Rick Steves' backpack now has a laptop in it, and he's busier than ever with PBS, his guidebooks, Web site and newsletter. Sharing his travels never gets old.
By ROBERT N. JENKINS
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001
For just $5, you used to be able to sit in a classroom and hear Rick Steves offer firsthand knowledge about traveling cheaply through Europe. His guidebooks cost more than three times that now, and you can't even raise your hand to ask him a question. Then again, he's got a quarter-century more information to share.
"I had traveled in Europe for probably three summers," Steves said recently by phone from his office in Edmonds, Wash., "and when I was back in school I found myself sitting around at lunch telling people where they should go on their trips. That was inefficient because I was answering the same questions.
"When I started offering those classes (in 1975, at the University of Washington's Experimental College), we'd charge five bucks and have 200 people sign up. I felt like a bandit, running back to the dorm with $1,000 in my pocket."
Those were the good old days in more ways than one.
Steves continued to teach piano -- his occupation -- but also to travel each year in Europe, and he began his Europe Through the Back Door business in 1976. He led his first backpacker tours the next year and in 1980 published his first guidebook. There have been 20 more titles since, each updated regularly.
Though other names on the covers of mass-consumption travel guides may be more familiar, none of them can match Steves for up-to-date, personal research, or for outreach.
His company leads more than 4,000 people on about 160 tours through Europe each year. The free, 64-page quarterly newsletter has a circulation of more than 60,000, and of course he has a multipage Web site (http://www.ricksteves.com). His customers are invited to leave reports and opinions on a "graffiti board" online.
Steves is the mastermind and chief researcher for all this.
An institution on the Public Broadcasting System since his Travels in Europe With Rick Steves series debuted in 1991, the author still spends an average of 100 days each year sleeping in little hotels, climbing into belfries, strolling the cobblestones and peering over the ramparts.
The original PBS series totaled 52 shows, even leaving Europe to visit Turkey, Israel and Egypt. Last year, Steves spent 96 days filming his second series, 16 half-hour programs titled Rick Steves' Europe.
All of which adds a lot more weight to his shoulders than just his backpack. He won't admit, though, that these responsibilities diminish "the job that people would kill for."
"I've got 50 people on the payroll here and 60 guides (in Europe). Then there are the others we support: the tour bus drivers, hotels, book researchers, TV producers and cameramen. And the show is a a big moneymaker for PBS during the station fundraisers."
(Steves will appear at WEDU-Ch. 3's fundraiser Monday, giving a slide show from 6 to 7:30 p.m. and appearing on camera during breaks between episodes of his shows from 8 to 11 p.m.)
He regrets that he cannot easily combine research for his books with scouting location shots for the television shows. But "the real drag is traveling with a laptop and a load of research," he says.
"My dilemma is that I don't have time to both update my tried-and-true stuff and to find new places. Finding a place, by definition, is hit and miss. I might have to spend a month looking for two new, worthwhile places."
After all those years, the goal remains: to distill Europe's best, "to cut through the usual guidebook superlatives (on behalf of) people who can't go back there year after year -- as I have designed my life to be able to do. They want to get it right the first time, so I'm their globe-trotting guinea pig."
With a chuckle, he adds: "I'm looking at my windowsill, and I've got 21 books I have to update every year. That's grown out of my mimeographed handouts I used to give my classes."
He has made adjustments to accommodate his schedule and his higher economic status. "I'm likely to take a taxi from Madrid to Toledo, for $50. . . . In the old days you might sit half the day waiting for the bus, to save a dollar and a half."
Lodging -- from $50 to $150 a night -- is particularly important: "When I wind up in a fancy hotel, I laugh at how complex it is, how institutional and money-grubbing. . . . A family-run place gives that feeling of being in Europe.
"I honestly don't think of going beyond three stars (on a five-star rating system). Fancier hotels put me around people who are bad for my spirit," says Steves, who admits that though he owns a necktie, he does not know how to tie it.
"Admittedly I'm not going to youth hostels anymore . . . but I need a safe, quiet place with a good light to do my work. I have to use it for an office for five hours a night," as he enters the day's research into his computer.
He still preaches the need to ride the trains and buses with the natives, and find restaurants and hotels that don't cater to foreign tourists.
He is unmoved by critics who complain that his long popularity has led to loads of earnest backpackers showing up in a relative handful of "undiscovered" places, thus blocking the view of the local charm.
"I'm a tourist. I don't have any patience for someone who wants everyone else to go away so that he can be the only tourist."
As for sending so many people to a village that the nature of the place is changed, Steves says, "I'm sensitive to a community that doesn't want tourism. . . . I don't promote a place that I sense can't handle the business.
"I have turned poor peasant communities into wealthy peasant communities, and maybe that's prostituted the romantic poverty of the place, but none of the locals are complaining."
He adds: "The fact that there are no comfortable hotels (in an obscure place) keeps away the most obnoxious slice of the traveling public. It's a different breed of people stampeding through the place.
"I'm not hired to keep secrets. I love to translate what I know into people's great travels. "What's cool for me," Steves says, his voice husky with a cold, "is to find a couple of college-age kids on the southern coast of Portugal, and they've read my book and they're having the same magical time that I did a generation earlier.
"Even though everyone now has e-mail and cell phones, the essence of travel is the same -- and you don't have to sleep in a miserable bed and suffer diarrhea to get it."
As for his own vacations, he usually winds up taking his wife and their two school-age children on three-week ventures through Europe. Yes, more research.
Steves regrets that his schedule doesn't leave much time for recreational reading, but he does make time when he's at home to go to a particular monthly meeting:
"We have a club in which everyone shares their slides on their travels. I'd rather not talk: I'd rather see what other people are doing."
Tickets to Rick Steves' slide show and lecture, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Monday at WEDU's studio in Tampa, are $12 for WEDU members, $15 for non-members. Call toll-free 1-800-354-9338 to check availability. Steves will be on camera between episodes of his show from 8 to 11 that night.
The Web site for Europe Through the Back Door is http://www.ricksteves.com. Tapes and transcripts of all his TV episodes are available, and there is information on his company's tours, books and rail-pass sales. Steves leads one tour each year, but which one is not announced in advance.