Book Review: Rick Steves' Travel as a Political Act

by Julie Schwietert Aug 24, 2009
Rick Steves

Photo courtesy of Rick Steves

I know Rick Steves is a travel guru, but somehow, I’ve managed to miss every single one of his PBS and National Public Radio shows.

I’ve never thumbed through one of his guidebooks. My introduction to Steves–who’s been in the travel business for the past 30 years–was through his latest book, Travel as a Political Act, published in April by Nation Books.

The title appealed to me, suggesting that Steves shares many of the beliefs the Matador community is built upon.

I wasn’t disappointed.

The book opens with the author’s vivid recollections of powerful moments from a lifetime’s worth of travel, reaffirming how profound a journey is for both the person taking it and the people being visited. These stories draw the reader in and lead to Steves’ direct statement of the book’s premise: “that thoughtful travel comes with powerful lessons.” By sharing some of his lessons, he hopes to “inspire others to travel more purposefully.”

Over the course of nine chapters, Steves takes his reader to his favorite European countries, as well as El Salvador, Turkey, Morocco, and Iran, and shows what traveling more purposefully means. In each country, Steves compares what works, what doesn’t, and what we can learn about our home countries as a result. He is honest about the experiences that confuse or frustrate him but is always motivated by the desire to understand others and himself more fully.

By sharing all of his experiences candidly, he helps the reader to be more thoughtful about his or her own travel.

Steves describes the common thread binding all of his business ventures–the TV and radio shows, the guidebooks, the tours his company hosts–as his desire to teach people how to travel. And he’s good at doing that: what’s so engaging about this book is Steves teaches through example.

The book would be an especially good read for someone who’s new to travel, but it’s just as likely to be enjoyed by experienced travelers.

When he talks about “letting an impression breathe,” to open ourselves up to experiences that stretch us and challenge us and to be willing to revise our conclusions about what we see, the reader understands what he means because all of his stories show exactly how to do that.

And what about the “political act” part of the book?

Steves views travel as a way to go out into the world and learn and then to come home and live more purposefully. He provides lots of tangible examples about how his travels have shaped his activities back home in the U.S.: his advocacy of drug policy reform, his voting habits, his commitment to remain in a church that’s not particularly progressive rather than move to a congregation more aligned with his politics.

He doesn’t tell you how travel should become a political act in your own life– that’s not his style. Consistent with his teaching method throughout the book, he just shows you what he’s done, what works for him, and motivates you to make decisions that resonate with your own values. And he doesn’t leave you hanging at the end of the book; you can continue on to the Travel as a Political Act blog he’s set up on his website.

Travel as a Political Act would be an especially good read for someone who’s new to travel, but it’s just as likely to be enjoyed by experienced travelers because Steves’ lessons–while familiar, maybe–will invite you to reflect upon your own travel memories and the ways they’ve shaped your life.

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