I've been to my fair share of countries and I try to be pretty understanding in areas of tourism and safety, but never before have I had to wrestle with such frustrations to visit a nation's historical sights as I've had to wrestle with my own country. I've always felt sorry for international visitors when it came time for US customs forms on the plane. The announcement of which form they need from which originating country, and how the specific visa they hold corresponds to which line at the airport is always downright embarrassing. But now, my pity extends beyond the airport gate, because trying to piece together a holiday to the historical East Coast of the United States is proving to be far more complicated than necessary.
Did you know there is a website called recreation.gov? (I'm not entirely comfortable that I gave them all my information, either.) However, not all national US sites use that website. Some opt to use privately-operated Ticketmaster, and yes, they tack on that lovely service charge with each ticket. Oh sure, seeing our national documents and historical landmarks is officially free, just like other countries, but if they can find a way to sneak a fee in there, they have. The Statue of Liberty is a great example. The monument itself has no admission attached to it, but if you want access the only boat that will take you to the island, you have to pay at least $12 per person. It's going to cost us $36 to see a "free" monument.
There is also a fee attached to reserve a time slot to skip lines, something other countries do for free, and paying that fee is about as easy as paying your taxes. There are some sites whose wording on the matter is so confusing, I'm still not exactly sure what I've paid for, if I didn't give up altogether. Further reading of the fine print reveals that some of these "reservations" require you to pick up your tickets an hour before your visit, thereby negating the entire need for a reservation in the first place.
I suppose I should be grateful for the option to make a "reservation". During summer's high season, visitors are required to visit the individual ticket offices of each site early the morning of the day they wish to visit and hope to get one of that day's first come/first serve tickets or risk not gaining access at all. To me, time is money when you travel, and the idea of running around to every site's ticket desk before having to return later in the day is asking too much. Our other option, of course, is to just go with the flow and take our chances getting tickets when we arrive, but I'm just not that kind of traveler. If I've flown thousands of miles to see the Declaration of Independence, I'm going to guarantee that I'm going to see the Declaration of Independence. Otherwise, what is the point?
Now that we've managed to get this far, we then learn that, reservations or not, there are several security checkpoints per site that cannot be skipped at all. Forget that sigh of relief as I slip my shoes back on after having gone through TSA at the airport; it seems metal detectors are going to be a major component of this trip. Some sites have a separate security checkpoint on each floor! We're going to have to figure out how to carry our day's supplies without using our trusty backpack (they're not allowed), and we'll probably glow in the dark from all the radiation exposure by the time we get back home.
Part of me is upset at the sad state of the world that we feel we need this much red tape and protection around our national monuments. But another part of me is specifically upset at America, because I can't help but compare it to other countries, especially England. Despite being in a country that has been bombed far more than we have, I can walk through a single set of doors at the British Museum, drop my few pounds easily into the large donation box without skipping a beat, and be standing in front of the Rosetta Stone or the frieze of the Parthenon within a few minutes. If the English - with their reputation for impressively long queues and pissing people off throughout history far longer than we have - can house some of the world's most incredible historical artifacts - some of which are still considered stolen - without exorbitant fees, queues and red tape and having your day bag inspected every five minutes, why can't we?
Could it be our cultural difference in expectation of personal responsibility? Food for thought.