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Best-selling Author Rick Steves on Why We Should All Travel

Julie Ansell/Cashman Photo

When someone tells travel writer Rick Steves “safe travels,” he responds in kind with “stay home safely,” because in his experience, it’s just as safe to travel overseas as it is to travel in the U.S.— or to just stay home. 

“We’ve got to realize that fear is for people who don’t get out very much,” he told the audience at the Restaurant Finance & Development Conference in Vegas earlier this month. Steves, who has been teaching travel since the 1970s, was the luncheon speaker at the event. And since travel guides and tours to Europe are his bread and butter, he wants people to think less about creating borders and more about experiencing different cultures. “12 million Americans go to Europe every year and 12 million come home,” he says about our newfound belief that beyond our borders is an unsafe place.

Food and wine—and beer in Germany—are some of the greatest perks of travel. If you make a living in the foodservice business, travel is one way to broaden your horizons and your menus. Meeting real people, “not just the concierge or the yodeler on stage,” is the mark of good trip, he says, adding, “People carbonate the experience.” And meeting the people who make the food or grow the grapes is one way to get to know a culture.

For instance, Portugal is a “soupy society, they love soup,”  he contends. Need proof? McDonald’s has four soups on the menu, he points out. 

While his guidebooks include the tourist spots, he also wants readers to visit the off-the-beaten path sites, like mom-and-pop run restaurants. “Personality-driven restaurants really are the best,” he says. One of his favorite restaurants in Italy states on the menu: “Don’t ask to cook the meat more, we don’t do it. And please no cappuccinos.”

Another of his finds serves “ugly things” on toothpicks that are washed down with local wine. At the end of the meal, you pay by the number of toothpicks on your plate. 

In Spain, it’s all about ham. “And you get what you pay for,” he warns about trying to save money here. “Life is too short to eat mediocre ham in Spain.”

In Ireland, he was introduced to moldy cheeses. To the locals “it smells like the feet of angels,” he said, “but it smells like the feet of baseball players to me.”

Food halls in Europe are called a “food circus,” which sounds way more fun, and started as farmers markets. Just as farm-to-table is huge in the U.S., in Europe the concept is called a “zero-kilometer meal.” 

Unlike Americans who “think it’s their right to eat strawberries, etc, whether it’s in season or not,” Steves says Europeans are used to eating in season. “A good traveler can look at a menu and see where they are and when, because of the ingredients,” he says. 

In addition to his thousands of European tours and best-selling guide books that are constantly being updated, Steves has a PBS-TV travel show and radio show picked up by 400 stations. “I don’t do bizarre foods,” he says. “I’m teaching, not entertaining. My mission is to inspire Americans to venture beyond Orlando.”

And while one would expect someone who travels overseas as much as he does to fly first class, Steves flies coach. “Why should 10 percent of people get more leg room?” he asks rhetorically. When he gets to his seat, he puts on his noise-reducing headphones and spends his time in the air writing. And unlike most of us who travel for work, he doesn’t get irritated by standing in line to go through security. He never checks a bag, and he doesn’t sweat the small stuff. “If it’s not to my liking, I try to change my liking,” he says. 


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