How to Ride the Metro in Washington, DC

Everything You Need to Know about Using the Metro System in Washington, DC with Kids

We’re answering the most important questions about how to ride the Metro system in Washington, DC as a family. It’s an integral part of an successful trip to the city and is a simple system to learn.

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The Washington, DC Metro system IS NOT a 24/7 subway system, but is almost always open and is used by many commuters during the weekday. When traveling with kids, you want to be aware of the peak hours and try to use the Metro during non-peak hours or near the beginning or end of the peak times to avoid large crowds. Traveling during non-peak hours will also save you a little bit of money.

Operating Hours:
Monday – Thursday: 5 am – midnight
Friday: 5 am – 1 am
Saturday: 7 am – 1 am
Sunday: 7 am – midnight
*Operating hours can change for special events and you can check the Metro’s website for service alerts about construction, station closings, etc. that affects the schedule.

Peak Hours: Weekdays opening – 9 am and 3 pm – 7 pm
There are no peak hours on weekends.

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Your fare will vary depending on how far you are traveling and if you are using the system during peak or non-peak hours. You can calculate your fare using the Metro’s Trip Planner.

New SmartTrip cards cost $10 and come automatically loaded with $8 of fare. You can use cash or credit card to buy them using the vending machines at any Metro station or you can buy SmartTrip cards online. One and three-day unlimited passes are also available.

Anyone aged 5 years or older needs a SmartTrip card. Up to two children under the age of 5 travel for free with a paying adult. Seniors/Disabled ride for up to 50% off of the Peak Hours price if they have a Reduced Fare or Senior SmartTrip Card. These are not available from the regular SmartTrip vending machines though, so you’ll want to check out that link for more information.

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Strollers are welcome in the Metro Stations and on the Metro trains but are easiest to use during non-peak hours. Only use the escalator to access the Metro Station if your child is not in the stroller, otherwise, use the elevator. The elevator entrance is not always right next to the escalators, so use signs to locate them or use our Ultimate Family Map of Washington, DC which lists all of the elevator locations for each Metro station.

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Metro stations and trains are air-conditioned and can be a welcome reprieve from the summer heat! They also have huge fans set up during the summer that my kids like to use for a quick cool down. 😂

Fans in Washington, DC Metro station
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From the Metro FAQs page, “Service animals that assist people with disabilities are the only animals permitted to ride unconfined on Metrorail and Metrobus. However, a pet may be transported on Metrorail and Metrobus, provided it is carried aboard in a secure container from which it cannot escape.”

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If you plan to park at a Metro station and ride in, be aware that they fill up very quickly during the weekdays. There is often additional parking from third-party vendors nearby, but not always, so plan accordingly. You will use your SmartTrip card to pay for your parking when you leave the Metro parking garage.

Parking on weekends and federal holidays is FREE.

Where does the DC Metro Stop?

The Metro has six color-coded rail lines that can take you to sites throughout Washington, DC area. The layout makes it possible to travel between any two stations with only one transfer.

All tourist destinations in Washington, DC publish the closest Metro station to them (and other public transportation options there are). Today, we’re going to focus on the Smithsonian Metro Station as that is the one most used by tourists and families visiting DC.

The DC Metro system has 91 stations in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC. We’ve included most of the DC stations on our Ultimate Family Map of the National Mall.

The most important thing to remember when using the Metro is to catch the train on the correct color rail that is traveling in the direction you want to go, which is the same way that the DC Circulator works too. The color and final destination (the direction the bus is heading) is in LED lights on the front of every train and every station has labeled signs and pillars).

How Do You Pay for the Subway in Washington, DC?

What is the fare? Is the DC Metro free? 

Your fare varies on where and when you enter the Metro system and where and when you exit the Metro system. Calculate your fare using the Metro’s Trip Planner. It’s very easy to use and will tell you both peak and non-peak fares.

Anyone aged 5 years or older needs a SmartTrip card. Up to two children under the age of 5 travel for free with a paying adult.

How do you pay your fare?

You will need to purchase a Metro SmartTrip card and load it with money. New SmartTrip cards cost $10 and come automatically loaded with $8 of fare. You can use cash or credit card to buy them using the vending machines at any Metro station or you can buy them online. One and three day unlimited passes are also available.

If you miscalculate your fare, there are vending machines on both sides of the turnstiles so you can put more money on your card before exiting the station.

For planning purposes, it’s nice to know that IF you are transferring to the Circulator from the Metro AND using your Metro SmartTrip card to pay AND you’re making that transfer within 2 hours of leaving the Metro, the DC Circulator is free (it’s normally $1). This will be the case if you are exiting the Metro at the Smithsonian Mall Metro Station to catch the Circulator to visit the Lincoln Memorial, for example.

How often do Metro Trains run?

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The Metro trains are scheduled to come by every 10-30 minutes depending on the day and rail line color. We have found the absolute easiest way to get around DC using public transportation is by using the Citymapper app (pictured above showing our route using the DC Circulator and Metro). It’s free and gives you step-by-step instructions and tracks the next bus/train/etc in real-time.

Written by: Caroline M. Harper
I create fun interactive virtual tours and escape rooms for kids by curating the best stories and facts that spark their curiosity. I started the Field Trip Club in 2011 to help families make stress-free memories together.

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