Generalizing the travel advice of Rick Steves

July 19, 2011 | By | Reply More

My daughter and I just returned from a trip to Europe, where travel guru Rick Steves served as our primary guide. We relied heavily on his travel books regarding Berlin, Paris and London. These travel guides are detailed, well-organized and well-written.  I highly recommend them to anyone intending to travel to Europe.

What I especially like about Rick Steves, though, is his constant urging to live close to the ground while traveling, to work hard to interact with real people and to avoid expensive travel arrangements that prevent you from interacting with others on their terms. This approach does not come naturally to many Americans. Steves thus works hard to prepare Americans for visiting places that are not America.  He doesn’t mince his words. Consider, for example, this passage from his London 2011 book, at page 17:

We travel all the way to Europe to enjoy differences-to become temporary locals. You’ll experience frustrations. Certain truths that we find “God-given” or “self-evident,” such as cold beer, ice in drinks, bottomless cups of coffee, hot showers, and bigger being better, are suddenly not so true. One of the benefits of travel is the eye-opening realization that there are logical, civil, and even better alternatives. Europeans generally like Americans. But if there is a negative aspect to the image the British have of Americans, it’s that we are big, loud, aggressive, impolite, rich, superficially friendly, and a bit naive.

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Ouch. Now, we can take this passage as an insult, but we should take that as a critically important challenge. After returning from Europe, I thought more about Steves’ writings, and it now seems to me that we can consider them as sources of much good advice, even for those of us who aren’t traveling. Consider the following passage from page 19 of the London book; while reading it, substitute “America” for “Europe.” Substitute “living in real America” for “travel.”

Travel is intensified living–maximum thrills per minute and one of the last great sources of legal adventure. Travel is freedom. It’s recess, and we need it. Experiencing the real Europe requires catching it by surprise, going casual…”Through the Back Door.”

. . .

In many ways, spending more money only builds a thicker wall between you and what you traveled so far to see. Europe is a cultural carnival, and, time after time, you’ll find that its best acts are free and the best seats are the cheap ones.

A tight budget forces you to travel close to the ground, meeting and communicating with the people. Never sacrifice sleep, nutrition, safety, or cleanliness to save money. Simply enjoy the local-style alternatives to expensive hotels and restaurants.

Connecting with people carbonates your experience. Extroverts have more fun. If your trip is low on magic moments, kick yourself and make things happen. If you don’t enjoy a place, maybe you don’t know enough about it. Seek the truth. Recognize tourist traps. Give a culture the benefit of your open mind. See things as different, but not better or worse. Any culture has plenty to share.

Of course, travel, like the world, is a series of hills and valleys. Be fanatically positive and militantly optimistic. If something’s not to your liking, change your liking.

Travel can make you a happier American, as well as a citizen of the world. Our Earth is home to six and a half billion equally precious people. It’s humbling to travel and find that people don’t have the ”American Dream”- they have their own dreams.

Thoughtful travel engages us with the world. In tough economic times, it reminds us what is truly important. By broadening perspectives, travel teaches new ways to measure quality of life.

Globetrotting destroys ethnocentricity, helping us understand and appreciate other cultures. Rather than fear the diversity on this planet, celebrate it. Among your most prized souvenirs will be the strands of different cultures you choose to knit into your own character. The world is a cultural yarn shop, and Back Door travelers are weaving the ultimate tapestry. Join in!

Thanks, Rick, for good advice for travelers, and equally good advice for Americans on-the-go here in America.

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Category: American Culture, Culture, travel

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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