Student Travel Report from Andy Steves — As He Begins the Third Season of His “Weekend Student Adventures”

On my run this morning, I jogged out along the bay to one of Dublin’s lighthouses. It was a beautiful, sunny day — the type you wouldn’t normally associate with Dublin. On my way back, I came across a mother and her three young children. One — sippy-bottle in hand — threw out her arms, blocked my path, and demanded, “Wot’s the pahs-w’d!?” “Pretty please?” I panted. The gates opened, and she let me pass.

Experiences like these only serve to remind me just how similar we all are — even across oceans, generations, and cultures.

I’m busy in Europe now, traveling from foreign study campus to foreign study campus, giving talks. Like my dad did when he was my age and starting his business, I give practical talks to students about how to travel. A byproduct of my lectures: A good number of attendees sign up for my tours after learning more about me and my traveling style.

I’m writing this while flying to Paris for a talk I’m giving tomorrow. This will be the first of 20 lectures on about 20 campuses I’ve scheduled in the next month.

This semester marks the beginning of our third tour season (and second year) of my up-and-coming student tour business, Weekend Student Adventures. My mission: to design three-day-weekend tours for students to Europe’s greatest cities that are more than a pub crawl—still fun…but with a focus on real cultural experience and efficient sightseeing. In our first term, we took 85 students. Last spring, over 250 joined our tours. And this fall, I’m hoping to again triple our bookings to 750.

Student travel can be richly rewarding or, frankly, an expensive waste of time punctuated by lots of hangovers. And I’ve enjoyed being steep on the learning curve now for a few years.

From couch-surfing in the Jewish Quarter of Prague to changing my flights on the go as a new speaking opportunity opens up in London, I live and run my business out of my backpack. Modern technology enables me to run my business out of any coffee shop offering free Wi-Fi, anywhere in Europe.

My dad likes to share stories of writing daily postcards home so that his parents could monitor his whereabouts. He mentioned something about an “aerogram.” I don’t remember the last time I filled out a postcard…and I still don’t understand what an aerogram is. Rather, I’m video-Skyping with my friends in Japan, Ulster, and NYC, with my sister in Washington DC, and with my mother back in Seattle.

Technology has transformed the backpacking culture such that friends are kept updated by the minute about what their traveling buddies are doing halfway around the world. Hostel reservations are done not by phone or fax, but by email or direct booking. Trip research, planning, and mapping are done online. When on the streets, I capture a map on my iTouch, and I’m navigating smartly anywhere I go — for free. This new style of travel is called “Flashpacking.” I got my dad up to speed on this recently during an interview on his radio show.

But there’s a danger to all this technological ease. While the digital age makes travel more efficient and communication much easier these days, it can also take away from the social experiences that really enrich your travel experience. I’ve been in hostels that actually rent out iPads. Rather than conversing, everyone in the common room was zoned in on their device — connecting not with the fascinating people from around the world that are sitting right next to them…but with the Internet.

Recently, I’ve challenged myself to travel more and more with my senses. I’ll close my eyes and feel the uneven cobblestones of Rome beneath my feet, smell the fresh baguettes coming out of the oven in a Paris boulangerie, really listen to the bell towers in the medieval cities across Europe, and taste local specialties in a way that stirs my spirit like a local. Doing this simple exercise brings travel down to a basic level — with your eyes closed, you take nothing for granted, and every other sense becomes more vivid.

As a tour guide and organizer, it’s my challenge to break travelers out of their comfort zone — to connect with the city they’re in. In my talks, I challenge students to give their trip a personal, experiential goal that fits their interests. For me, my passion for biking and Italian cooking has provided the perfect way to connect with Italy beyond the famous and obvious tourist sights. Whether a wandering backpacker or a student on a foreign study program, if you make a point to connect with the culture you’re visiting, you will. And, unfortunately, if you don’t…you won’t.

Of course, for students, culture lives in the bars and night scenes just as vividly as in the great palaces and museums. They say New York never sleeps. Well, neither do European cities. The trick is to find where the locals go for fun after dark. For young people, this is when the real, living culture awakens. And the friends I make while out are locals as well as other travelers from all corners of the planet. For an American student, meeting a young Brazilian in Europe is as great an experience as meeting a young European in Europe.

Part of the fun I’ve had leading my groups around Europe is to help them enjoy the nightlife…and then get them out of bed in the morning to experience the rest. Each minute is an opportunity, and there are none to waste.

This fall, I have 28 tours scheduled — each offering three days of student fun for a great price (just €250) — in Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Dublin, and Venice. If you know of any students studying in Europe this term, please let them know that my website, WSAEurope.com, is packed with ways they can invigorate each weekend with new experiences, new friends, and lifelong memories. Grazie!

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