By: Rachel Smith

Some people love to travel, and others find it to be a chore. As the old saw puts it, “it’s about the journey, not the destination.” In today’s travel environment, however, the journey is often the least pleasurable part of the trip. Think back to how travel was conducted 100 or 50 years ago. A century ago, you could travel to Europe aboard a luxury ocean-liner, and while it took several days, you would have comfortable accommodations and gourmet food. Fifty years ago, during the golden age of air travel, flying was fun. Seats were spacious, the food was edible, and alcohol flowed freely. Today, however, airplanes are more like flying sardine tins, and airlines are actively looking for ways to make flying less fun—unless you pay. One airline even proposed swapping out seats for reclining boards they could strap passengers to like Hannibal Lecter being wheeled around in Silence of the Lambs.

All of this is to say that if you’re flying, the travel experience is often long, frustrating, and unpleasant. The only saving grace is that flying is still much faster than the alternatives, and it’s better to spend a few hours in misery than days or even weeks trying to get to a distant locale by land or water.

My recent travel experience involved flying to Washington, D.C. to spend a few days touring the American capital and its suburbs. There is a bit of contrast between the grand public monuments of Washington and the unwelcoming nature of the massive security apparatus that keeps the place in perpetual lockdown. As someone who came to D.C. from a distant and small town where you don’t usually need an appointment even to see the mayor, Washington felt like entering an armed camp.

Everywhere there are security guards, many armed with rifles, and all of the access points to buildings are tightly controlled. Perhaps the most symbolic situation I encountered was at the Library of Congress, a temple to wisdom and knowledge. The gorgeous nineteenth century building has a massive formal entrance, but no one is allowed to use it. It’s locked and barred, and visitors are channeled around to what looks like a former servants’ or tradesmen’s entrance, where the access point can be more tightly controlled. (It is also more accessible for the disabled, so there are upsides to the change, too.) It’s hard though not to be struck by the symbolism of closing off the grand public entrances and forcing citizens to enter by side doors and back doors so they can cram more metal detectors into the entrances.

Across the street from the Library is the U.S. Capitol. When I first visited the building as a kid twenty years ago, I can remember having the run of the place and being allowed to walk up the front steps and directly into the rotunda. Everything is much different today. Visitors must now enter through an underground visitor’s center, and access to the seat of American democracy is now highly restricted and tightly controlled.

On the plus side, however, once you get away from the government buildings at the center of town, the city becomes more pleasant and friendlier, at least in the popular tourist areas. The Smithsonian is relatively open and easier to get into, and the new museum dedicated to the African American experience is a stunning addition to the National Mall. The Washington metro makes it easy to get around to important places without a car, and visitors will find that Georgetown has a small-town vibe in a big city setting. It’s a pleasant place to spend an afternoon shopping and wandering about.

So, if you’re willing to put up with a little extra security and some long lines, Washington can still be a great place to visit, but the farther you get off the beaten path, the more fun you’re likely to have.

About the Author:

Rachel Smith is a freelance academic writer of service. She enjoys helping college students with writing essays on traveling and other topics.