When I heard that Rick Steves, the Grand Poobah of European travel, was appearing in Minnesota’s capital city, I decided it was my Travel Architect duty to check it out.  As someone who recently made a very costly travel planning error, I figured it couldn’t hurt to head to St. Paul and see if there was anything else I was doing wrong in my capacity as Household Travel Planner.

Full disclosure: This was a case of quid pro quo wherein Rick Steves and Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) engaged in some mutual back-scratching.  TPT provided a venue for Rick to promote his company and products, and he, in turn, promoted the public television channel during his talk.  (Also, the proceeds from all ticket sales went to TPT.)  Fortunately, it didn’t have that slimy feeling that sometimes occurs when a person gushes unctuously about a sponsor.  These two entities have a long-standing relationship and it was clear that Rick believes strongly in the mission of public television.

Even more disclosure: I’m not promoting Rick’s tours, books, or other travel products… merely reporting things I gleaned from his 90-minute talk.  Any opinions are my own.

Rick 1
Screenshot of his promotional photo

Those of us who arrived early were treated to a video montage of Rick’s outtakes, bloopers, and general silliness while filming his numerous travel shows.

Rick 2
Yep, I opted for cheap, nosebleed seats.  Gotta save my money for travel.

After a brief introduction by one of TPT’s vice presidents, Rick appeared.  Here is a rundown of Stevesian factoids:

  • He spends 3-4 months each year in Europe – springtime in the Mediterranean countries, back home (Seattle) in June, then back to the more northern European countries in July/August.
  • He’s started giving tours in 1980, but now rarely gives tours himself.
  • His company’s first ten tours of this season have been cancelled due to coronavirus.*
  • His own trip to Istanbul – booked, paid for, and scheduled for about a month hence – is in question due to the pandemic.*
  • While Rick does travel outside of Europe for his work, the main focus of his tours and his career has been and continues to be Europe.
  • His favorite country of all time is… India!  (I wasn’t expecting that.)

*Rick’s talk and the writing of this blog post occurred when these facts didn’t seem like such, “Well, duh!” information.

Rick 3
The Rick Steves equivalent of a playbill.  This was given to us by the ushers and provides both essays on different places in Europe as well as overviews of his various trip offerings.

After his little introduction, he presented a table of contents:

  1. Trip planning
  2. Packing
  3. Safety
  4. Communicating
  5. Transportation
  6. Eating
  7. Sleeping
  8. Avoiding crowds

The largest chunk of his talk was devoted to the first item – trip planning.  I was pleased to learn that, my planning mistakes notwithstanding, Rick and I share similar travel philosophies and travel styles, and much of what he recommended I do anyway.  Here are the main takeaways:

  • Go to places that are not on the recognized tourist circuit and that don’t have a promotional budget.  You can find gems that way.  As an example, he recommended avoiding some famous, over-touristed ring road in Ireland. I didn’t catch the name, but it contains a stop at the Cliffs of Moher,
  • If you do want to see the most famous sites, go very early and/or late.  He pointed out that you should double-check what “closing time” means for a given site.  Sometimes it refers to the last time you can buy tickets and enter, and other times it means the time they close up for the day and kick everyone out.
  • Consider a mix of touristy destinations and off-the-beaten path places.
  • If you really want to see popular day-trip destinations (examples cited were Statford upon Avon, Bruges, Mont St. Michel, Rothenburg, and Venice), stay overnight, since evening and early morning you’re more likely to have the place to yourself.
  • When you go to big cities (such as Paris, London, Berlin), spend a half day away from the olde towne tourist areas and instead opt for the modern parts of the city where the actual citizens live and work.  These places have few, if any, tourists, and give a glimpse into the modern, everyday lives of the people.
  • Before you go, take some time to learn about what you’ll be seeing.  This will put things into context and create a more meaningful experience when you’re finally there.
  • Too many museums can ruin a good trip.  (I agree, Rick!)
  • Get up-to-date guide books (He wouldn’t mind if you got his up-to-date guide books, I’m sure.)
Rick 4
My one and only Rick Steves guide book.  (I prefer DK Guides – sorry Rick.)  I couldn’t find a copyright date, but we bought it before our trip to Budapest, Vienna, and Prague back in 2009, so I guess it’s kindling now.
  • Take advantage of free walking tours and paid local guides.
  • Don’t allow resources like Trip Advisor to entirely shape your trip.
  • Consider “open jaw” travel (flying into City A and home from City B… it’s your job to get yourself from City A to City B).
  • To keep your sanity, book a minimum of two nights in any given spot.

Finally, Rick offered up several ways to be like a temporary local:

  • Go to a local sporting event… thousands of locals and one tourist – you.
  • Find out where people stroll in the evenings and go join them.  (In Spain, this is called “el paseo” and in Italy, “la passeggiata.”  I don’t know if other European nations engage in this nightly ritual.  If you know, please comment.)
  • Sit in the main square in the evening and have a cocktail.
  • If you are in a university town, go to where the students gather, buy them a round of drinks, and start up a conversation.  (The husband rejected this idea outright, for fear that, within seconds, we’d be surrounded by a mob of drooling, cash-strapped uni students with no discernible escape route.)
  • Eat and drink what the locals do, when they do it, even if you don’t consume these things at home. [Examples given: whiskey in Scotland; tea in England; red wine in Italy (What Rick?  Not pasta?!); chocolate in Belgium]

 

Twenty minute intermission…Image result for individual musical notesImage result for individual musical notesImage result for individual musical notes

 

In the last half hour of the program, Rick verily zoomed through the remaining 90% of his table of contents.  The remaining takeaways:

Packing: Keep it light.  He spends 3-4 months living out of a normal-size backpack and a smaller day pack.  He likes to be the last one on the plane (Me, too, Rick!  Why would I want to spend extra time aboard a tin can?!) and this way he has no worries about room in the overhead compartment.

