Rick Steves Says Hold On to Your Travel Dreams

Versie Dortch

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.


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