Four years ago, Spencer and I decided that we wanted to cross off one of the items on our “Things to Do Before We Have Kids” bucket list: go to Europe. We were pretty nervous, to be honest, and decided to start with a country that spoke our language: the United Kingdom. But when it came to planning our trip, we were completely lost, and even more stressed. How do we know where to go? What hotels do we stay in? How do we get around? Is it safe?
Desperate, I scanned through my mental rolodex for any and all connections I had to traveling in Europe, and immediately remembered a PBS television show that I watched with my mom when I was growing up: Rick Steves’ Europe. A quick YouTube search brought up hundreds of videos produced by Rick Steves, and opened a door for every resource we needed to plan our trip. From his website, travel forums, guidebooks, blog posts, radio shows, lectures, TV show, and even his Facebook page, we planned an amazing two week, independent trip to London and Scotland that we will never forget. We weren’t back for more than a few months before I said to Spencer, “Let’s go on a Rick Steves tour next year!”
Since that fateful day in 2015, we’ve been on two Rick Steves tours: the fully guided “Heart of Italy in 9 Days” tour in 2016, and the more independent My Way: Alpine Europe in 12 Days tour in 2018 (check out our Scrapbook here!). And we will never go back to our pre-Rick Steves days, friends. Whether we are on a tour or traveling independently, we travel the “Rick Steves way.”
What do I mean by that? Well, I’m so glad you asked! :)
Here are the main points of traveling the “Rick Steves way”:
We want to get off the well-worn path, and live like a local.
When we plan a trip to Europe, spend weeks doing careful research, make a budget, save our pennies, and travel for hours (and usually a full day!) to get there - we don’t want to replicate our home life. We don’t want to feel like we’re in the United States with a big-American-hotel-chain or gimmicky tourist traps. We just left! We came alllll this way to experience Europe - it’s culture, history, arts, food, languages, and people! We want to live like locals.
This is the philosophy Rick and his guides teach. In his books and TV shows, and on his tours, we are taught how to experience the local culture we traveled so far to experience. We practice using public transport, for instance. We also stay in hotels that are clean and safe, independently operated, and budget-friendly (no big chains that, while they may be comfy, just mimic home)! And we learn common, basic phrases to help us get around. I always laugh thinking about Spencer and I, phrasebooks in hand, walking through the streets of Salzburg, or on the train in Rome, trying to master a simple “Good morning,” or “Can we have the check, please?” or more importantly, “Two gelatos, please. In a cone.” One time, I got stuck in the back of a crowded bus in Rome when Spencer was already off, and on-the-fly had to shout, at the top of my lungs to the driver, “devo scendere! devo scendere!” or “I must get off the bus!” as I pushed my way through the people. Thank goodness I had been practicing, and wasn’t afraid to assert myself! Which brings me to my next point…
Extroverts have more fun!
Whether traveling independently, and more certainly whilst on a tour, we are encouraged to make friends, chat with people, ask questions, and be an extrovert. As Rick says, “extroverts have more fun.” I am pretty introverted, and definitely need quiet time to recharge, but on Rick Steves trips, I push myself (within reason, of course! Mental health is important) to reach out to those around me, and learn from them. Hotel owners have great recommendations for local favorites, for instance. In Castelrotto, Italy, the owner of the incredible Hotel Cavallino D'Oro hotel (built in the middle ages!!) hosts Rick Steves tours every year, and loves to chat. She recommended the local co-op for sandwiches, and oh. my. gosh, they were the best!
We also try to reach out and get to know our fellow tour members. Because Rick is so clear about setting expectations for tours - they’re very active! no one will carry your luggage! come ready to learn and try new things! - usually everyone on the trip shares similar interests and values. This means that there are plenty of fun and friendly people to get to know, and have fun with. On our 2018 My Way Alpine Europe trip, a fellow tour member, Pat, was the best example of this. Everyday, he connected with a different person, and asked them a question about themselves. When we were in Italy, we met some amazing friends - and we still send each other Christmas cards to this day!
The people we meet on our tours are some of our favorite memories.
A Perfect Balance of Independence and Support
One of my favorite things about our Heart of Italy in 9 Days tour was that we didn’t have to wait in any lines when we visited the Vatican, the Colosseum, or the Uffizi Gallery. We just showed up, and the tours were planned with well-informed, local, professional guides. These tours saved us sooo many headaches in this respect.
On the other hand, though, Rick’s resources and tours encourage us to be independent and learn skills that will help us be better, more informed travelers - whether we are with a tour or not. During the orientation day, we do an orienting tour in some measure, and they teach us helpful phrases and how to use public transport, for instance. We are really not here to be pampered. We want to have fun, save time and money, but stay active, empowered, and always, always learning. As our My Way tour manager, Gretchen, said to me, “If someone comes up to me at the end of the trip, and says, ‘I couldn’t have done this without you!’ I’ve failed them. I want them to leave feeling like they’re better travelers than before!”
And speaking of guides…
The most amazing tour guides - EVER!
I was so impressed when I learn that Rick Steves employs his guides full time. This means that there are no commissions awaiting them at the end of a gift shop or a tourist trap. By doing this, he not only protects the integrity of our travels, but he is providing quality jobs to really talented people who love what they do.
Every guide I’ve met has a passion for traveling the “Rick Steves way.”
We even run into them when we are on our own sometimes, and they’re just as friendly “off the clock”! One time, in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, we were coming down from the top of the Schilthorn peak on the gondola, and noticed a man holding a Rick Steves guidebook. Like we do every time we see this phenomenon (because extroverts have more fun!), we asked him about the book, and his trip. Turns out, he was a guide! We had a great chat with him, and then ran into him later when he was having dinner with our tour manager and our bus driver! All three of them were “off the clock” this time, but we all chatted like we were old friends.
These guides love their jobs. It’s so obvious. They are smart, multi-lingual, savvy, fun-loving, and kind. They’re also no-nonsense, haha. If a tour member gets mad about something silly like, I don’t know… let’s say, a map (haha, this happened in Italy), they hold their ground, and calmly facilitate the interaction. I am consistently so impressed. They even have me thinking, Maybe I should be a Rick Steves tour guide when I “grow up!”
Finally, travel builds bridges. Cultivates confidence. Inspires empathy.
One of my favorite lines from Rick’s travel philosophy that is printed at the front of every one of his guidebooks is,
“Travel is addicting. It can make you a happier American, as well as a citizen of the world. Our Earth is home to nearly 6 billion equally important people. It's humbling to travel and find that people don't envy Americans. Europeans like us, but with all due respect, they wouldn't trade passports. Globetrotting destroys ethnocentricity. It helps you understand and appreciate different cultures. Travel changes people. It broadens perspectives and teaches new ways to measure quality of life.”
Spencer and I both grew up in a very small town - only 4,000 people. And about the time we took our first European trip in 2015, we were feeling like we were giving into the age-old adage, “Small towns. Small minds.” We wanted to try new things. We didn’t want to live in fear of what we didn’t understand - especially as the world becomes more and more connected.
And traveling not only opened our eyes and minds and hearts - we emerge from each trip liking ourselves mores. As we test ourselves under various conditions, and broaden the margins of or experiences, we become more confident. We like what we see - around the world, and within ourselves.
From that first trip to London in 2015, we can never go back.
We will always travel the “Rick Steves Way” going forward. And I hope you do, too!