Waterlooplein flea market, Amsterdam
There’s a lot of criticism about the American travel guru, Rick Steves. Over 20 years ago he began with his guide Europe Through The Back Door, espousing off the beaten track visits to Europe. He recommended places, hotels, restaurants and talked about museums, gallerys, and all the must see sights for first time tourists. He gave tips on how to get around using local transportation. He highlighted his own favourites. He became wildly popular among American tourists who flocked to Europe and crowded into the “off the beaten track” areas and sights, creating mainstream locations out of them. For this, he’s been criticized.
I’ve been reading some forums about this, mainly on Trip Advisor and there are as many opinions and points of view as there are comment posters. Now I like Rick’s tv travelogues and have made notes of places I might like to see when I know I’m heading to a location he’s written about or featured on television. I never would have known about a hidden courtyard in Copenhagen where you can find colourful old houses, the oldest in the city, without his feature. He didn’t say where it was exactly, but I knew the general area and recognized the street and found it myself.
The thing is, I *am* a tourist. I appreciate tips on how to get from one place to another. I appreciate suggestions for hotels and restaurants. I will check them out, hotels especially, and though I have never actually booked any, I know they will be reasonably priced and well run.
Rick Steves has introduced traveling to a heck of a lot of people that probably never would have had the confidence to go otherwise and if they end up relying a little too much on the guidebooks, is that still such a bad thing? Guide books should be just that, a guide, not a bible, not the be-all and end-all strict rulebook and if some are wearing blinders and see nothing but what is in his or any guidebook, then they aren’t going to get as full an experience as they could have. But if they come home and say they had a wonderful time, then what difference does it make in the long run? If they decide the trip was too regimented, well they’ll know for the next time.
The balconies of Montmartre, Paris
I think a lot of people have discovered travel and found the confidence to go because of Steves. He’s become enormously popular and perhaps has become more of an institution than he ever thought he would be. Perhaps some of the lesser known neighbourhoods, attractions or restaurants are now clogged with American tourists. I still don’t think that’s a bad thing. I still think that whatever gets you on a plane or train or into a car to explore somewhere new is worth vying for space with other tourists.
In the beginning, he was espousing independent travel but his company now hosts group tours as well. I have taken some bus tours in the past, though not his, and have enjoyed them as an overview of an area. They have their advantages and disadvantages but I believe they have their place and are great.
In one of the messages posted on one of the Trip Advisor discussions, someone wrote “Rick Steves is the set of training wheels that keeps you from ending up flat on your face on the sidewalk on your first trip to Europe. He does a very good job of telling people that yes, you CAN do this, and look, it’s pretty easy.” I really like that philosophy, “training wheels”. First time travelers to a foreign country need them in many cases. Training wheels give you the confidence to know you will be ok when they come off.
Rick Steves’ guides are updated regularly which many others are not. His practical information is second to none. You might not agree with his favourites and top things to see and do but everything is subjective, isn’t it? Even a hotel your best friend loved may not appeal to you. I’d rather use a guidebook that’s accurate regardless of what company produces it.
This really says everything I feel about Steves’ or any other company’s guide book. It’s a place to start. It gives you an idea of what there is to see. It details the practical information you need to know. It gives you some background and history. Guidebooks, websites, forums and tv travel shows all work together to give you things to put on all those lists you make to organize your travels. Don’t restrict yourself to what’s in a book. Use it as a stepping stone. Ask questions in forums on sites like Trip Advisor or Virtual Tourist, both of which have busy forums and great fellow travelers that will given you excellent advice. These sites also have good travel guides and tips from people who have been where you want to go.
Now… I better finish this up. Rick’s new season is starting on PBS and he’s featuring Ancient Rome. Since I’ll be there in a month, I think I might make a few notes!
Rick Steves’ website
Trip Advisor forums
Virtual Tourist forums