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Travel Writer and TV Host Rick Steves On Publishing, Packing, Pints, and Patience

Never Check a Bag

Nov 24, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Famed traveler, writer, television host, activist and tour guide, Rick Steves, is an inspiration. He’s curious and adventurous but he’s also compassionate and empathetic. He works to keep a long view of global sustainability, rather than promote quick gains. And, as such, he’s helped bring countless people out of their shells or out of their normal day-to-day behaviors and taken them on excursions around the world, whether through his travel guides, TV shows, or guided tours.

Steves is also a devout Christian, who works to make the world a better place through his faith. And in a time when travel is at a near standstill, Steves tells Americans (and other travelers) to stay calm, enjoy your nearby surroundings, and hold tight until the world can move about freely and safely again.

We caught up with Steves to ask him about how he first got into travel writing, how it’s changed his life over the decades, what he does to bridge his faith with his adventurous spirit and how he thinks the recent Presidential election might bring about a renewed appreciation for science and leadership.

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): How did your parents influence your curiosity and adventurous spirit from an early age?

Rick Steves: Well, my parents—we lived to take off for the weekend. They would literally pick me up at school on Friday and we’d head off. It wasn’t international travel. But if it was sunny, we’d go up into the San Juan Islands in our boat and if it was rainy we’d go “east of the mountains”—the Cascades—to the Lake Chelan area. So, that was all good. My dad was self-employed. He was a piano tuner and he started to import pianos. He always told me it was really good to be self-employed and one day he had the opportunity to import pianos from Germany. So, we went over there to see the piano factories and that introduced me to Europe. My parents I think gave me some wanderlust and they gave me an entrepreneurial creative work ethic and those worked together really nicely for my career.

How did publishing your first book in 1980 impact or change your life?

Well, I was 25-years-old and I was giving talks and everything but not getting a lot of traction. And then it occurred to me that I could deliver the lecture to the book, so to speak. I could just write out the lecture I was giving. It was an eight-week course about traveling in Europe. The material evolved over several years of giving this lecture. So, it was quite easy to write the book. Anybody can write a book. You just have to talk your girlfriend into typing it and your roommate into sketching the art from your photographs and you got to get a couple thousand dollars together and get it presentable and drive it up to a little publishing house up north of Seattle and then you’ve got 2,000 books. They cost about a buck a piece to make the books back then.

As soon as you publish a book, people treat you differently. It’s like, “Oh, I’m an authority, I’m an author.” And it helped me get a little more credibility, people took me more seriously. I got bigger gigs and I was just fanatic about talking about travel anywhere I could go and talk about it. So, if there was a library or chamber of commerce or rotary club or German class at a high school or a travel agency or anybody, I would go out and give the talks. I’m doing the same thing now, you know, 40 years later. It’s just that I’ve got a staff of 100 talented hardworking people and technology beyond my wildest dreams to amplify my teaching. I’m really thankful I found a little niche that doesn’t get old for me. I just love it.

What have you learned about the world or about yourself by being on television for around 30 years?

I’ve made a new season every two year for 30 years, so we’ve had 15 seasons. That’s more than 150 TV shows and I’ve learned that TV can make it look sunny all the time even though it rains quite a bit. I’ve really gained an appreciation for how you can warp reality good or bad through television. So, it’s made me a more savvy consumer of news and information, I think. It’s taught me how to communicate tightly. I get 3,000 words in a half-hour show and that goes by quickly. So, you have to get right to the point. For me, every word needs to earn its keep. I want to put my TV shows into a centrifuge and swing it around and get all the water out of it and still have a lot of content, a lot of value. So, if you look at the content of a half-hour Rick Steves show, I think, one thing unique about it is there is a lot of substance there. Everything’s got to pass the “So what?” test. Why are you sharing this information? My producer, Simon, on the other hand is just interested in making interesting, entertaining and compelling TV. I’m interested in being a tour guide. So, when you put that dynamic together, it comes with a little bit of tension. But the result is beautiful, compelling, viewable TV and a lot of valuable content. I think that’s why it’s easy to watch the show over and over.

You must spend a lot of time on planes and you carry a backpack. Any tips for travel and what do you keep in the pack?

Well, I never check a bag. So, I carry my big bag and my little day bag. If I’m going to Europe for two months or if I’m going on the road for a five-day lecture tour, I pack, you know, essentially the same. Just the clothes I need and my computer and toiletries. There is not much more than that. I don’t lay awake at night thinking about what else could I bring? I lay awake at night thinking what don’t I need maybe. But I always carry my bags onto the airplane. I carry everything. I love not checking a bag because then if there’s a change—if I’m early, I can get on an earlier flight or if I change a flight, they say, “Well where’s your bag?” I say, “My bag’s right here.” And they say, “Really is that all your stuff?” And I say, “Well, yeah.” And then I’m on my way. So, it’s really helpful.

Can you explain what you mean by your idea of becoming a “temporary local?”

A temporary local is—I also like to put it like a “cultural chameleon.” I think cultural chameleon is a better way to put it than temporary local, even. I physically change when I go from country to country. I crave things that people crave in that country. I don’t crave what I’m used to back at home. I love a good old fashioned American breakfast but I don’t crave that when I’m in Europe. I want a good local style breakfast. I don’t crave chocolate unless I’m in Belgium, which is the best place for chocolate. That’s when I get into chocolate. I don’t think I’ve ever had beer in Tuscany because I always go for a beautiful full-bodied glass of red wine. And I don’t think I’ve had a glass of red wine in the Czech Republic because I always go for a beautiful Pilsner, a beautiful beer. Because the Czechs have about the best beer in Europe. I never drink whiskey unless I’m in Scotland and I never really brew tea unless I’m in England. I don’t drink a Stout beer unless I’m in Ireland and then I go for either a Murphy’s or a Guinness. So, that’s just, to me, part of good travel. You have a better experience, people like you better when you embrace the local favorites. You save money, you get better quality. Life just goes better that way. And you don’t have to enjoy it you just have to learn from it. And then you get to go home and take with you the things you really appreciate, which is nice.

