Monday, October 27, 2008; 12:00 AM
Almost every sight worth seeing in Washington can be reached by Metrorail, the city's clean, often-efficient subway system. There are five color-coded lines, and each train's direction is determined by its destination. For example, an Orange Line train to Vienna is traveling west, while those heading for New Carrolton are going east. Large digital screens on the platform display the time until the next train arrives, and lights flash on the edge of the platform when a train is approaching the station. Before boarding, look at the maps and signposts on the train platform, and double-check the direction and color of the train, noted on the screens at the top of each car.
Fares vary by the length of your journey and time of day; on weekdays, you'll pay more from 5 to 9:30 a.m., 3 to 7 p.m. and 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. The minimum fare is $1.35 one way, rising to a maximum of $2.35 outside of rush hour. During peak periods, the minimum is $1.65, with a maximum of $4.50 for the longest ride.
If you plan on hitting a number of sites, it's probably more cost-effective to buy a one-day pass ($7.80), which allows unlimited travel after 9:30 a.m. weekdays and all-day on weekends and holidays. For longer stays, look into the 7-Day Short Trip Pass ($26.40), which allows unlimited rides outside of rush hour and medium-length rides within it. Farecards can be purchased from machines in each station. Keep your card handy, as you'll need it each time you enter and exit a station.
The Metro runs until midnight Sunday through Thursday and until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. Signs with times for last trains are posted inside each station, above the main kiosk. While it's not widely advertised, bathrooms are available for customers who find themselves in dire straits -- just ask the kiosk attendant.
If you're planning to park at a Metro station, you'll need a SmarTrip pass to exit the parking garage. These reusable cards are sold at major end-of-the-lne stations, including New Carrollton, Vienna and Greenbelt. Parking is free on weekends and government holidays.
In June 2008, Washington D.C. finally ditched its zone-based system of cab fares for an easy-to-understand meter system. Passengers pay an initial fare of $3 for the first sixth of a mile, then 25 cents for every sixth of a mile after that. There are still some "extra" fees to calculate, including a $1.50 charge for each additional passenger and 25 cents for every minute stopped in traffic or travelling under 10 miles an hour. Additionally, every trip is subject to a $1 surcharge for "the increased cost of gas."
Washington's Metrobus system covers much more of the city than the Metro system, but it can be more daunting for new users. Bus stops frequently list route numbers and letters but not their destinations or schedules, while buses show only their destination, not their route.
With a little planning through, things become easier. Detailed bus maps are available from Metro's Web site, www.wmata.com, or the Metro sales office at the Metro Center station. Individual stations usually have maps for bus routes that run through that neighborhood. Check for the large route maps at downtown bus kiosks to see which bus goes your way.
Fares are $1.35 for most journeys if you pay cash, but this is where having a reusable SmarTrip card pays off: The base SmarTrip fare is $1.25, and you save 50 cents if you're transferring from Metrorail. Be aware that Metrobus drivers do not carry change, so you must have the exact fare.
Additionally, if you use a SmarTrip card, you get unlimited bus-to-bus transfers within a three-hour time period. (Paper transfers were done away with in January 2009.)
The newest method of public transportation is this visitor-friendly bus, which runs five routes: east and west from Union Station to Georgetown; north and south from the Convention Center to the Waterfront; in a giant loop around the National Mall; from the Woodley Park/Zoo station through Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights; and from Union Station to the Nationals Park baseball stadium Fares are $1 for adults, 50 cents for seniors and the disabled, and free with a transfer from a Metrobus or another Circulator bus.
Old Town Trolley, Tourmobile and Open-Top Sightseeing
These popular companies offer guided tours of the sites, but are especially useful because they allow visitors to shuttle between museums and monuments, hopping on and off whenever the mood strikes once a ticket has been purchased. Old Town Trolley (www.oldtowntrolley.com), which ventures into Georgetown, Dupont Circle and upper Northwest as well as covering the Mall, costs $28 for adults and $14 for children. Tourmobile (www.tourmobile.com) sticks to the monumental core and Arlington Cemetery, and costs $20 for adults and $10 for children. Open-Top Sightseeing (www.opentopsightseeing.com) visits most major sites with its bright red double-decker buses. Two-day tickets are $28 for adults and $14 for children.
A simple piece of advice: Avoid driving and parking downtown. Washington's traffic is among the worst in the nation, and the congested streets, rush-hour restrictions and frequent backups are maddening enough for the folks who deal with them on a daily basis. It's hard to find street parking near the Mall -- impossible during major events -- and there are few parking garages nearby.
Some residential neighborhoods convenient to hotels (Woodley Park, Georgetown, Foggy Bottom) have street parking without meters, but there are plenty of restrictions for nonresidents, such as a two-hour limit between 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Most allow unlimited parking on weekends, though.
If you're driving to Washington from outside the area, you can park at terminal Metro stations, where parking is free on weekends. Vienna, Shady Grove, Greenbelt and New Carrollton all have large lots. Parking during the week, though, requires the use of a SmarTrip card, which you can buy inside the station.
Getting To and From the Airports
All three local airports -- Washington Dulles International, Ronald Reagan Washington National and Baltimore/Washington International -- can be reached by public transportation, taxi or private shuttle services. Reagan National is on Metro's Blue and Yellow lines, and BWI is serviced by Amtrak and commuter trains that leave from at Union Station. Metro runs a special shuttle to Dulles from the L'Enfant Plaza and Rosslyn stations -- look for signs for bus 5A. At $3.10 one way ($3 with a SmarTrip card), it's ofter crowded, but still a bargain. The private Washington Flyer company runs a luxury bus shuttle between Dulles and the West Falls Church station, located on the Orange Line. It costs $10 one way, or $18 round trip.
The hub for Amtrak service, Union Station is located on Capitol Hill, a stone's throw from the Capitol, and connects directly to Metro's Red Line. If you want to take a day trip to Baltimore Monday through Friday, look for the MARC commuter trains.