It has been a frantic week here at the Rick Steves’ Europe home office in Edmonds, Washington. We’ve been playing host to an invasion of about a hundred tour guides from all over Europe and beyond, in town for our annual guide summit and reunion — 10 solid days of strategy sessions, business meetings, reconnecting with tour members, and, of course, parties. I love having all the guides around. It’s exhilarating…but exhausting.
Having all of my tour-guiding buddies in town has me nostalgic for my own days of guiding. For several years, I split my time in Europe between writing guidebooks and guiding our Best of Eastern Europe and Best of the Adriatic tours. About ten years ago, I realized I didn’t have time for both. I went all-in with the writing, and “retired” from guiding.
People sometimes ask me how to be a Rick Steves tour guide. The answer: Be a passionate traveler…then do it with 26 people in tow. Guiding is hard work. It’s fun and rewarding. But most of the time, it hardly qualifies as “glamorous.” Every tour guide collects funny anecdotes about those little serendipities — good and bad — that befall them and their tour members as they travel around Europe. Here’s my own collection of warts-and-all stories that, if nothing else, might give you a little empathy for your guide.
First off — and I say this from the heart, not out of any professional obligation — the tour guides I have the pleasure to work with at Rick Steves’ Europe are astonishingly cool people. My wife and I have a tradition of inviting our Eastern European guides to our home for dinner, offering them a homey and casual break from a week of meeting rooms, happy hours, and catered meals. We did it again last Saturday. And our hundred-year-old craftsman house in Seattle was filled with what has to be the most riotous laughter it’s ever witnessed.
Despite our attempts to herd our friends to our dining room table, they all insisted on squeezing into the tiny nook in the corner of our kitchen — a dozen Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, Slovenes, and Bulgarians sitting cross-legged and cracking each other up. It turns out every single nationality has their own set of jokes to tease Hungarians about their uniquely tongue-twisting language. I learned a lot on Saturday, including how Czech parents enjoy sending their kids to Native American-themed summer camps to live in tepees, what my nickname would be in Czech (Kamerka), and how Bulgarians have a bizarre tradition of letting their kids “ride” the freshly slaughtered Christmas pig for good luck. (Hearing this last story, several of the guides glanced over at me and said, “You writing this down, Cameron?” They know me so well.)
We’ve been doing this for years, and it’s fun to look back on the history we share as members of the same guiding family.
Wherever they go in Europe, tour guides exert a powerful magnetism on each other. In very popular cities — like Venice — there can be several Rick Steves tours in town on the same day. We try to avoid having groups run into each other. But after hours — once our tour members are properly oriented and our accounting spreadsheets are filed — guides can’t resist slipping out to hoist a glass together. I once hopped on a milk-run train to have a beer with a couple of guides three towns away. Sometimes it feels like there’s an unspoken contest to get as many guides together in one place. I think this camaraderie — our spirit of “we’re all in this together” — is a hallmark of the specialness of Rick Steves tours. (What other company would fly a hundred guides to the USA for a week of meetings?)
Anyone who’s been on a tour knows that the bus driver is another essential part of the experience. And in the European tourism world, bus drivers occupy their own subculture. In big cities, there are entire bars that are patronized entirely by a Babel of drivers from across the Continent. And in places with a mass tourism tradition, it’s the bus drivers — who have the power to whisper to an overwhelmed guide, “I know just the place for this busload of tourists to stop and buy lunch” — who are treated like kings. In one of these areas, there was an only-game-in-town roadside restaurant where we took our groups. Tucked in a corner of the sprawling dining hall was a special little drivers’ dining area, roped off like a VIP lounge. One time, curious about the experience, I took our driver up on his offer to join him there. We were given menus without prices and waited on attentively, practically being hand-fed peeled grapes. From our privileged dais, we looked out over the congested dining hall, trying to avoid eye contact with our tour members as they shuffled through a self-service cafeteria line.
