Rick Steves Says Hold On to Your Travel Dreams

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To a certain subset of anxious but enthusiastic middle-class Americans—for those who yearn to see Paris before they die, and want to make sure they don’t miss a croissant or fresco while they’re there—Rick Steves is a bona-fide celebrity. His voice in his popular series of guidebooks is, by his own admission, oozing with dad vibes; bad puns flow from his fingers alongside gee-golly exclamations of wonder about the majesty of marble buttresses. On his YouTube channel and in promotional materials, he tends to wear bluejeans and wire-frame spectacles and billowy button-up shirts. A Times profile labelled him as “one of the legendary PBS superdorks—right there in the pantheon with Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross and Big Bird.” But this effusive uncoolness is a feature of Steves’s work, not a bug. His guidebooks are approachable, silly, and even subtly provocative in their insistence that Americans show respect for the people and places they are visiting and not the other way around. Thanks to the Internet, there are more resources than ever when it comes to planning a trip. You don’t need a guidebook if you have Google. And yet, miraculously, Steves’s empire has kept expanding. 2020, he told me, was poised to be the best year ever for his company, whose offerings now encompass guided tours abroad, books, podcasts, TV shows, blogs, and lectures, all churned out by some hundred employees.

That was before the pandemic, of course. Last spring, travel to Europe—Steves’s entire raison d’être is getting stubborn Americans to take transatlantic flights—was restricted or fully banned. Italy was, for a terrifying period, a chaotic center of the COVID crisis. Steves had to cancel twenty-four thousand bookings for European tours and dramatically rethink what he would do as long as the world remained clamped down. In lieu of his own routine globetrotting, he has had to mostly sit tight, in his house north of Seattle. Steves is now sixty-six, with a head of salt-and-pepper hair and the warm, mellow vibe of a public-radio personality. In a recent conversation, he told me about his early days giving lectures on how to travel on the cheap and selling his first, self-published guidebook out of the trunk of his car. He was getting ready to hike Mont Blanc, his first trip abroad since March of 2020. He told me what he thinks the next chapter of post-pandemic travel might look like, and why you should always order whatever beverage the locals are having. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

Where are you in the world?

I’m just sitting here in my beautiful little office at home, in my little town of Edmonds. I just gave a talk at the Rotary Club this morning. I got a nice walk in.

I know you are a big walker.

I get a lot of exercise when I’m in Europe. My body is used to it for four months out of the year. It’s this hunter-gatherer rhythm, where I can hibernate in the winter and get out in the wilds in the summer.

What was the Rotary Club talk about?

Travel after COVID.

What was your message?

Well, you could get all the experts together on a panel and they don’t really know what travel is going to be like. My spiel is, if I had to predict, we’re going to get back to a sort of normalcy. Kind of like airports after 9/11. People said travel will never be the same. Well, airports will never be the same, but they’re still airports, even though you don’t have vast lobbies where you kind of glide across, and you’ve got all sorts of T.S.A. apparati, and you don’t have your loved ones taking you to the gates. I think travel is still going to be travel.

When the pandemic first hit, did you have to cancel a trip?

Every year since I was a kid—so, like, forty years—I’ve planned a hundred days in Europe. When COVID hit, I had every hotel booked. We were going to make two TV shows in Poland and two TV shows in Iceland. I was going to fly to Turkey, because I wanted to check in on Turkey! Then I had to cancel that. And we had twenty-four thousand people signed up on Rick Steves tours.

Oh, my God.

Twenty-four thousand people’s travel dreams! They’d saved up. We just had to tell them, Here’s your money back. I was really determined from the get-go not to do what embarrasses me about a lot of other companies in the tourism industry, which is keep their money and give them credit. I just told my staff, O.K., we want to give every penny back. When it’s time to go again, we’ll let you know.

You still live where you grew up, right?

Right. It’s got a ferry dock. It’s got a Main Street. It’s the first real town north of Seattle. I never get tired of this.

It’s interesting to me that for such a globetrotter, you have not really moved. What’s that about?

That’s a good question. I think if you’re going to travel a lot—and I’ve spent a third of my adult life living out of a suitcase—when I come home, I like to be rooted in my community. I’m close to nature here. It’s nice just to be here and to not be Mr. Travel. I’m just Rick who lives on Edmund Street.

Did you ever consider moving to Europe full time?

