Some people freak out at the idea of interviewing their favorite celebrities, like Brad Pitt or Kate Hudson. I, however, turned my stomach into knots when I was given the chance to interview one of my idols, Rick Steves. I’ve been watching his PBS show for as long as I can remember and couldn’t put down Travel as a Political Act. His guidebooks are what first got me interested in Croatia and how my family found our favorite restaurant in Florence. They have reached millions of people and are now available in e-book form.
The television and radio host, guidebook author, NORML advocate and 2011 Society of American Travel Writers Travel Journalist of the Year gave me a few minutes of his time to answer some of my most lingering travel questions.
Q: The topic of your lecture in Atlanta is “Europe Through the Back Door.” Why do you think your Europe on a budget philosophy still resonates with so many people even thirty years later?
A: Oh, it’s this fundamental thing that people, the less you spend, the more vivid your experience is. The more people you’ll meet. The more you’ll learn. The more you get out of your comfort zone. That all contributes to a better trip. These days Americans have seen the famous places but they’re looking for experiences. The way we talk about traveling is mostly experiences.
Q: Most of my readers are backpackers. As someone who got their start backpacking, what is your top tip for first time backpackers in Europe?
A: Have a cell phone or some way to be mobile and online. That’s pretty important these days. Equip yourself with good information and expect it to work. Then you can be a smart traveler. And recognize that your time is really valuable. On a tight budget, your time is worth a lot so you don’t want to be wasting time in line needlessly. I would say there’s two IQs of European travelers: those who wait in lines and those who don’t.
Q: Why do you think it is so important to support public broadcasting, because I know the event in Atlanta supports Georgia Public Television?
A: Media is a huge power in shaping our perception and so on and it shapes our worldview more than ever. So public broadcasting is, well, media is more important than ever to shape people’s perspectives and the problems confronting us these days are more complicated than ever. So we need media but public media is the only media that I believe respects our intelligence and assumes an attention span and brings us programming not shaped by corporate interests. But shaped by a passion for understanding our world better.
Q: Speaking of the media, do you think the way the media’s sensationalizes the events in “dangerous” places like Iran, Mexico and Egypt will have a permanent effect on the tourism industries?
A: I don’t really care about the tourism industry, I just care about being invested in regards to the value of the media. News in most cases is entertainment masquerading as news. In the days of Walter Cronkite, network news was not profitable, it just didn’t need to make money. It was part of their responsibility as journalists to give us straight news. Now news has become entertainment. So I find it entertaining, I love watching it, but I don’t let it determine what my world outlook is.
Q: Which brings me to your book Travel as a Political Act, which I really enjoyed because it encourages travelers to seek out experiences like you had in these destinations. Why was that an important message for you?
A: As a travel teacher, people look to me for, you know, advice on how to travel and I’ve learned over thirty years my teaching is evolved, kind of like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, from budget tricks to appreciating European culture to getting a broader perspective. And now I know the most important message to take home is that worldview, that broader perspective, and that’s travel as a political act. So that book was named travel guide of the year last year by the Society of American Travel Writers, which I’m really proud of because it’s an acknowledgement by the travel writing community in general that there is a real important function of travel and that is to get out of our comfort zone and to better empathize with the other 96 percent of humanity. And then when we come home, we Americans can help our country fit better into this even smaller planet. So that’s really important to me as I travel. And I see a lot of fear in our society these days and it’s really clear to me that fear is for people who don’t get out very much. When you travel you realize the side of fear is understanding and you gain understanding if you travel. And going back to public television, I think public television helps you get out a little more too, which is, I think, really helpful.
Mr. Steves is giving his “Europe Through the Back Door” lecture for two nights in Atlanta at the Georgia Public Broadcasting studios. Tickets are $35 for non-members and the event starts at 7:30 p.m. on March 20 and 21. If you’re not in Atlanta, check out his website to find out where he will be closest to your city. A big thank you to Rick Steves for this interview.