Of course, Rick Steves tours are distinguished by our insistence that the driver is part of our group. At most meals, we insist that the driver sit with our tour members for lively conversation. (The restaurant I just described was a special exemption to this policy. In fact, my driver was afraid not to dine in the VIP section, for fear of upsetting the delicate social order.) My all-time favorite driver trained with me on his first-ever Rick Steves tour. When I told him that we actually wanted him to interact socially with our tour members — which was unheard-of at his very traditional company — he was at first aghast, and then excited. It turns out he’d been stifling his gregarious instincts for many years…and on this trip, he made up for lost time, becoming dear friends with virtually everyone on the tour. He even joined us on some of our town walking tours, and participated in my bus lectures when we arrived in his home country. He went on to work exclusively for us for many years…until retiring, a very happy man.
One year, two of my other favorite bus drivers came to Edmonds for our weeklong tour reunion festivities. They were hardworking, blue-collar guys from Slovenia who had never been to the United States. I took them to Fred Meyer, where they filled their oversized suitcases with electronics, jeans, and toys that would’ve cost double back home. During that week, while the guides were tied up with meetings and the drivers had free time, they got into a nice little routine of having meals at the local main-street diner. On their last night in town, they insisted on taking me and one of my fellow tour guides to dinner. But when the bill came, they left exactly the amount noted on the bill. In explaining our customs to them, it dawned on us that they had not been tipping all week long. The next day, after taking our driver friends to the airport, we stopped by the diner with a few 20-dollar bills: “You remember those two Eastern European guys who kept coming here last week and stiffing you on the tip? Well, here’s the thing…”
As a tour guide, you’re equal parts historian and shepherd. Bus time is for teaching tour members the story and culture of the place they’re visiting, and for getting them oriented to the logistics of the tour (explaining what we’re doing today, taking orders for dinner tomorrow, and making sure everyone knows the exchange rate and the nearest ATM). Tour members have varying appetites for different types of information, and — understandably — they tend to zone out on the bus. So if something is important, I’ll repeat it. And if it’s really important, I may repeat it several times. One time, when I passed out little slips of paper for mid-tour evaluations, one of my tour members hand-delivered it back to me. “You know,” he said, “I was just about to write that you repeat yourself too much. But at that very moment, someone next to me asked about something I have heard you say at least five or six times already. So my feedback is: Keep up the good work.”
On another occasion, we were at the bitter end of a very long day on the bus. We’d had some weather-related delays, but had finally checked into our hotel. My tour members met in the lobby and dutifully trudged 10 minutes through the drizzle until we were all standing under a leaky awning on the town’s main square. They were tired. I was tired. Tempers were flaring. But they needed to eat. As efficiently as I could, I did a little spin-tour of the square, pointing out the locations of three or four of my favorite restaurant options, ending with, “Any questions?” There was a tense moment as the soaked and famished group clenched every muscle, hoping the answer was no. But one woman pointedly raised her hand. “Yeah,” she said impatiently, “but when are you gonna tell us where we should go to eat?” The entire rest of the group groaned in unison. (She survived.)
One time I celebrated my birthday at a tired old communist-era hotel on a Croatian island. The hotel had a large population of stray cats, who swirled around tour members enjoying a drink on the terrace, and often wandered inside. (Almost everybody viewed this as a big plus. The biggest concern was resisting the urge to adopt a kitten, or five, to bring home as a souvenir.) My tour members had thoughtfully tracked down a birthday cake for me, and threw me a nice little surprise party in the lobby. I turned my back on the cake to chat with a tour member, and when I turned around to cut some slices, a cat had climbed up on the table and was feasting away.
I led the first-ever departure of our Best of the Adriatic Tour, which I’d carefully co-designed with a couple of other tour guides and our office staff, stitching together all of our favorite experiences and restaurants. I was particularly excited to take my group to a rustic little tavern in the hilly, vineyard-draped interior of Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula. I’d had an utterly delightful meal there the year before, sitting out on a breezy terrace, with distant views of the sun extinguishing itself in the shimmering Adriatic. It was a perfect memory. And as our bus pulled up to the restaurant at the end of a long day enjoying the blazing sun, I couldn’t wait to share that same experience with my sunburned tour members. But my heart sank as the owner walked us through the already-full terrace to get to the interior. There he’d laid out a glorious table for us…directly in front of the huge hearth, where glowing coals did all of the cooking. Already sweating from the heat outside, but with no other seating options available, we settled into the sweltering stone dining room. And then the owners — seriously overestimating the appetites of their honored guests — fed us at least two courses more than anyone could possibly eat. By the meal’s end, we were stuffed, and we could have wrung out our shirts. (Rest assured that’s a mistake we only made once — on every departure since, that restaurant serves us a more manageable-sized meal…and the terrace table is permanently reserved for our groups.)
