Why Every College Student Should Travel — An Interview With Andy Steves

More and more Americans are taking a semester or even a year to study abroad. That’s usually the time when many of us cut our teeth as travelers and catch the wanderlust bug. While figuring out travel in a foreign land with a confusing language is part of the fun, it can also be a blocker for some.

Andy Steves, son of the legendary Rick Steves, has been traveling since before he can remember. When he headed to college, he set out on a different path from his father — before discovering that his lifetime of experiential travel made him the de facto travel agent for friends when he studied in Rome. Steves leaned into the role and now runs a tour agency, which provides study abroad students an outlet to explore the regions around them.

We sat down with Andy Steves and talked travel, his new book series, and how Europe is changing.

When did you get the idea for your company? Was it something that was brewing for a long time, or was it an inspiration that came to you one day when you were on the road?

When I was studying in Rome in the spring of 2008 I never thought I was going to go into tourism straight out of college. That was why I was studying completely different majors: industrial design and Italian. But when my friends and I realized that we could travel on the weekends to different exciting places all over the continent — making these travel plans just naturally fell to me. I was the one who knew how to get around and how to get to the airport, make transfers, and how to find hostels. Group sizes went from 5 to 10 to 30, when I was organizing these weekend trips, and by the end of the semester it was a lot of fun but also work.

That’s when I realized that there was a business opportunity if, you know, people were naturally coming to me for help with their travel plans.

Studying abroad is becoming more popular, but there’s still a lot of students who don’t consider it. What do you think is sort of holding them back? Is it money? Is it fear? Is it just lack of information? Is it all the above?

I think studying abroad is one of the biggest trends in American universities these days. For universities, it’s a cost effective way to kind of manage populations on their own campus. They can accept more or less students to go abroad each semester, and put them into more affordable schools in Europe or more subsidized schools in Australia, for example. Students want to go, universities don’t mind the financial benefit, and it seems like win-win all the way around.

There’s a number of other factors that play into it. You know, parents and students’ will be concerned about safety, whether or not it’s actually legitimate.

If you’re 17 years old, starting your senior year, and you’re thinking of going to college, are there colleges that are better for you to go to that offer better abroad programs or has it sort of equalized in the last few years?

You know I think that’s a great question. You’re right, there are a number of schools that do have very strong study abroad programs. NYU has global campuses all around the world with locations in a lot of challenging places that really give you a lot of immersion and culture. Notre Dame has campuses all around the world. What I’ve found is that major universities have found a smart way to diversify their holdings by making pretty significant real estate purchases in cities like Paris, London, Sydney, and others. They’ll go in and buy these, you know, old hospitals and turn them into dorms, or they’ll buy, like, campuses right around the corner from Trafalgar Square in London.

Obviously we live in a social media age which is completely different to what we grew up in in the ’80s and ’90s, where you actually had to have a book. I still travel extensively with my kids now and, you know, our phone is always there. Yet you have gone back to physical books. What brought you back to paper?

The great thing about guide books is that they never run out of battery. You know? I love a tangible book where I can take notes in the margin. I can highlight or cross things out that don’t interest me after I read them once. I’m hoping that users use it in the same way, where they can read it, they can engage with the text, mark it up, and not worry about it running out of juice.

That’s just a fantastic point. How else is a book more beneficial than, say, a crowd-sourced web review?

I found that with more resources you spend half your time cutting through the noise of TripAdvisor and other online crowdsource hubs. Anybody can get on those and say anything they want about any listing that’s on there. You’ll see that it’s used incorrectly fairly often in terms of fake reviews or political motives. Like, the family of the New York bomber recently who runs a fried chicken stand in New Jersey, and there’s been hundreds of people posting one star reviews and anti-muslim posts. So, you know, it’s not a perfect system. They’re great resources to start research, but a guidebook tends to be much more consistent and credible.

You’ve got the books, you’ve got the guides, you’ve got a pretty good social media presence … Where are you looking to go next?

I’m planning on writing my second edition in time for publication in Spring 2018. I’m trying to kind of stabilize and hire the right people for my company. I have a trial product and service called Detours, which are essentially city chapters that also include bookings or paid reservations for a combination in sight-seeing so that customers can book a Detour on a certain day and then we’ve packaged a city chapter with bar-codes where their confirmation information for accommodation and sight-seeing is, and then they can connect the dots at their own pace.

This is starting to look like you’re expanding beyond just student travel. It’s universal, anybody can use them?

I’m trying to expand that direction. You know, we’ve really cut our teeth and got established in running budget student tours, but we’re trying to do bigger and better things now and offer hotel packages. The thing is, a combination just keeps getting more and more expensive. It’s quite a challenge for our operators to figure out how to offer strong value, local guides, great accommodation and great location at affordable price, but I think we do a good job so far.

What are you seeing that people want the most out of their trips these days? Is it still the cultural stuff? Is it access to more things that are local and insider?

