Rick Steves

Rick Steves by his favorite bulboard in Spain.

Photo courtesy Rick Steves
Itinerant Sage

Who: Rick Steves, ’78
Known As: Idealist and Advocate
Known for: Taking travelers to Europe Through the Backdoor

Rick Steves, ’78, is an idealist.

He doesn’t expect you to agree with him. But he’s not speaking his mind or advocating controversial legal reform to be popular. In fact, his opinions sometimes cost him business. None of this fazes him.

Travel made him this way. The tenets to which he now clings were developed over the years, in close commune with other people of the world. Now, he wants the same for others. This fall, his book Travel as a Political Act won the Society of American Travel Writers’ Lowell Thomas Travel Book of the Year award. It is a book not about fun in the sun, or where to find a budget room in Budapest, but rather one that encourages Americans to broaden their perspectives through travel.

Steves, who went to college intending to spend his life teaching piano, became a travel guru by accident. After living out of a backpack in Europe during the summers, he’d return to campus and share his knowledge about budget travel with other students. Thus, a mogul was born.

By 1980 Steves had given up piano, was only teaching travel and had a first book—Europe Through the Backdoor. Thirty years later he’s the country’s most renowned travel expert, employs 80 people and has 30 books, a nationally broadcast TV show, a radio show and a life he calls fun.

And he enjoys the right to stand, rigidly, vocally, for what he believes.

“I like to embrace the truth,” he says. “If you’re successful and affluent and free, you should be able to embrace the truth without regard to how it affects your business.”

Take the peace flag he flew outside his building a few years back, which prompted a passer-by to say, “I bet if you knew how much that peace flag was costing your bottom line, you wouldn’t have put it up.”

Steves was horrified. “I can support a cause even if it’s bad for my business, because I’m a success. That’s a different outlook. That’s the truth. That’s enlightened. I’m thankful for that.”

Peace isn’t the only value Steves is flying. He’s also a member of NORML and an advocate for U.S. drug policy reform.

Why does he advocate on behalf of reforming marijuana laws?

“There are a lot of good causes anyone can speak out for—MS or breast cancer—and that will be applauded, but I can speak out for drug policy issues, which I think are very important, and others cannot, so it’s best for me to speak out in an area where others cannot speak out,” he says.

“I know a lot of people who smoke a little pot now and then. Should you lock them up?

No. Poor and black people get locked up, not rich white people.”

Which lies at the heart of his determination to legalize marijuana. Aware that both the use and criminalization of drugs pose a great risk to the black community, he wants a drug policy that removes criminalization from the issue, so that society can deal with the health and social issues that result from drug use.

“The irony is, there’s not a reservoir of people wishing they could ruin their lives if only it [pot] were legal,” says Steves. He says nearly everyone who wants to smoke does. “I’m not pro-drugs. Drugs are bad. It’s smart drug policy. We’ve got to minimize harm.”

And how has this very vocal stance affected Steves’ business? Not at all, he says. Then, he pauses and reflects: “Actually, I did just have someone boycott our tours. All I can think, when someone says, ‘We’re never going to take your tours again,’ is that Europe will be more fun without them.”

Homelessness is another social issue Steves tackles when he’s not taking on Europe. Every year the budget-travel guru loses the taxable interest on a $1.5 million, 25-unit apartment complex in Lynnwood that he purchased in 2005 and turned over to the YWCA to provide transitional housing to homeless women and their children. In return, Steves goes to bed each night knowing that 25 women who have hit hard times have a good roof over their heads.

Not only does the avowed capitalist think it’s a good thing to do with his money, he knows what it’s like to need an affordable room. It’s what he spends 120 nights each year scouring Europe for.

“Letting a few people move out of their cars and into someplace stable isn’t going to undercut capitalism, it’s good for capitalism,” says Steves. “I’ve learned, even if you’re motivated only by greed, if you know what’s good for you, you don’t want to be filthy rich in a desperately poor world.”

Social reform as a way of life: a belief foreign to Steves before world travel. That’s why he’s teaching other people to travel.

“I used to think you can travel because the cheese is good. But no, you can travel also because you can broaden your perspective and bring it home, and the rest of the world can be your friend.”

Julie H. Case is managing editor of Columns

13 Responses to Face Time

  1. Dr.Alberto Rafols says:

    I have read the article with great interest since Rick Steves was my piano student at the UW in the late 70′s. I also remember meeting Rick in Lisbon in the summer of 1977 on one of his first adventures in Europe — I have fond memories (and pictures) of that trip. I believe it would be good closure and fun for both to converse on that moment in life. How can I contat him?

    Dr. Alberto Rafols
    Portland, OR

    • Rick Steves says:

      Dr. Rafols,
      I’d love to talk. I have great memories of nervously sitting at your piano bench. Please email me and we’ll connect.
      Rick

      • Alberto Rafols says:

        Rick,

        I just read your reply (over 2 years ago). Would love to see you. Either in Seattle or in Portland when you are here.

