“Travel is rich with learning opportunities, and the ultimate souvenir is a broader perspective.“
Pros and Cons of Using Rick Steves Materials for Long Term Travelers Over 50
Why is Rick Steves Important to American and Canadian Vacationers?
Rick Steves is one of the few travel guidebook writers that has been unafraid to have a one-of-a-kind voice, and he is the only travel writer who has become a household name in travel in the US.
My answer to several of the most frequent questions I was asked about traveling in Europe in my travel seminars in the 2000s was “read Rick Steves’ guidebooks.”
Rick Steves infuses everything he does with a very admirable philosophy. Travelers should respect and interact with the people and places they visit.
In Rick’s eyes, travelers are students that should reserve judgment. Instead, we should learn about other places’ history, culture, and society. Rick has dramatically improved how Americans travel to Europe by advocating this view of travel.
I am always nervous about saying anything negative about Rick because many people feel fond of his books. Twenty years ago, I heard him speak at the book passage bookstore in Marin County, California. Many of the audience said, “I am so happy to meet Rick; I feel like I traveled with him on my recent trip to Italy¨. I felt like I was at a rock concert rather than a bookstore.
That said, the travel world is better off because of Rick Steves. Rick Steves has done more to help Americans feel comfortable traveling in Europe than anyone else. He has also taught hundreds of Americans to interact comfortably with Europe’s people and places. One of my most intense criticisms is that he should have books covering travel outside Europe.
The following video does a better job of explaining Rick Steves’ philosophy than I can. I would encourage you to watch it yourself. You will see why he is liked and admired by millions of American tourists. https://www.facebook.com/ricksteves/videos/970218983415858
Why Long-Term Travelers May Not Want to Use Rick Steves’ Guidebooks Exclusively
Rick Steves’ guidebooks target a decided segment of the travel market. Upper-middle-class Americans, primarily women, that want to interact with local European life as much as possible in a brief period.
Yet. even if you do not fit this niche, his materials are valuable for the first few days of your stay. If you are going anywhere for more than a week, you should bring another guidebook along on your travels (Lonely Planet’s guides are excellent).
So here is a list of what I consider to be Rick Steves’ strengths and weaknesses:
Rick Steves’ Strengths
Rick Steves Guidebooks
- By carefully paring down hotel and sightseeing options (and assigning ratings to each city’s sights), he makes it easy for travelers to find and enjoy their vacations quickly. While most guidebooks (particularly Lonely Planet) are much more comprehensive, it takes time and effort to determine the best options for you using these guidebooks.
- His descriptions of the sights of Europe give you enough detail to understand what you are seeing. Most guidebooks give you some basic facts about the sights. Besides, Rick Steves peppers his commentary with enough detail and facts so that the places come to life more than in other guidebooks.
- Most guidebooks avoid having a sense of the author; his books reflect his voice. While other researchers write his guidebooks, you feel like traveling with Rick. One student told me that she loved his guidebooks because she could almost smell the cookies he described at a bakery in Scotland.
- He tries hard to find hotels and restaurants that reflect the country’s best at a fair price. Unfortunately, since the guidebook is so popular, sometimes the places are hard to reserve ahead of time.
- His practical travel advice on subjects like using public transportation and ordering foods from a menu, etc., saves time and frustration. Most other guidebooks assume that travelers can figure these things out for themselves. Yet, even after traveling worldwide for years, I still sometimes find helpful advice in his books and websites.
Rick Steves’ Travel Podcast and Tours
- His tours, though not cheap, reflect his travel style and are exceptionally well-done. In 2014, I went on his nine-day tour of Sicily. (Sicily is the most affordable of all the trips he offers). The guide, Tomasso, was outstanding (extremely personable, knowledgeable, and accommodating). The tour featured a lot of opportunities to interact with Sicilians in off-the-beaten-path places. (The first day’s visit to a local Count’s home was something I doubt you could do any other way). Besides, the tour was well planned and an excellent way to get to know Sicily in a brief period. The hotels and restaurants reflected the style of his books- rustic places patronized by Sicilians. (Keep in mind, however, that his tours require more walking than most other tours. In addition, while the hotels and restaurants are pretty good, they may be too basic if you are used to more traditional tour companies like Colette or Trafalgar tours).
