The general consensus on Washington interns is that they’re clueless at best, a scourge at worst. It’s not your fault, interns (mostly). You’re just new people in a new town, and no one’s given you a handbook on how not to be.
No orientation you’re scheduled for is going to give you the following tips. You can find out where to get a drink from a laundry list of Washington blogs and publications, but who’s going to tell you there’s no J Street? My name is Jazelle. Right now I’m an intern, too, except I’ve been in DC since 2005 and I’ve learned a few things. You don’t have that kind of time, so let me save you the trouble. First things first.
Get A SmarTrip Card and Pay Attention to Metro Etiquette
Your best bet for transportation is of course the Metro system, both bus and rail, which takes you around town and beyond (there’s even a bus to Dulles Airport for $6—beat that, Super Shuttle). While the Metrobus system takes more familiarity to navigate, it’s not only cheaper than Metrorail, but there’s also a bus-to-rail discount if you use a SmarTrip card.
Get a SmarTrip, even if you’ll be here only a few months. This sturdy plastic card is essential to commuting: It’s cheaper than using paper farecards or cash, you can register it so you get your money back if you break or lose it, and it gives you access to almost all of the area’s transit systems. You can buy it at stations with parking garages, online, and even at your local CVS. By the way, if you put your SmarTrip on the outside of your wallet, it’ll scan right through, which will also help you avoid holding up the fare-gate line (a big no-no).
If you’re still using the paper version, remember to keep your farecard away from your cell phone, or it will demagnetize and you’ll lose whatever money you put on it. If you want the money back, you’ll have no choice but to (a) be late to work because the station manager took a million years rustling around for the proper refund forms and (b) make time to visit the Metro Center sales office to retrieve your refund.
Speaking of being late, random Metro factoid: Unlike public transportation systems in other cities, the Metro system actually closes late at night (midnight on weekdays, 3 AM on Fridays and Saturdays—or to be technical, 3 AM on Saturday and Sunday morning). Don’t learn this the hard way after a night out or you’ll likely have to flag down a cab for an expensive ride home.
Another Metro note: As you get closer to downtown DC, the stops are often only blocks apart. Sometimes you’re better off walking. For example, if you’re going to Gallery Place and you’re on the Blue or Orange line, there’s no need to transfer to the Red at Metro Center—Gallery Place is three blocks over (and it will spare you the experience of being pressed up against people on the crowded Red Line).
The final thing I’ll say about Metro is that there are unspoken customs, which you’ll learn over time. Ride the escalator on the right (if it’s working at all); walk on the left. Wait until all the SmarTrip passengers get on the bus first if you’re paying with a handful of couch-cushion coins (so you don’t hold up the line, and thus the driver who’s running on a schedule). Do as the Washingtonians do until it all becomes second nature.
Taxis: Keep Your Destination a Secret Until the Meter Starts
Taxis in this city can be annoying. If you live in Virginia or Maryland but hang out in DC, city cab drivers may be reluctant to drive you home because it’s unlawful for them to pick up passengers inside Virginia for the trip back (and vice versa: Virginia and Maryland cabs can’t pick you up in DC). Many drivers will leave you standing on the curb if you tell them you’re crossing state lines, despite the fact that it’s against the law for them to refuse to take you someplace based on your destination. There are also small fees for everything. Want to use the trunk? That’s $1. Did you bring friends? Each of them is an additional $1.50. Did you call the dispatcher? That’s $2, please. This is on top of the $3 base price, the current (though temporary) $1 gas surcharge, and whatever cost you rack up at 25 cents per one-sixth of a mile. And did you know that taxi drivers rely on tips?
Next: Traveling without Metro, having fun, penny-pinching and more helpful tips