Planes, Trains and Automobiles: Some Insider Tips on DC Transportation

Travel Tips — By Torie Castiello on May 12, 2010 at 11:09 pm

On the road in the DC area. Photo credit: Mr T in DC, flickr.

Those of us who grew up in DC take certain things for granted when it comes to understanding the city’s transportation system. From an outside perspective, though, there are definitely a few quirky (or downright confusing) details associated with getting from A to B in DC. Here’s a cheat sheet of words, phrases, tips and hints to help you navigate the city and its surroundings like a native.

The Washington area is served by three airports: Washington Dulles International Airport, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Those are the long names, anyway. Locals refer to them as Dulles, National (only newbies call it “Reagan”, since it was renamed to include the former president’s name only a few years ago), and BWI.

Dulles is the city’s official international airport. It’s also well outside the city – as in about 20 miles – and not easily accessible by public transportation. You’ll need to catch a bus from either Rosslyn or West Falls Church stations, or use Super Shuttle, or take a cab.

National (Reagan) is much closer to the city, in Arlington, and a lot easier to get to if you don’t have a car. It’s on the Metro (yellow line), which is extremely handy. Of course, if you’re flying to or from anywhere other than the US, Canada or Mexico, you’re out of luck; National is, primarily, a domestic airport.

BWI is an option but is a real hike to downtown DC – quite a bit farther away than even Dulles, just in the opposite direction. Flights to and from here are somewhat cheaper, though. You can catch a train into town or bus it to the New Carrollton Metro station on the Orange line.

You may know them as rotaries or roundabouts, but in DC, those confusing circular intersections are simply called “circles”. Some contain traffic lights to guide the uninitiated; others are a veritable free-for-all, with cars merging and diverging at alarming speed. Your best bet is to take it slow and do an extra loop if you miss your exit the first time around; the locals might not like you but your blood pressure will thank you.

As you’ve gathered, we don’t call our underground rail system the “subway” – ever. It’s always referred to as the Metro, and while Washingtonians tend to gripe about it, it generally gets the job done (in the downtown area, anyway) and is nearly always clean and well-lit. Don’t assume that Metro maps are anywhere close to being to scale, though!

DC’s main highway is also a term often used when loosely describing the city and its culture, particularly when it comes to politics (if you ever watched “The West Wing” back in the day, you’ll know what I mean). The real Beltway circles the city and its immediate suburbs, and is often the quickest way to get from one place or another, assuming it’s not rush hour (when all bets are off). Beltway drivers are aggressive, so map your route before getting on the road. Take solace in the fact, though, that even those of us who were born and raised here can easily get turned around (I still get confused between the “Inner Loop” and the “Outer Loop”).