No. I like to move around a lot in Europe. That’s the fun thing. I’ve toyed with buying a little idyllic place, like in “Under the Tuscan Sun” or something like that, but then I’d have to go back to that place. I don’t want to go back! For me, Europe is the wading pool for world exploration. My favorite countries may be elsewhere. I like Indonesia and India and Japan and Central America just as much when it comes to travel, but I’ve got a calling in life. And that is to inspire Americans to venture beyond Orlando. The practical goal is to get people who have been to Disney World four or five times to try Portugal. It won’t bite you.

I was actually planning to go to Portugal for the first time, right when the pandemic hit. I was so bummed not to go.

I know, I’m bummed, too. But our mantra has been: COVID can derail our travel plans, but it cannot stop our travel dreams. On our social media, we started something called “daily dose of Europe.” I’ve also been hosting this thing called Monday Night Travel. We have two Zoom shows at five-thousand-person capacity every Monday. There’s an early show and a late show, or one show with me sober and one show with me more tipsy.

So you drink and just . . . talk about travelling somewhere? Is there a theme?

Yes! Like, “Today we’re going to Scotland, I’m drinking whisky! We’re going to have some shortbread, and I’ve got my friend from Scotland who woke up at three o’clock in the morning to be with us!”

I want to go all the way back. What was your childhood like? Did your parents travel before they were married?

My dad was a band director, and then he was a piano tuner, and then eventually a piano importer. My mom was just a hardworking homemaker. They amaze me with what they were able to do with three kids. Because we always had a boat, we always had a camper, and we always went skiing. Every Friday, they’d pick us up at school and, if it was sunny, we’d go to the islands. If it was rainy, we’d go east to the mountains. They really had this adventurous spirit on a meagre budget. Then somebody recommended that my dad import pianos from Germany. I remember I came home from school one day, and my dad said, “Son, we’re going to Europe to see the piano factories!” I thought, That’s a stupid idea. But I was fourteen years old. It opened my eyes to the world.

You watched the moon landing in Norway that year, right?

I was with my relatives in Norway, sitting on the carpet, watching Neil Armstrong. I remember even as a little egocentric and ethnocentric fourteen-year-old thinking, Well, back at home all of my friends are waving American flags like “Yay, America!” In Norway, people were celebrating it also, and they weren’t Americans. I was really thankful to have that little jolt.

So after that first trip to Europe, you just had to get back?

Yeah, I went a couple of times with my parents. We were in this wonderful classic train station, the Copenhagen train station, and I remember looking at kids a couple years older than me with their Eurail passes and their rucksacks. I looked over at my mom and dad, and I thought, I don’t need you guys for this. Europe can be my playground. And I vowed to go back to Europe every summer after that. And at first I was just travelling purely for kicks. I was a piano teacher. The kids wouldn’t practice in the summer. I fully expected to be a piano teacher all my life.

Were you pretty broke when you first started going to Europe a lot?

Oh, I was very broke. I was travelling on peanuts, on three dollars a day or something like that. It was my “Europe through the gutter” days, I like to say. And then I got really good at travelling. And what was just as clear to me was, other people were making the same mistakes I had learned from my own school of hard knocks. And I thought, What a shame. They only have one trip, and they’re screwing up.

I know you started out by giving local talks about travelling on a budget in the nineteen-seventies. What was the first talk you did?

It was called “European Travel Cheap,” and it was at the University of Washington, at the Experimental College. I remember I wanted to take the hippie bus from Istanbul to Kathmandu across Asia. It was the thing you did back in the seventies. And it was a mystery—there weren’t good guidebooks back then for this kind of thing. And there was a guy, an old hippie vagabond, who was giving a talk, who had done this. So I’m sitting there with twenty other travel dreamers who wanted to do this epic trip, and he sat there in front of us totally unprepared. And I remember thinking, This is criminal. And I thought, I’ve got the information for Europe, and I should be sharing it. Inspired by that guy’s lousy class for the hippie bus across Asia, I put together “European Travel Cheap.” It was six Wednesday evenings. I thought fifty kids from the dorm would sign up. A hundred parents signed up.

My first book, “Europe Through The Back Door,” was 1980. I self-published it. Rented an I.B.M. Selectric typewriter. And my roommate was an artist, so he sketched it. I think I spent, like, two thousand dollars to take this hundred-and-eighty-page book up to the local publisher. I picked up two thousand copies in my station wagon and sold them for five dollars each. When you write a book, even if it’s worthless, it gives you credibility. People think, Oh, he’s an author.

How did you find the trademark Rick Steves voice?

