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The Difference Between A Good Tour Guide & A Great Tour Guide


(Photo from here)

(Photo from here)

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?

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Alex @ ifs ands & butts - January 6, 2014 - 2:38 am

I have only been on one standout tour in my life and that is because I don’t go on many except for the reasons you listed initially. For me, this tour guide really stood out due to his story telling and picking places based on our interests. All guides tell stories, but only some know the true art of sucking you in and not making you realize you are learning, but rather making you feel like you were there and are part of an experience. Great notes!

Travis - January 9, 2014 - 11:25 am

I totally agree with you! We tend to take tours only when “necessary” (short on time, only way to see sites, etc) or when we are really interested in a topic. We have had some absolutely excellent guides on our travels, and I think the thing that separates them from the pack is their enthusiasm. You don’t have to be the best orator or know every fact – you just have to be passionate…because that is what I will remember months and years from when I took the tour.

Glad to have found you blog, and I look forward to reading many more of your posts!

JustWanderlust - January 10, 2014 - 8:29 pm

YES! It is all about passion! I never remember dates or facts (unless the fact is hilarious or really weird) but I’ll remember if they got me excited to be there because their passion rubbed off on me!

Learnmore Chimbi - January 16, 2015 - 7:01 am


LEARNMORE CHIMBI - January 16, 2015 - 7:11 am

i am training to be a tour guide so through this i am going to get more information about tour guiding thank you so much.



Tran Duc - March 10, 2015 - 7:26 am

I am a tour guide supervisor in Viet Nam. I manage some 20 English Speaking tour guides. I found this post and the comments are really helpful. Thank you so much.

Jeff - March 31, 2015 - 3:02 am

I am starting my first tour job in May.

this is great info. thanks for your knowledge shared.

Kelsey - August 30, 2015 - 12:06 pm

Great article – and well written!! I think something that is REALLY important is asking for feedback. Every guest that comes on your tour is an opportunity to learn and grow! (Pro tip: on your feedback form ask the guest to review the guide separately from the tour!) A great online resource is http://www.beabetterguide.com ! There are lots of free training videos for for guides and an amazing online community!

Agata Parrott - September 11, 2015 - 10:11 am

I absolutely love your blog and even more so this last article. It made me smile. It made me happy. It made me proud! I’d like to take you around NYC with our Parrott Tours, INC guides. We are the best and we have an access to the most talented guides in the city, possibly the whole world! Come, take a walk with a Parrott!

( As our website is undergoing a complete makeover, I didn’t include the current one.)

All the Best,
Agata Parrott
Managing Director, co-owner of PARROTT TOURS, INC

JustWanderlust - September 22, 2015 - 9:22 pm

Thanks, Agata – I may take you up on that offer next time I’m in NYC!

Abdelkader - February 8, 2016 - 11:39 am

I do work as a tour leader in Morocco with different travel companies. I would like to thank you so much tot writing this article which I agree completely with its components.
Thanks again

Scott Shears - October 25, 2016 - 7:32 am

You are spot on, A tour guide may have been to a place 1000 times but loves it enough to make it feel like the first for every one with entertaining stories and first hand perspectives that you can’t get traveling yourself – That is the difference they will make you want to come back to explore in more depth – period! I an not a great tour guide I am the greatest but not a good business man my company is struggling to get a start going out on my own as I don’t have the money for marketing and fancy websites like the high volume low quality operators. Likewise it is a struggle working for someone else being great and paid next to nothing. I have a dream to change this in Melbourne Victoria Australia with a company where all great guides work for themselves. Running private tours is much more difficult than the hype created in a public tour where a guide is a entertainer down here on the Great Ocean Road for 14 hours straight+ that’s how long we work but we do it out of love. Loved your article and feed back. If you are in Australia please contact me I would love to meet and share my magical place in the world with you.

The Aussie Bloke Scott!

Scott Shears - October 25, 2016 - 7:39 am

Thanks folks – Feedback and suggestions welcomed even though post is old as the greatest can still improve – this is my perspective, after all we work hard so we can afford to explore the world and then sit back in our arm chair and chuckle about the witty characters we meet and experiences we have. This is what a tour is about!!

The Aussie Bloke – Aussie Melbourne Tours (Not Melbourne Australia tours)

Yes a bit of marketing but I am passionate but poor!!!!!!!!

JustWanderlust - November 7, 2016 - 12:33 pm

Scott- thanks for commenting and glad the post was useful! I’d love to check out one of your tours some day. Will let you know if we make it back to Australia.

star - November 21, 2016 - 10:28 am

thank you for these great tips and I’ll wait to see you in Isfahan

Rocky Jana - December 10, 2016 - 10:36 am

Thanks a lot for the precious article. I have been working as a freelance tour guide in my own state Meghalaya (India) for the last 10 years and right now I am training some young unemployed youth in my town, to be tourist guides. Though I have the experience, I am open to suggestions and critics. Your article is going to help me a lot in enhancing my work further.

Travel to Pakistan - October 14, 2018 - 11:47 pm

Thank you for the insight and willingness to share. I am working as a tour guider and this post will help me a lot in my field.

Easton Memmott - October 26, 2018 - 10:16 am

I like the tip that you gave to consider safety concerns before you go on a tour. My wife and I want to take a trip to somewhere cool, and get a tour. I will be sure to talk with her about potential safety concerns that we need to address, so we can stay as safe as possible on our tour.

Sara - October 30, 2018 - 1:53 pm

Thank you so much.
I am going to be a tourguide in Iran.
Very useful article.

Sue Boxell - March 16, 2019 - 3:42 am

I agree with all of the above as a tour guide just beginning her fourteenth season in Burgundy. One thing that has not been mentioned is the importance of ensuring that the guide is totally legal in the country in which he/she is operating. In France, for example, a driver/guide like me must have a Carte Professionelle issued by the gendarmerie (police), be on the official register as a guide for the region and have unlimited liability insurance which means having the same insurance as taxis must have. If you don’t check this, and your unofficial guide has an accident, you will not be covered by his/her insurance as it will not be the required insurance for a driver/guide accepting money from clients.

Linda Middleton - May 29, 2019 - 7:23 am

Thank you!

[…] As reinforcement of what it takes to be a successful Tourist Guide, I would strongly suggest reading the following article written by a very well-travelled Travel Blogger. On hitting the click-through that follows just scroll down a bit when you get there to get to the article itself. http://justwanderlustblog.com/2014/01/the-difference-between-a-good-tour-guide-a-great-tour-guide/ […]

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