For nearly thirty years, Rick Steves, the American traveler guru of the European scene, has been chronicling the continent’s best valued hotels, great art, undiscovered cultures, and tasty cuisine; the restaurants’ better pleasures; the letdowns to avoid; currency know-how’s—all the things he’s learned while experiencing life on the road.
To travel is exciting. Not too many people would argue with that, but it can be disappointing if you don’t have a good guide to help you plan anticipated trips and ensure the greater pleasures of traveling. At the core of Steves’ being, there lies this main preoccupation—to experience first that which is to be explored, so that he can guide others on how to travel well, and not make the same mistakes he made as a rookie traveler years ago.
In his newly released book, “Travel as a Political Act,” which was awarded as the Book of the Year by the Society of American Travel Writers, he explains how his travels have shaped his life, his politics, and broadened his perspectives as he’s connected with different people. In this book, you’ll find the storied history of his European exploration that started at the age of 14, when he accompanied his father, a piano importer, on a business trip to Europe visiting piano factories in Germany. At first, Rick Steves thought that going to Europe was a stupid idea. Why go anywhere outside of the USA? His young mind reasoned.
Before that trip, he thought he had seen everything that he wanted to see in the world. But looking back, he realizes he had really seen nothing. And that’s when his life on the road began. As an 18-year-old college student, Steves’ myopic point of view of the world began to change as he traveled to Europe on his own in the summer, funding his own trips by teaching piano lessons during the school year. World renown cities with their famous landmarks and monuments first outlined his itinerary in Europe, but he soon learned that how he took in the sights would dictate his experiences on his trips. With a journal to jot things down, Steves ventured onto an unknown land, at least to him, at his own pace. And with the sheer amount of things to see and do, traveling in Europe became part of his education—and ultimately his vocation.
Today, Rick Steves is known as one of the most respected guidebook authors in America with over 50 books to his name, a travel TV and radio host and the owner of Rick Steves’ Europe, a business he started in 1976, which has grown from a one-man operation to a company with a staff of 100 full-time, well-traveled employees based in Washington State.
On a gorgeous morning in sunny South Florida, I find Rick Steves visiting La Posada, a Kisco resort-style senior living community in Palm Beach Gardens, whose tradition is to enhance the lives of its residents by providing cultural experiences, bringing in captivating and distinguished personalities. Steves is friendly, greeting everyone at the grand door of the community center with a great smile and a firm handshake. Before we begin our chat, he decides to check out the room where he will be sharing stories with the Posada residents about his travels and offering advice on how to travel more thoughtfully to any destination. Technology is his friend, so he checks the mic and the laptop, which have been set up for him, and to his satisfaction, everything seems to be in sync.
“My name is Rick Steves and I write travel guidebooks,” he says nonchalant as we sit down to chat. And when I tell him that travel is a passion of mine and that I lived in Madrid, Spain for six years before coming to the States when I was a child, he responds with a booming smile that offers a foretaste of Steves’ many likable qualities. He’s not different from what you see on TV or hear on the radio. Direct, witty, full of words that seem to say more than said. He begins to talk about his experiences as an 18-year-old when he decided to take off to Europe. Even as a teenager, he felt confident, and soon he started to see other people making the same mistakes he had made the year before. What sort of mistakes? I ask him.
“Oh, I remember standing and changing some travelers checks in Oslo,” he says. “I had five twenty dollars travelers checks I wanted to exchange. I got my crowns and I counted them and noticed I was short fifteen dollars. I was like, what’s going on? And they said, ‘well, we’re in Norway; we charge four dollars per check, not per transaction.’ I had four fees instead of one!”
Rick Steves had four checks of twenty, instead of one check for one-hundred dollars. So, the next time he went with a check for one hundred dollars. And so, he got fifteen dollars more for his dollar to crown exchange. Now, the next time he was in Oslo, he saw a lady standing in front of him with five twenties. So, he thought, “If I had written a book and she would have read it, she would have saved herself some money.” And that is a tiny example, but there are all kinds of the same kind of things that happen to people—the kind of stuff he teaches in his travel guidebooks.
Figuring out how to make traveling better for people is what Steves does best. Like, why is Versailles so crowded on Tuesdays? Steves says that’s because it is the only thing that’s opened. So, he learned not to visit Versailles on Tuesdays. “A lot of people end up going on Tuesdays because of tour scheduling. But it is a miserable crowd, and there are ways to get around those crowds,” he says.
According to Rick Steves, there are two IQs of European travelers.
