Rick Steves' Travel Blog

I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

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Earlier this year, our traveling community came together to raise money for a good cause: Bright Stars of Bethlehem, an organization that brings together and helps Palestinian youth. More than 600 of you responded to my matching challenge, and I sent a check to Bright Stars for $50,000. Together, we made a huge difference. Thank you!

Bright Stars recently sent me an update on this initiative. Thanks in part to our efforts, a new library is under construction at Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts & Culture. The library, which will be a green building, will make it easier for Palestinians to use books and other media, with equal access for men and women.

I’m so grateful to all of you who participated in this effort. Thinking about how this money will help in such a troubled region brings me real joy. Thanks again for your support and compassion — and happy travels!





Thirty-five years ago, we licked the stamps, mailed out our first travel newsletter, and began the process of creating a community of travelers. It was 1982 — there was no Internet (or even fax machines), and travelers communicated with loved ones via “aerogram.”

rick steves first newsletter

Click to enlarge

 

Back then, we had a few hundred people on our mailing list, we had published only one book, and we took about 50 travelers a year on tours (eight at a time, on a minibus with me behind the wheel). Now, we’re closing in on a half-million Facebook fans, we’ve published well over 50 guidebook titles, and over a hundred guides lead 22,000 travelers on Rick Steves’ Europe Tours every year.

In 1982, I was a piano teacher. I used my recital hall, Steves Studios, to share travel tips with 50 people at a time in my “World Travelers’ Slide Club.” Now we produce a weekly public radio show (Travel with Rick Steves) that airs on 400 stations across the country. We just produced show #498, and we’ve never charged a station a penny for the program. It is, in spirit, the direct descendant of the World Travelers’ Slide Club.

When I dropped these first newsletters into the mailbox, I never could have envisioned how, over the years, employing great people and embracing technology would so drastically expand our reach. But one thing hasn’t changed in 35 years: We still teach Americans to travel smartly — enjoying, as I liked to say even back then, “maximum experience for every mile, minute, and dollar.”





I’ve never met anyone who went to Cuba and wasn’t charmed by the people. Maybe President Trump should make the trip…or, at least, watch the TV special I made after I traveled there last year.

President Trump’s recent decision to curtail our rapprochement with Cuba exemplifies many of the qualities I don’t like about him: It favors fear and suspicion (and currying the favor of a few Florida politicians) over people-to-people connection; it’s preoccupied with driving a “better deal” regardless of compassion, by bullying a nation of 11 million people who are much weaker and poorer than us; and it is, I believe, simply illogical — politically, economically, and morally.

As we’ve learned over the last 55 years, isolating Cuba only makes its government stronger and its people poorer. That’s something I saw firsthand when I traveled there in 2016 (legally, thanks to President Obama’s reforms). And having been to Cuba, it’s clear to me that turning back the clock is a bad move all around. It will hurt struggling people who live just 90 miles from American shores — and it will make it that much harder for Americans to travel there and get to know our neighbors.

Travel is good for peace, it’s good for the economy, and it’s a civil liberty. If you agree, rather than shout amen, contact your member of Congress and let them know how you feel.





Thanks for coming along with me to Europe this spring here on my blog and over on Facebook. The second half of my “100 Days in Europe” series will kick off with a Best of Ireland in 14 Days Tour — followed by Scotland, England, Alsace, the Black Forest, and the great Swiss cities. But first, I’m home in Edmonds, Washington, for a week, just in time to receive a wonderful award: I’ve been named “Edmonds Citizen of the Year” by the Kiwanis Club.

Photo: thetravelphile.com

 

I am so honored to receive this award from my hometown. And it just occurred to me, this is the 50th year I’ve called Edmonds home.

I still remember the day, in 1967, when my parents moved our family from Kenmore to Edmonds. At first, they said the house cost too much and we couldn’t afford the move. But after a united chorus of pleading from our family, they relented. Even as a 12-year-old, it was clear to me: Edmonds was well worth the investment.

Looking back 50 years now — through junior high days as an Edmonds Trojan to high school days as an Edmonds Tiger; after living on Brookmere Drive, Frederick Place, Wharf Street, and now Edmonds Street; after working at four different addresses on 4th Avenue North; and after raising our two kids here — I’m thankful to have called Edmonds home over all these years.

