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Steves offers advice, personal stories about travel abroad

Meghan Wons | Tuesday, November 14, 2006

For travel expert Rick Steves – a man who has “spent one-third of his adult life living out of a suitcase” – getting people to “feel the pulse of Europe” is not a difficult task.

“Travel is such a beautiful opportunity,” Steves told a packed auditorium in McKenna Hall Monday, when he gave his lecture “How to Travel Smart.”

Steves spoke on “how to experience Europe through the back door,” stressing that Americans traveling abroad will get the most out of the experience if they are unafraid to immerse themselves in local culture.

Too often, Steves said, tourists get caught up in the marketing efforts of the travel industry.

“We [American travelers] are really victims of the promotional budget,” he said. “When you travel, you want to experience that European love of life … get out of the economy and become part of the party.”

In order to find that party, Steves said travelers need to “get off the beaten path.” He said tour buses prevent travelers from seeing some of Europe’s most beautiful and interesting places.

Steves said Cinque Terra – the five villages on the Italy’s West Coast – are practically unchanged from 800 years ago. And with no tour bus access or upscale resorts, he said, visitors to the beautiful seaside villages will not have to deal with the “worst kind of travelers – those that need the five star hotels.”

Steves lauded Eastern Europe as the “new frontier” and said it was “a festival of entrepreneurial spirit.”

For Steves, straying from more traditional European travel destinations to explore places like Krakow, Budapest and Turkey has been rewarding.

But culture shock can be a concern, Steves said. He advised potential travelers in the audience to “start mild then go exotic … start in London and end up in Turkey.”

Steves also talked about travel as a gateway to increased cultural understanding. His trips to Turkey have dispelled many Western misconceptions, he said.

“I have learned so much from visiting Turkey, a moderate Islamic nation, and meeting the people there,” he said.

While Steves encouraged his audience to visit destinations not traditionally promoted by the travel industry, he also recognized that most people do want to see sights and places on the more “beaten” path.

Traveling to popular tourist destinations, he said, simply requires smart planning.

He said that the best times to see destinations usually teeming with tourists are in the early morning or in the evening – “when all of the tour buses have been loaded.”

When visiting any destination in Europe, Steves said, “You owe it to yourself to read up on a little history.”

“Just because it’s B.C. doesn’t mean it must be seen – choose your sights wisely,” he said.

Steves cautioned travelers who are tempted to see Europe through a camera lens.

“You need to be psychologically there when you travel – that should be your goal. Stow your camera,” he said.

He also had plenty of practical advice for keeping travelers safe and comfortable while abroad and in transit between countries.

“In Europe there are two kinds of travelers – those who travel light and those who wished they traveled light,” Steves said. He recommended “packing for the best situation,” contrary to the popular tendency to “pack for the worst.”

As for how Sept. 11 has affected the way people travel, Steves said this is one of journalists’ favorite questions to ask – one, he said, that frustrates him.

“It is safe to travel,” he said. “Every year, many more people are killed in the U.S. by handguns than they are traveling abroad. Statistically, it’s not dangerous to travel – it’s more dangerous to stay here.”

Even if many Europeans disagree with current U.S. foreign policy, Steves said, that doesn’t mean they dislike Americans.

“People love the concept of Americans – that hasn’t changed,” he said. “You can go wherever you want and be liked as an individual.”

Steves has written numerous travel guidebooks and hosted more than 100 travel programs on public television. He is a syndicated columnist for the op-ed pages of USA Today, and his company takes thousands of people around Europe annually. The local PBS affiliate, WNIT, broadcasts Steves’ show every Thursday at 5:30 p.m.