These days, of course, we invest mightily in advance-scouting new itineraries. By the time the first tour bus sets out with paying tour members, our Tour Operations staff and guides have already driven the entire route by car, and know every stop down to the minute. But back in the day, we were far more by-the-seat-of-our-pants. I was the assistant guide on the first-ever departure of our Best of Eastern Europe tour, 17 years and several itinerary iterations ago. We felt like trailblazers, improvising much of the tour, but everything clicked…and our tour members were having a blast.
When we reached Budapest, our lead guide decided he’d be more comfortable hiring a professional local guide to add some color commentary to his city tour. Our hotel insisted they knew the perfect agency, which employed only the very best guides, so we let them set it up for us. Our guide was energetic, personable, and knowledgeable…but the moment she opened her mouth, it was clear she spoke virtually no English.
We loaded our group onto the bus and set off on a driving tour around the city, our guide providing commentary in German with a smattering of English. She got the words “left” and “right” mixed up, which — one would think — should disqualify anyone seeking to become a tour guide. But she was undeterred. Soon after leaving the hotel, we passed one of Budapest’s most venerable thermal baths. “And on the left,” she said — meaning, of course, “right” — “you see example of our baaahs. We are sehr famous for our baaahs.” It just so happened, at that very moment a bus drove by on our left side. Stifling giggles, I watched as every tour member’s head swiveled left to see the bus, instead of right to see the bath. After a few minutes, our lead guide wisely pulled the plug, and directed the driver to pull over at Heroes’ Square. The local guide announced, “Now we have fünf minute to see square, then back to bus.” Our lead guide politely but firmly whispered that she would, in fact, not be getting back on this bus. Seeming to understand, she dejectedly got on the mic one last time: “So, jetzt I must say goodbye. I am sorry if you no understand. This my first tour in English!”
Finally, a tour guide has to be prepared for anything…including impromptu bathroom breaks. On one tour, I was hiking my group through a lush national park of gushing waterfalls. We reached the boat dock at the midpoint of the hike, and one of my all-time favorite tour members came up to me and discreetly asked when the next bathroom break might be. I explained that there were no toilets at this dock, but there was one at the other end of the 20-minute boat trip we were about to take. In the meantime, he could use the bushes. Glancing around, he said, “No, I’m OK. I think I can wait.”
We boarded the boat. About five minutes later, my wide-eyed tour member approached me again, with a newfound urgency. “Nope, can’t wait. What are my options here?” We scanned the deck of the open boat, and came up empty. Sensing his desperation, I led him to the little steering cabin in the back of the boat, where the captain and first mate stood stoically. I stuck my head in the door and asked if there were any WC options. They shook their heads vigorously and pointed to the dock we were approaching…10 long, watery minutes away. At this point, what was going to happen was going to happen now, so my tour member stepped into the little cabin and said, “Look, I’m gonna go. You just tell me where.” At first they tried to point him back out. But when he made a beeline for a little garbage can in the corner, they realized he was serious, and directed him to stand at the back of the boat.
And so we glided silently across the pristine lake, my tour member peeing out the back, and me standing discreetly in the cabin doorway to block the other passengers’ view. To this day, I don’t think any of his fellow tour members knew what happened on that boat. As for the people on the boat that passed us going in the other direction…well, that’s another story.
One of these days, I might just get back to guiding. (I have agreed that, if we ever do a Poland tour, I’ll come out of retirement. So if you’d like me to lead a tour you’re on…lobby for Poland!) I miss my tour guide and bus driver colleagues. I miss the wonderful tour members who join us on our buses. But most of all, I miss the crazy stories.