Washington's Metrorail system is clean and safe. Crimes against passengers are extremely rare even late at night. The system closes at midnight except on Friday and Saturday when it is open until 3 am.
Travel on the Metrorail system requires a magnetically encoded farecard. Farecards are purchased from a vending machine at the entrance of each station. The station attendant in the glass booth does not sell farecards or make change.
There are two kinds of farecard vending machines. The ones marked "Farecards" sell single farecards for cash only. The ones marked "Passes/Farecards" accept cash and credit cards, and sell passes and single or multiple farecards. Not every station has a "Passes/Farecards" machine, so don't count 100% on being able to pay with a credit card, you might need a few dollars in cash depending on where you board.
Metrorail fares vary according to time of day and distance traveled. If you are making a single trip you can consult the chart at each station to determine the fare for the station you wish to travel to and buy a farecard for that exact amount. Fares are higher during peak usage periods, which are from 5:30 to 9:30 am and 3:00 to 7:00 pm on weekdays.
To buy a farecard, insert your money in the machine and push the + or - keys to increase or decrease the value of the card that you want to buy. Then hit the "push for farecard" button. Change will be returned at the bottom of the machine, up to a maximum of $4.95 in coins. If you are making a round trip, buy a farecard with twice the fare and use it for the return trip also. Alternately, if you will use the system for multiple trips you can buy a farecard for a few dollars more than the exact fare and use it until its value is depleted. Regular commuters often buy a card for up to $40 and use it repeatedly until the value is depleted, but this is not recommended for short term visitors to the city since the odds are that you will not use all of the farecard value before you return home. A low value farecard can be traded in for credit toward the purchase of a new farecard, insert the card in the "trade used farecard" slot before you put your money in the machine.
Upon entering the Metro system, run your farecard through the entry turnstyle. This marks the magnetic stripe with your point of origin and time of day. KEEP YOUR FARECARD, you will need it to exit the system when you reach your destination. At the exit turnstyle your fare will be calculated and deducted from the value of your farecard. If the farecard has any value remaining it will be returned to you with the new value printed on the card and on the magnetic stripe. If your farecard is for the exact fare and has no remaining value the turnstyle will not return it to you. (People who have been to Paris will understand the reason for that policy.) If your card does not have enough value to pay the calculated fare it will be rejected by the turnstyle, in which case you look for a nearby machine marked "Exit Fare". Put your farecard in the machine and it will tell you how much money you must add to your card in order to exit the station.
If you need to catch a bus to get to your final destination, look for a bus transfer machine before you board the train (transfers must be from a different station than the one where you board the bus). Transfers may or may not be accepted by suburban bus systems outside of the District of Columbia, transfer rules tend to be complicated.
A One Day Pass can be bought for $6. This is valid for one day of unlimited Metrorail travel on weekdays after 9:30 a.m. or all day on Saturdays, Sundays or federal holidays. The pass expires at the end of the operating day, 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, midnight on other nights. Metrorail passes are gate-activated. The turnstyle activates the pass the first time it is used and prints the last valid date on the pass. (AMSAT is looking at the possibility of selling these passes at the meeting, stay tuned.)
Pick up a system map from the information rack if you didn't get one at the hotel. Trains are color coded according to destination, you may have to wait for a particular color train to come by instead of just boarding the first train that arrives in the station. Some Metro stations have complicated layouts which may defy your normal sense of direction. In some stations the trains move through the center of the platform. If you find yourself on the wrong side of the tracks you will not be able to board the train that goes in the right direction, in which case you will have to use the stairs or escalators to cross over or under the tracks to get to the opposite side of the platform. Each train is identified by the name of the last station that it is heading toward at the end of the line. Thus the Orange Line train to New Carrollton is moving east toward the New Carrollton station in Maryland, while the Orange Line train to Vienna is moving west toward the Vienna station in Virginia. Study the map before boarding the trains or you may end up going in the wrong direction. If you miss the signs on the train, a voice announcement will tell you the train color and direction just before the doors close.
Certain stations, such as Metro Center and Rosslyn, are designated as "Transfer Points" where you can switch from one color train to another. As an example, if you arrive at Dulles Airport the bus will take you to the West Falls Church metro station on the Orange Line. You will look for the Orange Line train heading to the New Carrollton station. The Orange Line train to Vienna is going in the wrong direction. Metro's suggested route is to take this train to the Rosslyn station, get off at Rosslyn and walk downstairs to the Blue Line train traveling to Franconia-Springfield. Take this train to the Crystal City station which is one block from the hotel meeting location. Unofficial tip: if you are carrying heavy luggage, stay on the Orange Line for one more stop and get off at Foggy Bottom, then you can transfer to the Blue Line by walking a few feet across the platform instead of lugging your bags down an escalator as required at Rosslyn station.
It is important to remember that eating and drinking are strictly forbidden on the trains and in the stations. Transit police will ticket you if you are seen eating or drinking. There are no public toilets in the Metro although the station attendant has the authority to allow you to use the employees restroom if there is an extreme emergency.
The Metrorail system was built with handicapped accessiblity in mind, each station has an elevator system for wheelchair users to go from street level to the train platform.
Metro stations have detailed map displays of the immediate neighborhood around each station.
Some people think that staring down the tunnel in the direction of the oncoming train will cause it to arrive sooner. The lights on the station platform will start flashing just before the train arrives, but if your high frequency hearing is still good you can tell one is coming when the rails start singing.
Upon leaving the Crystal City Metro station, it is possible to reach the Crowne Plaza Hotel without going outside. At the end of the first escalator, turn right and enter the Crystal City Underground entrance. Consult the maps to find the Crowne Plaza Hotel without getting lost in the maze of corridors. The underground route does contain some steps and is therefore not wheelchair accessible.
An easier and shorter way to reach the hotel is to take the second Metro escalator all the way to the surface. At the top of the escalator, make a 270 degree left turn, past the newspaper vending boxes, and walk along South Clark Place under the pillars of the Crystal Square 5 building. The Crowne Plaza Hotel is one block north of the Metro station on 15th street. (There is apparently no 16th or 17th street, so 15th street is one block north of 18th street. Go figure....)