by car in Washington

Apart from some traffic problems, getting around by car in Washington it is not a particularly arduous undertaking and can be an idea if you visit the city in transit on an East Coast itinerary. In this case, I recommend that you use strategic parking lots for visiting the main attractions: in this regard, our article on where to park in Washington may be useful.

Bike Share or Bike Rental?

Washington was one of the first cities to implement a bike sharing service. It is certainly a possibility very comfortable and not too complicated to use, but there are limitations to consider.

In my opinion, bike sharing must be considered only and exclusively to move from point A to point B in a short time. For this reason, if you need a bike for a whole day or for an extended period, I don't think it is for you. Furthermore, if you need accessories such as helmets, chains, maps or other, you must necessarily rely on a classic bike rental. Beware, if you are traveling with children under the age of 16 years know that they will not be able to use bike sharing.

Using bike sharing has fixed costs to access the service to which the cost of the ride must be added. At the time of publication of the article the fixed cost is 2$ every run, 8$ for a day pass or 17$ for three days. All these solutions guarantee you 30 minutes of use of a bicycle at the end of which these rates are applied

Another factor to consider for bike sharing is the fact that you will not be able to leave it where you want. In fact, the bicycles are placed in special parking lots (as you can see from the photo) and you can risk finding all the bicycle parking spaces occupied upon arrival at your destination (or completely empty at the time of departure), which will force you to look for a other parking nearby making you waste time.

If once you have done the math, and considered all the pros and cons, you want to opt for one classic bike rental you can take a look at the link below.

Info on bike rental in Washington

Water Taxi

This option might come in handy if you want to travel from Georgetown to The Wharf of Washington (half an hour drive) which is less than 10 minutes walk from L'Enfant Plaza and 15 minutes from the Jefferson Memorial. In addition to the comfortable movement, this means of transport will allow you to enjoy an unusual and picturesque view of the city. Also this service connects Washington DC to Old Town Alexandria (30 minutes) et al National Harbor (45 minutes).

Prices vary by destination and are higher on weekends. To date there is no discount if you book online in advance, so you can also decide at the moment by going to the Wharf ticket office.

What is the best way to get around the city?

At the end of all this Washington public transit overview, you may be wondering what the best way to get around the city is. As you can guess it is difficult to give a univocal answer since every tourist has different needs. First of all you have to make an evaluation starting from the hotel in which you have chosen to sleep in Washington together with what you want to see.

With these two factors at your disposal, you can choose the best means of transport. My experience, if it can be useful to anyone, was the following: to reach the Mall area I used the subway, to visit them I have exclusively walked (but you can use the handy Circulator), to go to Arlington cemetery I used the subway and finally to reach Georgetown I used the Circulatory. As you can see, therefore, I believe that the best solution is to alternate public transport with a visit on foot.

How to get to Washington airport

The Washington DC area is served by three airports, which if you are looking for a low cost flight to this city will allow you to have a few more options to choose from. For each airport I have indicated the main methods to reach it, indicating the costs, and where not available, making an approximation.

  • Ronald Reagan National (DCA): it is practically located within the city limits, so close to the downtown that you can see the main monuments of the city from the airport itself.
    • It has a dedicated metro stop (Blue and Yellow lines) thanks to which you can reach the downtown at a cost of about $ 3 per person.
    • Taxi fares are around $ 20
  • Washington Dulles International (IAD):
    • A taxi ride can be around $ 60-70
    • For 2020 it is expected that the airport will be reached by the silver line of the subway. To date from the terminus of the subway you can use the Silver Line Express Bus at a cost of $ 5 per person (in addition to the subway ride).
    • 5A Metrobus: bus service that from L'Enfant Plaza for about $ 7.50 per person will take you to the airport.
  • Baltimore – Washington International (BWI)
    • Using the taxi can cost more than $ 90
    • This airport has one train station nearby which also offers a free shuttle bus to the airport. The most convenient connection to Washington is with Union Station. Two solutions can be used: the cheapest is to choose a  MARC Train ($ 7 per person) or Amtrak Train (around $ 16 per person)
    • B30 Metrobus is the shuttle service that from the terminus of the Green line connects the airport for about $ 7.50 plus the cost of the metro ride.

In addition to these services listed for each airport, you can choose a private shuttle service. If you want the complete list of type of service you can click on the link below.

Private transfers to Washington airports

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