I’m a big practitioner of reading your writing out loud before you call it done. If I had a little trick, it is not being formal and not being highfalutin with my writing. I make dad jokes, and I’m a sucker for alliteration. I think people want to be put at ease. Like, it’s O.K. to be a little dorky. It’s O.K. to laugh in a museum. You can be looking at the “Pietà” and you can still laugh.

How have you tried to keep innovating your tips since the seventies?

I’ve had a Maslow’s hierarchy of travel needs over the last decades. I didn’t have a big plan. But if I look back on it, the first decade was about cheap tricks—you know, you’ve got to catch the train, you’ve got to get a hotel, and get dinner. Then I wanted to talk about appreciating the culture, the history, the art, the cuisine. I can’t save you money on the cost to see the Roman aqueduct at Avignon, the Pont du Gard, but I can help you understand it better.

And where on this hierarchy do your more political takes on travel come in?

After 9/11, I found myself kind of politicized. People would hire me to go all over the country and give talks, thinking I’m going to talk about a nice hike and a nice café, and here I’m talking about drug-policy reform and legislating morality and environmental issues and how Europe is dealing with the fallout of an economy built on colonialism or whatever. And they said, “We didn’t hire you to talk about politics.” And then I thought, Well, I’d better change the name of my talk. So I started calling it “Travel as a Political Act.”

It really came along with this idea that I think is so fundamental, which is, the most frightened people are the people who don’t travel. Fear is for people who don’t get out very much.

Have you ever had a confrontation with somebody on one of your tours over the years, somebody who really didn’t want to step outside their box?

Yeah. There are simple things. Like when you fill out the little form at the hotel with your birthday. My birthday is May 10, 1955. All my life I’ve had it as 5/10/55. And in Europe it’s 10/5/55. We go middle, little, big—month, day, year. And we think that’s the normal way to do it. They go in a progression, little, middle, big. It’s more logical. A lot of my very ethnocentric travellers clench their fist and they draw back and they say, “I’m not going to let you tell me how to fill in this form. We fought and died for your way of life,” this sort of attitude.

Do you think now, in the current climate, you can push people further politically?

Yeah. I try to do reflective travel, like sitting down in the city hall in Oslo with a cousin of mine with one of my groups to talk about how people in Scandinavia so willingly pay high taxes. They hear it from a Scandinavian, and it’s much easier than for me to say, “We should have progressive taxation where wealthy people would pay more of their share.” You’ve got to be careful, because you don’t want to just rag on people who are on vacation.

Steves began his yearly travels to Europe as a piano teacher. “And at first I was just travelling purely for kicks,” he says.

I want to ask about this concept of seeming like a tourist. When I was a teen-ager, I travelled with my parents and I remember they had one of your guidebooks. I was so embarrassed to have it out. I was like, “Mom and Dad, put that away! I don’t want anyone to know we’re tourists!”

Well, we all dream that we could be invisible, but I think it’s futile. People are going to know. Should you have a camera bouncing on your belly and be speaking really loud and wearing a baseball cap and talking at people instead of with them? Of course not. I want to be a cultural chameleon when I travel. But I know that kids cringe when their parents get out their guidebooks. My family laughs every time I go on vacation, because I’ve got an itinerary and I’m writing it down. People roll their eyes, but somebody’s got to take the responsibility.

You sound like this extremely supercharged version of my dad. He’s the same on vacation. He’s like, “We’re waking up at six and we’re walking up to this mountain and we’re going to get to the top.” And I was always like, “I just want to read a novel on the balcony.”

If there’s a group of people without a leader, it just grinds to a halt. Somebody needs to go, “Do you know that museums are closed tomorrow? And this museum requires a reservation?” When I was a kid, I would travel with my friends from the dorm, and I was always organizing and they were complaining and sometimes I would just go on strike. And then after a few minutes they go, “O.K., Rick, you be the guide.” And then we got things done again.

Don’t you ever just go anywhere to sit on a beach?

If I’m on vacation, I love to be in the moment, but I rarely go on vacation. I’ve got a mission. I’d love to go to the South Pacific. It’s one place I’d really love to go. I’ve never been there. But if somebody gave me an all-expenses-paid ten-day trip to Fiji in a beautiful resort hotel and all the drinks and food I wanted, I’d think instead, For ten days, I really need to go to Spain and update my book for Andalusia.

How did your travelling impact your own family when your kids were young? I know you were gone for the summers, and they would come sometimes, but also you were away a lot.

It was terrible. I compromised my fathering and my parenting, and it was a hard choice. And I was caught up in the personal challenge of building a business. And it was costly to my relationship. We ended up getting a divorce. My kids for a long time did not like my work. Work was a four-letter word. Now I’ve got a wonderful relationship with my kids. And I would probably do it a little bit differently in retrospect, because once you’re done with those parenting years, you can’t get them back. But in the midst of it all, I was just doing my best.

