Rick Steves: Thoughts from the Non-accidental Tourist

We heard Rick Steves' opinions about what's happening in European travel at the 2015 San Diego Adventure and Travel Show. Steves is a polished and passionate speaker. Talk comes easy to him because Europe has been his backyard, his playpen, for many, many years.

We heard Rick Steves’ opinions about what’s happening in European travel at the 2015 San Diego Adventure and Travel Show. Steves is a polished and passionate speaker. Talk comes easy to him because Europe has been his backyard, his playpen, for many, many years.

We came late to his wisdom. For years, for European information we leapfrogged over all the travel books, many of which had stopped putting the year’s date on the cover because their information was old, some even contriving to remove publishing information details from the inside. Thus we dealt directly with European tourism boards and found many hidebound and atrophied with glacial responses. So we suffered the insufferable; some national tourist boards like Italy were hopeless at reading mail, some like Portugal and Belgium and the Czech Republic were difficult to contact, but once the USA office was discovered communication became much better. But some cities, like Vienna, have helpful tourist offices yet their popular restaurants gouge their visitors. And some cities, like Copenhagen, have sold their responsibility for a good visitor experience to commercial companies. Rick Steves endeared himself to us when he scathingly referred to the “blatantly for-profit company Wonderful Copenhagen.” We found nothing wonderful about being charged the equivalent of $30 for one beer and one cup of coffee at Els Restaurant in that city.

Much thumbed copies of Rick Steves’ Scandinavia and Rick Steves’ Provence and the French Riviera stand on our bookshelves and get our smiles when we think how much they have helped us in our travels there. In the style of Colin Fletcher, author of The Complete Walker who, in backpacking, used to cut off the labels on the tea bags he was carrying to reduce weight, we took box cutters to pages on Steves’ books to remove areas that were not relevant to our travels that trip. Steves understands that; he sometimes asks groups he is guiding if anyone is carrying one of those gorgeously illustrated tourist guides that show where they are standing, and he uses those pages to make a point. It’s just his own books are easier to carry and even more practical.

Steves’ Travel Philosophy

We’re thinking all this as we listen to Rick Steves talk. His themes come across as aphorisms not unlike those we hear in med school: “Listen to the patient. He is giving you the diagnosis.” (Osler). “Good medicine always tastes bad.” (Ron Hall, author).

Says Steves: My favorite places are hard to get to and may not have comfortable hotels. A pox on people who need comfortable hotels. To enjoy travel you may have to go off the beaten track.

Places mobbed by tourists all day are all yours at night. Spend the night! At spots like Machu Picchu, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and Venice, tourists come in like rush hour.”

Machu Picchu, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and Venice.

Steves cautions his listeners to do their homework, read in advance about their destinations in his books. His books pay for themselves, he says, even if your first read is on the shuttle from the airport. He feels some American tourists are experts at not being there, disengaged from their destination and looking at the world as if through a window. “Instead be psychologically there.” In Ireland go to a sports show like a curling match. In Spain at the end of the day in a city like Salamanca take time to sit amongst the locals and watch Spanish couples promenading round the city square. In the Alps, tourists go to their favorite mountains, locals go to the rest, so go where the locals go! Get out of your comfort zone; see how the other 96% of the world lives. This is hellish advice for the wrong tourists but perfect for those who want to learn about a country.

Says, Steves, “I’m an American. We have the shortest vacations in the world. My time is valuable. That’s why I organize my guide books for people who understand time is a valuable commodity. For people who know it’s safer to travel than to stay at home. Yet still say to friends who travel, ‘Have a safe trip!’ The most fearful people are those who have traveled the least. Who worry about travel because News has morphed into Entertainment masquerading as News.

“And if you understand that you’ll take your family to Europe tomorrow.”

European ruined castles are not promoted because there are no rip-offs or side businesses so they are free.

London, Paris

Four cities worth a week are London, Paris, Rome and Istanbul provided you can remember “museums can ruin a good vacation!”

Rome, Istanbul

Steves feels strongly that travelers should go places that bring them in contact with local people, such as Mom and Pop restaurants with simple menus that appeal to locals. Travelers, especially Americans, should consider inexpensive hotels and B & Bs, “Although if you are alive you can stay at any youth hostel in Europe. And you should use public transportation — it liberated Europe.”

Cutting Flying Costs

His research may be different from Pauline Frommer’s. He says, for international fares, book 171 days before travel and for Domestic 57 days before. A study found you saved 19% if you booked a fare (not traveled it) on a Sunday. Using a website wow.com recently, Steves found a trip each way to Europe for $129. He points out that airlines put less stock in loyalty. So, why do we? You have to find things out for yourselves. Examples: non-direct flights may be cheaper. Two one-way flights may be less than the conventional round trip.

Don’t pay for Premium unless it is Premium. [Boy! Do we know that. American Airlines often sends you to Spain with co-share Iberia Airlines whom we have come to hate. We paid an extra $80 for bulkhead seats so we wouldn’t have seats in front of us reclined over the Atlantic. Iberia switched airplanes on us that did not have bulkhead seat then ignored our emails requesting repayment. A few hours trying to get answers on Iberia’s clunky website should have warned us. We’ve had issues with Vueling Air also.]

In contrast, Steves likes dohop.com. And momondo.com and hipmunk.com. But he reminds travelers to be flexible and still consider a local travel agency if the staff is passionate.

Hotels and the Digital World

Smartphones are now helping travels bypass the hotel front desk and allowing you to open your room door. But such use allows the hotel to view your previous pattern and ping you with information on dining, room service, and possible spa treatments and not every traveler wants such loss of privacy. Hotel rates averaged $110 a night in 2013 and rose to $137 in 2014. Hotel fees for extras brought in $2.25 billion, that’s billion, last year for services you might not have used like WiFi, daily (Mon — Fri) newspaper, access to a spa and aqua-sports, and so on. Travel writers advise their readers to protest those charges loudly at the front desk. We will never get rid of such gouging if we meekly pay.

What’s Hot?

Steves’ thoughts:

• Africa for the trip of a lifetime. It needs our dollars.

Argentina at half the cost of 2 years ago.

Malaga, Spain. You can learn the language there and visit the Malaca Roman Theatre.

Austria celebrating the ring road around Vienna and in Salzburg the 50 year celebration of the evergreen movie The Sound of Music.

The oldest restaurant in central Europe, the St. Peter Stiftskeller built in 803 AD, a Salzburg street and the door knocker on the house where Mozart lived.

Yellowstone National Park

And closer to home

South Dakota and the 50 year celebration of its Buffalo Round-up.

And Yellowstone National Park which has upgraded its facilities/

Photography by the authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.