        Warm regards,

        Alberto

  2. Mark Shea says:

    I just read the article in print and had to pop over here on the internets to commend Mr. Steves for his enlightened approach to business. It really doesn’t matter on which end of the political spectrum you find yourself. Now at the dawn of the Web age, your opinion on almost any matter will be visible to all who want to find it. It is or will all be out there for all to see anyway. It is unavoidable. Mr. Assange is making a strong statement about that right now with WikiLeaks.

    Let us begin an honest conversation. Let us reason with one another. Let us put our money where our mouth is. Good for you Rick. It’s good to see that UW Alums are leading the way with insight and understanding for the new world we live in and that world is diverse, complex, and fascinating. I believe you are exactly right in saying that we need to know more about the world we live in. It expands our own awareness. Travel, travel, travel…..amen.

    All the best,

    Mark Shea, UW Alum (2009 MCDM)

  3. Russell Rice says:

    This public school teacher first encountered Rick’s work in 1990 when, just about to wrap up a semester abroad, a friend mailed me dog-eared, highlighted, and underlined pages from “Europe Through the Back Door.” My travel partner and I protected these pages as our Bible as we whisked ourselves across the European continent, and I returned to America infected with the travel bug.

    Now I take my students on educational trips to Europe, hoping that they too will gain a greater appreciation for the diversity of our world and the people in it. I have found that after people travel and experience other cultures, they cannot help but take the broader view of social issues facing home and abroad.

    Keep up the good work and candid messages, Rick!

    Russell Rice, U.W. 1998

  4. Brenda Alvarez says:

    First of all I had no idea that Rick Steve’s was a UW Alum, that’s cool. Secondly, kudos Rick for doing your part in our community. I too use to think that travel was just for the well off, but obviously that is not true. Travel truly does broaden your perspective and enriches your life. Keep up the good work, my husband and I are a fans.

    P.S. Is that photo of you in Basque Country? I’m pretty sure my husband and I saw those in the Spanish country side while driving from Barcelona to the Basque region of Spain.

  5. William Tolin Gay, '78 says:

    My wife and I became fans of Rick after we moved back to the U.S. from Tokyo in 1988; we found his programs quite by accident on public television here in Southern California.
    I like his notion of speaking out “in an area where others cannot speak out.” This is very far removed from the Hollywood celebrity concept that if you have fans, it follows that people must want you to teach them how to think on political issues.
    And what a surprise to learn that he is a classmate!

  6. Eric Bass says:

    What I know is this…I had a long career with a local major airline back in the 90s. Though I wasn’t paid well, we did enjoy nearly free flights to most anywhere in the world as a perk. Rick Steve’s books were an invaluable companion in negotiating Europe on a slim budget. Since that time I have so enjoyed his radio program and films as a reminder and inspiration of just how wonderful our planet can be to explore.

    As for political activism, keep in mind that without it, some of us would still be slaves, not be able to vote, etc. etc. Change is hard to swallow, especially in our society, but we need more great minds like him to inspire us to seek a greater good in change.

  7. Nancy Challman says:

    I VERY much have enjoyed Rick’s book and recently toured Europe with those life-lines firmly in my grip the entire time! Travel totally gives you a broader sense of humainity. And while I agree with the importance of change and the activism that it takes to make that happen, I would caution to what we hang our political hat upon. Anyone who has raised a teenager can tell you that just because everyone is doing it, don’t make it right.

  8. Nancy Penrose says:

    Great piece with new insights into Rick’s activism. One thing that was not mentioned was the trip that Rick and camera crew took to Iran in 2008. I made a trip to Iran that same year and, upon my return, I tried to spread the word as widely as possible through writing articles and giving talks about the positive experiences I had there. My efforts were nothing, however, compared to the audiences reached via the excellent one-hour program that Rick put together after his trip and that has been aired many times on PBS. I’ve heard Rick’s talks about Iran and recall that he covered the costs of the trip with his own funds. Again, this is an example of his activism at work; putting up his own money to make a program that sheds light on a country that is poorly understood by most Americans,yet one that our politicians talk about bombing.

  9. Cynnie says:

    Rick has been my travel guru since I started traveling the world back in 1992. The information he has provided for me and my husband over the years has been invaluable and has led to lasting travel memories that I will never forget. It wasn’t until more recent years that I started watching his shows and listening to his radio show. He is such a great man with such a wonderful world outlook. It is so nice to know that he shares his open minded and generous personality to better our local community as well. Rick is one of the few that has taken his passion and made it into his career and life’s work. This quote made me laugh, “Actually, I did just have someone boycott our tours. All I can think, when someone says, ‘We’re never going to take your tours again,’ is that Europe will be more fun without them.” Thanks for sharing all your knowledge with us Steve. Maybe when my kids fly the coop I will come work for you. ;-)

  10. Lisa says:

    An article about our boy! ;o>

  11. Laura says:

    My parents gave me Rick Steves’ Best of Europe when I studied abroad in undergrad and I have been a devoted fan every since. His walking tours and recommendations allow you to experience the tastes, attitudes, and beauty of a region better than any other guide I’ve read. It was such a pleasant surprise to find out that Rick is a UW alum and an advocate for social reform as well. I couldn’t agree more that travel broadens your perspective and makes you more aware of the society around you. I hope that more people will follow Rick’s example!

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