#BTReads: Rick Steves’s ‘Travel as a Political Act’

Rick Steves in Iran 2008Rick Steves poses with veiled women in Iran in 2008.
Courtesy Avalon Travel

Rick Steves on a visit to Iran.

The PBS host and bestselling guidebook author shows us how to broaden our world view and leave our baggage at home.

When was the last time you read a travel book from cover to cover?

Those of us who are guidebook fans tend to skip from chapter to chapter, site to site, neighborhood to neighborhood, comparing prices, menus, and hotel decor, in search of the ideal itinerary. But Rick Steves’s Travel as a Political Act: How to Leave Your Baggage Behind (Avalon Travel, February 2018) is not a typical travel book. You may find yourself devouring every word on every page, emerging with something much more valuable than a go-here-then-here-then-here itinerary: A transformed view of what it means to be a citizen of this world, and some common-sense tips for navigating that world.


“My goal is to inspire Americans to go beyond Orlando,” Steves told me in a phone interview last week. The PBS TV host, bestselling guidebook author, and esteemed European tour guide (he brought 20,000 travelers to Europe in 2017) has set his sights high, distilling a lifetime of world travel into a pretty basic concept: “I love the idea of travel as a way of getting out of our comfort zone.” That that philosophy remains surprising, even shocking, to some travelers, simply underscores the need for this new, fully revised third edition of Steves’s award-winning book at this moment in American history.


That said, however, Travel as a Political Act is an especially inviting, non-confrontational celebration of the ways in which “transformative travel” can enrich any trip for any traveler (even those who cherish their comfort zones). At the heart of Steves’s message is the notion of embracing local culture wherever you go: Connect with people, take history seriously, and overcome fear. He devotes chapters to such disparate destinations as El Salvador (where Americans can see firsthand the impact of globalization on a small, relatively poor country), Turkey and Morocco (Islamic nations that do not fit the common media narrative of religious extremism and terrorism), Israel and Palestine (where he simply urges visitors to talk to both sides), and a variety of European nations that challenge Americans’ views.


“America is a great and innovative nation. But other nations have some pretty good ideas, too,” says Steves. In Travel as a Political Act, the author consistently invites readers to join him in opening their minds, but, as a truly open-minded writer himself, he avoids condescension and lecturing. “By bringing these ideas home, we can help our society confront its challenges more wisely.”


Because we ask everyone, "Where will you go next?" I asked Steves where 2018 may take him, and I got possibly my favorite answer I've yet received: "I'm off to Europe to make guidebooks, particularly in Sicily and Scotland, and I'm preparing a TV show about the history of Fascism in Europe and another about cruising in the Mediterranean."

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