Of course, I’ve spent a lot of time away from Edmonds — four months a year since my college days, working in Europe. And for all those years, the happiest day is that day, after a long trip, when I drive down 5th Avenue into Edmonds and back home. I’ve seen a lot of the world, and all that experience affirms my appreciation of this town.

As a kid — playing flag football at Hummingbird Park, going to the coin club in the basement of the National Bank of Commerce (now Bank of America), going to Boy Scouts (Troop 316 in the basement of the Methodist church), and working for Edmonds Parks and Rec (the only time I wasn’t self-employed) — being a part of Edmonds was a one-way thing. It was just my town. Giving back or contributing to make it better didn’t even occur to me.

But with travel, parenting, and political activism, a person gains a more mature and thoughtful appreciation that a great hometown doesn’t just happen. It takes a village: people spending endless hours in meetings; dedicated people caring for dimensions of our town that most wouldn’t notice until those jobs are neglected; people raising, contributing, and spending hard-earned money to keep us safe and tidy and thriving; and teachers, police, city servants, volunteers, and more — all working in concert to make Edmonds a wonderful place to raise our families as well as a great place to enjoy our golden years.

I’ve been privileged to know landlords, teachers, mayors, pastors, arts leaders, and fellow business leaders — all Edmonds citizens — who have inspired me over the years. They’ve taught me, through their commitment to our community, that if we recognize we all make a difference and are needed to keep Edmonds the kind of town we are so thankful for, it will stay that way…and get even better. Because of these people, because I’m fortunate to have found my niche (teaching travel), and because I live in a society where I can work hard at something I believe in (with a team of talented and passionate co-workers to build a successful business), I’m thankful to be able to help shape and support Edmonds. Among so many good and caring citizens, I’m humbled to be recognized for my contributions.

This ceremonial brick represents a permanent commemorative paving stone that will be added to the Edmonds Historical Museum‘s patio. Photo: Larry Vogel/MyEdmondsNews.com

 

It’s fun to think back over five decades of calling Edmonds home. From its quirky bars to the adorably eccentric characters who walk its downtown streets; from the way caring people yell at you when you walk the tracks, to the challenge of finding just the right fountain to grace our main intersection; from the way we squinch at change but then warm up to it, to the way we pack the streets after dark on Halloween (I believe the only event I’ve attended 30 years in a row) — I’m proud of Edmonds and am thankful to share it with so many wonderful neighbors.





 

Yesterday, I shared some thoughts about online booking services. Sites like Booking.com and Expedia.com demand a 20 to 25 percent commission from independently-owned hotels. I wrote that the best way to support small, family-run hotels — and get a better price — is to do your research online and then book directly with hotels by phone or email.

Thank you for all of the insightful comments you shared here on the blog and on Facebook in response to my post. I love hearing from you and I really appreciate your feedback and questions.

Many of you shared stories about the savings and upgrades you’ve enjoyed by booking directly with hotels. It was wonderful to read about your experiences. For example, Joanne wrote that before she traveled to France last summer, she researched hotels on Booking.com, Expedia.com, and TripAdvisor.com — and then made reservations directly on each hotel’s website. She ended up saving €20/day, got free breakfasts, and was upgraded to a larger room. (And I bet the hotels she booked with made €50 a night more, to boot. Win, win…)

Bill shared a particularly good point. He wrote that, by corresponding directly with small hotel owners, he develops relationships with locals before he even leaves home. I agree that there is huge value in this. For example, Maria wrote that one of her sweetest travel memories was using her very basic Italian and “lots of humor” to book a family-run hotel in Montepulciano. All of us can have this experience. It is only getting cheaper to call overseas and the language barrier is becoming less of an issue. And I’m guessing the savings will become even greater.

A couple of you expressed concern about sharing credit card information with a small hotel. In a lifetime of travels, I have never been worried about this and have never had any problems with fraudulent charges at a hotel. (And, even if this happened to me tomorrow, I’d still prefer not to be worried about this.)

