As my new tagline states, I’m a discerning traveler. I have high expectations of my trips and for the most part, I’m convinced I can plan a better trip than I could find if I went with an organized tour. As a result, I use tour guides sparingly and when I do, I use them with caution. I use tours when:
- There are safety concerns about the destination (think: Africa)
- I am limited on time and a tour allows me to more easily see the sites than if I were to see them on my own (think: Russia, Norway)
- It’s the only option available for the destination (think: Greenland, Bhutan)
- There’s limited or “questionable” public transportation options and I’m not comfortable renting a car (think: Nepal)
- The tour company has access to special experiences that I wouldn’t be able to do on my own (think: private motu picnic in Bora Bora)
Over the 60+ countries I’ve been to now, I have been on a lot of tours – private, group, half day, full day, and multi-day tours. I’ve seen the gamut of tour services: tours that cover only transportation, tours that are so packed you feel like you’re getting shuffled from site to site, and tours that are fully customized to your needs.
The more I’ve seen, the more it’s influenced my opinion about what is a “good” tour versus what is “great” tour. A private guide doesn’t guarantee it’s going to be a great tour, although the personal attention helps. Likewise a group tour doesn’t imply you’ll be lost in the shuffle either. It all depends on the tour company and the tour guide you get. The tour guide is the most important factor in creating a travel experience you’ll either rave about or an experience that will soon be forgotten. The best guides I’ve had have left me wanting to go back to the destination or have left me feeling like I’ve made a new friend… and as a testament to how harsh of a critic I can be, in all my years of travel, I’ve only come across three tour guides who I’d wholeheartedly recommend as the best tour guides ever. Why? Because there’s a huge difference between a good tour guide and a great tour guide:
On starting the tour:
- A good tour guide will introduce himself, welcome you, and give you an introduction of what to expect on the tour.
- A great tour guide will also take the time to get to know you – where you’re from, why you’re visiting, your interests – and if there are others on the tour, he will introduce everyone on the tour to each other. The best guides spend the tour getting to know the guests on the tour that day and not in an intrusive way but in a way that shows genuine interest. It could be during the car ride, over lunch/drinks, or as you walk from site to site.
On seeing the sites:
- A good tour guide will show you all the sites on the itinerary.
- A great tour guide will not only ensure you see what’s promised, he’ll modify the itinerary to ensure you see the sites when there are the least amount of crowds to maximize your enjoyment. He’s open to showing you additional (nearby) attractions on request and may recommend new experiences based on your interests. He might have a few personal “must see” favorite places he’s eager to share with his tour, too. He’ll never bring you to the stores where he earns a commission if you buy; instead, he’ll recommend what is truly the best places to eat, shop, or buy that one-of-a-kind souvenir you’re eyeing – and he’ll gladly bring you there en route or after the tour.
On time management:
- A good tour guide will not only be on time, but he will manage the time so you know how long you have at an attraction, what time you’re expected to return, and will ensure you’re back on time.
- A great tour guide is aware of the start and end time but is flexible with the time and will tailor the day based on your interests and your time constraints. Great tour guides never rush you as they are on your schedule. Great tour guides may even get so excited about an attraction that the tour goes long (with your permission) as a result!
On color commentary:
- A good tour guide follows a script and gives you the historical and cultural background of the attractions.
- A great tour guide is a gifted story teller who is passionate about the attraction he’s showing you. His historical accounts will take you back in time. He’ll weave in personal anecdotes about what it’s like to live there including the good, the bad, and the ugly… and you’ll even laugh. He’ll not only tell you about the culture, he’ll incorporate some cultural experiences into the tour (e.g., stopping for mint tea in Morocco or sampling putrefied shark in Iceland). He’ll talk to you like you are long-time friend in town for a visit.
On “local” knowledge:
- A good tour guide is familiar with the city and/or country on the tour.
- A great tour guide has traveled outside the country and potentially around the world. A great tour guide can tell you what makes this place so unique and special compared to other countries and cultures. A great tour guide is passionate about traveling, understands why you travel, and understands what it’s like to be on vacation and will do everything in his power to ensure you’re having the best trip ever.
On wrapping up:
- A good tour guide will conclude the tour with closing remarks, thank you for coming on the trip, and gently remind you about tips – for the driver, of course (a good tour guide won’t pressure you into tipping him personally).
- A great tour guide will thank you for your visit and welcome you back. He may offer recommendations for other activities you should consider during your visit. He may invite you to dinner or to some other “local” event going on during your stay. The best guides will have loved showing you around so much, they’ll even offer to treat you. He’ll never ask for tips, but you’ll want to leave one – and recommend him to all your friends and family!
The best guides may be in the tourism industry but they redefine the hospitality industry. These guides are personable, friendly, and above all, so passionate about traveling and sharing their country with guests that their enthusiasm overflows like water from a ruptured fire hydrant. As a guest, I can sense their excitement and it is infectious. I’ll leave the tour feeling like I just hung out with a long time friend and I can’t wait to go back. If all tour guides are great, I’d gladly take more tours!
Have you had any great guides? What characteristics set them apart?