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In today’s edition of our “Cheapo Questions” interview series, we’re talking to Andy Steves, founder of Weekend Student Adventures (WSA). Since 2010, WSA has hosted student-friendly weekend excursions all over Europe for travelers both young and young-at-heart.
We had plenty to ask Andy about what makes Weekend Student Adventures special, as well as his own experience with studying abroad. And of course, what it was like to growing up on the road as the son of “travel guru” Rick Steves.
How did you get the idea to start Weekend Student Adventures?
The idea grew organically when I studied abroad in Rome during my Junior year at Notre Dame. It became quite apparent there just wasn’t information geared specifically for the students abroad in Europe; plenty of guidebooks existed, but none took an angle focused on students tight on both time and budget.
I returned to Notre Dame to finish my undergraduate degrees (Industrial Design & Italian Language and Literature) overflowing with fresh ideas and incredible intercultural experiences. So I got to work on a free online resource for students abroad at andysteves.com.
With graduation on the horizon in May of 2010, I took advantage of Notre Dame’s annual business plan competition to vet my business idea: weekend trips for students abroad in Europe. We came away in first place (out of 101 teams competing), so I took that as an indication that this concept was viable. Over the summer of 2010 I transformed our online resource into weekend tour packages and hit the ground running that fall semester.
Why did you feel you needed to start WSA?
WSA is for students who feel there is more to experience in Europe than the inside of bars and pubs. I wanted to focus on creating trips that I would love to go on myself, with the perfect balance of sightseeing, interacting with locals and free time to find your own corner of the city. I am passionate about bringing these cultures alive for others, and that’s what has kept me going!
What advantages are there in booking a WSA trip over doing it on your own?
As in many things in life, it may be cheaper to do something on your own; less expensive to make your own spaghetti than going to a restaurant for dinner; less expensive to make your own coffee than purchase your daily Starbucks.
But on our weekend excursions, it’s the intangibles built in that turn a ho-hum weekend into an incredible experience that creates lifelong memories. In Prague, Prince William Lobkowicz Jr. walks us around his family’s palace located in the castle there. In Barcelona, we enjoy a Flamenco show and a Paella- and Sangria-making class. My friends traveled with me while abroad because I was able to connect them with locals and unique cultural experiences they wouldn’t otherwise find on their own. And that’s the foundation of WSA’s travel philosophy–that’s what differentiates us.
Then there’s the practical differences: efficient, skip-the-line sightseeing, great hostels, fun local guides, delicious restaurants, no time wasted being lost and more. All around we believe we’ve found the right formula for great weekend student travel.
As the son of Rick Steves, did you always assume that you’d eventually work in the travel business, or did you want to get away from it?
Growing up, my mother, sister and I went to visit my dad every summer in order to meet up with him during his four-month-long trips around the European continent. As many will agree, traveling with family can be a pressure-cooker experience. And our family trips were no exception. If Rick Steves is in Europe, he’s working and it doesn’t matter who he’s with. Like any youngster, missing friends’ birthday parties and end-of-school-year celebrations to go to stuffy museums and eat unfamiliar food wasn’t a dream come true. But it did teach me how to travel, and travel well.
In terms of business advice, I’ve developed WSA independently. Oftentimes he wishes he could help more, but we launched business in very different eras; him with manual bookings, mini-vans and scratch calling cards compared to us with all online bookings, budget airlines and Skype. His Social Media IQ is improving nicely though…
Are you ever able to meet up with your dad on the road?
We’ve occasionally met up while in Europe—me running a tour, while he’s updating guidebooks or making TV shows. Most recently, my dad was in Barcelona when I was leading a tour there myself. It was fun to have him tag along, and I think he was reliving his glory days of leading backpacking tours himself.
I see that you studied abroad. How did this experience help shape WSA?
I did! After traveling to Europe every year until I was 18, I went there for the first time independently with my best friend after we graduated from high school. This was also the first time I can truly remember realizing that I could grow to love travel. Exploring on my own and making my own decisions really allowed me to explore personal interests and open my mind to new ideas.
Not being able to stay away from the European continent for long, I went back over in January of 2008 to start a semester in Rome through Notre Dame. This is when I quickly noticed that my summers spent traveling in Europe really allowed me to understand how to get around in an efficient way during our short weekend trips. Many of my friends started coming with me to places like Prague, Venice for Carnevale, Switzerland, Dublin for St. Patty’s Day and Sicily.
Did you have a favorite trip that you took as a study abroad student?
Hands down, the best trip was when I convinced a group of six friends that it would be a good idea for us to charter a 42 foot sailboat with a skipper off the coast of Greece. I crunched the numbers and realized the cost of chartering this boat would be comparable to staying in a hostel for seven nights in Athens. This really showed me the value of thinking outside the box while making travel plans!
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Andy. Keep thinking outside the box, and best of luck with Weekend Student Adventures!