Sometimes even Rick Steves gets it wrong

I have a confession to make. Until one of his writers contacted me and asked if he could join my walking tour to review it for an upcoming guidebook he was writing, I had no idea who Rick Steves was. I didn’t even know he existed.

When I first started writing this blog I read every guidebook about Iceland that I could get my hands on but after a while, I got so frustrated with how many things they got wrong (and how many of them repeated the same bad advice) that I stopped reading them altogether. To be fair, Rick Steves also predominately writes for his American audience, a target group I don’t belong to, so it’s not that strange that I had never heard of him.

By the way, I’m not bashing any guidebook writers here. They often work with impossible time constraints where they must learn everything they can about a destination in a stupidly short amount of time and you simply can’t get everything right under those circumstances. I’m just trying to explain why I didn’t know something that seems so obvious to many.

As it turned out the writer enjoyed our tour very much and wanted to feature it in their book. Which they did and I’m sure it has brought us some business this summer. A while later I was also contacted by one of Rick’s people and asked if I’d be willing to spend a day with the man himself on his upcoming visit to Reykjavík. Which I happily agreed to.

I ended up spending a whole day with him and together we explored things that had been recommended in his book and I for one had a jolly good time.  I learned a lot about how the guidebook business works and I also realized what a big name he is because we were constantly getting stopped on the streets for photos and autographs and half of the people who stopped us had his book in their hands. It didn’t surprise me though that none of the Icelanders we spoke to (staff at the attractions we were checking out etc.) had ever heard of him or his guidebook. See, it’s not just me!

My favorite person who stopped us that day was a lady who was super excited to see him and exclaimed You’re Rick Steves! as she approached us. She then turned to me and said: And you’re the lady from I Heart Reykjavík. It tickled my ego to know that she recognized me too but at the same time it put me in my place because he was Rick Steves and I was that lady.

One of the things we discussed on our day together was this problem that I mentioned before about guidebook writers not having enough time to fully research the places they’re supposed to be guiding people around which often results in bad advice and how fortunate he felt about having good writers working for him on this Iceland book. Which is why I was super surprised to see a post on his Facebook page last night with a video from his travels here in Iceland where he basically encouraged his followers to ignore warning signs they encounter on their travels because the “best adventures often lie just ahead of them”.

Those were not his exact words, but this is what I and most of the 500 people who commented on the post took away from it. When I saw this I first got a little angry because I spend so much time and effort on trying to educate people on how they can return from their trips to Iceland in one piece and without hurting our fragile nature. The anger soon turned into disappointment with the fact that someone with so much influence and clout would say something so counteractive to the efforts made by the Icelandic government, ICE-SAR, park rangers and responsible travel companies all over Iceland.

I know he wasn’t talking about warning signs in Iceland in particular, even though he used a sign here to make his point, but he’s promoting a guidebook about Iceland and it wouldn’t be a huge mental leap for his followers who do make it over here to ignore other signs they encounter on their travels around Iceland. I mean, if Rick Steves does it…

He later took down his original post and posted again where he admitted he had been wrong and where he took everything back. Although he should never have posted this to begin with I think it’s always good when people see the error of their ways and are willing to correct their mistakes and for that, I give him credit. His response seems thoughtful and genuine.

Mind you, I’m not sure Rick Steves personally posted any of this but then at least he has a good team around him that knows when they make a mistake and recognize the responsibility that comes with having such a big platform. I’m sure the backlash they got was a good motivator too – I know the folks who commented on the Facebook post I wrote about this (that is now gone because he deleted the original post) had a few choice words for him.

Now, I don’t know what their intention was with this post. Maybe it was an attempt to reinforce some image of Rick Steves as a real traveler as opposed to a tourist (which we all know is just about the worst thing to be ever called) or maybe that he likes to live dangerously. Maybe they just needed content and they didn’t think about what they were posting. Who knows?

This whole incident does shed a light, though, on a few issues that we as a travel community need to address.

Like this uncontrollable need that people seem to have these days for exploring things “off the beaten path” that makes them disregard rules, warnings and common sense for the perfect Instagram photo or bragging rights. Not only do they endanger themselves or the lives of those who have to rescue them if they get themselves into trouble, they also often blatantly disrespect people’s private properties or areas that have some sort of special meaning. Like taking silly selfies at Holocaust memorials. Or taking photos through someone’s window (we’ve had to ask a guest who was just so excited about everything they were seeing not to do that on our walking tour for example).

