Rick Steves says hold on to your travel dreams
For 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 a mural while they’re there – Low – Rick Steves is a bona – real celebrity. His voice in his popular guide series is, by his own admission, brimming with daddy’s vibe; bad puns flow from his fingers alongside gee-golly exclamations of wonder on the majesty of the marble buttresses. On his Youtube channel and in promotional material, he tends to wear bluejeans and metal-rimmed glasses and puffed button-down shirts. A Times profile called him “one of PBS’s legendary superdorks, right there in the Hall of Fame with Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross and Big Bird.” But this effusive lack of composure is a hallmark of Steves’ work, not a bug. Its guides are approachable, silly, and even subtly provocative in their insistence that Americans show respect for the people and places they visit, not the other way around. Thanks to the Internet, there are more resources than ever to plan a trip. You do not need a guide if you have google. And yet, miraculously, Steves’ empire kept expanding. 2020, he told me, was set to be the best year ever, with offerings now including overseas tours, books, podcasts, TV shows, blogs and conferences, all produced by a hundred employees.
This was before the pandemic, of course. Last spring, travel to Europe – Steve’s whole raison d’être is to get stubborn Americans on transatlantic flights – was restricted or banned altogether. Italy was, for a terrifying time, a chaotic center of the COVID crisis. Steves had to cancel twenty-four thousand reservations for European tours and radically rethink what he would do as long as the world remained closed. Instead of his own routine globetrotter, he mostly had to sit in his home north of Seattle. Steves is now sixty-six, with salt and pepper hair and the warm, sweet vibe of a public radio personality. In a recent conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, he told me about his early days lecturing on how to travel inexpensively and sell his first self-published guidebook in the trunk of his car. He was preparing to hike Mont Blanc, his first overseas trip since March 2020. He told me what the next chapter in post-pandemic travel might look like, and why you should always order any what a drink the locals have. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Where are you in the world
I’m just sitting here in my nice little office at home in my little town of Edmonds. I just gave a talk at the Rotary Club this morning. I had a nice walk.
I know you are a great walker.
I exercise a lot when I am in Europe. My body is used to it four months a year. It’s this hunter-gatherer rhythm, where I can hibernate in winter and go out into nature in summer.
What was the Rotary Club talking about?
Travel after COVID.
What was your message?
Well, you could put all the experts together in a panel and they don’t really know what the trip will be like. My spiel is, if I were to predict, we’ll go back to some sort of normalcy. A bit like the airports after September 11. People have said that travel will never be the same. Well, airports will never be the same again, but they’re still airports, even if you don’t have huge halls where you kind of hover, and you have all kinds of TSA devices, and you don’t. don’t have your loved ones take you to the gates. I think travel will remain travel.
When the pandemic first hit, did you have to cancel a trip?
Every year since I was a kid – so, like, forty – I’ve planned a hundred days in Europe. When COVID struck, I had booked all the hotels. We were going to do 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 travel dreams! They had saved up. We just had to tell them, here’s your money back. I was really determined from the start not to do what embarrasses me for a lot of other companies in the tourism industry, which is keep their money and give them credit. I just said to my staff, OK, we want to give back every penny. When it’s time to leave, we’ll let you know.
You still live where you grew up, right?
Law. There is a ferry dock. There is a main street. It is the first real city north of Seattle. I never get tired of it.
It’s interesting to me that for such a globetrotter, you haven’t really moved. What is it about?
It’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 in a suitcase — when I come home, I like to be rooted in my community. I am close to nature here. It’s good to be here and not to be Mr. Travel. I’m just Rick who lives on Edmund Street.
Have you ever considered moving to Europe full time?
No. I really like moving in Europe. This is the funny thing. I played around with buying a little idyllic place, like in “Under the Tuscan Sun” or something, but I would have to go back to that place. I don’t want to go back! For me, Europe is the paddling pool for exploring the world. My favorite countries may be elsewhere. I love Indonesia and India and Japan and Central America just as much when it comes to travel, but I have a calling in life. And that’s 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. He won’t bite you.
In fact, I was planning to go to Portugal for the first time, just as the pandemic hit. I was so disappointed not to go.
I know, I am disappointed too. But our mantra has been: COVID can derail our travel plans, but that can’t stop our travel dreams. On our social networks, we launched something called “Daily dose of Europe”. I also organized this thing called Monday Night Travel. We have two Zoom shows with a capacity of 5,000 people every Monday. There’s an early show and a late show, or a show with me sober and a show with me more tipsy.
So you drink and just. . . talk about traveling somewhere? Is there a theme?
Yes! Like: “Today we are going to Scotland, I drink whiskey!” We’re going to have shortbread, and I have my friend from Scotland who woke up at three in the morning to be with us!
I want to go all the way back. How was your childhood? Did your parents travel before getting married?
My father was a conductor, then he was a piano tuner, then finally a piano importer. My mom was just a hardworking housewife. They amaze me with what they were able to do with three children. Because we’ve always had a boat, we’ve always had a motorhome and we’ve always skied. Every Friday, they would pick us up from school and, if the weather was good, we would go to the islands. If it rained, we would go east to the mountains. They really had that adventurous spirit on a budget. Then someone recommended my father to import pianos from Germany. I remember I was coming home from school one day, and my father said to me: “Son, we are going to Europe to see the piano factories! I thought, that’s a stupid idea. But I was fourteen. It opened my eyes to the world.
You watched the moon landing in Norway that year, didn’t you?
I was with my relatives in Norway, sitting on the carpet, watching Neil Armstrong. I even remember as a self-centered, ethnocentric fourteen-year-old kid thinking, Well, in my house all my friends are waving American flags like “Yay, America!” In Norway, people celebrated it too, and they weren’t Americans. I was really grateful to have this little jerk.
So after that first trip to Europe, you just had to go home?
Yes, I have been there several times with my parents. We were in this beautiful classic station, Copenhagen Station, and I remember looking at kids a few years older than me with their Eurail passes and backpacks. I looked at my mom and dad, and thought, I don’t need you for that. Europe can be my playground. And I vowed to go back to Europe every summer after that. And at first, I was only traveling for fun. I was a piano teacher. The children did not practice in the summer. I really expected to be a piano teacher all my life.
Were you broke enough when you started traveling around Europe a lot?
Oh, I was very broke. I was traveling with peanuts, three dollars a day or something. It was my “Europe through the gutter” days, I like to say. And then I got really good at traveling. And what was just as clear to me was that other people were making the same mistakes I had learned from my own school of hard knocks. And I thought, That’s a shame. They only have one trip, and they screw up.