- His radio show and podcast (Also on public radio stations throughout the US) feature a wide range of different voices. The podcast has a lot of excellent advice on traveling in Latin America and Asia, parts of the world that his guidebooks ignore.
Rick Steves’ Books (Other than His Guidebooks)
- One of my favorite memoirs is Rick Steves’ book Travel as a Political Act. This book explains many of his travel philosophies and experiences worldwide (not just in Europe). It helps to understand why his books and TV series were developed. It is also an excellent way to learn a lot about Rick himself.
- Rick Steve’s Europe 101 should be required reading for Fifty Plus Nomads who plan to travel or live around Europe for extended periods. Trying to appreciate how European tourist sites relate to each other historically and culturally is difficult without this book. Each European region (sometimes even town) has a long and complicated history. Most other books about European history and art are overly dense. They also do not focus enough on putting the sights of Europe into their historical and cultural context to be helpful to most tourists.
Rick Steves’ Weaknesses
Rick Steves’ Guidebooks Only Cover a Few Places
- His books are limited only to a few areas of each country. Most of the places he covers are integral to the established tourist path. I liked Emilia-Romagna more than Tuscany when I was in Italy. Yet his guide contained a hundred pages on Tuscany and not one on Emilia-Romagna. His guidebook did not include Sicily, even though it is one of the most famous European tourist centers. (I suspect this is because he perceives Sicily as too exotic for most of his readers). On the other hand, I am glad his books do not cover these areas because otherwise, the regions might get as many tourists as Tuscany.
- His guidebooks only cover Europe. I would love to see him do a guidebook on Developing Countries, particularly Mexico. I think he could make these great countries seem accessible to his audience in a way that no other guidebook can. (Strangely, when someone asks him for his favorite places, Rick often mentions places, like India, not covered in his guidebooks. One of his early books was called Asia through the Back Door).
- His guidebooks do not even cover all of Europe’s countries. In the past, they used to cover the entire continent. I first used his guidebook to travel around the Baltic states in 1995. Today, this guidebook, which I found extremely useful, is no longer available. I guess he did not sell enough copies as the Baltic states are a little-visited corner of Europe. (It is a shame that more people do not visit this region. Each Baltic state has its distinctive personality).
Things to Keep in Mind When Reading Rick Steves’ Guidebook
- Sometimes, Rick pooh-poohs a place unjustifiably. Reading his description of Marseille, France (in 2014) discouraged me from wanting to visit this city. He described Marseille as a rundown, questionably safe, and dirty place. Instead, when I was there, I saw Marseilles as a lively hub of great museums, a lovely, revitalized port area, and a multicultural hub.
- He does not list any exchange, volunteer, and study programs. These are the best ways for Fifty-Plus Nomads to learn about the life and culture of their destination if they have enough time available.
- Lonely Planet guides discuss a region’s politics, history, and culture more thoroughly than Rick Steves’ guides.
Rick Steves’ Advice May Not Be the Best for Long-Term Travelers
- His advice assumes that tourists intend to travel to many places and stay only a few days in each place. You will run out of options for sightseeing using his guide if you spend more than a few days in one city. I was in Copenhagen and Vienna for ten days (about one and a half weeks) and:
- Saw all his recommended sites within the first week.
- Relied on Lonely Planet for site recommendations for the rest of my visit.
- On his radio show, I once heard Rick say, “now that it is cleaned up for the Olympics, Athens is worth three days.” While teaching seminars, I spent nearly two weeks in Peoria, Illinois, and did not even see all the exciting things there. No doubt I could spend many months (or even years) in Athens and still have important things left to see.