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

Rick Steves is famous as the wide-eyed guy in khakis whose guidebooks, tours, radio show and PBS series have introduced millions of American travelers to Europe. But in his new book Travel As a Political Act, he broadens his geographical and cultural horizons. USA TODAY's Laura Bly caught up with him by phone from Tuscany.

Q. You've written that Italy is your favorite country. Why?

A. Well, India is my favorite. I really enjoy being knocked off my little cultural horse, and it humbles my ethnocentricity. But in Europe, Italy is my favorite because it's most like India. I was just walking through Cortona with a wonderful guide, and he made it clear to me that if you see something here that looks all prettied-up and uniform and quaint, it's a "touristy quaint." The truth of Italy is the jumble, from the architecture, to the people-watching, to the traffic and noisy Vespas.

Q. It's also history, which you say is crucial to a great travel experience.

A. That's so true. There are two kinds of travelers: Those that are curious, and those that are basically duty-free shoppers, sun-and-fun-on the-beach, pack-heavy types. For me, it's about learning. I'm looking out my window right now over a lush plain to the south, knowing all of it was papal territory in the the Middle Ages, and it makes my experience richer and more vivid.

My life's work has been trying to understand Europe better, and I wouldn't be saleable if I didn't have practical tips. People need to know where you catch the bus and where you park. But what I also want to do is be a history, art and culture teacher, and a conduit for experiences.

Q. Many of the experiences you describe in your new book — from coming to grips with the U.S. role in El Salvador's civil war to visiting Iran — aren't typical vacation fodder.

A. I'm kind of an odd duck who would rather go to San Salvador than lie on a beach in Mazatlan. Thomas Jefferson said travel makes a person wiser, if less happy. And I think it does gives you a little cross to bear, because you can't in good conscience ignore the reality of other people. It shouldn't become a guilt trip, (but) travel is more than the basic things like staying healthy and not getting ripped off, and more than enjoying Michelangelo and a good glass of red wine. It's broadening your global perspective, and challenging truths you were raised thinking were God-given and self-evident.

I didn't know what to expect in Iran, and I was actually scared to go there. But I've never been anywhere where it was more of a plus to be an American. I was in a car in a traffic jam in Tehran, when all of a sudden our driver blurted out, "death to traffic!" I thought, "what? I thought it was supposed to be death to Americans." But he said, "no, whenever something is frustrating and out of our control, we say 'death to that.'" That get-beyond-the-bumper-sticker approach is my responsibility as a travel writer.

Q. What are three things that Americans can do to be more gracious guests in a foreign country?

A. Talk softly. Celebrate the fact that people do things differently, and assume there are other answers to the same problem. And be a cultural chameleon: In England, I drink tea, in the Czech Republic, I order a beer.

Q. With 401Ks turned into 201Ks, a lot of people are skipping vacations this year. What are you telling them?

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.