Roads Less Traveled: As a Tour Guide, Rick Steves Directs Travelers to Hotels, Restaurants, and Museums in Europe, but He Points Them to God in the Developing World: The Editors Interview Rick Steves

U.S. Catholic, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Roads Less Traveled: As a Tour Guide, Rick Steves Directs Travelers to Hotels, Restaurants, and Museums in Europe, but He Points Them to God in the Developing World: The Editors Interview Rick Steves


Rick Steves says his journey as a travel writer follows Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. He started with "Rick's travel hierarchy of needs," he says: "Eating and sleeping on a budget, staying healthy, not getting ripped off, catching the train."

Steves' best-selling Europe Through the Back Door guidebooks and PBS shows still cover the basics, but in the 1990s he extended his expertise into art, history, and culture. And in the past decade he has continued to move up the hierarchy to "more fulfilling and altruistic" ideas. "Since September 12, 2001 my focus has shifted," Steves says. "I didn't plan it this way, but my heart took me that way, into travel as a political act."

When he addresses church groups, Steves, who is Lutheran, uses "spiritual" instead of "political" to talk about traveling in the developing world. His time in Catholic Central America has been influential, and he has also produced videos for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) about faithful travel and church ministry in Papua New Guinea.

Political or spiritual travel, Steves explains, means "traveling in a way that gets you out of your comfort zone. It teaches you empathy and lets you come home with a broader perspective."

"I find it very gratifying to stand in front of 500 generally frightened Americans," he says, "and tell them what I've learned from spending a third of my adult life living out of a carry-on suitcase."

Why should Americans travel?

There's a famous quote: "Living life without traveling is like having a great book and never turning the page." I believe in traveling as a way to get to know God's family. God made this great creation, and it's peopled with all sorts of interesting cultures and ways of life. When you travel, you kind of carbonate your existence. It's like a swizzle stick for life.

There's a lot of fear in our society, and when you travel you overcome fear. I travel so I can hang out with people who find different truths to be self-evident and God-given. And I learned that it makes sense to give everybody a little wiggle room. I can weave together different tastes and lifestyles and cultural fortes, and create a hybrid of my own.

I travel because it makes me more thankful to get home. I travel to better understand where I am from and my own culture because I can see it with more contrast from a distance. It really helps me appreciate my beautiful corner of the world.

Does travel always have this impact on people?

You can travel in a way that brings people closer together and builds understanding, or you can travel in a way that exacerbates the differences between the rest of the world and us.

There are lousy travelers and good travelers. Lousy travelers don't learn anything. Lousy travelers waste time and money. Lousy travelers are demanding and ethnocentric.

Good travelers fit in and learn. Good travelers take home the ultimate souvenir, and that is a broader perspective and empathy for other people.

You don't need to be a saint in your travels. For instance I have no problem with cruises, but on a cruise, it's easy to be more interested in hedonism than in bringing our world together. And if you travel in a way that doesn't better connect you with our world, that's a lost opportunity.

What do you learn from "good traveling"?

This is what I call travel as a political act. Americans are 4 percent of the planet. Travel allows us to develop more empathy for the other 96 percent of the planet, especially the 50 percent of humanity that's trying to live on less than $2 a day.

Lately we've conned ourselves into thinking we're having a financial crisis, but we are, by any measure but our own, really wealthy and living lives of incredible abundance. I don't want to belittle anybody's hardships if they're unemployed, but we are by no means in desperate straits in the United States. …

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