Keith Stickelmaier leads Rick Steves Best of Europe tours with a shared love of history and people. He gets rave reviews for his historical storytelling, teaching of travel skills, and transforming his tour groups into traveling families. Let's get to know him!
Keith, when did you first get bitten by the travel bug?
When I was growing up, our family moved all over the country. I think that helped me develop the ability to engage in new environments, and be able to meet new people — and it piqued my interest in the diversity of what all is out there!
And once you were old enough to travel on your own, what happened then?
While going to college in Vermont, I had the opportunity to travel abroad on a work exchange program. Because of my love for the outdoors, I'd always wanted to go to Switzerland. The mountains, the lakes, the snow, the alpine life — even as a kid I'd dreamed about living there. So, I enrolled in the program and went to Switzerland, where I lived in Bern for a year and worked on the trains. I had the best time! I got to travel to all the different regions of the country and do so many things. At the same time, I met travelers and students from all over the world who dropped into Switzerland while they were exploring Europe. I heard about all the great things they had been doing, places they'd been to and things they'd seen, and about some of the amazing experiences Europe has to offer.
Did you wish you were one of them?
Yes! At the end my program, I took the student's rite of passage: Armed with an unlimited two-month Eurail pass and hostel card, I took off and saw as much of Europe as I could. It was an amazing experience, and the one where the "travel bug" and I became best friends.
So that was just the start?
I followed that with another program where I worked and lived in London for a year. Then — as if I couldn't get enough of it all — I decided to branch out and see more of the world. I enrolled in Semester at Sea, an international studies program that travels around the world by ship. I was able to visit many different countries, all with their own unique culture and history. I was fortunate to stay affiliated with the program for another eight years, making several voyages around the world. And then I met the love of my life, who was from Seattle. I relocated there, and was miraculously hired by Rick Steves' Europe — the one employer for whom years of travel made me look like an expert, not a slacker! In the years since, my adventures in travel have continued. I always look forward to where the road may lead me next.
What is it about travel that jazzes you the most?
I've always been endlessly intrigued by history. Whenever I travel, I think of the quote, "Study the past if you would define the future." I feel so fortunate that on Rick's tours I get to visit cities like Paris, Rome, and Amsterdam, which have defined Europe's past, and its path. I get to walk in the footsteps of Napoleon, Charlemagne, and the Caesars through legendary places like the Colosseum, Notre Dame, and St. Mark's Square. I get to see original great works of art by the masters: Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Botticelli. Nothing feeds my love of history as much as guiding a Best of Europe tour.
Do you have a favorite historical period?
The Middle Ages. I call them the teenage years of European history: difficult, hard to control, and lots of unruly behavior. Yet underneath it all you see the goodness in the people, the growth and maturation of society, and it all eventually leads to a better world. But sometimes you just want to grab them and say, "That's it, you are so grounded!"
Which experiences have you most enjoyed sharing with your Best of Europe tour groups?
There have been — and continue to be — so many! Here are just a few: being up at the top of the Schilthorn early in the morning on a beautiful Swiss Alps day with a blanket of clouds spreading out below us and experiencing what heaven must be like; dancing in the streets of Monterosso, Italy with my tour members and the locals dressed as fish during the Sardine Festival (and knowing we'll all remember that forever); rounding the corner inside the Accademia in Florence to find Michelangelo's David magnificently displayed under the cupola, and watching my tour members experience the same sense of awe and goose bumps I had at my first encounter with this wonderous work of art. Honestly, I could say that almost all my travel experiences could fall under the 'wow' moment. It's how I look at them. I'll say to any traveler in any situation they are in: Live that moment to the fullest and focus on the positive.
How can your day job ever match this?
You'd be surprised. The rest of the year I'm a Tour Specialist in Rick's Tour Sales Department. We are the ones who get to work directly with the public and our tour members. We help people figure out which tour will be the best for them, and help them prepare to get the most out of their European experience. I really enjoy talking with folks who are excited about where they'll be going and what they'll be doing — especially if this is their first trip abroad. Some of them have waited most of a lifetime for this trip, and you can feel the enthusiasm in their voices. And when I'm talking with our repeat alums, I hear all the best stories about what they did, who they met, and what they ate. Or at least what they think they ate. I'm always traveling year-round, through their experiences and their joy. It's a wonderful feeling.
Here's what Keith won't tell you…but his tour members will:
"Keith made this tour! He was extremely knowledgeable and made things interesting by telling stories with passion. Keith also made us feel comfortable by explaining the metro in detail, helping solve any transportation issues, and safety tips. Because he genuinely cared about each and every one of us, it bonded the group."
— Sandy in Smyrna, GA