The number and variety of resources available to help Fifty-Plus Nomads plan their adventures has expanded significantly in the ten years since I ran my travel seminar business. In 2009, social media was in its infancy, and travel blogs were much less common than today. Many of the ¨go-to¨ websites that I regularly consult today like Nomadic Matt and Johnny Jet did not exist.
While the amount of information has expanded, I often ask myself has the quality of travel information improved.
My answer is no. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the general level of travel-related resources was better ten years ago than today.
Thankfully, however, some of the best resources from ten years ago remain as vital now as in the past. This is perhaps nowhere more true than with Rick Steves. Rick Steves has continued to keep with the times and still provide a vital resource for travelers.
Yet, his books aren’t for everyone. They have some serious limitations. I suggest that Fifty-Plus Nomads read careful this excerpt from my lesson: The Top Twelve Travel Advice Resources for Fifty-Plus Nomads before using his materials.
“Ideally, travel broadens our perspectives personally, culturally, and politically. Suddenly, the palette with which we paint the story of our lives has more colors.”
Why is Rick Steves Important to Fifty-Plus Nomads?
If you travel to Europe chances are, you’ll notice that almost every American sports a Rick Steves‘ guide. I don’t blame them.
Rick 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 just learn about other place’s history, culture, and society. Just 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 went to hear 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 for many Fifty Plus Nomads.
His guidebooks target a decided segment of the travel market. Upper middle class, Americans, mostly women, who nonetheless 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 you should supplement 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:
- 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 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 podcasts (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.
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 Marseille 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 is Not Geared Toward Many 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, and
- had to rely on Lonely Planet for site recommendations for the rest of my visit.
- I once heard Rick say on his radio show that “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.
Want to Know More About Other Useful Travel Advice Resources?
The above text comes from my class entitled Finding the Best Sources for Travel Advice. The class provides useful advice on how to use websites and blogs as well as my list of the top twelve travel advice resources.
Rick Steves is one of these top twelve resources. However, I spend more time discussing Rick Steves than any other travel resources for the following reasons:
- He has much more of a voice than most of travel resources.
- His materials are geared toward a particular audience which happens to share many characteristics with Fifty-Plus Nomads.
- While I am a big fan of Rick Steves generally, some Fifty-Plus Nomads would be as well, if not better served, by supplementing his materials with other sources.