Laurel James is a bundle of energy, enthusiasm, and travel knowledge — the ideal mix for a My Way® onboard manager. When she's not watching over her free-spirited My Way groups — or leading fully-guided Best of Scandinavia tours — Laurel divides her time between a home in Sweden, a summer cabin on the Baltic sea, and with her children and grandkids in Washington State. Let's get to know Laurel a little better…
What brought you from Washington State all the way to Sweden?
True love. My high-school boyfriend was a Swedish exchange student. I dreamed of moving to Sweden to start a life with him back in 1982, but my dad said: "NO WAY!" So, we moved on, living our lives completely disconnected. Cut to 30 years later, and we happily rediscovered one another on Facebook. As of this summer, I will have lived there with him for six years — so it all worked out very well in the end! And I've since found out that my great-grandfather married a Swedish immigrant in the US in 1860. I love knowing that all along I've had a family connection with Sweden as well.
How is it being an American living abroad?
In Sweden, I feel like I'm on a constant adventure of learning and understanding. The last thing I want to be is shy. It's a blast for me to get involved in Swedish culture. At every holiday event, they prepare the table with the same exact foods: Swedish meatballs, salmon, sill (herring), and boiled potatoes. I love the long dinners with all the singing — and the schnapps breaks! I also love living where I don't need to worry about having a car or a daily commute. I find it funny that I get a lot of the same questions from locals: "Why do Americans want to own guns? Why do you each need a car? How can one pizza feed a whole family, as we see in the movies?" And it really seems to matter to people that I truly enjoy living in Sweden and have a happy life there.
How did you get your start with Rick Steves?
I've been lucky enough to have a longtime friend who works in Guide Services at Rick Steves Europe. As I got settled into this new phase of my life as an American expat, I realized I was developing skills and insights that could help American travelers better discover all the wonders that Europe has to offer. I contacted my old friend, got an audition, and began assisting on a few Rick Steves tours. A few years later I moved up to managing My Way tours — which I thoroughly enjoy!
What is it that you like about being a My Way manager?
I absolutely love our My Way trips. The travelers we attract are adventurous and independent. My priority is to anticipate and take care of any logistical snags, and create a comfortable environment. I work directly with the bus driver and each hotel. I don't do history talks on the bus, but I give everyone tips that might be helpful for the day's destination. And I'm always available for one-on-one questions and problems to solve. I'm sort of a human safety net, and it helps our travelers be more relaxed and focused on having a fun, rewarding time in Europe. They are always free to do whatever they wish, but I've also had some great happy hours and dinners with travelers who want to join in.
Which My Way itinerary is your favorite?
That is a tough question, but I would have to say that My Way® Alpine Europe is my tops. The natural beauty of these places leaves a lasting impression I carry with me everywhere. No worry, stress or anger can weigh you down when you're hiking in the Dolomites or the Alps. It's simply impossible.
Can you share one of your My Way magic moments?
I have so many brilliant memories of special moments with our travelers. On a My Way® Italy trip last October, we had a professional guitarist in the group. At our hotel in Assisi, somebody found an old guitar that the owner had hidden away, so we set up a little event on the balcony. Members of our group all brought wine and olives, and we enjoyed a private concert as the sun set over the gorgeous Umbrian countryside. Wow!
Here's what Laurel won't tell you…but her tour members will:
"Laurel was a great part of our My Way trip — friendly and positive, and worked well with our group. She gave special attention to the first-time travelers who needed it. She helped us plan our daily activities and made our lives a lot easier. I really enjoyed her intro to each city and the music she would play. I would travel with Laurel again in a heartbeat!"
— Jenny in Milford, OH