Travel Tips from Rick Steves

img_2556Back in February I stumbled upon these awesome travel classes hosted by Rick Steves and his tour guides.

Rick Steves focuses on European travel and the talks follow suit. Each talk is different and covers an array of travel tips, from the best places to visit in each country, to tips for traveling with a mobile device, to basic language skills for getting around certain countries and more.

I’ve had my eye on the topics for 9+ months, checking back every once in a while to see what was coming up.

Although free, they require an RSVP and fill up quickly. I’ve seen several I wanted to attend, but I can’t make weeknights work because of my commute, and our weekends are typically pretty busy.

A few weeks ago they posted a Fall Travel Festival event– an entire day of concurrent sessions on all kinds of travel topics taking place at a couple of locations in Edmonds, which is about 14 minutes from where we live.

I finally decided to sign us up! I registered for a European Travel Tips talk by Rick himself and a Packing Light and Right session with one of his tour guides.

We arrived a little early and couldn’t believe how many people were there. The Edmonds Center for the Arts was packed, and they even opened up the balcony seating. Brian managed to sneak upstairs between sessions to snap the picture above.

We sat in the front row and I took a few pictures and notes while Rick gave his hour and a half talk. He’s got great stage presence and was very funny — the time flew by and it was educational as well as entertaining.

While he didn’t cover anything was really new to us, I did write down a few things that resonated and that we adhere to in our travels:

  • Balance the main attractions with authentic experiences. I tend to approach a trip like it might be the only time I get to do it. Do I over plan our agendas as a result? Yes, I do. Thankfully my husband is reasonable, cuts my itinerary in half, and we end up having a nice balance of seeing the main attractions I don’t want to miss plus some downtime to just experience a place–pop in a random restaurant for dinner, reroute our day and visit a nearby city, etc. I recognize the importance of leaving time for the authentic and unexpected experiences that often become the highlights of our trip. “Grapple with your sightseeing in a thoughtful way,” as Rick put it.
  • Consider context and perspective. Often times we visit a historic city or site and look back through time to its origins. Instead of looking back, sometimes it’s more intriguing to consider what it was like before a place existed and try to imagine what it was like when it came about. How did that change impact people? What was it like the first time they experienced it? My husband and I really enjoy reading and learning about places, and it’s fascinating to think about the impact then as well as how it impacted things moving forward.
  • Eat and drink like a local. Brian and I are among the least picky eaters I know. We’ll literally try anything once and pride ourselves on experiencing culture through local cuisine. In addition to eating local fare, Rick emphasized the importance of eating locally–finding an authentic hole in the wall place full of locals, picking a random dish off the menu in a language you can’t read, and being open to experiencing the best meal you’ve ever had. Likewise with drinks. As Rick put it, “drink red wine in Italy, drink Monk-made ales in Belgium– it will go better.”

He also shared some great reminders that I know I need to try to incorporate more into our travels:

  • Explore the city during the day and at night. I fail at this one. I’m an early to bed, early to rise kind of girl, and while we’re usually up and experiencing a new place early and throughout the day, I’m ready to crawl into bed when the sun sets. Rick’s solution? Take a nap so you can experience a city at night when the “magic of the past is blowing through the fortifications.” My husband loves to take night pictures and hates fighting crowds– he would likely enjoy places most at night. I need to be better about taking a nap and committing some time to exploring the pulse of a place after hours.
  • Know what’s in front of you. I’m a big fan of researching things ahead of time, re-reading my travel guides on the plane ride to a destination. While that’s a great approach for learning about the main attractions that are right in front of you, a lot of times you might be walking right by things of significant importance or interest because you don’t know they’re there. That’s the advantage of having a tour guide who can point these things out to you. We’ve had incredible experiences with guides who offered additional information as well as different perspectives. Like when we took a tour of Derry, Northern Ireland, with a guide whose father was killed during the Troubles. Or when we rode in a bus through the Romanian countryside with a driver who was the first person in his family allowed to travel outside the country following the fall of Communism. As my husband likes to say, you don’t know what you don’t know, and I need to remember it’s a worthwhile investment to secure a guide for at least a few hours our first day in a new place.
  • Use travel tools but don’t let them define your trip. TripAdvisor may be great for gathering what most people think are the top 10 things to do in a city, but don’t use those 10 things as your itinerary–use them as a guide. I’m usually pretty good about using travel tools to supplement versus define my planning, but I sometimes get caught up in reading blogs or forums for ideas about how much time to spend at different destinations when I’m building my itinerary. Nearly every time I end up sifting through responses about how [insert how many days I’m going on the trip] isn’t nearly long enough to experience a place and that if that’s all the time I can spend I might as well not even bother going. If that were the case, I would never travel at all–there’s never enough time. I need to remind myself to take these recommendations with a grain of salt and map out an itinerary that’s reasonable for us in the amount of time we have–not one that meets the approval of every travel forum participant.

He covered many other topics during his talk, but these were a few that stood out to me. If you want to learn more, he has a tons of videos and resources on his website and blogs. I also just downloaded his Audio Europe app so I can listen to his podcasts and radio programs while I’m commuting and need a little escape.

I would love to go to additional sessions with his tour guides as I think about and plan future trips to Europe to see what other ideas they have, especially for destinations off the beaten path or as he puts it, through the backdoor. There are tons of resources for those who enjoy planning their own trips (myself included!), and I’ll be adding some of Rick Steves’ resources to my list!

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