It was interesting to hear several people in the hotel industry confirm that they give better rates and service to those who book directly. This makes sense when you realize that the hotels see you as paying significantly less per room, once the booking site takes their commission. I have a hunch that you’ll generally be charged less and treated better by hotels if, when booking directly with them, you let them know that you avoid middlemen on principle, so that hotels can be more profitable and provide a better value — and that you’d appreciate a preferred price or service, if possible. This is just honest, human-to-human communication.

Several travel agents chimed in and suggested travelers book hotels through a travel agency. While I use a travel agent for all my international flights, I’ve never seen the need to use one for hotels. That said, I’d rather see commissions go to travel agents than to huge corporate booking services.

Simon, who runs a small tour company, added some good perspective. He wrote that it’s not just booking sites that small businesses have to “play the game with” — they also struggle with review sites, such as TripAdvisor. Many small businesses are at the mercy of these sites’ algorithms. I agree that these sites are getting more aggressive. Small companies that don’t play by their rules will eventually be buried until they essentially disappear from public view. Unfortunately, however, the public will continue using them, thinking they’re getting “consumer information.”

Thank you again for all of your helpful and insightful comments. These big online travel services are only getting bigger. It’s up to us, as consumers, to educate ourselves and spend our dollars wisely.





Photo: thetravelphile.com

There’s a powerful new dynamic in the hotel industry that impacts small hotels and independent tourists hugely. I’m trying to sort it out and here’s my take:

In the last decade or so it’s become almost impossible for independent-minded, small, family-run hotels to survive without playing the game as dictated by the big players in the online booking world. Sites like Booking.com and Expedia.com take roughly 80 percent of the hotel reservation business. Hoteliers note that without this online presence, “we become almost invisible.” But online booking services demand a 20 to 25 percent commission and, in order to be listed on their service, a hotel must promise not to undercut the price on that site. Without that caveat, hoteliers could say, “Sure, sell our rooms for whatever markup you like and we’ll continue to offer a fair rate to travelers who come to us directly.” But that’s no longer possible.

The work-around for making hotel reservations: Those who book direct through a hotel’s website (and not through the booking agency site, thus saving the hotel about 20 percent) can be offered a free breakfast or free upgrade. Or, simply don’t book “online.” Just book by direct email or phone, in which case, hotels are free to give you whatever price they like (usually able to split the difference: charging 10 percent less and making 10 percent more).

As consumers, remember: whenever you reserve with an online booking service, for the small convenience offered by the booking site you’re adding a needless middleman who takes 20 to 25 percent. To support small, family-run hotels (whose world is more difficult than ever these days) and to get a better price, do your research online and then book not through third parties but direct by phone or email.

What’s your take on this situation and experience in getting the best price?

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This is Day 62 of my “100 Days in Europe” series. As I travel with Rick Steves’ Europe Tours, research my guidebooks, and make new TV shows, I’m reporting on my experiences across Europe. Still to come: Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, and more. Thanks for joining me here on my blog and via Facebook.





On my last day in Paris, I was met by my partner Trish (The Travelphile) — who took all the photos in this post — and we had a delightful afternoon simply enjoying the city’s hottest new spot: the pedestrianized embankment of the Seine.

We figured out Paris’ wonderful and popular Vélib’ loaner bike system (you join for a couple euros and then can pick up and drop bikes at any of over a thousand racks around town). Then we reveled in the scene on two wheels. We were completely immersed in an “in-love-with-life” Parisian ambience, joining thousands of happy Parisians simply out and enjoying their new people zone. There were pop-up bars, picnickers galore, rock walls for the kids to frolic on, and a laid-back vibe that made everything warm and fuzzy.

Enjoying a favorite restaurant with two great Francophile travelers: Steve Smith and Trish Feaster.

This is Day 61 of my “100 Days in Europe” series. As I travel with Rick Steves’ Europe Tours, research my guidebooks, and make new TV shows, I’m reporting on my experiences across Europe. Still to come: Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, and more. Thanks for joining me here on my blog and via Facebook.





