For Rick Steves, travel is an 'Act' of learning and growing

A. Fewer people can afford to go to Europe now, I can't argue with that. My tour and guidebook business is down by about a third. But the affluence of the last couple of years was a false affluence, generated by goosing the economy for political reasons. It was an unsustainable bubble, and we've got to get our feet back on the ground.

When the economy is good, more people travel, and when it's bad those who still travel need to be more careful. What I'm doing right now is bumping up the cheap tricks.

Q. Such as?

A. The best cheap eateries are the colorful little lunch-only places around the markets, clearly catering to local shoppers. The best things in Europe are free., and each evening I find half the population out in the streets enjoying them. Don't miss the paseo, the evening promendade when everyone's out thinking, "life is good, and so is this gelato."

Q. You've described yourself as someone who is "not fundamentally a vagabond." Do you ever take trips that are unplanned, or simply driven by a need to explore someplace new?

A. I'm kind of a workaholic, so I'm not practicing what I preach. I get great satisfaction in knowing that tonight, there are people with the sun baked onto their cheeks, having a wonderful fondue in a tiny village high in the Swiss Alps. And they're drinking to me, because I put them in touch with this wonderful little chalet and recommended a hike that just blew them away.

My work is so gratifying, (but) my life is out of balance, and I always fanatasize that I'd like to come back on vacation and really enjoy it. I haven't been to a concert in Europe for ages, because I can't afford the three hours away from my laptop at night. Now, that's pretty sad.

Q. So what would a real vacation look like for you?

A. (My wife) Anne and I took our kids to Costa Rica for week over New Year's, and it was wonderful. We looked at monkeys, and tried surfing, and did all the Robinson Crusoe-chic kind of stuff, not even thinking about Nicaragua or El Salvador over the border. I was just having this good family time — and I was impressed that I could actually do that.

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