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

“Reality Touring” with Nation Travels

Nation Travels

Honolulu or Havana? The world is full of travel opportunities that are more than enjoyable — they can be transformational. By getting out of our comfort zone, we realize that different people find different truths to be self-evident and God-given. We gain an understanding of the other 96 percent of humanity — and in many ways, we can learn a lot about our own country by viewing it from afar.

My tour company has been taking Americans on the road for more than 40 years now. From Lisbon to Istanbul, and from St. Petersburg to Palermo, we offer tours across Europe. I love each of our itineraries, and I frequently travel along with our tour groups — but I also regularly travel beyond Europe. And when I do, I like to enlist the help of what I call “reality tour” companies — organizations that offer educational trips for thoughtful travelers. You can find a list of some of my favorites here.

Recently, I found out about another great option for Americans who want to get an education on the road: Nation Travels. This organization, which is run by The Nation Magazine, takes small groups of progressives to parts of the world whose governments are at odds with our own, with the hope that citizen-to-citizen contact will lead to more productive engagement. At each destination, they introduce travelers to a network of interesting locals, including academics, journalists, activists, and artists — and 100% of their proceeds fund The Nation’s journalism. Plus, their itineraries cover some of my favorite destinations, including India, Iran, and Cuba. Check them out — and keep on travelin’!

Our Airwaves Are Under Siege

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been thinking a lot about fascism lately. It’s said that Mussolini believed that fascism could be called “corporatism.” When a government goes from being “by, for, and of the people” to being “by, for, and of the people…through our corporations,” public wealth is under siege. And I believe that’s happening in America right now.

Think about it: Public health care, public education, social security retirement accounts — they are all at risk. Public infrastructure? Privatize it. The Internet? Privatize it. Even our airwaves are being threatened by forces that want to keep us afraid and dumbed down.

As you know, I’ve always been a big fan of public broadcasting. But these days, with all of the anti-intellectualism, fear, and threats to our democracy — combined with the growing power of media in our society — I believe that public television is more important than ever.

Here’s a clip from a pledge special I recently produced that I thought you might find interesting. If you agree with me about the value of public television, I hope you can see it as a service rather than a charity, and do your part to support it. Please go to your local station’s website right now to make a donation or become a sustaining member. (And after you do, share this message with your friends.)

Public television is ours. Let’s keep it that way.

A Chance to Give Back to a Classic Back Door: Gimmelwald

I always say, “If heaven isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, send me back to Gimmelwald.”

Thirty-five years ago, as a young tour guide, I brought my groups to a remote and impossibly idyllic village high in the Swiss Alps — and I’ve been going back ever since. Gimmelwald is a classic “Back Door”: an off-the-beaten-path place where travelers can get away from soulless resorts and big-time tourism. This is a place where the air feels different — where the only noises are bees, bugs, and birds perusing alpine flowers, paddling water spilling from a hose into the hollowed-out log that keeps the cows watered, and gnome-like men sucking gnome-like pipes while chopping firewood.

I am filled with great memories of this intoxicating place, and I know many of you are, too. And now we all have a chance to give something back. The villagers are working together to save the last public building in Gimmelwald, and they need our help. You can find out more here — and you can pitch in here. (If you do, please let me know in the comments below or on Facebook. It would fill me with joy to see Rick Steves travelers come together to support a special place we all love. Thank you!)

In These Times of Change, Let’s Celebrate the Trusty Rail Pass

In 2019, European rail passes are undergoing the most sweeping changes in a generation. Gone are “Select” passes, where you can mix and match countries as you like to suit your itinerary. Now, it’s all of Europe, or just one country.

This time of change has me nostalgic for the glory days of rail passes. In my backpacker days, there were just two choices of Eurailpass: one month or two months, covering most of Western Europe, with a second-class option available only to people under 26.

Over the years, as rail passes became a must-have accessory for any trip, customization was in. The flexipass — valid only a certain number of days in a one- or two-month period — revolutionized the rail pass game. The Europass included just five core countries, rather than automatically including all of Europe; later, the Eurail Select pass let you choose exactly which countries you wanted. So, instead of paying for 30 straight days in 17 countries, you could save money by buying a pass for only five days (within a two-month period) in just France, Benelux, Germany, and Denmark. Gradually, even more spin-offs arrived: two- and three-country passes that seemed designed to suit any conceivable trip (and, frankly, some that were pretty inconceivable).

During their heyday, rail passes were a way of life for travelers in Europe. Savvy backpackers were rail policy wonks, and knew every trick in the book for stretching a pass. They knew that if you took a night train, it’d count only one flexi-day — the day of arrival — allowing you to sneak in some “free” onward travel the next day. (Now this has been flipped, counting the day of departure.) They knew that if you were going from Munich on a Germany rail pass, it’d take you as far as Salzburg — the first station over the Austrian border — but no farther. But if you were going from Munich to Venice on a pass that included only Germany and Italy, but not Austria, you’d have to pay separately for that Austrian segment. And yet somehow, it all worked — and provided travelers with fond memories of mastering the system.

Around this time, selling rail passes was a big part of my company’s mission. Travelers who did their homework could save plenty — but there were so many options, it was hard to know where to begin. We published an annual 64-page guide to European rail passes, along with an extensive rail website. We even produced a VHS tape about how to choose your rail pass, which we’d snail-mail to potential customers. And several experts on my staff — including our Rail Department Manager and train guru, Laura Terrenzio — advised travelers on their rail pass choices full-time.

With the arrival of budget airlines, things began to change. Premium, high-speed trains (like AVE in Spain and TGV in France) started requiring travelers to book ahead and pay a supplement. The loss of the ability to hop on pretty much any train, anytime, no questions asked, made the arithmetic required to choose the right rail pass even more complex. For the right traveler (and the right trip), a rail pass could still be a good choice…but it wasn’t an easy choice.

As of last week, Eurail has gone back to basics. Gone are the unwieldy combination tickets and the staggering array of à la carte passes. Now you can either get a single-country pass, or a Global Pass covering 31 countries. (I don’t think Europe even had 31 countries back when I bought my first rail pass.) While there’s been some loss of customization, I appreciate how the new approach is simplifying what had become a confusing selection process.

There are other changes, too. But a few things haven’t changed. There’s still a special magic to taking trains around Europe. We’re still selling rail passes, and helping travelers figure out which pass is best for their trip. And Laura Terrenzio is still the most knowledgeable person I know (and probably in the whole country) when it comes to rail passes. Anytime you visit the Rail section of our website, you can be confident Laura has everything up-to-date, like always.

What are your favorite memories of traveling with a rail pass?

 

Best of Turkey in 13 Days — A Video by Andy Steves

I just helped send 25 of our European guides on one of my favorite tours — the Best of Turkey in 13 Days. (I wanted to join them so badly!)

It’s been a lot of fun to hear about everything they learned and experienced, and to see the beautiful photos and videos they all captured along the way. But there’s one guide that I’m particularly proud of — and that’s my son, Andy Steves. Andy just capped off a year as an Apprentice Guide by lead guiding his first Rick Steves tour. Check out this wonderful clip that he put together while he was enjoying Turkey with his colleagues.