Transportation: Flying between European cities can be cheaper than train and bus travel.

Eating:

  • Eat at hole-in-the-wall places.  (Travel Architect Warning: Beware Deen’s Indian Restaurant in Nong Khiaw, Laos.  That’s Asia, not Europe – but still worth mentioning.)
  • Avoid places with menus in English and other non-native languages – these are for tourists.
  • Seek out hand-written chalkboard menus – you’re more likely to get local, seasonal food, since the menu will change with what’s in season.
  • Experience the family-style dining on offer in many European cultures.
  • Have a picnic.  (I know from experience that lots of Parisians picnic in the gardens of Versailles.)
  • Better to eat sparingly (drinks and small plates/hors d’hoeuvres) at a good but expensive restaurant than eating lots of mediocre food at an inexpensive restaurant.

Sleeping: No to intercontinental hotels.  Yes to B&Bs (traditional B&Bs as well as AirBnBs), inns, guest houses, etc.  Hostels are for all ages nowadays.  If you’re alive, you’re eligible to stay at a hostel.

Avoiding crowds:  If you’re waiting in line for a sightseeing destination, you’re wasting your precious travel time.  Book ahead and take advantages of any city passes that may be on offer.

So there you have it – 90 minutes of information distilled down into one blog post.  It’s been my pleasure to be your eyes and ears.  Enjoy your next trip to Europe!  (And Rick, if you’re reading this, I’ll take a “like” and a “follow.”)

 

 

 

 

29 thoughts

  1. Aren’t you the optimist here planning vacations in the middle of a pandemic? I love it.

    I’ve seen some of Steves travel shows wherein he goes to off-the-beaten path places. Always interesting. I imagine his travel advice is sound. The only question being, when will anyone be traveling again?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I booked the tickets maybe five weeks ago and went to see him a couple of weeks ago. Boy were things different back then. When I shared the post on my FB page I wrote something about how in a post-COVID world we will travel again, but that seems like a long way off. For travel-lovers like me, that’s seriously depressing. 😦

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Rick Steves certainly can’t be accused of decreasing travel numbers, that’s for sure, although I think lots of other factors over the decades are more to blame, such as increasing wealth in developing countries, worldwide overpopulation, and the rise in technology that makes it so easy to research, plan, and book travel. Remember before the Internet when you could only imagine what your hotel room would look like from the basic description in a guide book? Good grief! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I like RS as a travel resource and a starting point in my own planning. I wouldn’t follow his itineraries necessarily, only because we did once about 25 years ago and ended up seeing the same people over and over again in B&Bs. (Of course, these days we’re more likely to stay in an Airbnb…) RS phrasebooks tend to be excellent resources.

    I definitely agree with RS about museums. I work in a museum and love them all, but even I have limits. My household museum rules are to limit one per day and to only spend a few hours in them. It’s impossible to see and really enjoy everything in, say, the Louvre or the British Museum, so we decide in advance on a limited number of galleries within in a museum and just enjoy those few spaces thoroughly. After after we leave, we prioritize some sort of head-clearing walk and food to refuel.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good tips for us to all keep in mind. We do need to remember that eventually our lives will resume and people will once again travel. Some people seem appalled that others are still posting about travel, but I’m on the side that this too will come to an end (or we’ll at least figure out how to deal with it).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For me, it’s less about travel and more about writing. I have to write. It just so happens that travel is what I’m most keen on writing about. I think there are some people that just need to be appalled/enraged at something all the time.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. O my goodness, can’t believe you had a chance to attend Rick Steves’ travel class, what an amazing experience to hear everything in person and I didn’t know he’s from Seattle. His travel tips are fantastic and makes a lot of sense for those who are only starting to travel and want to learn all the secrets. Thanks for sharing, it was a great read. And, we love to be the last ones to board the plane too! Have a good day 😀 stay safe 😊 Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right! Why didn’t we start a travel empire like Rick? Clearly we’re naturals! 😉

      By the way, since you’re starting the pod from the beginning, just know that it takes us a few episodes to find our feet and our rhythm. Soon enough you’ll start to hear some consistency. The weekly travel quiz that’s coming up around episode 3 or 4 is quite fun.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Haha right?

        That’s fine. Understandable that it improves over time, still enjoyed the first episode though 🙂

        Like

  5. Incredibly, I don’t really know all that much about Rick Steves! I’ve seen a lot more about him since joining Scottish travel groups that are full of Americans lol, so I guess he’s a bigger resource over your side of the pond. I like all this advice though! Pretty much everything I live by, plus some extra great tips.

    Like

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