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but there are not many places left that are off this much-discussed beaten path. And if they are, there’s probably a reason for why they should remain so. It’s not our god given right as travelers to see everything there is out there and just forge ahead like bulldozers. We may do things by accident that we later realize was not right, in which case we learn from our mistakes and make sure we never do them again, but when we knowingly ignore warning signs or local advice that has to do with our own safety and the safety of others and the nature around us –  I’m sorry but we’re just being assholes.

Here in Iceland, we’re seeing beautiful irreplaceable natural wonders being trampled down and ruined because people think the rules don’t apply to them. It makes me so mad that I can’t even express it with words. It’s not necessarily always tourists, sometimes the locals are no better. I don’t really care who does it – they should all just stop. I’m not even going to get into when I meet people who brag about ignoring road closures in crazy weather so they could make their reservation at whatever restaurant their favorite foodie told them they couldn’t miss.

OK, so I guess I’m angry again.

I would also like us to put to rest this notion that someone isn’t a real traveler if he or she goes on organized tours or only visits well-established attractions with adequate infrastructure. Hauling your ass to a cliff that you may or may not fall off to get a photo for your social media accounts does not make you a better or wiser traveler than Phil the fanny-packer who’s just delighted to see the Golden Circle with 500 of his not so close friends. We’re all tourists according to the dictionary: a person who is traveling or visiting a place for pleasure. We all burn the same carbon dioxide getting from one place to the next and we’re all butt of the local jokes whether we wear Gori-Tex or multi-colored harem pants. Why do we always have to pick sides?

What should matter is whether you’re a compassionate and decent human being that is respectful to your surroundings, no matter whether you’re traveling or at home. That’s what makes a good traveler.

Rant over. I feel better now.

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22 thoughts on “Sometimes even Rick Steves gets it wrong”

  1. Deanna says:

    As always, very fair. I am United States Rick Steves fan and can see why Icelanders are unfamilar with him. I admire the way you and Mr. Steves resolved a difference. Your anger at improper behavior is well deserved IMHO. Your recognition of tourist/traveler category as being far less relevant than good behavior is refreshing. I loved my time as a “traveler” in Iceland, woman camping and hiking alone at age 79, but may well return on as a ” tourist” as I continue to age…the categoty does change who I am.

  2. gloria monti says:

    let those idiots who think guidelines do not apply to them perish. their choice. darwinism at its best.

  3. Heather Reid says:

    I couldn’t agree with your anger more. I have visited Iceland several times now and hopefully will continue to do so. (I am 74.) I have witnessed the fact that individuals continue to take their lives in their hands by ignoring road warning signs, sometimes with dire consequences.. While on guided tours over the years my drivers have had to stop those in inappropriate vehicles (i.e. not 4 wheel drives) whom have attempted to do the impossible on glaciers, etc.. The tour guides have had to alert them that they are not to be on designated roads so marked. Sadly I have seen also the degradation of Iceland’s beauty by irresponsible individuals whom think it nothing to trash the beautiful environment. It is so very sad. I hope that you continue to stand up and voice your concerns over these matters as you have so many times in the past. (I would also like to thank you for your excellent introduction to Reykjavik when I took your city tour my very first day in Iceland and I would encourage those who have not taken it yet to do so.) Keep up the excellent work!!

  4. D says:

    are you moderating posts? i just wrote a really long post and it doesnt seem to have appeared 🙁

    1. D says:

      I guess not – argh! i can’t remember what i wrote now – maybe it was the most insightful thing ever… maybe it wasnt… *waaah*

    2. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      I do moderate our comments but you’ve commented so many times that your comments get posted automatically. Sometimes if there are too many links in a comment our comment spam filter will assume it’s spam but that’s not what happened here (Since our spam folder is empty too).

