He’s hosted a PBS TV show, written books and been a regular speaker at travel expos, focusing almost entirely on Europe. Now, Rudy Maxa is launching his own guided tour company. So of course it takes him only about five minutes to start talking smack about Rick Steves.
“If you like carrying your luggage up three flights of stairs, sleeping on the train overnight and making a ham and cheese sandwich in the morning to take for your lunch,” Maxa says in a tone as dry as some of his favorite wines, “then Rick’s your guy.” A downtown St. Paul resident for the past dozen years — he followed a girlfriend here and stayed after they split — Maxa defies the stereotype of Minnesotans as cheapskates. His long-running public radio show, “The Savvy Traveler,” and subsequent PBS series, “Smart Travels with Rudy Maxa,” usually found the fast-talking Maxa staying at four- or five-star hotels instead of the quainter hideaways in that other PBS fixture, “Rick Steves’ Europe.” He often dined at fancy restaurants and would order a rare bottle of wine; then maybe another.
Maxa wears the distinction proudly, with one exception: “My wines usually aren’t all that expensive,” he says during a (wine-free) lunch at a sidewalk table outside Meritage, St. Paul’s nearest thing to the kind of French bistro you’d find on Maxa’s old show.
A former Washington Post investigative reporter and longtime National Geographic contributor — his second career as a travel expert was rather happenstance but has been a lot more fun — Maxa has just returned from France and Italy. The trip was a test run for the Paris-to-Venice itinerary laid out in his new enterprise, Rudy Maxa’s Tours.
The first of his eight 2019 “small luxury group” treks started in August. Destinations include spins through Italy, France, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Austria and the Mediterranean Coast. Like his TV series, the tours feature high-end restaurants and hotels. Starting prices range from $4,400 to $8,000 without airfare. However, Maxa insists he’s seeking out good deals for his travel companions.
“I’m genuinely amazed at how great a rate you can get at these hotels when you tell them you have a tour company,” he says, while also stressing the smallness of his operation. “There aren’t 60 people on salary, and we don’t mail out a $25 catalog quarterly to all our customers.”
In that example, he was not disparaging Steves: “Rick and I are actually good friends,” he says, “and I admire his whole ethos about travel a great deal.” But he’s down on companies that he feels exploit Americans’ inexperience and intimidation about traveling Europe. Maxa’s own European travels started back when his dad served in the military, and he’s happy to dole out his tips and tricks, for free.
Why do people need tour companies in the DIY internet era when you can book it yourself?
There’s too much information on the web to sort through. Who do you believe? The guy on TripAdvisor who loves a certain pension or the one who says it’s the worst he’s ever stayed in? There are too many options.
Of course the internet is a great tool, but if you really don’t know much of anything, it’s hard to figure out what’s best for you.
How did a guy who doesn’t like guided tour companies wind up starting his own?
I’m definitely not a big fan of them. But for the 15 to 20 years I’ve been doing shows, people always say, “Why don’t you run tours like Rick Steves does? But more like your shows.” I told them, “Look, I don’t have the bandwidth for tours.”
Then about a year or so ago, I met my partner, Tommy Danielsen, who’s Norwegian but married an American woman. He had an unusual niche. Once a year, he ran a three-day tour for aviation geeks, taking them to places like the KLM maintenance hangar, the food kitchens at Prague airport, weird things like that. He said, “Look, I run this one tour once per year, and for the rest of the year I have this insurance and licensing.” He told me, “Just plan a tour you’d like.”
So how did you plan it differently?
My motto is: No buses, and nobody leading you with a flag. It’ll be high-speed trains or luxury vans or flights that we pay for. There’ll be a maximum of 10 to 20 people on the tour. All the meals will be included at restaurants I like, and you can go to them or not. It’ll be four-star hotels. Leave your luggage in the room in the morning, it’ll be on the bed in your next hotel room. Your hotel keys will be handed to you right when you get there. We take care of all the tipping and bills.
In short, I’m creating an infrastructure but letting you choose the experience. We have on-ground guides and events planned, but you don’t have to do them if you don’t want to. No one is going to ring you up in your room and say, “You’re supposed to be downstairs at 8:30 a.m. to go see the Eiffel Tower.” But we will definitely take you to the Eiffel Tower if you haven’t seen it before.
Any hard lessons so far?
The fact that people are already asking about our 2020 tours and even 2021 already. I didn’t know people planned trips that far out. We’re learning all kinds of other stuff, too. We purposefully did not want to deal with getting airline tickets, because that’s best left to the individual. That’s a whole other world.
