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Friday, May 2, 2008

Visiting Washington D.C. (Part 2)

To continue my guide to Washington, D.C. for the frugal traveler, I thought I would list some very basic tips for getting around D.C.

The Metro
I am a huge fan of the Metro system in D.C. Sure, it has it's problems, and for a while, I was cursing the red line daily, but all in all, it's a great way to get around. But I do have a few tips for using the Metro.

First - D.C. residents know this quite well, but when using the escalators at the Metro, you should stand right and walk left. If you want a leisurely ride down, stand on the right. Don't block those in a hurry and stand on the left or in the middle. It sounds silly, but I think this is one of the biggest pet peeves locals have about tourists. Along those lines, don't cluster at the bottom of the escalator either. I thought that was common sense, but last week, I careened into a group of tourists when I got to the end of the escalator.

The Metro will be the most crowded and the most expensive during rush hour. That's right - the regular rates are only during rush hour. Metro charges a "reduced rate" the rest of the time - including on the weekends and federal holidays. If you really want to save money, you might want to check out the fare schedule on the Metro website and figure out when you want to ride, but if you just want to avoid the crowds, I would recommend not leaving your hotel until around 9, and avoiding the metro from 5-6ish in the afternoon. Of course, your mileage may vary, but in my experience, those are the times when the metro is the busiest, meaning that you might get packed in. Of course, if you don't care about being pressed up against strangers, by all means, go for it. It can be a little bit intimidating for small children, however, if they're forced to stand on a very crowded metro train. Don't expect anyone to give up their seat for you either. If you have a physical need for a seat, don't be afraid to ask, of course.

You can pick up a free Metro map at any station, but I would also recommend getting a D.C. map with the metro stations marked on it. The Metro map is absolutely not to scale, and frequently, it can be just as easy to walk as to ride the Metro. And walking is free. I have seen a number of tourists get on the metro and ride two stops to get somewhere when they could have simply walked four or five blocks and passed a number of attractions on the way. You're always welcome to ride, but if you're looking to save money and it's a nice day, why not walk and see the sights while you do so?

D.C. also has a bus system that I admit I am not too familiar with. It can also be a good way to get around, but I find the Metro much simpler. Additionally, while the Metro can get off schedule, I have found that the busses are even much more so, simply due to the unpredictability of traffic patterns. The one site that comes to mind as not being accessible by Metro is the National Cathedral. It's a beautiful site, and worth the visit, but you will either have to take a cab, drive, or take a bus. You can walk it, but it's a hike.

You can buy Metro passes at any station, and the machines will take both cash and credit cards. You can also buy day passes, but unless you plan to do a significant amount of traveling, I think it's easier to just pay per trip.

You will need a separate pass for every traveler - you can't just put a lot of money on one pass and then share it among your group. You need to insert your pass both to enter and to exit the metro (as you are charged by your trip, not by a flat rate), so sharing won't work. Additionally, that means that when you get to your destination, you will need your pass again, so don't put it safely away at the very bottom of your bag while you're riding. Wait until after you leave the station.

The Circulator
The Circulator is sort of an extension of the metro system. It is a bus, much cleaner than most Metro busses I've been on, that goes to a few specific places. I find that it's a great way to get to Georgetown, for example. It costs $1 to ride. Might be worth checking out before your trip.

The Blue Signs
D.C. is a tourist city. And to help the tourists get around, on many street corners around the "touristy" areas of the city, you will see blue signs with arrows pointing you towards various attractions and towards the nearest Metro stops. Not only is this a great way to help you get around on foot, but it can help you figure out where you are and compare to your map.

Most importantly, if you get turned around, don't be afraid to look for a friendly looking person and ask for directions. You might get blown off, but I'd say most people are pretty nice about those sorts of things. A lot of people in the city didn't grow up here, so we were all newcomers at some point.

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