They are easy to spot -- wearing backpacks and sneakers, traveling in teams with strollers and small children, leaning into the left lane on the escalator or looking around hesitantly when train doors open and a rush-hour crowd stampedes past.

These tourists are the rookies of the rail system, and during the summer, 5 million to 6 million of them share the trains with commuting professionals.

For visitors to Washington who come from freeway-reliant reaches of Middle America, riding the Metro can be an attraction in itself. But a few trips riding the rails in their comfortable shoes show that the experience can be more than a little bewildering, too.

"We come from a little town, so this is pretty neat," said Teri George, 51, of Mount Vernon, Mo., while her two young grandsons raced up and down the platform at the Smithsonian Station. They were headed to the National Museum of Natural History to see the hissing cockroaches.

But since getting into town three days earlier, they'd had plenty of mishaps. With no public transportation experience, George said, "we didn't know what we were supposed to do."

The first challenge was simply buying a Farecard.

"That ticket machine is awful," she said. "We finally figured it out by just pushing all the buttons."

Many visitors have echoed that complaint after spending several minutes in front of a machine with a SmarTrip pass option, a credit card reader and a Farecard value window staring back at them. They were also perplexed by the menu of prices per station, rather than a fixed price, like on the New York subway system.

The next challenge was getting onto the right train.

"We knew we had to be on Blue," George said. But for their first trip, she did not know which side of the platform they needed, and they ended up on the wrong train. She found the narrow signs listing station names confusing, she said, and the often muffled announcements did little to help her feel confident about the direction she was going.

Donna Beneteau, 59, who traveled to Washington from Cary, N.C., with a friend, said the signs weren't always helpful when she was leaving the stations. Rather than listing street names she had never heard of, she said, it would be better if there were more arrows pointing to nearby attractions.

After a while, she gave up on the signs altogether and just started asking people for help.

"What we've been trying to do," she explained, "is find anyone we can without these books," indicating the tourist pamphlets with the Metro map printed inside that were in the hands of almost everyone exiting the train at the Smithsonian Station.

At Metro Center, another family went on a scavenger hunt last week, trying to follow signs just to get aboveground.

"Which way is the exit?" asked a stressed Rene Silver, 50, on her first day in town on vacation from Brazil with her husband and teenage daughter and son. "How do you get out of the building?"

They got off the train on the lower platform and went up the escalator only to find another train platform and no major exit signs. They spotted an elevator, thinking that might take them out of the station, before they noticed some clues in small white lettering on the brown pillars pointing to an exit.

Metro officials said they are aware of the challenges tourists deal with as they try to navigate the system.

Chris Zimmerman, a Metro board representative from Arlington, said the small signs reflect the "minimalist aesthetic" that was popular when the stations were designed more than 30 years ago and aren't necessarily user-friendly.

"We still have a long way to go to be accessible to people who aren't natives and who aren't necessarily going to the same places," Zimmerman said.

Dan Tangherlini, director of transportation for the District and a recent Metro board appointee, said the problem extends citywide, beyond Metro.

"Traditionally, we've approached this with this assumption that everyone already knows how to find their way around," he said. Or it's as if "we are trying to fool invading parties -- not let them know where they are going."

He said the city could experience a large return in revenue if it could direct tourists more effectively to different attractions in other neighborhoods, so they don't spend all their time in free museums.

"In order to do that, we need to show them how to get off the Mall," he said.

Zimmerman and Tangherlini said improvements are in the works. Last year, Metro started testing new signs at the Gallery Place-Chinatown Station, a busy transfer point that gets lots of tourist traffic. Officials set up more illuminated signs and posted horizontal signs overhead, similar to those found at airports. They hope to install more signs, which have been well received by riders they surveyed, systemwide. But so far, Metro hasn't dedicated money for the improvements.

Despite some confusing rides, many visitors said riding public transportation is a worthwhile adventure.

"I love it," said Leslie Fraser, 30, in town from Fresno, Calif., where she said she's usually stuck in her car. With a camera around her neck and her Frommer's guide opened to the Metro map, she easily found a Dupont Circle-bound train.

"I wish they had these all over the place," she said.

With no "Spy Museum" sign to guide them, the Strellas from Chicago -- Sabrina, Sue and Steve -- try to plot their path from the Gallery Place-Chinatown Station.

At the Chinatown Metro stop, Vennie Burns of Forth Worth gets directions from stationmaster Terrence King.Sure you can pay with a credit card, but how do you know what you're buying? Metro's machines and distance-based fares can confound visitors.