How did a hard-nose reporter become a travel specialist, which some of your former colleagues might see as lightweight?
I can tell you one thing: People are a lot happier to see me now than they were when I was an investigative reporter.
I knew from age 9 that I wanted to be first in telling someone something. That’s why I became a reporter. Straight out of college I went to work for the Washington Post, where Ben Bradlee’s whole mission was to have a “holy [bleep]” story on the front page every day. I wrote a lot of those stories for the Post. I missed a Pulitzer by one vote, but who’s counting?
I became a travel journalist by mistake but realized it’s the same kind of thing: If I tell you a way to double the number of miles on your next trip and your eyes light up, I’ve done my job. I’ve gone to Paris with friends just to show them around for a few days, and then I cut them loose while I go see my granddaughter in London. I get excited by that pleasure of seeing them experience Paris for the first time.
Do you miss doing the show for PBS?
I did 98 episodes that you can still watch. I’d be very interested in doing more. What most people don’t know is that most of the shows they watch on weekends on PBS are funded by the producers of the show, which in my case is me. Corporate underwriters are hard to get. Rick now can self-finance because he has a multimillion-dollar tour company. I can’t.
When traveling becomes your profession, does it get old?
How are Brexit and other political turmoil in Europe impacting American travelers?
There’s a general worry. Brexit doesn’t really affect things much if you’re coming in with an American passport. When the yellow shirts in Paris run down the street breaking windows, though, that certainly makes first-time visitors nervous. Just remember: We have huge demonstrations in America, too. The fear of the unknown is off-putting more in a place you don’t know. If you live in New York City and there’s a huge protest there, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal.
Tourism numbers for Americans going to Europe have been going up. The American economy is fairly strong, at least as we speak. I haven’t seen anybody over there not happy to see Americans yet, including even in Russia.
Have attitudes toward Americans changed in Europe?
People seem to approach the subject of Donald Trump gingerly. They want to see where you stand before they go off on him. I haven’t met many people over there pleased with our president or the direction our country is going, but they don’t hold that against you personally. There’s never been a time I’ve been more cognizant of not talking politics.
What are some hidden-gem spots in Europe?
I took my first trip to Georgia this past year. The country Georgia! I’d never been, knew very little about it. I was blown away. With it being a former Soviet republic, I just presumed it’d be a bunch of old, gray, dingy buildings. But [Tbilisi] is a beautiful cosmopolitan city with large, gorgeous boulevards. All the cabs are Mercedes. They have touch pay cards everywhere. The exchange rate was outrageous. And the wines are great. Seriously. It’s the same longitude as Bordeaux. Some of the wine importers here are just learning about their wines.
And then Portugal. It’s no secret. There are a lot of Americans who love it, but a lot of us overlook it, as I did until last year. I went on my own for three days for no reason. I wandered Lisbon and fell in love with it. The food and wine especially. I can’t wait to see more of Portugal.
Inevitably when most of us travel abroad, we get lost or things go wrong. Do you still have those moments where you’re pulling your hair out?
Not that much, especially nowadays. Road signs are so much better, and of course cellphones make it easier. I remember when I moved to St. Paul, and there were road signs for [Interstate] 494, and it would say east or west. Well, I didn’t know Minneapolis is west and St. Paul is east. Would it kill them to put the city names on the signs?
I certainly still get lost. Years ago before cellphones, I got lost just trying to find the beach in San Tropez, which seemed easy enough since it’s a beach town.
For Minnesotans headed to Scandinavia, is there really a kinship there or is that imagined on our end?
No, it’s real. I remember shooting shows in smaller Scandinavian towns, and we had a couple meals in people’s homes. I told them I was moving to a place called St. Paul, Minn., and they said, “Oh, Minnesota. Do you know Edina?” And I’d never heard of it. They all had cousins here or had been here themselves.
The trouble with most Norwegian tours is they involve 18 hours on the bus, just because of the topography and all the surrounding water. On our tour, we’re going to either fly people around or take luxury boats, do it much more efficiently.
Do you recommend Minnesota as a travel destination when you’re overseas?
You know, I do. Of course, I say to come in the summer, but for people who are really into winter, I definitely recommend it for them. I’ll suggest they go ice fishing; but then when they do it, I just stay home [laughs]. I like showing people around, and they’re very surprised by how enjoyable it is. There’s an interesting history here, too, with the mills and the railroad barons and whatnot, and I’ve come to enjoy passing that along.
What can we do to improve the Twin Cities as a tourist destination?
Better road signage.