Visiting D.C.: Transportation

I’ve written posts in the past about places to visit in Washington, D.C., but I realized recently I should probably write one about how to get around town, as well. If you’re staying within walking distance of the National Mall or Capitol Hill, you can probably walk to many of the major tourist attractions. But if you’re staying out in the suburbs to save money or want to venture farther afield, it’s good to know what your options are. In this post, I will cover the following:

You’ll find this Metro map in every station & every railcar. (Also on iPhone & Android.)

Metrorail

Probably the most well-known method of public transportation here is Metrorail (also referred to as Metro). It consists of trains on six color-coded lines throughout the D.C. metropolitan area (also referred to as the DMV).

If you have been here before and remember using a paper farecard, those have been phased out. These days, you must purchase a plastic SmarTrip card that you will use to tap on a turnstile for both entry and exit. Prices for train rides vary, depending on time of day and how far you’re going, so you’ll need to consult the WMATA Trip Planner or the fare info kiosk in the station. (Each station lists the fares from that particular station to every other station.)

There are a number of smartphone apps available to help you find out where the closest station is or when the next train is scheduled to arrive. The two I use most often are DC Metro and Bus and Transit. I use the former for finding the nearest bus stop or station; I use the latter because it offers public transit route planning, similar to finding directions on Google Maps. Transit includes Circulator info, which Google Maps does not.

Circulator

Metrorail will get you close to many tourist attractions, but there are also parts of the District (like Georgetown) where it’s a daunting prospect to walk to the nearest train station. About 10 years ago, a bus system was introduced to try to fill some of the gaps. It’s called the Circulator, and it costs just $1. They take coins, dollar bills and SmarTrip. (If you use the latter, there are automatic discounts and credits applied by the system when you transfer from Circulator to Metrorail or Metrobus.)

washington, dc
Circulator buses and bus stops have a distinctive look. | Mr.TinDC on Flickr

There are six routes, all of which offer transfer opportunities at one or two Metro stations along the way. The most popular for tourists is the National Mall route, which serves more than 25 museums, monuments and memorials along the National Mall and around the Tidal Basin.

Metrobus

For visitors who want to go to places that are off the beaten path (like the National Arboretum) but not pay a lot of money to get there, Metrobus offers service all over the city, and even out into the suburbs. (For example, the 5A bus will take you from D.C. or Arlington to Dulles Airport and the B30 will take you from Greenbelt to BWI for a mere $7.50.) The same apps I listed for Metro and Circulator will also work for Metrobus.

Bikeshare

washington, dc
Capital Bikeshare is the original bikeshare for the DC metro area | James Schwartz on Flickr

If you’d like to ride around DC with a smaller carbon footprint, biking is also an option. Capital Bikeshare has been available here for a few years, but for the next few months, we have a number of other companies offering city-wide bike rental as well. Take your pick from LimeBike, Mobike, Jump (electric bike), Spin, and Ofo. There are also options for all-day bike rentals (with or without accompanying tour).

Rideshare

For people who prefer to get around using Lyft or Uber, we have both ridesharing companies in the D.C. area. If you’ve never tried ridesharing and would like to give either company a try, feel free to use one of my first-use discount codes (TERI665324 for $20 in Lyft credit and UBERTERICEE for $5 off your first three Uber rides).

Personal Vehicle

If, after all this, you decide to use your own personal vehicle as transportation during your visit, be aware that: 1.) D.C. has crazy stupid traffic pretty much all the time; 2.) Rush hour toll roads and lane reversals can be a challenge even for locals; and 3.) You will end up paying for A LOT of parking. When you can find it, that is. Some hotels offer parking garages, but they charge $30-60 per day for the privilege. If these caveats don’t dissuade you, then let me offer some smartphone apps you might find useful.

washington, dc
Is it rush hour? A Presidential motorcade? Nationals game? (source: Traffic | by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr)

First, for navigation — even if you know where you’re going (because traffic):

Second, for parking:

  • Parking Meters
    • Parkmobile–If you will be parking in D.C. and want to avoid being a quarter hoarder, get this app. Every city-owned parking space — with or without meters — can be paid for with the app. It knows how long you’re allowed to park and whether it’s free at any given time. (It will, however, offer to let you pay $0.00 and charge you a fee for the pleasure. So beware.) We used to enjoy free parking in the vicinity of the National Mall, but that is no longer the case, unfortunately. (Note: don’t park at a red top meter unless you have a handicapped placard.) Many meters in Arlington, VA, are also associated with Parkmobile.
    • Pango – If you’re going to be parking in Alexandria, VA, this is their app of choice.
  • Parking Garages – there are smartphone apps available that will let you pre-pay for a space in a parking garage so that you don’t have to worry about the dreaded “LOT FULL” sign. I usually check at least two of them, to see which has a garage cheaper and/or closer to where I’m going.

Regardless of how you decide to get around, I hope you thoroughly enjoy your visit to Washington, D.C. If you want to come visit me at the Library of Congress during your stay, let me know! Or take a stroll through American University’s campus where one of our newest chapters, Lambda Eta, was just established!

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