The ones who wait on lines and those who do not wait on lines. His goal is to help his travelers get around those lines. For the past thirty years, Steves has been spending four months in Europe visiting the places, taking careful notes, and when he’s ripped off, he celebrates. “They don’t know who they just ripped off! And so, I am going to learn that scam and put it in my books the next time around.” Of course, I tell him that the greatest revenge is that they also get to read about it. “Yeah, that’s right!” He laughs, getting into another reason why he writes travel guidebooks. He realizes that Americans are always trying to learn smarter ways to save money. But he has to be honest with them: “Time is a very expensive commodity also.”
Arthur Frommer wrote “Traveling Europe on Five Dollars a Day,” which was Steves’ inspiration. This book is all about saving money. Steves’ first book was “Europe in 22 Days,” followed by “Britain in 22 Days,” and “France in 22 Days.” Steves’ intent was to let Americans know how to use their time smartly—cutting through the superlatives. He says he’s tired of hearing people say, “I can spend a lifetime in France.” Of course you can spend a lifetime in France, but according to him, Americans have the shortest vacations in a rich world. If you only have five days, how can you use that time? Steves tells you how. That’s what he does as a travel writer.
Now, is it safe to travel to Europe right now? I ask and Steves chuckles, as he’s been getting that same question for thirty years. When somebody tells him, “Have a safe trip!” He replies, “Have a nice stay at home.” He feels that where he’s going is safer than where you are staying. “We lose more people per capita to murders than Europeans do. And sadly, what Americans are doing is helping the terrorists do what they want to do: bring fear to our cities. So, we owe it to ourselves to not confuse fear and risk. Of course, it is scary. But, what’s the risk?”
Rick Steves takes 20,000 people to Europe every year. And while some may consider the “safety question” and everything going on over there, his ready reply is for them to consider what’s going on here. So, yes, twenty people got killed in Europe last month, he recalls. Well, there’s 400 million of them. Twenty died. What about the United States? A thousand people a month are killed on our streets.
When you travel, you get to see and experience other cultures. I lived in Madrid, so I got to do things like a temporal Spaniard. I got out and did the paseo [walking about] and went to the Tapas. In essence, I experienced the culture. Be a culture chameleon, Steves writes in his guidebooks. “In England I drink tea, in Belgium I drink dark shaky beer made by monks. In Czech Republic I drink a pilsener lager. In Spain, I have a nice red wine and I eat dinner a little later because the locals eat la cena around ten at night,” he says.
Steves communicates just fine with the locals even though he only speaks English, which is the world’s linguistic common denominator. In his talks and in his books, he clearly states that you don’t need to speak another country’s language to enjoy traveling. But you do need to use what Americans call simple English. Imagine if you are talking to a Spaniard who barely speaks English, you would want to speak very slowly and enunciate [a skill everyone could benefit from practicing] every letter and assume he is reading your lips, wishing it was written down, hoping to see every letter as it tumbles out of your mouth—robotically, using internationally understood words, no slang, and no contractions. “I have been traveling for three decades and have noticed that this generation speaks more English than ever,” he says. “If you are young and well educated, you probably speak English.”
To travel in a way that’s transformational, where you get out of your comfort zone, is a beautiful thing. You get an empathy for people who struggle, which you probably never appreciated before. “My mission is to talk Americans into going beyond Orlando,” he says, pointing out to the one travel guidebook in the United States that outsells his Italy guidebook: the Disneyworld Guidebook. He knows he can’t compete with that because as he says, for many Americans travel is just la la land. “If you want to go through la la land your whole life, and not get to meet the other 96 cultures of humanity, that’s your choice. But, I think you’ve lost something.”
So, he’s trying to inspire Americans to reach out a little bit, and for him Europe is a waiting pool for the world exploration. So, that’s why he focuses on Europe, even though his favorite country is India. The biggest part of his work is his tour program, taking 20,000 tourists throughout Europe every year through 900 different tours. As he tells it, Europe is efficient, it’s friendly, and it’s safe. “The big challenge we have is uptight Americans that watch too many commercial news. And powerful forces, frankly, in our society that would find it convenient if we are all dummied down. It is easier to make money off of people who are dummied down.”
For Rick Steves, life on the road is gratifying. He feels like he is contributing to mankind, and fundamentally he is teaching people how to travel. How to pack light, how to catch a train, how to get a good dinner, where to find affordable accommodations, how to avoid the crowds… But more importantly, he’s helping them appreciate the history, culture, cuisine, and then on the pinnacle of travel needs is finding those transformational ways, where people come home probably more thankful than ever that they are Americans, but at the same time better citizens of this beautiful planet.