While Paris is crisscrossed with bike lanes, the most relaxing and scenic Parisian joy ride on two wheels is along its riverside promenades. A three-mile stretch from near the Eiffel Tower to a bit past Ile St. Louis makes a wonderful hour-long experience. (It could be much longer if you succumb to the temptations of the lounge chairs, hammocks, outdoor cafés, and simple delights of riverside Parisian life.) Start at the Pont de l’Alma near the Eiffel Tower on the Left Bank, then head east, crossing to the Right Bank at the Orsay Museum on Pont Royal. Continue east, passing the Louvre, until you pass the two islands. Your major hazard: avoiding pedestrians and not biking into the river, since you’ll be distracted by so many iconic buildings and sights as you pedal.

(By the way, the bike I’m using is one of the 20,000 Vélib’ bikes Paris scatters all across town to alleviate traffic congestion.)

This is Day 60 of my “100 Days in Europe” series. As I travel with Rick Steves’ Europe Tours, research my guidebooks, and make new TV shows, I’m reporting on my experiences across Europe. Still to come: Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, and more. Thanks for joining me here on my blog and via Facebook.





Paris scatters about 20,000 bikes at about 1,500 racks all across town so people (locals and tourists) can essentially borrow a bike for a quick one-way ride. Bikes are free for the first half hour, and you pay a small fee for longer rentals.  It’s designed to alleviate traffic congestion by giving people a reason not to drive their car for little trips.

Photo: thetravelphile.com

To borrow a Vélib’ bike, download the free and easy-to-use Vélib’ app on your smartphone. This app knows where you are and shows the nearest rack locations — including which ones have loaner bikes available and which have parking spaces available. This is important information for Vélib’ users as racks are often completely full or empty.

Locate the nearest bike rack. At the payment machine, you’ll simply dial English, follow the prompts, and after inserting your credit or debit card, the machine will print out your one-day or seven-day membership ticket with your ID number. Once you have your Vélib’ ticket, you have access to any available bikes anywhere in the city. (There’s a more complete explanation of how to do this in our Rick Steves Paris guidebook.)

Picking Up a Vélib’ Bike: Survey the bike rack and decide which bike you want (note the number). Return to the machine and find the screen meant for bike rental (it’s the simpler panel, likely the one with the map). Click “other languages” then “English” and then “Short Term Ticket” (or some similar wording). Enter your 8- to 10-digit ID number, then follow with your four-digit PIN. Then enter the number of the bike you want. Wait for it to verify. When you get the OK on the screen, go get your bike. Press the grey metal button next to the bike to release it, and you’re ready to ride.

Returning Your bike: Refer to your Vélib’ app to find the nearest or handiest rack with empty stalls available. Simply plug your bike into an empty stall and be sure it engages.

Vélib’ Biking Tips: Bikes are accessible 24/7. Survey your bike carefully before choosing it (make sure it has its hand grips, etc). Remember that a seat turned backwards indicates a broken bike. If you get a bad bike, return it and take another. Adjust your seat for comfort. Take advantage of the three speeds and bike lock. You can check out a bike as many times as you want while your ticket is valid. There’s no charge for taking a bike for less than 30 minutes. Then charges start racking up: €1 for the first half-hour, €2 for a second half-hour, and €4 for each half-hour after that. So, a two-hour rental would cost €7 (in addition to the initial cost for your membership). Be careful riding in Paris traffic. Vélib’ provides no bike helmets (and I never saw anyone wearing one in Paris). Bon voyage.

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This is Day 59 of my “100 Days in Europe” series. As I travel with Rick Steves’ Europe Tours, research my guidebooks, and make new TV shows, I’m reporting on my experiences across Europe. Still to come: Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, and more. Thanks for joining me here on my blog and via Facebook.





At the cost of closing down two well-used expressways along the river, Paris has reclaimed long stretches of the Seine’s embankment for its people. It’s a fun-loving project stretching several miles along the river. Today Parisians have a new world for biking, strolling, having fun with the kids, exercising, enjoying pop-up drinking and eating establishments, having extravagant picnics complete with tablecloths and champagne, and simply dangling their feet over the water and being in the moment alone or with friends.

This is Day 58 of my “100 Days in Europe” series. As I travel with Rick Steves’ Europe Tours, research my guidebooks, and make new TV shows, I’m reporting on my experiences across Europe. Still to come: Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, and more. Thanks for joining me here on my blog and via Facebook.