Given your worldly experience, what was your first general reaction after the recent U.S. election?

Well, I believe in government. Therefore, I am a Democrat. I’m a great capitalist. I’m probably one of the best capitalist you’ve ever met. And I believe in the need for capitalism to have a chaperone. Because if capitalism is allowed to go wild, I don’t think it’s sustainable. I believe the bane of our society right now is this fixation on short-term profits, quarterly profit statements in order to keep stockholders happy. And I think that the focus should be on long-term sustainability and long-term profits. So, for me, that’s important. I also don’t believe in this old Republican idea of the thousand points of light, which is the idea to let good people help out and let the rest of us just make our business without any regulations and low taxes. I think it’s much better for society to work together through government to deal with societal challenges. That’s the European model. I’m just—I’m not a radical. I just have a European sensibility. So, with that understanding, of course, I’m happy that we have a new president right now.

I’ll tell you one thing, I’m also an internationalist and I understand that we’re 4% of this planet, we Americans. We’re a good 4% but we’re just 4% and I think it’s good to enjoy and get to know they other 96%. The world is filled with joy and love and beautiful people and wonderful families and when you travel you become more enthusiastic about getting to know the families from a global point of view. You know, I’m a Christian so I see that we’re all children of God and that means suffering across the street is no more real than suffering across the sea. We need to, if we’re going to love our neighbors, understand that it’s a global thing. We have a stewardship to take care of the environment. And, for me, these Christian values or religious values are much more in keeping with a government that believes in sustainability and that believes in taking care of people who are struggling. So, that’s good.

Also, the world is waiting for American leadership. It’s ironic that the Make America Great slogan actually made America small from a global perspective. The people—allies can bicker, people can complain about this and that between nations—but when the dust all settles, the United States in uniquely equipped to lead the world in a good way. The world wants that kind of leadership. That’s what they’ve missed. The ideals of America are bigger than any one administration. The ideas of America are bright and shining values that inspire democracy and inspire civil liberties and inspire societies to work together well. Those still inspire people even though we have ups and downs politically within our country.

You created living spaces for homeless folks in Lynnwood, Washington, called Trinity Place. What have you learned by doing this?

To me, fundamentally, my religion is to try to get close to God. To love God and be thankful for how richly blessed we are and to take care of our neighbors. It’s simple to me. I’m inspired by what we learn in the Bible. And as a businessman, as a leader in my community, and as a person who’s got a fair amount of money, it comes with a responsibility to not just consume wildly and thoughtlessly but to be a good steward. How can I get more traction and value out of what I’ve earned and produced? I work hard, I’ve produced a lot, and I could have something worth $5 million somewhere…something really, really fancy. Or I could buy a 25-unit apartment building for that money. And with the 25-unit apartment building, if I manage it properly, I could house 25 single mothers and their children and provide a roof over their heads. And to support the people who are dedicating their careers to helping people who are struggling, like social workers in my community, I could give that apartment building to the YWCA. That’s what am I doing with my wealth: I’m housing people who would otherwise be living in desperate straits with little children, people who are innocent victims of hard luck. They’ve had men who’ve abused them, or they’ve had drug problems, or they’ve had health problems, or they didn’t have parents who were able to give them a good education. And now they need a little bit of compassion.

I don’t see my giving as heroic. It’s just good citizenship—especially for a person as privileged as I’ve been. That’s just being thoughtful—whatever religion you are, you want to love your neighbor. It’s in keeping with my faith. I do philanthropic work as a way to get more value out of what I produce—I love my ability to, what I call, “consume vicariously.” I’m smart enough and thoughtful enough with my wealth to know that if I consume more, I will not be happier. I’m flat on that curve of diminishing returns for the more I consume. So, why would I consume more? I work really hard for my money, so what can I do for that money to be productive? While I’m flat on that curve, I can invest in somebody else who is steep on the curve of diminishing returns for the more they consume. So, if I can help my community build a senior center or help house homeless moms, it’s not a noble thing. It’s just what I see as an enlightened consumption. It’s a way to enjoy and consume what I’ve produced in a vicarious way, which gives it more value and, therefore, makes me happier. Again, it ties in with my practical entrepreneurial capitalism, and the citizenship of being a good neighbor. It ties in with my Christian faith. And it makes me happier.

Last question, Rick. And that is, what do you think about directly when you wake up in the morning?

[Laughs] Well, I was just in a dentist chair. And I was in the chair for two hours and I just laid there thinking about all the fun projects I can do at work. I was thinking about how I can organize my videos better. I was thinking about how I can make my new art series better so more people can appreciate art. I was thinking about challenges I have with COVID and having 100 people on my payroll and no revenue. I was thinking about ways that I can—right now my mission is to help Americans be patient and to recognize that there is far more tragic things than “my cancelled trip to Europe” or even “my losing a year of my business this year.” Now is the time for us to look more positively at what are the needs of our community? How can we help people who are struggling, who are really in dark times now because of COVID? How can we recognize the fragility of our environment? How can we embrace the importance of science and good governance?

These are really important issues that I’ve been thinking about lately. They’re more fundamental than my business needs or my travel plans. On the other hand, I’m just working really carefully to keep my team together and investing in content because content is king for us. We want to have good content so other people can travel smarter. And our mission is to inspire Americans to venture beyond Orlando and we’ll do that right now with our teaching and our content and then as soon as we can travel again, we’ll be doing that with our bus tours all around Europe.

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