Many cities tempt the historian or patriot or citizen within you. New York City is an international destination which invites residents of the world to peek inside the headquarters of the United Nations.
As you approach the complex, the semi-circle of diverse flags flap and sway in the constant stream of cabs, commercial and private vehicles and dignitary transports sporting a single flag.
How many countries can you identify by their flags (without the help of an outside source)? My own knowledge was tested and fell short.
Touring the UN Headquarters requires a ticket. Tickets are available online ($20 plus a $4 processing fee).
Most people assume purchasing tickets in advance simplifies the process. One less line to wait in at the point of interest. Right?
And in the spirit of bureaucratic failure everywhere, the United Nations makes purchasing tickets simple but understanding the process for admission complex.
Mr. Native NewYorker planned a complex itinerary for our five-day visit to the city (and we were beyond thankful he did this). He purchased tickets online and in advance for the Empire State Building and the UN Building. In fact these were the ONLY tickets he purchased in advance.
The Empire State tour went off without a problem. The UN? Anything associated with the government should have been suspect, I guess.
The morning of our scheduled and pre-paid tour, we rode the subway to a station a few blocks away. Our guide works in a building not far from the world peace organization, so he showed us his office and introduced us to his co-workers. When we finished that, we had more than an hour until our tour time and were only a few blocks away.
No problem. There are plenty of things to see in New York City.
The walk toward the UN Headquarters takes you past several embassies and a number of international hotels. Cars flying foreign flags and black SUV’s with even blacker windows swept past on the street.
A guarded entrance at one end is clearly marked for delegates. The passes we had told us the cross street where we could find our entrance, which was also guarded. We hadn’t expected less.
As we walked, we quizzed each other about the different flags. Some we knew easily. Several we speculated about. Mostly we felt under-educated about these symbolic representations of diverse cultures who understood the importance of working together in our ever-shrinking global community.
That’s when a group of tourists rushed away from the marked visitor’s entrance.
As we speculated about our own passes, a man crossed the street and informed us, “You have to get actual tickets from the office over there.” He pointed to a nondescript brick building with large blue signs screwed to a few of its walls. “Only one of your group has to check in.”
Ah, check-in. No problem. We still had nearly twenty minutes until our tour time.
Except the line wrapped around the block. And a person about twenty individuals back had a 10:15 tour time and had been standing in line since that time.
A sign we had to search out said people who purchased tickets and had assigned tour times should move to the head of the line. Except…the number of people who fit this bill stretched nearly to the corner.
In the fifteen minutes we searched for a way to make our tour appointment, exactly TWO people emerged from the building with tickets in hand (and ID bracelets for all members of their groups). If the line moved, I didn’t notice.
And the guard at the door was both unsympathetic and unwavering.
Our prepaid tickets might have funded his paycheck, but he wasn’t moved by our plight.
Advice for the UN Website Designers
Our native guide was furious, but that didn’t stop him from wadding up the worthless paper our non-tickets were printed on and dropping them into the nearest trash can.
Nor did it get us inside the United Nations Headquarters.
We have a little advice for whoever decided to join the digital age and pre-sell “tickets” for this tourist stop.
- If you sell vouchers for actual tickets, this should be clearly stated on the non-tickets
- Important information, such as arriving an hour before your tour time and the process for redeeming vouchers for tickets should be in bold print at the top of the vouchers
- An address and a name for the office where you need to report should be included (rather than the vague cross-streets and “across from the entrance” verbiage used on our worthless non-tickets)
- Lines for redeeming vouchers should be clearly marked at the ticketing office
- In fact, an external booth clearly marked “Redeem your tour vouchers here” would be expedient (and yes, you can take pictures there and tie it into criminal databases; even Disneyland uses cameras at their entrance now)
- A helpful person should man the doorway
Seriously, the world is a disappointing place. The UN is a symbol of hope. Attempting to tour it should not provoke native New Yorkers toward violence.
These small steps would smooth the process and alleviate the influx of frustrated people who paid money to support world peace only to be shoved toward an emotional outburst that could lead to something quite contrary.
This Doesn’t Have to Happen to You
It isn’t impossible to find the office – IF you know you need to look for it.
The most frustrating part for us was that we were early enough to have made our tour. We bought coffee and traversed the opposite side of the street on the end away from the entrance looking for the perfect photo spot to get a shot of as many flags as possible.
Then we went to find the entrance. And learned the passes we had paid for didn’t admit us.
And the line we needed to stand in moved slower than sleeping slugs and included people with tour reservations for 45 minutes earlier than ours (and they wouldn’t be able to go back in time to make that appointment).
Things you need to know if you want to tour the UN:
- Read the fine print
- Arrive an hour early (this is in the fine print)
- Have identification and your tickets ready
- Find the not-so-clearly-marked Visitor’s Information Center (it’s across the street from the Visitor’s entrance but is in a plain and not well-marked office).
- Plan to stand in line to get “actual” tickets for your scheduled tour time
Everyone deserves to see the headquarters of this organization with a mission for world peace.
Have you been to the UN Headquarters? What was the best part of the tour? Share your recommendations in the comments.