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Rick Steves on Guided Tours

Rick Steves Europe Through the Back Door

ABOVE: Rick Steves, guidebook author and TV travel host.

Rick Steves is the American author of the Europe Through the Back Door travel guides and a TV program, Travels With Rick Steves, that appears on PBS and The Travel Channel in the United States. He also has been a tour guide and organizer for two decades, first as a group escort for Cosmos Tours and later with his own Europe Through the Back Door travel company in Edmonds, Washington. (ETBD started off in 1978 with a handful of minibus tours, and today the company offers more than 140 escorted European tours each year.)

In one of his books, Rick Steves' Postcards from Europe, Steves described the scams that are rampant in the the European tour industry. Intrigued by his frankness, I suggested a telephone interview on two related topics: "independent vs. escorted travel" and "choosing a tour company." The following article is an edited transcript of our phone conversation.

Why should a traveler take a group tour instead of using your guidebook?

Our guidebooks are designed for people who want to do our tours without us--who want someone else to do the legwork but would rather travel alone. Our tours follow the same basic itineraries as the guidebooks, but they help travelers get more out of their time. We've already made reservations for the Alhambra, the Uffizi Gallery, and so on. There's no need to stand in line--we march you right up to the front and take you in. With our 20-day tours, you accomplish what it would take you 30 days to accomplish on your own from a sightseeing and travel perspective.

Shy people who travel alone react in one of two ways: either they die of shyness or they're forced to meet people. That's as true in a European hostel as it is in high school.

With a group, it depends on tour size. We used to do minibus tours with eight people. In a group that small, a shy person or someone who needs privacy can't get away. With the usual 48- or 50-person group tour, a shy person gets bulldozed or ignored. Our tours now have 24 people, and that's a very nice number: small enough so people can bond and feel like a family, but large enough so you can steer clear of anyone you don't feel comfortable with.

Are there any other advantages to traveling with a fairly small group?

Yes, it lets you have a more European travel experience. If you're traveling with 48 or 50 people (the industry norm), you can't do many of the activities that we do. You're going to see a staged Europe--you get massed together with other big groups, and you get a photo of yourself with a snakecharmer on the way out. We do touristy stuff too, but if we're having a folk evening, we'll do it with local people enjoying it and school kids on stage, not in a hall where everything is staged for tourists.

A group of 24 is also small enough for typical European hotels, restaurants, and pubs. You couldn't take 48 or 50 people into a small restaurant or a pension--you'd have to visit the mass-market tour places where locals don't go.

How prevalent are kickbacks in the industry?

Kickbacks are standard. I used to escort Cosmos tours myself--that's where I learned my horror stories. Cosmos tour guides aren't allowed to take clients to the Van Gogh Museum if that means skipping a visit to the diamond merchants.

I know from experience that drivers will stop at this rest stop rather than that one. They have punchcards that earn them a free bottle of wine after five stops. Clients [travelers] are unable to see through that kind of garbage. It just happens, so we're forceful in preventing it. For example, we tip bus drivers $75 a day to keep them from taking kickbacks.

I read that one of the large companies is now charging guides to lead its tours. They're renting tour groups out to some shark who'll take the clients shopping in return for kickbacks.

I started my tour business after leading tours for other companies and seeing so many appalling abuses. There's no need for it--you can run a tour that's efficient, profitable, and a good value for the customer without getting into that sleazy stuff.

What if a merchant wants to give you a kickback?

Our hope is to negotiate a deal where the merchant will give our customers a net price. But a lot of companies, Venetian glass in particular, think that's going to confuse the situation with other tour companies.

The carpet situation in Turkey is just comical that way. Rather than stand on principle, we take the kickback when we have to and put it in our "Chianti Fund." We tell our clients, "The place that sold you glass gave us a commission, so we're buying the wine for lunch."

Where do you find your tour guides, if you don't allow kickbacks?

We get our guides any way we can. Some are people who have taken our tours, started traveling on their own, and decided they'd like to be tour guides. Others have been researchers or consultants for Europe Through the Back Door

We also get tour guides who come to us from other companies. They find it refreshing to get paid up front instead of being encouraged to scam travelers. A guide told us that our guides make more in salary than most guides do after adding up their commissions and tips. (We don't allow commissions or tipping.)

What else should travelers keep in mind when choosing a tour supplier? 

I'd just be very realistic about what the companies are promising and the number of travelers on the bus. A large group like 48 or 50 is just too big.

Word of mouth is a good way to get information. You don't want to get stuck in a tour where the day is atomized by lots of mediocre stops. A good tour guide can make even an intensive day seem uncluttered, restful, and a great experience.

By the way, do you still lead tours yourself?

I lead a couple per year. I just led our London tour last month, and I'm going to Scandinavia with a group in May. I'll do Eastern Europe next year. But now, most of my time is spent updating the guidebooks and doing the TV shows.

How do your customers react to having a celebrity tour guide?

Mostly, they can't believe I can walk down a street and have people say "Hey, Rick!" and run up to get my autograph. That astounds groups. But once we're on the bus, I'm just the guy who says "I want you back in 10 minutes, the toilets are over there, have fun!"

Related Web links

Rick Steves' Postcards from Europe
From Europe for Visitors, a review of the lively book that inspired this interview. Includes excerpts and a link to the book's online edition.
Learn about Europe Through the Back Door Tours, order railpasses, and read Rick Steves' tips for European travelers.

Interview published on Feb. 17, 2000