Up The Road: Rick Steves’ “Travel As A Political Act”

Jan 15, 2020

In his Scandinavia guide book, Rick Steves claims (tongue in cheek) that this is his personal phone booth.
Credit Dan Lundberg

We’ve been dipping into books for the winter reading season—books that help us appreciate this unique place, what we’re seeing when we set out to enjoy it.

But what about travel in the larger sense, world travel? Should Americans even be traveling abroad these days?

Yes, absolutely. The more, the merrier. That’s the answer from travel writer Rick Steves, who got his start, back in the day, taking small groups of Americans around Europe, to experience it like locals. His classic Europe Through the Back Door is still the independent traveler’s continental bible.

Yet there’s more to travel than logistics. Which is why in 2018 Steves produced a one-hour public TV special on the rise and fall of fascism in Europe—including his take on how to recognize those same ideologies today—visiting key locations in multiple countries and also revisiting historical film footage.

Another very different kind of travel guide, Rick Steves’ book Travel as a Political Act: How to Leave Your Baggage Behind takes us on a different kind of trip—a rethink of what it means to travel globally, and, especially now, to be an American traveling abroad.

“We can learn more about our country by observing other countries—and by challenging ourselves (and our neighbors) to be broad-minded when it comes to international issues,” Steves says in the book’s intro.

“Holding our country to a high standard and searching for ways to better live up to its lofty ideals is not ‘America-bashing.’ It’s good citizenship.” Amen, brother.

Steves doesn’t have a political agenda. He doesn’t care if you agree or disagree with him. He shares his opinions openly so you can disagree.

But he does want people to check things out for themselves. To travel for the right reasons—to have fun, yes, but also to learn—and with the right attitude. Thoughtful travelers, he says, “do it to have enlightening experiences, to meet inspirational people, to be stimulated, to learn, and to grow.” Which is why most of what he has to say also applies to travel in the states, and certainly to travel here in California.

Rick Steves offers an entire chapter on How to Travel as a Political Act, kind of pre-travel preparation. Essentially: Connect with people. Be open to new experiences. Overcome fear. See the world’s rich-poor gap for yourself. And take history seriously: Don’t settle for life in a “dumbed-down society.” For a dumbed-down life.

Then Steves tours us through surprising destinations, from the European Union—Europe being a comfortable starting point for Americans—to Turkey and Morocco, the Holy Land, Iran (yes, Iran!), and struggling El Salvador.

Traveling thoughtfully, he says, “we are inspired by the accomplishments of other people, communities, nations,” and can look back at America from a distant vantage point, to “see ourselves as others see us—an enlightening, if not always flattering, view.”

But don’t get him wrong. He’s a proud American, successful capitalist, and thoughtful Christian. His faith—Rick Steves is a Lutheran—fuels his activism for social justice. All proceeds from this book, in fact, go to Bread for the World, a faith-based organization dedicated to ending world hunger.

So: Travel is indeed a political act. Choosing not to travel—turning away from understanding the vast, varied world we share with other people and cultures—is also a political act. One we really can’t afford any more, rich as we are.