On The Road With Rick Steves

<B>Vicki Mabrey</B> Follows Steves Through Europe In Search Of His Travel Secrets

For millions of Americans, planning a vacation in Europe means following - literally - in the footsteps of one man. Rick Steves is a backpacker who's become a business tycoon by writing about life on the road.

As found out, when she went to Europe with Steves, legions of travelers use his guidebooks like bibles. In fact, there are so many "Rickniks," as his followers call themselves, that a review from Steves can make or break a tourist attraction from Barcelona to Budapest.

You could say he's a professional tourist on the road about four months a year, chasing down tips to make the perfect trip. That means poking, prodding, and scribbling his way through as many hotels and cafes as he can cram into a day.

On a three-day trip to the Netherlands and Germany, Steves showed what it takes to stay a step ahead: "I'm over here, making mistakes, running down bad leads, and trying to assemble information so people who like my style of travel can get it right every time."

Some may call his style of travel eccentric, but he calls it "blitzing." He's on a constant quest to take his readers off the beaten path.

What's the key to enjoying travel? "One of the fundamental things is, if it's not to your liking, change your liking," says Steves. "This is a chance for us to immerse ourselves in something that's different."

"What gives your trip the magic memories is connecting with the people," adds Steves. "Anybody can get a list of famous sights. And they can take a taxi from sight to sight and check them off. You don't need my guidebook for that. But if I can put you into a magic situation on the west coast of Ireland or in a little pub in Athens, those are the magic moments that really make the trip, I think, more successful."

Steves has 30 travel guides that sell about half a million copies a year. His guide to Italy is the bestselling travel book in the country. His books have led to a booming tour business, a signature line of luggage and a TV show on PBS, all of which has made him a celebrity.

When 60 Minutes Wednesday was with him in Europe, it seemed there wasn't a street he could walk down without being recognized. His fans treat him more like a rock star than a travel writer. And they have a name for themselves: "Rickniks."

Everybody knows his name in Edmonds, Wash., the tiny town near Seattle where he was raised, and still lives with his wife and two teenagers. He's built his company there into a $20 million-a-year empire with 60 employees who primarily gather information for his books and lead tours. But Steves isn't just selling a way to see the world; he's selling a world view, too.

"This is all about experience. I don't want to sit on a bus and look at things through a tinted window and hear some guide tell me the stories in three languages," says Steves. "I want to be out there in the market! I want to be ripped off when I buy my Belgian endives, OK? I want to learn about that."

Is he promoting the experience, or has this now turned into big business?

"This is big business," says Steves. "On the other hand, my mission, my calling is to teach Americans how to travel smartly."

What do Americans get from going overseas? "Americans who travel thoughtfully get a broader perspective and a better understanding of what this planet is truly like," says Steves.

Is that something Americans are lacking? "America is desperately lacking that understanding. America doesn't know what's out there!"