      1. D says:

        lol, i’m surprised it’s not treated as spam if i comment so much haha. that’s funny. I expect it was ‘user error’ then! I guess the gist was

        – totally justified and totally correct post
        – if it was just darwinism it would be fine, put your life in danger if you want but these people are damaging environment too
        – if it incenses us visitors so much, i can’t even begin to imagine how much it incenses you
        – i live in a seaside tourist town and we too suffer from selfish visitors (as well as stupid ones – we have a stretch of beach yo are not allowed to go on because the MOD used to use it for testing so there is unexploded ordinance, and it’s still found now, but people still go and sit on it – with their KIDS, which just amazes me)
        – i can’t believe this blogger dude would promote such behaviour
        – instagram is terrible for posting irresponsible stuff that people wish to emulate (re: news articles about young people chooses their holiday based on what looks good on social media – you see comments of “we should do this” on such posts) – i try to pull people up on it, and one guy even posted a photo of ‘searching for puffins’ which showed him galloping down Dyrhólaey cliffs which is totally wrong – and his account was affiliated with inspired by iceland – i messaged them and got no reply but i see he’s not anymore, but is aligned with some other icelandic things. which i find weird that any icelandic based feed would want to encourage it.

        and lastly – gahhh! 🙂

  5. Matt says:

    So Rick Steves is indeed a big deal. It is unfortunate that his post about “exploring” has such a negative context, because as you said, its people falling off cliffs or needing SAR rescue in iceland, because iceland is dangerous, and fragile in places.

    But if you had watched the hundreds and hundreds of hours of him touring the world, i think youd have a sense that his heart was in the right place but WOW he mis-spoke because iceland is a special case in many ways, and his comments seem extremely inappropriate for iceland.

    His standard advice to “explore”, if exercised in France, means you eat where locals eat, maybe see a sporting event or rent a bicycle and just explore Mortparnasse at a leisurely pace. If you see something interesting, stop and ask the locals about it. So its safe advice in Paris and people are richer for it, not having just seen the Eiffel tower and notre dame, and eaten all their meals either at a McDonalds or their hotel lobby.

    but that same attitude in Iceland can get you drowned or crushed or in need of an expensive rescue. It seems clear now, he did not fully understand that he was giving dangerous advice.

    His spirit of adventure and exploration, and taking the time and effort to truly learn and appreciate the culture and people of an area, not just your hotel lobby, makes his hundreds of episodes magical. Areas come to life when you allow yourself the freedom to not have a fixed itenerary but explore as opportunities present themselves, to be open to life and new experiences.

    This clearly did not come across well when he hastily tried to apply his usual advice to a most unique and special land, Iceland!

    1. D says:

      i suppose ‘off the beaten track’ is a much more casual and innocent phrase in a lot of places – but for somewhere like Iceland, especially with what has been happening over the past few years, it’s a very loaded phrase. I don’t know this guy, but i do feel like there is a lot out there about the fragile nature of Iceland and the effects tourism is having -but i may be blinkered by how much iceland themed stuff i follow i guess 🙂

    2. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      I’m not judging him or his team – a mistake was made and it was corrected. I think this whole thing was just unfortunate but it doesn’t change the fact that in their attempts to “go off the beaten path” people often cause harm, intended or not. I blame social media and just how we’re becoming wired more than I blame any one person.

      1. Matt says:

        well thats because in iceland, “off the beaten path” can be taken literally because there are indeed paths. For a trip to Paris, Cologne, Prague, etc, its a euphimism to avoid tourist traps and instead, eat where locals eat and do what locals do, and to actually try to talk to locals and learn some local history. Again I wasnt in his head, but i think its all a misunderstanding, and poor choice to use an actually important sign as a “bon mot” cheeky header to his post. Super glad he apologized and was corrected by 500+ people who had the courage to tell him he had mis-evaluated a culture and made a serious error.

        1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

          The problem is though, even just doing as the locals do often causes problems.

          Take the pools here in Iceland. People are told to visit them to get the local experience because the pools are such a huge part of people’s everyday life here. It’s a way of living, really, like saunas in Finland or something. Now, it has become a huge problem in the Icelandic pools that the tourists/travelers that visit don’t shower before they go to the pool even though there is no way you can claim that you didn’t know those were the rules. There are signs everywhere and when the staff at the pools notices you’re a foreigner they will go over the rules with you when they sell you your ticket. Cameras are also not allowed in the pools but tourists need to take selfies in the hot tub so they ignore those rules too. The pools are supposed to be a safe space and the locals don’t go there to be plastered all over Facebook in their swimsuit.

          It’s causing a lot of friction and the locals feel like they’re losing something that is really important to them.

