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

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.

 

 

Tour Guides on Tour: Tasty Turkey

Let’s say you have a tour company with over a hundred amazing guides. What’s a fun way to make their off-season a bit more exciting? Offer to send them to Turkey on tour! They learn about an amazing country. They experience what it’s like to be tour members rather than tour guides. They bond and amp up their esprit de corps. And they have lots of fun. That’s why we organized and subsidized a Rick Steves Best of Turkey in 13 Days Tour for 25 of our guides.

Everyone who goes on our Best of Turkey Tour comes back raving about the food, and this group was no different. Enjoy a peek at some of our guides’ most tasty adventures.

smiling man wearing a chef's clothes and standing near a tower of doner kebab meat

tour guide cristina duarte smiling and eating grilled corn on the cob
Cristina Duarte
tour guide apostolos douras smiling and sitting in a restaurant booth
Apostolos Douras

a restaurant with tables with produce and other food on them and tour guides sitting at the various tables having dinner and talking

Thanks for the photos, Lale Aran and Cristina Duarte!

 

Tour Guides on Tour: Best of Turkey

group of tour guides in instanbul holding up a sign that says "Tour Guides on Rick Steves Best of Turkey"

 

I have long considered Turkey one of the most rewarding and exciting places I’ve ever been. I first visited in the 1970s, and I went back every year through my twenties. For me, Turkey was always the natural cherry on top of all my European adventures. But the predictable question I’d always get from loved ones was, “Why are you going to Turkey?” With each visit, my thoughts were: Why would anyone not travel here?

Good travelers strive to get out of their comfort zone. When we travel, like a balloon lifting off a wild Anatolian field, we are — at least for a while — free from the bonds of our culture and ready to experience our world with a different perspective.

People-to-people travel is more important than ever, and I am proud to have offered tours in Turkey for almost 30 years through my company, Rick Steves’ Europe Tours. Our Best of Turkey in 13 Days Tour connects Americans with Turkish culture in intimate ways other tours do not. From artisans to imams, our travelers experience legendary Turkish hospitality firsthand, all under the guidance of Turkish tour guides. Together, they marvel at Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace, and Grand Bazaar, Cappadocia’s “fairy-chimney” landscape, the azure water of the Mediterranean, and the ancient Greek sites of Ephesus and Aphrodisias…and come home with a broader perspective of our beautiful world.

This tour is one of my personal favorites — and truly the travel experience of a lifetime. And that’s why I subsidized the trip for 25 of our European guides. They just wrapped up their 13-day adventure, and by all reports, the trip was a huge success. There’s no doubt that our guides really know how to have fun — and they love to travel, even when they are off the clock. But for many of them, this was more than just a fun vacation. They got to experience a country many of them didn’t know before, while actually being tour members themselves — an important and valuable learning experience for any guide.

In these photos, you’ll see 25 Rick Steves guides (from about a dozen different countries) enjoying our Best of Turkey tour under the leadership of their fellow guide, Mert Taner. If you are a Rick Steves tour alum, see if you can spot your own tour guide — and be sure to say hi to them in the comments below.(Thanks for the photos, Lale Aran, Andy Steves, and Cristina Duarte!)

smiling woman
Åsa Danielsson
man wearing traditional turkish hat in a store surrounded by hats with the hat seller
Andy Steves
smiling woman on street
Cristina Duarte
man with shaving cream on his face getting a shave
Sašo Golub
smiling woman taking a photo on her phone
Caterina Moore
smiling man holding up a phone
Jorge Román

group of people smiling in a store selling yarn and fabric

 

BTW, all of these guides — and about a hundred more — will converge on Edmonds, a town just north of Seattle, later this month for our annual tour guide summit, tour alumni reunion, and Test Drive a Tour Guide event. Want to come along? We’ll be teaching free travel classes all day on January 26, and we’d love to see you there. Register here.