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European Travel Rick Steves’ Style

Rick Steves at Dallas Travel & Adventure Show
Rick Steves at Dallas Travel & Adventure Show


Samantha Brown is my travel celebrity of choice, but I think her fans may be outnumbered by Rick Steves‘ fans – if the turnout at their travel show seminars can be trusted.  A couple of weeks ago I attended the Dallas Travel & Adventure Show and a standing-room-only crowd paid breathless attention to everything Rick had to say.

Rick vs Samantha

Were I given a choice between these two travel celebrities as a personal travel companion, I would choose Samantha every time.  Her love of travel is less pedagogic than Rick’s, which means I think we’d have a lot more fun, but when it comes to providing information for the European traveler, Rick has her all beat to heck.

Let’s face it.  I like glamorous things.  From time to time I watch an episode of Rick’s travel shows and he’s always wandering around backstreets, visiting factories and hanging about in somebody’s home – and for the record, the somebody is usually a nobody.  Meanwhile, Samantha sleeps in five star hotels, eats in swanky restaurants and watches the beautiful people sunbathe on a gorgeous beach.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m interested in those authentic travel experiences Rick urges us to experience, but I want them to be sprinkled among a liberal dose of dazzle.  He started his talk by outlining the limit on luggage his travelers must abide by and I knew I’d never go on one of his tours.  Still, I hung on to my seat and kept taking notes, because he is a fountain of travel wisdom.  He just doesn’t understand the value of the right accessory in ones’ vacation pictures.

Full of Good Advice

The most pertinent thing Rick Steves said was that when it comes to travel, we should learn from the mistakes of others instead of experiencing them ourselves.  He spends four months out of the year in Europe to make all the mistakes for us.  Only a third of his time is spent shooting his episodes.  The rest he devotes to checking out all the research he’s done in the months he’s not in Europe.  Here’s a few of his golden nuggets:

  • Meeting real people on your travels carbonizes your experience, so get out of your car and sit at the bar.
  • Find places with no promotional budget.  Many are just as wonderful and others more wonderful, but you’re mingling with a few natives instead of hordes of tourists:
    • For instance, to see the “real” Germany, cruise the Mosel instead of the Rhine.  The Mosel has the real quaint villages, instead of the faux quaint villages fixed up for tourists.
  • See  the front door attractions, but don’t complain about it when you get there.  Instead stay the night.  The tour buses go back to the fancy hotels and you get to enjoy the real destination.
    • Examples:  Toledo, Rothenburg, Venice
  • Spend extra money to be in the middle of the action.  It’s a better way to spend – see more of less, rather than barely any of a lot.
  • Spend at least half a day in the big city, just to get the feel of how the average person of that country lives – and if you’re already in a touristy city like Vienna, just go over to the modern part of the city.
  • Learn enough before you go to understand the basics.  Such as:
    •  Germany used to be 200 independent states, not a unified country.
    • Understand feudalism before you see castles.
    • Know the difference in architecture from the Middle Ages and the Romantic Age.  The buildings will seem to look the same unless you understand what you’re looking at.
  • Tourist Information Centers have been transformed into profit centers by selling you tickets to tourist traps.  They can still be a valuable source of information, just don’t fall for the gimmicks.
  • Whatever your thing is, pursue it on vacation:
    • Go to church, if you go to church at home.
    • Sports fanatics should go to sporting events.
    • If you nerd out on bones at home, go to a Capuchin Brothers monastery and see what they do with bones.
    • If you sky dive, collect stamps or whatever – bring your passions with you.
  • The package tour industry is feeling a pinch, so expect to spend more time on your tour at shopping opportunities than at attractions.  It’s how the guide makes a living. Don’t be a jerk about it – if you don’t want shopping opportunities, don’t go on the tours.  (Hiring a private guide and paying him NOT to take you shopping is an option.)
    • Also, most land travel companies will put you up in a very American hotel out in the middle of nowhere, so they can sell you an excursion to the actual attraction.  Consumer beware.
  • A good guidebook is a $20 investment on a $3000 trip, so get a guidebook – but be careful, because most guidebooks are lame.  (You can imagine which guidebook he doesn’t think is lame.)
  • Don’t let hysterical news short circuit your brain.  In the last 50 years, 200 tourists have been killed.  There are 1000 people killed every month in the US.  Do the math.  Where are you safer?
  • Don’t stand in bank lines.  Use ATM’s.
  • Yes there are pickpockets, so don’t be a target, and yes, that beggar is a pickpocket.   Carry a disposable wallet with your immediate cash needs in an accessible spot.  Leave the valuables in a safe or wear them in a money belt UNDER your clothes.  Do not access your money belt all the time, then you’re just helping the thieves by demonstrating where your valuables are.
  • When you DO stay overnight at a destination, ask about the paseo.  Most cities have some form of a public evening stroll within their community.  Many of the stroll locales are surrounded by cute cafes offering apertifs that are delicious and affordable – just right for paseo watching.

Seminar?  Advertisement?  Same Difference!

Mr. Steves was pretty transparent about the fact that he’s in the travel business as a profit-making venture.  At the same time, he realizes that most of the people within the sound of his voice are not actually potential customers for his tours.  He said the tours offer “vivid hands-on experiences”, but while they are just right for the right person, they would be awful for everyone else.  I am everyone else.

However, I plan to take full advantage of the resources he makes available to everyone for free.  His website is an encyclopedic resource of information.  I just booked a cruise for April (something he doesn’t strongly endorse), but I’ve already been researching the ports of call on his website.  Plenty there to keep me busy for a while.  I will also buy some guidebooks and will probably include his among my purchases.

His lecture did take a political detour that I could have done without.  He strongly endorses Turkey as a destination, which I can agree with, but not for the same reasons and certainly not because I have a political axe to grind, which it seems he does.  For more information read his book, “Travel as a Political Act.”

So, today I’ve bent your ear longer than usual.  I hope you find some of Rick’s travel tips helpful.  Let me know if you’ve used some of his guidebooks and have found them helpful.  Next week I’ll tell you about Pauline Frommer’s seminar.