          So it doesn’t really matter whether the path is literal or figurative – it can still cause problems.

          1. Matt P says:

            Well it sounds like his comment – and again i am very glad he realized the error of his ways and changed it immediately – touched on an issue that was already a source of great frustration before he got there and made his ignorant comment.

            Im 44, you dont have to work hard to convince me that young tourists are mostly idiots and are ruining Icelandic classics. I was just trying to say that *as someone who has watched a ton of Rick Steves, he is all about protecting stuff*. I did not intend to defend anyone else, or even fully defend him – he goofed up!

            I dont think i helped though because there seems to be a lot of pre-Steves related anger on this issue that he and his fame brought to forefront. I forgot one of the basic rules of the internet – you cant help by commenting hehe 😀

            I thought I was helping bc you had said you hadn’t watched his shows, so i was trying to… well make the classic mistake of trying to “help” like my opinion on Rick is going to make people go OH NEVERMIND, MATT SAYS HES GUCCI hehe

            Bestu Kvedjur! See you in march i hope!!!

          2. D says:

            Wow hadn’t realised about the selfie thing – curse of the bloody selfies! I’m sorry peoples way of life is being so intruded upon.

  6. Sheri Kalvin says:

    thank you for addressing this, audur. my blood boiled last night when i read his post and i was one of the very angry respondents calling him irresponsible and a ninny among other things. he has definitely been knocked down a peg or 5 in MY book. my first reason for the anger was not his personal danger, but the fact that he is promoting destroying the fragile ecosystem in many countries. iceland is beautiful and will remain one of my favorite travel memories. i would love to return one day, but i hate being called “that tourist”. he has definitely given a poster face to the term “ugly american”.

  7. Ryan H says:

    Funny you say you’ve never heard of him. My first thought seeing that photo was “HOLY S***!” Rick Steves might as well be the most famous person in the world in our house. My in-laws have gone on several of his tours. (My wife jokes that her inheritance is going to Rick Steves.) If they’re anything to go by, Rick Steves tourists are probably the most responsible tourists in the world. Venturing past a No Entry sign is akin to a sin to them.

  8. I’ve written (on my blog) about cycling in Reykjavík and the surrounding area. That post consisted mostly of warnings about special conditions in Iceland and in it (three times!) was this notice:

    ALWAYS REMEMBER: ICELAND’S WEATHER CAN CHANGE RAPIDLY. PLAN AHEAD.

    Rick tends to gloss over travel problems; his television shows seem to exist in a parallel universe without problems (or rain!)
    His choice of the words “off the beaten path” was an unfortunate cliché, but one he has used often. If a traveler is really interested in going “off the beaten path” in Iceland I would suggest exploring its vibrant culture–buy a ticket to a play, concert or a movie, even if it is Icelandic. Go to an art opening. I’ve never been disappointed when doing that.

    Here is the post if you are interested: https://flippistarchives.blogspot.com/2014/03/reykjavik-by-bike.html

  9. Xena says:

    You may have saved many a tourist from doom.
    We can only search and rescue so many people.

  10. Matt P says:

    Here are three examples of his idea of “off the beaten path” taken from his blog

    Rome:
    – went to a farmers market instead of a grocery store like Bonus
    – asked if there was a street with old cobblestones.
    – day trip to Orvieto, half way to Florence, because a tall building there has a good view of the Tuscany mountains.

    So for those who havent watched his show, thats what he means by “off the beaten path”, nothing requiring a 4×4 and winter skills or sea/land/air rescue, but he seems to have become the rallying symbol of all poorly-behaved people and so I dont think anyone will be convinced but hey i tried.

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      I’m not specifically referring to Rick Steves when I talk about the off the beaten path – just this idea in general.

      1. Matt P says:

        I think i get that now, and my rush to defend Steves was ignoring a much much bigger and serious issue you were trying to discuss and shed light on, and so I apologize if i derailed an important message about respect and safety in general, to defend one person. Sorry Auður!!!

  11. Liz says:

    And bless you for your final comment, “Why do we always have to pick sides?” We are all fellow travelers, traveling because we love it our way own way. How fortunate we are that we 1) can travel safely and return home; 2) can travel in ways we like, all of them different. We would be so dull if we all saw, did, and thought about the same things. Thank you for your lovely blog! Looking forward to seeing Iceland and Reykjavik for the first time!

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