WGBH's Henry Santoro interviews public radio/TV travel show host Rick Steves, who visits Boston March 29 at the Wilbur Theater to greet fans and travelers. Below is a loosely edited version of their conversation. To listen to the entire interview, click on the audio link above.
Henry Santoro: Travel guru Rick Steves is one of the most respected men in the business, especially when it comes to European travel. His European travel books are lifesavers for people traveling abroad and his PBS TV and radio shows garner huge audiences nationwide, seen on WGBH 2 and heard on WGBH 89.7. It's a pleasure to welcome Rick Steves to our WGBH studios and to Henry in the Hub. Morning Rick.
Rick Steves: Thanks. Nice to be with you, Henry. Thanks.
HS: You were born and raised in Washington state, you still live and work there to this day, but if you could live anywhere in Europe where would it be, and why?
RS: Boy, I can look out my window in my office and still see my junior high school so I'm really
pretty settled in Seattle.
HS: You stayed pretty close to home.
RS: But if I was going to live in Europe I think I might live in …well I'd probably live in Britain because I only speak English. If I wasn't worried about the language barrier ... boy, Vienna is a great city. Paris is the capital of Europe. I'd say Paris is my favorite city.
HS: Wow. There's a guy here at WGBH who was sitting in a café in Italy with his wife one day a few years ago. They were using one of your books as their travel guide, and they looked up and there you were strolling down the sidewalk. They got a good chuckle out of it. But my question is, does that happen often? Do people run into you while using their guidebooks in Europe?
RS: Oh yeah. It happens all the time. I spend four months a year in Europe, I've done that for the last 30 years. I spend April and May in the Mediterranean. I go home in June, and then July and August north of the Alps.
HS: Tough job, huh?
RS: Oh, somebody has got to do it. And when I'm making my TV show — I mean, for 20 years we've been running my show here on WGBH on television — it takes six days of scrambling in Europe to make one of those shows and we’re just a crew of three. We're a tight little public television crew, me, the cameraman, and the producer, we all fit in a car, we can turn on a dime. And when I need somebody to help me out there's always a public television fan around and I can just say, “Will you please just hold hands and walk around the corner, take a little kiss and then disappear up to that ruined castle?” And then they can be bit players in our show. But for me, when I'm not making the TV show, I'm researching my guidebooks, and it's very helpful for me to be able to tap the experience of the Americans I see traveling with my guidebook.
HS: Right. You have the books you have. You also lead the occasional tour. You've got the TV show, you've got the radio show, and now you've got a live stage show and WGBH is bringing you to Boston's Wilbur Theater on March 29th … what will happen at that show?
RS: Well this is what I've been doing before I was making TV. I love to give talks, and show the photographs, and share the lessons I've learned. You know, when I'm in Europe, if I get ripped off, I celebrate because they don't know who they just ripped off and I’m going to learn that scam and come home and tell people what's going on. And in the last year I've been in some exciting places, and I just love to come into town and gather together people who understand the value of public broadcasting and share the most practical experience enhancing and money saving tips. So it's just a pretty information-packed presentation that helps people learn from my experience rather than their own in order to have a better trip.
HS: Is there a seedy side to the travel industry?
RS: There is a seedy side to the travel industry and that's what inspired me to get into my tour business. I don't like tours that are sold for less than what they expect to make and then they get you on the bus or on the cruise ship, having not made the profit they need and then you're over there desperate to have a good time. And then they start bidding and nailing and deceiving you and selling his stuff for kickbacks, and I don't like that. I don't like a tour guide that's not paid up front and then takes you shopping to get a kickback on that cuckoo clock or whatever.
HS: Are you a fan of the motor coach method of seeing the world?
RS: I think that there's a right way to travel for different people. I'm not a fan of cruising but I think it certainly has its place and I enjoy going on a cruise, I wrote a guidebook to help cruisers. My first passion is for people to go independently on their own. But the biggest part of my business, I've got to say, is I take bus tours around Europe, we take a thousand bus tours around Europe every year and I just had the joy of leading 25 people around 3,000 miles of Europe in three weeks and we just had a blast. The cool thing about a bus tour is there are all sorts of economy in efficiency. And people wonder how am I making money on the bus tours. I'm talking 25 people into sharing one vehicle instead of renting all those cars or taking all those train tickets. And that right there is plenty of money to offer a very good value and at the same time to be profitable.
HS: At twenty-five people … that is a very manageable group to be on tour with as well.
RS: The standard tour bus has 50 people on a 50-seat bus, and I can't imagine that. But you know, we have 25 people on a 50-seat bus and then we like to orient and disperse; we do what we should do together. With 25 people you can hire a guide, a local guide, everywhere, and that's the real luxury.
HS: What makes a good tour guide, great?
RS: What makes a good tour guide great …that's a great question and I think it's a passion for teaching and getting tourists gently out of their comfort zone. A good tour guide will take people and put them in a situation they wouldn't be in otherwise. It could be simply just eating and understanding escargot or foie gras, or understanding what's a bullfight all about, or going into Turkey and understanding what is the threat of this rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism and how is it important in Turkey that they have the constitutionally required separation of mosque and state, you know. A lazy tour guide would take a trip through Turkey and you'd never talk about these kind of issues. I think a good tour guide helps people grapple with these very interesting issues. When I come into Switzerland with my TV crew, they think “oh I want to see the new casino or the new resort.” No, I want to see your heroin maintenance clinic. I want to see how you guys handle your opioid problem you see, that's really today's issues. And when we travel, we gain an appreciation for different people who are struggling with the same challenges and we can share notes.
HS: What, in your opinion do you think is the next hot travel destination?
RS: Well, the real hot area right now is Scotland, believe it or not. I'm surprised, our Scotland guidebooks and our Scotland tours are outselling our England guidebooks and tours. Eastern Europe is really becoming — it's still sort of a new frontier and I think a lot of people they should really give a look to Hungary and the Czech Republic and Poland and the former Yugoslavia.
HS: Nice. Rick Steves can be seen on your TV, can be heard on your radio, and just might be walking by you while you're sitting in a cafe in Italy.
RS: And if I do I'll sign your book.HS: On March 29th you can find him on stage talking travel at the Wilbur Theatre. Rick Steves, a pleasure to meet you.
RS: Thank you so much. It's my pleasure, Henry, thanks a lot and happy travels.