Taking the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's Metrorail service -- known to D.C. locals simply as the Metro -- is often faster, safer and cheaper than driving, especially once you factor in the cost of parking. Metro trains are organized into six color-coded routes that offer excellent coverage of Washington's downtown, with the two ends of each line also extending out to -- and sometimes just past -- the Beltway.
Finding a Metro Station
You have at least four ways to find the nearest Metro station. You can fire up third-party mobile apps like iTrans DC Metro for iOS devices and DC Metro Transit for Android; study the Stations listing on the WMATA website; peruse Google Maps and other mapping applications; or keep your eyes peeled the four-sided dark brown pillar with a large "M" on top that marks the entrance to every Metro station. Each entrance pillar has colored horizontal stripes that tell you which color-coded line or lines can be accessed at that station.
You can pay your Metro fare with a reusable, reloadable SmarTrip card or with a single-use paper ticket, both of which can be purchased at automated farecard machines in each station. You can also purchase SmarTrip cards online; they are delivered by first-class mail. SmarTrip cards are a great investment: They get you $1 off each Metro fare, plus discounted transfers to and from the bus service and 20 cents off each Metrobus fare. With a SmarTrip card, Metro fares range from $1.75 to $3.60 during off-peak hours and $2.15 to $5.90 during peak hours.
Getting In and Out
Most of the downtown Metrorail stations lie underground, although many of the 86 stations are also at-grade or elevated. Take an escalator or elevator to the farecard machines; to pass through the turnstiles, either touch your reusable SmarTrip card to the gate reader or slide your paper ticket into the slot and retrieve it. You'll also tap your SmarTrip card or slide your paper ticket on the way out at your destination station, at which point your point-to-point fare is calculated. Metro stations open at 5 a.m. on weekdays and 7 a.m. on weekends; they close at midnight Sunday through Thursday, and at 3 a.m. Friday through Saturday.
Finding Your Train
Once you're in the station, follow signs for access to the correct track for your destination. Each sign will have a large, color-coded dot designating the Metro route, plus the final stop on that route. Because none of the Metrorail lines are loops, this tells you which direction the train is heading. Sometimes trains will only cover part of a given line, in which case the endpoint of the abbreviated route will be listed beside the colored dot. Large maps posted in every station help you decipher which direction you should be going; each station is denoted by a dot, and extra-large dots with two black rings are stations where you can transfer from one train line to another.
On and Off
Digital signs at each Metro station keep you updated on the wait time for the next train; lights along the edge of the rail platform flash to let you know the train is arriving. As with any subway service, stand clear of the platform edge until the train has stopped. Choose a train car, stand clear of the door so outgoing passengers can disembark, then step into the car and either find a place to sit or stand close enough to grab one of the support rails. The train conductor will announce each stop in advance and will open the doors at each stop so that anyone who wants to get off can do so.