But, He is Not Always the Best Source of Information for Fifty-Plus Nomads
“Travel is rich with learning opportunities, and the ultimate souvenir is a broader perspective.”
Why is Rick Steves Important to Fifty-Plus Nomads?
Rick Steves is one of the few travel guidebook writers that has been unafraid to have a one-of-a-kind voice. He is the only travel guidebook writer who has become a household name in travel in the US. My usual answer to several of the most common questions I get asked about traveling in Europe is “read Rick Steves’ guidebook.”
Rick Steves also 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 place’s history, culture, and society. By advocating this view of travel, Rick has done a lot to improve how Americans travel to Europe.
I am always a little nervous, saying anything negative about Rick because many people feel so fond of his books. Fifteen years ago, I heard him speak at the book passage bookstore in Marin County, California. Many of the audience said things like, “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 probably done more to help Americans feel comfortable traveling in Europe than anyone else. He has also taught hundreds of Americans how to interact comfortably with Europe’s people and places. In fact, one of my most intense criticisms is that he should have books that cover travel outside of Europe.
The following video does a better job of explaining Rick’s 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 Fifty-Plus Nomads May Not Want to Use Rick Steves’ Guides Exclusively
Yet, I don’t think his guidebooks are suitable (at least they are supplemented by other travel advice books and websites).
His guidebooks target a decided segment of the travel market. Upper-middle-class Americans, mostly women, want to have as much interaction with local European life as possible in a short time frame.
Yet. even if you don’t fit this niche, his materials are valuable for the first few days of your stay. It is just that if you are going anywhere for more than around four days to a week, you should bring another guidebook along on your travels (Lonely Planet’s guides are excellent). Or it would help if you supplemented his guidebooks with other resources. (At least, that has been my case).
So here is a list of what I consider to be Rick Steves’ strengths and weaknesses:
Rick Steves’ Strengths
- 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 so that you can 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 with other guidebooks.
- While other researchers write his guidebooks you feel as if you are traveling with Rick. One student told me that she loved his guidebooks because she could almost smell the cookies that he described at a bakery in Scotland. Most guidebooks almost wholly avoid having a sense of the author; his books reflect his voice.
- He tries hard to find hotels and restaurants that reflect the best that the country has to offer at a fair price. Unfortunately, however, since the guidebook is so popular, sometimes the places are hard to reserve ahead of time.
- His practical travel advice on subjects like how to use public transportation, order 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 in the world for years, I still sometimes find useful advice in his books and websites.
Rick Offers Excellent Advice Outside of His Guidebooks
- 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. (By the way, Sicily is the cheapest of all the trips he offers). The guide, Tomasso, was outstanding (extremely personable, knowledgable, and accommodating). The tour featured a lot of opportunities to interact with Sicilians in off-the-beaten-path places. (The first-day 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 short 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. ln addition, while the hotels and restaurants are quite good, they may be a bit too basic if you are used to more traditional tour companies like Colette or Trafalgar tours).
- His podcast (also on public radio stations throughout the US) features 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.
- One of my favorite memoirs is Rick Steves’ book Travel as a Political Act. This book explains a lot of his travel philosophy and experiences around the world (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’s Europe 101 should be required reading for Fifty-Plus Nomads who plan to travel or live around Europe for extended periods. Each European region (sometimes even town) has a long and complicated history. Trying to appreciate how European tourist sites relate to each other historically and culturally is difficult without this book. 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 useful to most tourists.
Rick Steves’ Weaknesses
His 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 parts of the established tourist path. When I was in Italy, I liked Emilia-Romagna as much or more than Tuscany. Yet his guide contained a hundred pages on Tuscany and not one on Emilia-Romagna. Worse still, his guidebook did not include Sicily at all, even though it is one of the most famous European tourist centers. (I suspect this is because he perceives that Sicily is too exotic for most of his readers). On the other hand, I am kind of glad that his books don’t 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 Emerging 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. The first time I used his guidebook was to travel around the Baltic states in 1995. Today, this guidebook, which I found to be extremely useful, is no longer available. I guess he did not sell enough copies as the Baltic states are a relatively little-visited corner of Europe. (It is a shame that more people don’t visit this region. Each Baltic state has its distinctive personality).
General Problems with the Guidebooks
- 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 have a more thorough discussion of the politics, history, and culture of a region than Rick Steves’ guides.
Rick Steves’ Advice May Not Be the Best for Fifty Plus Nomads
- His advice assumes that tourists intend to travel to a lot of places and stay only a couple of days in each place. You will run out of options for sightseeing using his guide if you spend more than a couple of days in one city. I was in Copenhagen and Vienna for 10 days and:
- saw all of his recommended sites within the first week.
- had to rely on Lonely Planet for site recommendations for the rest of my visit.
- I once heard Rick say on his radio show “now that it has been 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 great things left to see.
Some Additional Travel Information Related Posts
- Travel Information: Is it Better or Worse Than in the Past?When I developed my Big Blue Marble travel seminars in the 2000s, I was astonished by the quality of travel information available. Nowadays, sadly these resources are not available. I have developed this website in part to fill this void. Thankfully, podcasts, high quality blogs, and Youtube keep getting better and better. It is just harder to find them than it used to be.
- 24 Top Food Tips for TravelersDiscover tons of tips for finding authentic food while traveling. Learn about some of my favorite dishes and drinks.
- Rick Steves Is AwesomeRick Steves has perhaps helped make European travel a reality for more Americans than probably anyone else. I admire and refer to him frequently. However, his audience is very specific. Many Fifty-Plus Nomads do not share the same attributes as Rick Steves’ audience.
- Top Twelve Travel Advice Websites, Podcasts, and GuidebooksHere is a list of Paul Heller’s top twelve travel-related websites, podcasts, and guidebooks.
- My Favorite 50+ Top Travel MemoirsThis is a list of Paul Heller’s, the Founder of Fifty-Plus Nomad, top 50 travel memoirs.