Did you travel a lot with your wife before you had kids?

I don’t travel with people for fun. I just don’t. I travel alone, because I get more done when I’m on the road.

Do people ever accuse you of being Eurocentric, like “Rick, get off the Europe thing already”?

They do. But the name of my business is “Rick Steves’ Europe.” And I’m not saying it’s the whole world. There’s a lot going on on this planet! But I really believe if you’re going to be a teacher, it’s good to have a focus.

Let’s come back to this idea of “cultural chameleonism.” How do you suggest people achieve that abroad?

For a lot of people, their default is, “O.K., I want to drink, and my favorite drink is this Martini.” Well, you’ve got to get away from that when you’re travelling, O.K.? The question is not, Where can I get my drink? but, What do local people drink here? When I’m travelling, I physically change from country to country. When I’m in Greece, I go for a glass of ouzo. I never come home after a long day of work in Seattle and think, I’d like a nice cloudy glass of ouzo. That’s almost ridiculous. But when I’m in Greece, I don’t let a sunset go by without having a nice glass of ouzo.

Well, that does sound lovely.

When people tell me chocolate is to die for, that’s baloney! Unless you’re in Belgium, then chocolate’s really important. And when I go, I don’t just get a piece of chocolate. I go to a fine chocolateria and I learn about it and I enjoy the very best chocolate in the very best chocolate country. When I’m in Belgium, I like a milkshakey, rich, monk-made beer. When I’m in Prague, I like a nice refreshing Pilsner. When I go to Tuscany, it’s a full-bodied glass of vino rosso. I don’t think I’ve ever made a pot of tea here in my house. It makes no sense to me. But when I’m in England, a spot of tea after a nice day of sightseeing feels just right. When I’m in Scotland, I have a little shot of whisky each night.

This is a very beverage-forward world philosophy.

It may seem like just silly superficial stuff, but it helps you realize that yes, I am in Sicily, and in Sicily they eat late, they eat long, and they love their cannoli.

The Delta variant of the coronavirus has threatened to cause more European travel restrictions. Should people be making plans for next summer now?

Europe wants to enjoy and allow tourism, but it’s a fluid situation. Each country must look out for their safety. Add to that the reality that Europe is proud, and when it’s shut out it reciprocates by responding in kind. As is often the case, Americans don’t understand why they have less privilege than they expect, when the answer is simply reciprocity.

Should people be making European-travel plans for next summer? No one knows how we’ll be, societally, by then, but I fully expect to travel in the spring—as long as the situation is no worse than it is today.

I know you say travel will still be travel after COVID. But will the crisis of the past two years affect how people view their place in the world?

I do think COVID will pass for travellers. I’d bet in a year it will be old news. But climate change will be a bigger and bigger issue for the rest of our travelling days. I don’t think that our society has the collective ethics or political will to take the necessary immediate steps to fight climate change yet. But, as individuals, we can all do the right thing. That’s why my company plans to spend a million dollars in 2022, and each year after, to mitigate the carbon our tour members’ flights add to the mix.

After this difficult time, good people will have a generous attitude toward the rest of our world. To what degree the phrase “good people” represents the U.S.A. is an open question. But I stand by my belief that if everyone travelled to faraway lands and did it thoughtfully, they would come home as better global citizens.

Are you concerned about getting back out there at all?

Well, I’m concerned about what is a responsible message to give, as a leader in travel. Do I want to say, “Get out there and travel, go for it”? No. Patience is not an American forte. It’s certainly not a Rick Steves forte. But patience has been my middle name for the last year and a half.

When we do go back to Europe, I hope we’re mindful. Why are we travelling? I don’t think we’re going to want to stand in line with a bunch of people who just want to see the “Mona Lisa.” There’s ninety per cent of Europe that has no crowds, and you do have a choice. If you want to have more peaceful, more thoughtful travels, there are plenty of ways to do that.

Do you remember how to pack?

It’s funny, because I went on my first plane ride just a couple of weeks ago, and dealing with airports and packing it was like, I haven’t done this for a year and a half. It was a little bit of an adjustment. But I don’t think I’m going to be rusty about embracing the joy of travel. Post-COVID, I want to be close to nature. I want to get away from the crowds. I want to take some moments and just sit on a rock and enjoy a commanding view and be thankful that I’m healthy and alive and able to get out and get to our world.

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