Europe is sorta-kinda opening back up to U.S. travelers, but Rick Steves — the American king of European travel — suggests we bide our time.
For those with the money and the inclination, that could be tough. Just hearing the words “Europe” and “travel” might trigger a little late-pandemic reverie: day hikes to ancient, sunbaked monasteries where choirs have been singing hymns since the bubonic plague; rediscovering your buoyancy in the salty Mediterranean; marveling at French museums (by day) and French rappers (by night); cooling down in a quiet Czech alehouse whose stone walls have seen and heard 400 years of human stories.
All that is waiting for us, Steves said in a recent interview — but we should also wait for it.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The Seattle Times: Last time we talked, back in January, you said you were prepared to wait until 2022 to go back to Europe. Is that still the case?
Rick Steves: Patience is not an American forte, and certainly not a Rick Steves forte — but I’m telling people: “Relax. This is what we expected.” It would be nice if we could be traveling again in late 2021, but I think early 2022 is realistic.
Every day, we have a review of all the news — “Oh, this is happening in Madrid, and this is happening in Copenhagen [in Denmark] and Slovenia is opening up” — and it’s all baloney. It doesn’t matter! Europe isn’t open until Europe is open.
I always joke that I go to Paris to have my cheeks kissed; I go to Rome to pack into the piazza and have my gelato and go up the Passeggiata, with all those generations going up pedestrian boulevards; and I go to the pubs in Ireland to sit at the bar and clink glasses with people who really believe strangers are just friends who’ve yet to meet. It’s people — it’s people — that distinguish a good trip, and experiences that distinguish a good trip. So I don’t want to go back until we can have that.
Of course, there’s a difference between independent travelers and organized travelers — it’s a big responsibility when you talk 24 people into sharing a bus. You want it to go like clockwork and you don’t want to be screwing around.
What would you say to eager, independent travelers determined to get to Europe this summer?
Well, if you’re going to pay for anything in advance, know what the fine print is. A lot of people were screwed by powers in the tourism industry during COVID. For us, right from the start, it was: “No question, no screwing around, no credit — everybody gets their cash back.” But a lot of people decided: “Nope, possession is nine-tenths of the law, we got your money, good luck.” So read the fine print.
Insurance is not always a good value, but if you want to buy the risk away, you can. And understand very conservatively just what risks you’re getting into when it comes to not being able to cross borders or get into the sites you want to see. You can go all the way to Amsterdam, but if you can’t get into the Anne Frank House or see a van Gogh painting, you might wish you’d waited a couple of months.
When people do get to Europe, what do you think might be substantially different?
My big fear is that the little businesses — the moms and pops, the entrepreneurial dreams — will be the casualties of COVID. That would be heartbreaking. I go to Europe not to stay at an InterContinental Hotel and have a hamburger at Burger King. I go to stay at a mom and pop and eat at a little, creative, hardworking place — and Europe is so good at that! Those little companies, just like here in Puget Sound, are the ones that don’t have the capital to get through this extended time of no normal revenue.
My friends in Europe tell me that little businesses thank goodness for the government aid — we’ve also had some in our country — and local patronage that will let them eke out survival until the tourism can throttle up. But I think the main difference will be that some of them will be gone.
Some tour guides in the U.S. are talking about demand outstripping supply in popular destinations (like Hawaii and Mexico) and really jacking up prices. Do you think something similar might happen in Europe?
You know, maybe it’s so high because everybody is funneled into a few destinations that are considered safe and open. It’s just another reason I don’t want to get into that mess.
How to handle groups was a huge issue even in 2019, before COVID: affluent times in Europe and America, the emerging economies where millions in India and China have enough money to go to Europe easily. Many people go to Paris to see the “Mona Lisa” or to Florence [in Italy] to see the Botticellis and Michelangelo’s “David.” And then add all this insanity with Instagram people who have to get the same thing in their photos. And then you have these people who might not have herd immunity but they have herd mentality. They go online to see where everybody else is going and then follow — so suddenly you have all these people eating Tex-Mex in Paris because it’s rated No. 1 on TripAdvisor.
But I don’t imagine demand is going to drive up prices across Europe as a whole. I don’t think you’re going to find budget deals to jump-start travel, but I don’t anticipate any price gouging. My staff has booked thousands of hotels for tours — right now we’re gearing up to take 20,000 people to Europe next year and making some reservations. I’ve heard no reports that hotels are gouging because of demand to go back, nor are there reports of great bargains.
As people plan European trips, are there particular destinations you’d suggest right now — either for pandemic reasons or other reasons?
You’re probably going to want to have an intimate, thoughtful experience away from big cities and intensity — to lose the crowd. You’re going to be focused on culture, folk life, getting close to nature and traditional lifestyles. So I put together six destinations with these dimensions of European travel for a TV show, with material we’d already shot, called “Europe Awaits.” We’re going to Sicily, which in one sense is Italy in the extreme. In another sense, it’s been invaded and invaded and invaded and has this whole lasagna of cultures. You can see it in the ambience of the markets, hear it in the language and taste it in the cuisine. Sicily is beautiful in that regard.
The finale of the show is in Romania — this region of Maramureş in the north. It’s like stepping into an open-air folk museum, but there’s no turnstile. People are just living like you thought they lived 100 years ago, and you’re part of the scene. You’re staying in a B&B, you’re eating with these people and singing with them, and all of these destinations celebrate Europe post-COVID in a way that’s good for your traveling soul and your wanderlust.
But right now, I’m not that desperate to go to a Europe where you’ve got to wonder: “Can I cross that border? What about flights? Will there be a quarantine waiting for me anywhere?” We just gotta take a breath.
We’re on the right track: If we are diligent and patient, take care of our neighbors, get our vaccinations and get our ducks in a row, we’ll be traveling in due time — with the pandemic in the rearview mirror.