The SmarTrip dispenser is off to the side of the paper fare card vending machines. (Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)

Infrequent visitors to the nation’s capital frequently discover they don’t have enough money on their paper Metro fare cards to get through the station gates. They haven’t accounted for the $1 surcharge Metro imposes on each trip they take using paper instead of plastic.

The transit authority has campaigned very successfully to switch riders to SmarTrip, the blue, green and white piece of plastic about the size of a credit card. The dollar penalty imposed in 2012 is a powerful motivator.

This Cherry Blossom Festival season, out-of-towners and other occasional riders will discover a new incentive: In October, Metro cut the cost of buying the SmarTrip cards from $5 to $2, and vending machines now are located in every station.

The festival began last week, but it continues till April 13, and most of the big events are still ahead, so there’s time to buy the cards online. See the purchase page at Metro’s Web site.

Buying online saves you the trouble of finding the dispenser machine in the Metrorail station and buying the card there. It’s not the same machine as the one that sells the paper cards. The SmarTrip card dispenser looks like an immobilized R2D2, and it’s usually off to the side of the paper fare card machines.

Whether buying online or in the station, the rider pays at least $10. That’s the $2 cost of the card, plus $8 in fare value.

The most a rider will pay for one Metrorail ride with a SmarTrip card is $5.75. That’s for a long trip at rush hour. An off-peak ride from, say, Dupont Circle to the Smithsonian Metrorail station would cost $1.70 using a SmarTrip card.

Another option for visitors is to load a one-day pass onto a SmarTrip card. The pass costs $12 $14. Not every visitor is going to find that worthwhile. An off-peak ride between Arlington Cemetery and Union Station, which is about the east-west span of the tourist zone, costs $1.95 using SmarTrip. A visitor who takes a long trip just to begin sightseeing is more likely to fine the day pass economical.

Buying the pass does, at least, avoid the need to stand slack-jawed before the Metro fare chart while calculating the cost of a round trip to the nickel.

But one thing is clear: With the cost of the SmarTrip down to $2, it’s one souvenir of D.C. worth having. A rider recoups the cost on one round trip that avoids the dollar a ride surcharge.

The SmarTrip cost cut will be new to many seasonal visitors, but here are a few reminders about your transit rides.

  • Parking at Metro lots and garages is free on weekends. On weekdays, travelers need a credit card or a SmarTrip card to pay at the exits.
  • On escalators, do what the locals do. Stand to the right and walk on the left side.
  • The train car doors don’t bounce back like elevator doors. Don’t try to hold them open for friends and family. The doors are unforgiving of that. So are your fellow riders if your action winds up getting the train taken out of service.

See also
2014 National Cherry Blossom Festival highlights.
Tips for drivers, walkers, bikers and transit riders.
Helpful apps for the Cherry Blossom Festival.