Our TripAdvisor profile is a great place to check out to see what people are saying about us. We do an amazing job connecting the students with local culture. I think they’re looking for how to you engage with the local culture in a fun, laid-back, relaxed way where they learn a lot but it’s not like, you know, reading a textbook? Students are pretty protective about their hard-earned weekends and we want to make sure that they have fun on these weekend trips. I think we’ve found that balance.

What do you say when people ask you about security in Europe and traveling?

I’m always trying to communicate a strong awareness of danger and always trying to encourage people to keep their wits about them, all in relation and all in proportion to what’s actually happening in the world. I always respond that fear and safety are two different things. Just because you’re afraid doesn’t mean you’re safe. I try to point out that it’s a little bit ironic when you know, people from Chicago or Detroit or LA. are asking me if Europe’s safe, because in the US we have many more gun deaths than Europe ever does. Many more people are killed in small event gun-related deaths in the States than are ever killed by terrorists in either the US or Europe. While a bomb that kills 10 people is super sensationalized by the news, we might have dozens of gun deaths throughout the country that day that don’t get a mention.

What are some of the places you think are the hottest right now?

Croatia is really popular. Barcelona just keeps getting more and more popular. Iceland, Norway, and Sweden are getting more attention. The trend is going east, so Prague used to be pretty hot but now it’s Budapest and Krakow as Prague becomes more mainstream.

What about you? What are your favorite places at the moment?

I absolutely love Stockholm. I live in Prague when I’m in Europe, because it’s a very well-located and affordable place to live. I have friends there and I have a couple of apartments there. Budapest is another really fun place to check out, I really like that city.

What about further east? Are people showing interest in Minsk, Moscow, St. Petersburg, places like that? Or does it sort of end at the Brest-Litovsk line?

The issue is that Americans need visas to get over to Moscow, and so that costs money and takes time and takes planning. It’s not a focus for us right now.

Okay, that makes sense. What about expanding out beyond Europe? Are you thinking of starting to include Northern Africa, a bit of the Middle East? Asia? Americas?

Europe’s big enough for me right now. It’s big enough for me and already I’m learning how quickly things change, and, you know, open up and close down in Europe. Already some of my favorite places in, like, London or in Dublin have either closed or moved.

What’s your take on the political situation? There’s a sort of movement in the central European block between Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria sort of moving to the far right.

I feel it’s a difficult situation with no clear answer. The economic situation is difficult with high unemployment, the bank crisis a few years ago — they’re still recovering from that — they’re having a hard time figuring out how they’re going to cover settlement of refugee populations. At the same time, I just find it kind of ironic that the far right is rising in these countries where they were dealt the toughest hand by fascists just a couple of generations ago. It’s kind of interesting to see that come up.

Xenophobia and misunderstanding is common among less educated or more blue-collar countries.

Five essential things you do before you travel?

For me it’s suspend my phone service and unlock my phone. Let my bank know I’m traveling internationally. Get my batteries charged. Be sure to take a rain shell.

One of the biggest barriers that a lot of people cite for not traveling is they don’t have the money. What advice could you give someone to save money for a trip two, five years down the road, or to find the money to do it?

Aha. Well I would say, you know, you can save the biggest chunk of money right off the bat by just being flexible on travel dates. If you just set up flight alerts in Google or Kayak, you can be notified by ridiculous flight prices that if you’re able to jump on. If you’re flexible on time, you can travel round-trip to Europe for 300 bucks. Those alerts are rare but as long as you kind of keep your ear to the rail, you’ll see these random deals pop up that are more often than not a system glitch, but the airlines honor them.

There’s ways to save money on accommodation like Airbnb. There’s ways to save money on transportation by how you make transactions when you swipe your card. All these different aspects are important to know and be aware of.

So how’s Airbnb working out for you? There’s a lot of static right now, especially in Germany, sort of compartmentalizing it down to rooms and no full apartments.

For me it’s been a fun, creative outlet business-wise in Prague. I run a couple of Airbnb apartments and we fill them up with people when I’m traveling. For me it’s been a free place to crash when I’m in town, and then a way to cover rent and make some money on the side. I think it’s an incredible business model. Of course the people that it’s affecting adversely like hotels are going to be loud about it, just like taxis are loud about Uber.

It’s just called disruptive progress, or disruptive innovation. There might be industries and lobbies that are entrenched, but when technology comes along and throws everything that’s worked for the last couple of generations of course people who are in the old organizations are going to have a problem with it, because it’s going to make them need to reevaluate their livelihood and all things related to that.

If I had one night in Prague, what should I do?

I would start my evening at probably Lokal for a typical Czech beer-hall dinner, and then go next door to Nod for an after-dinner coffee and a drink. Then I’d just go two doors down again to a place called Klubovna 2 Patro. That’s kind of an EDM and techno dance hall. And then for breakfast you have to hit Bohemian Bagel.

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