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Rick Steves Teaches How to Engage in Back Door Travel

Rick Steves on a bike in Amsterdam. Rick picking up a bike at the high-rise garage in downtown Amsterdam.
Rick Steves is a teacher. After becoming excited about travel when he took his first trip to Europe in 1969 — with his dad, a piano importer — he paid for return trips by giving piano lessons. By the time he got to college he was ready to start teaching his fellow students at the Univ. of Washington how to become temporary locals in Europe and travel at a fraction of what mainstream tourists paid.

While still a student Rick started his own business, Europe Through the Back Door (ETBD), a tour program that also offered do-it-yourself seminars on how to travel Europe independently and affordably. But it wasn’t only students who flocked to his classes and signed up for his minibus tours to untouristed parts of Europe. It was also their parents and grand parents. Today ETBD is a multimillion-dollar-business offering 40 different itineraries, 1,400 departures, with more than 30,000 travelers to Europe annually, whose average age ranges from the mid / late 20s up to the 60s.

Rick divides his ever-expanding travel knowledge into a comprehensive system of guidebooks to Europe: before-you-go planning guides (Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door, Europe 101, Postcards from Europe) and take-along books (including annually-updated country guides and city guides). In addition to his best-selling guidebooks, Rick has produced well over 100 video programs for PBS on European destinations and beyond. Rick is very active on social media and hosts a weekly Travel with Rick Steves podcast as well as the video podcast Travel Talks.

To learn more about independent travel, including Rick’s free newsletter, go to his website, — Dr. Clay Hubbs

Clay Hubbs: Transitions Abroad and Europe Though the Back Door started out at roughly the same time with roughly the same goals, as described in your ETBD mission statement: “to equip travelers with the confidence and skills necessary to travel . . . independently, economically, and in a way that is culturally broadening.” As a college professor, my first reason for starting Transitions Abroad was to tell students about the benefits and possibilities of going abroad. Like you, I soon found that older adults were also looking for firsthand information on educational and independent travel, and there wasn’t much available (nor is there today for that matter; most guidebooks are compiled by faceless editors). What motivated you to expand ETBD into a travel information industry? Did you have any predecessors or mentors?

Rick Steves: I took a class in the mid-1970s about going to Katmandu from Istanbul by a guy who had lots of experience but no appreciation of how much we could benefit by his teaching. It was a lousy class and I did the trip without his help. The experience taught me the value of sharing travel experience in the interest of smoother, more economic, and more meaningful travels. In my teaching and business, I respect my students (customers, viewers, readers, etc.) as I wish he would have respected me. For 25 years now that has been a driving force in the teaching we do at Europe through the Back Door (and a key to our success).

My predecessors/mentors: Arthur Frommer (the father of modern independent travel and the only one doing this back in the ‘60s when I first traveled), an obscure guidebook called the Art and Adventure of Traveling Cheaply (by Rick Berg, published back in the early ‘70s) and a wonderful classic guidebook filled with walking tours called Turn Right at the Fountain.

CH: As we all know, travel changes people. Can you identify the most important single thing you’ve learned from traveling?

RS: I learned that this world is home to billions of equally precious children of God and that only by traveling can we truly get to know the family.

CH: How has travel itself changed over the past 30 years? How have travelers changed?

RS: In the last 30 years the mechanics of travel have changed hugely while the essence has stayed exactly the same. Examples: The language barrier is now just a road turtle, I’ll never change another traveler’s check (ATM!). Cell phones and the Internet allow people to stay in touch while in the old days budget travelers had no easy way of staying in touch on the road.

There are no borders in Western Europe and people in nearly every country have the same coins in their pockets.

Tourist information services have been privatized, poisoning the information they offer and making guidebook listings more important.

And Americans (with the shortest vacations in the rich world) are traveling with more focus. Rather than the whirlwind 17-country Eurail trip, they go for 10 days to one region or a week in a great city. (Consequently, the 17-country passes sell far less compared to the more focused “select” passes.)

Transportation is vastly improved: the miserable 8-hour train/boat/train ride from London to Paris is now done in airplane-comfort in 2.5 hours.

And this is just the tip of the infrastructure iceberg. All over Europe you get from A to B faster and more comfortably. Also with the deregulation of the airline business in Europe, you can now fly cheaply from point to point — something budget travelers never did in the old days.

Travelers these days have more money and higher expectations. (Even “budget travelers” are happy to pay $25 more a night for a private bathroom.) Hotels have accommodated this demand (renovating previously simple and inexpensive rooms). Travelers are more sophisticated and experienced, taking shorter and more focused trips.

CH: Looking ahead, what do you foresee as the most significant change in travel over the next 30 years?

RS: I would predict further evolution of the basics of travel (transportation, communication, fancy and evermore effective ways to share heritage and art), but the essence of travel will remain rock solid. While Europe continues to unite and the globalization movement rolls on, the regional variety of Europe will remain vivid. In fact, the unification of Europe arguably allows nations to be less threatened by regions. This allows the regions to be freer to wave their flags and enjoy their distinct cultures openly. Britons no longer threaten Paris because the notion of Europe is taking hold. When I started traveling, if a parent in Brittany gave their child a Celtic name, that child would loose his or her French citizenship. This paranoia on the part of Paris would be nonsense today. Consequently, Brittany is as distinct from French culture as ever…thanks at least in part to the “unification” of Europe.

CH: Perhaps our most frequently asked question has to do with ways to turn a love for travel into a living. Rolf Potts has some useful tips for would-be travel writers in this issue but warns them not to quit their day jobs. Any thoughts on how to make travel a vocation?

RS: You must have a passion for sharing and teaching travel not for money but for the love of travel. And this teaching needs to sit upon a big fat foundation of travel experience. For 30 years I have been building upon this foundation. My desire for others to learn from my mistakes rather than their own, for Americans to broaden their perspectives through travel, and for the beauties of travel to be accessible to regular people has powered my work from the start. It’s very tough to actually make money traveling or through travel writing. But if you are there, hard-working, able to recognize and fill a real need…and patient: the cosmic plow turns the soil…eventually you’ll get your chance. From the start I have measured “profit” by trips impacted rather than money earned and, with this standard, we are impressively profitable.

CH: Finally, after all those trips, what’s your favorite destination?

RS: Read my Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door book and you’ll find a collection of essays on my 40 favorite back doors. I’ve learned that the more I know about a place the more I enjoy it and that I can never exhaust Europe of what it has to offer.

That’s the book plug and philosophical answer. Short straight answer: favorite country…India. Favorite country in Europe…Italy. Favorite back door destinations in Europe…Cinque Terre in Italy, Berner Oberland in Switzerland, Dingle Peninsula in Ireland, Prague in Czech Republic. Favorite big cities to spend a week: Paris, London, and Rome. Favorite travel magazine: Transitions Abroad. Happy Travels!

Related Topics and Articles
Back Door Travel with Rick Steves
Rick Steves: How to Be a Travel Writer
Budget Travel

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