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How to Navigate the Bus System in Washington, DC

Updated on December 7, 2014
View of the Capitol Building through a Metrobus window.  You can't see this from the train!
View of the Capitol Building through a Metrobus window. You can't see this from the train! | Source

Why the Bus?

Many of you have been directed here from my other page Washington, DC on a Budget. However, you will find that Metro Bus is the very best way to tour Washington, DC regardless of monetary concerns. One of the biggest advantages of the bus is that you can see everything, and get on and off the bus as you please. I have discovered some of DC's best gardens, museums, etc. by simply riding around on the bus. If you will not have access to a car, using the bus system in DC will also give you access to lodging and various city sites that are either not accessible by Metrorail or require an arduous walk after getting off the train. There are two main bus lines in DC, and several that operate in nearby Virginia and Maryland.

Preparing For Your Trip to Washington, DC

If you plan to travel around Washington, DC and the surrounding areas by bus there are a few things that you should keep in mind. Don't give up on a hotel because it is not near a Metro station! Most visitors I have spoken to relied solely on the Metrorail and spent a lot more money for their hotel than was necessary. When I travel to other cities I use the bus to get around (I really like being able to see everything). The first step for me in planning a trip is finding a hotel that I am willing to sleep in that won't break the budget. I find the hotel first, then explore mass transit options to get to meetings, to go sight-seeing, etc. You could very easily save $30-$50 per night by taking this approach with your visit to Washington, DC.

Jefferson Memorial

Jefferson Memorial through the cherry blossoms on the Tidal Basin.
Jefferson Memorial through the cherry blossoms on the Tidal Basin. | Source

Get a SmarTrip Card!

You can purchase Smartrip cards at Metro stations or at certain retailers such as CVS and Giant. You can find a retailer that sells SmarTrip cards near your hotel here. The card costs $2, you can then add as much value to the card as you wish. Once you have a card it is very easy to add value either at a Metro station or on the bus so you want to be careful not to add too much value when you first purchase the card. You will save a significant amount of money by using a SmarTrip card rather than cash, and it opens up free and discounted transfers between trains and buses.

Washington, DC Metrobus

Metrobus is the main bus carrier and covers not only Washington, DC but also parts of Maryland and Virginia. Bus trips are less expensive than Metrorail, the fare for the bus is $1.75 (.85 cents for Seniors and the disabled). Please note that if you are using cash you must have exact fare or overpay as there is no change available. There are also free transfers from bus to bus for up to two hours. In order to take advantage of the free transfers, you must use a SmarTrip card. Up to two children under the age of five per adult travel free on the bus. You can also take advantage of the weekly pass option, available only with a SmarTrip card. The weekly pass is $17.50 and includes unlimited riding on Metrobus, the DC Circulator, and some of the buses in Maryland and Virginia (these bus lines are described below). For a longer visit to DC this option may save you money. It is the equivalent of 10 regular fares and so if you will be in DC for five days or more, or plan to take a lot of bus trips during your visit, you can save a lot of money with this option.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

The MLK Memorial.
The MLK Memorial. | Source

Washington, DC Circulator Bus

The DC Circulator is a series of bus lines that run through Washington, DC (one line travels across the bridge to Rosslyn, VA). The Circulator costs only $1.00 each way, and is included in the transfer system connected with Metrobus (again, you must use a SmarTrip card to take advantage of free transfers). A transfer from Metrobus to the Circulator is free, if you start on the Circulator and switch to Metrobus you will be charged the .75 cents difference between the fares for the two lines. The Circulator comes in especially handy if you are staying in or visiting Georgetown, as that neighborhood does not have its own rail station.


Virginia bus lines near Washington, DC that honor SmarTrip

Arlington Transit (ART) - Smartrip cards can be used on ART buses, which run primarily to Metrorail Stations (all Metro stations also contain bus stops for transfers). These buses come in handy as you can often find much cheaper rates on hotels outside of DC. For the budget traveler, it may well be worth getting a nicer hotel, or one you can afford that is still only a short trip into DC.

CUE (City-University-Energysaver) - CUE buses run in Fairfax, VA and will serve primarily visitors who are near DC to visit George Mason University.

DASH (Driving Alexandria Safely Home) - DASH buses are some of the more under-utilized by visitors to DC in my opinion. Hotels in Alexandria are much cheaper than in DC, and the city of Alexandria is beautiful and a destination in and of itself.

Fairfax Connector - With many more lines than the CUE bus, the Fairfax connector provides a viable option for visitors coming into DC from Fairfax County (where you will also find much cheaper hotel rates than in Washington, DC).

Maryland bus lines near Washington, DC that honor SmarTrip

Ride On - The Ride On bus system covers Montgomery County, many parts of which are a very short trip to DC. You will find hotels with all types of star ratings and prices in Montgomery County, almost all cheaper than staying in Washington, DC.

The Bus - The Bus operates in Prince George's County, parts of which are also very close to Washington, DC. Lines run mostly from one Metro Station to another, but you may be able to find a hotel along one of these lines and simply transfer at the Metrorail stop to get into DC. Please be aware though that these buses run only on weekdays.

Use Nextbus to plan your trips

One of my favorite phone apps is Nextbus as it relies on the GPS location of the bus you are waiting for and so is much more reliable than a bus schedule. Nextbus will let you know when the bus is arriving, the location of the bus stop, and how far away you are. Imagine being able to relax in your hotel room or lobby until a few minutes before the bus is going to arrive rather than standing outside!

© 2014 SusanPlant

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