Rick Steves: enhancing my travel experience

The name Rick Steves can elicit a mixed response in the travel world. Some love him, with his devoted followers called “Rickniks,” while others are not quite as smitten. Me, I am somewhere in the middle. I like his media persona of a happy-go-lucky traveller who is a really nice guy. However, I don’t like how he peppers his content with his political views, most of which are diametrically opposed to mine. Steves may view travel as a political act, but I don't arrange my itinerary with the intent to make any type of statement, but I lean toward liking Rick far more often than not. Today, I will discuss how his variety of media content has greatly aided my European travel experience.

“I have watched him for years!”

Rick Steves hosts  Rick Steves' Europe  on PBS and publishes a variety other content  (click to enlarge)  (Photo: RickSteves.com)

Rick Steves hosts Rick Steves' Europe on PBS and publishes a variety other content (click to enlarge) (Photo: RickSteves.com)

I have not watched much PBS since, as a teen, I was hooked on home improvement shows in the days before HGTV. I know…I was a pretty nerdy teenager. In spring 2014, after deciding to take my first trip to Europe with only a one month to go until departure, I had to scramble to prepare. I have always been a planner when it comes to travel, but Europe was a new frontier, a place with unknown practices and customs. Preparing for a foreign country was a different level of intimidating compared to a trip to the opposite end of the United States. I immediately bought DK Eyewitness Travel travel guides for London and Paris and began scouring YouTube for videos about travel in London and Paris. One person that kept appearing in my searches was a sandy- haired American in a variety of videos specifically about European travel! Perfect!

I have found that the first experience of anything that you come to love is often, deserved or not, shrouded in an aura of magic and Rick Steves was part of that European magic for me. Enhanced by the absolutely surreal feeling that I would be in Europe within a month, episodes of Steves' PBS show, Rick Steves' Europe, are a major component of the memories of excitement and whirlwind activity that month. To this day, I get a little nostalgic when hearing the theme music of his tv show.

At some point, I casually mentioned to my mom that I had discovered some great videos on YouTube as I was prepping for the trip by a guy named Rick Steves. Understand, my mom is not the travel bug that I am and she has never been to Europe. Imagine my surprise when she said “Oh! I have watched him for years on PBS!” Really??? I had no idea he was a very well-known PBS host! While I did not learn about his guidebooks for that trip, it did not take long before I was commenting from time to time, “Well, Rick says…” as if he were a personal friend and advisor.

A comprehensive travel media empire

Rick Steves is not just a TV host but rather the center of a travel media empire. In addition to his television show, he hosts a radio show which is released as a podcast. He maintains a YouTube channel where he regularly posts vignettes of his summer travels to Europe along with talks about travel skills for various destinations. Perhaps the most useful material he publishes is his extensive series of travel guides.

As I prepare for a trip to a new part of Europe, I watch episodes of his PBS show about my destinations to learn about the highlights of the area. Steves' travel talks from his European Travel Festival are packed with practical information for travelers. I am currently preparing for my first visit Norway and learned much from his presentation on Scandinavian travel skills just as I did with Germany and Italy when studying for previous trips. 

As useful as I find his videos, I get the most benefit from studying his travel guides. There is definitely overlap in the content, but the book understandably go much deeper. There are numerous travel guide brands on the market - DK Eyewitness Travel, Fodor's, Frommer's, Lonely Planet, Michelin and others. I have had good success with Eyewitness Travel but Rick Steves’ travel guides have become my go-to series. What I like about his approach to travel is that he advocates traveling as a “temporary local” and his guidebooks empower this approach. He publicizes that he and his team vet the hotels, restaurants and attractions in his books regularly to keep the information current. I rely heavily on the books for prices, opening hours and recommendations and practical tips when laying out my travel itinerary.

Rick Steves Italy was very helpful as we toured the Cinque Terre (click to enlarge)

How Rick Steves has enhanced my travel experience

Steves' mantra of traveling as a "temporary local" resonates with me, because he suggests that this concept of traveling helps you to create a deeper connection with a country you are visiting. He urges travelers to explore back streets, partake of the local “stroll” or paseo, attend a church service, get out when tourist hordes are at a minimum, attend local sporting events, or simply engage whenever possible with locals. When it’s time to eat, "find places outside the tourist zones” and “go for local specialties.” I have followed some of his advice and that truly afforded deeper experiences.

This is not to say that Steves encourages you to avoid major tourist attractions. While I want depth of experience, I still want to visit the world-famous cathedrals and museums in cities across across Europe. The Rick Steves guides thoroughly cover such sites including self-guided tours and tips to get the most of your visit including avoiding lines and minimizing cost. Thanks to Steves' guidance, I have yet to spend hours in line to get into the Louvre in Paris or see the Colosseum in Rome. At the same time, I have had magical experiences by getting off the beaten path and exploring alleys, non-major thoroughfares, and non-touristy neighborhoods. Perhaps my best meal in Europe was in a cafe down a side alley in Venice that had limited foot traffic. The food, if not the atmosphere, far surpassed the dinner we had alongside the Grand Canal in sight of the Rialto Bridge, both in terms of food quality and price!

Great location but expensive, average food. (click to enlarge)

All of Rick's recommendations are not created equally

More than his website or TV show, the Rick Steves travel guides, like more books of the genre, are loaded with recommended hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions. We had really good luck in Italy with three of his recommended hotels. Generally, due to my points and miles passion, I am willing to pass on the local establishments in favor of international chains where I can earn or use points. However, there are limited options in Italy for my preferred brands Starwood, IHG and Hilton. Guided by the recommendations in Rick Steves Italy, we had nice stays, free breakfast and very convenient locations. His restaurants were a different story.

The Hotel Firenze e Continentale in La Spezia, Italy had Old World charm. (click to enlarge)

In Pisa, a recommended lunch spot was a bit of a disappointment. Our meal included bland meat sauce, undercooked pasta and a street mime who wandered from table to table requesting money, not leaving our table until we gave her a euro coin. An outdoor cafe in Florence that offered beautiful desserts had atrocious service even by typical American perceptions of European service quality. I found most of Steves' recommended gelato shops to be nothing special. To be fair, some of that could have been expectations of a knee-buckling frozen treat when, gelato in general seemed like run-of-mill ice cream to me.

His recommendations for museums and other attractions were generally spot on. We typically found found ourselves most pleased that we visited the vast majority of museums, and neighborhoods highlighted in his book. Following his transportation advice made moving around crowded Italian cities as simple as could be expected. The biggest fail we experienced was the Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Berlin. Rather than "charming and quaint,” we found this museum to be tacky and sophomoric in the quality of its exhibits. We left agreeing that Rick owed us 20EUR for our combined admission!

Bottom Line

There is no perfect travel host or guide book, but for me, Rick Steves is pretty close. When he focuses on the travel itself, his content can help you have a richer experience when visiting Europe. You can save time and money with his advice as well as find some charming and convenient local hotels. Just take his restaurant recommendations with a grain of salt! As Rick says, "Happy Travels!"