In Praise of Travel Guides
Hiring a guide can make the difference between a good and great vacation
When I was a young adult, the thought of hiring a guide or going on a group tour was anathema to me. How uncool, I thought! How pedestrian. But once I got divorced and was traveling in my 50s and 60s, often solo and on complicated and exotic trips, I came to appreciate how wonderful it is to have a guide.
Case in point: On a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, our plane was delayed and my sister and I arrived at 1 am instead of 10:30 pm. Yet there was our driver Nelson waiting for us at the airport, immediately easing our anxiety about how to travel into Quito, a city that can be unsafe. And in the morning, there was Nelson again, and our guide Eddie, to take us to the Andes Mountains and then to the airport the next morning, making sure we got on our plane to the islands.
"They have local and insider knowledge about the destination and where it's safe to visit, and they can translate if there's a language barrier."
"There are many advantages to hiring a travel guide," says Heather Stimmler, an experienced American-born Parisian tour guide and founder of the insider's newsletter Secrets of Paris. "They have local and insider knowledge about the destination and where it's safe to visit, and they can translate if there's a language barrier. They can also save you time and sometimes money."
The Inside Scoop from Tour Guides
Notably, too, guides can be invaluable in today's world where many travelers opt to stay in an Airbnb or VRBO accommodation rather than a hotel. "When you rent a private home, you can't rely on a concierge to help you find your way around a city," she says, "so hiring a tour guide makes good sense."
Just as importantly, tour guides can provide much-needed context to whatever you are seeing. Eddie, our guide in Quito, gave us an overview of Ecuador's economy, major industries, culture and politics, and was extremely knowledgeable about the birds we saw in the Andes Mountains. Interacting with him and Nelson was a pleasant bonus, and we were able to really appreciate how friendly and gracious the Ecuadorian people can be.
Types of Travel Guides
Of course, there is more than one type of tour guide and more than one type of tour.
A day tour: This kind of tour lasts a few hours and typically focuses on a specific area of a location or an activity (such as the culinary scene, biking or hiking or a museum tour) and can be found through Tripadvisor and Viator. You can also find free tours in many cities led by guides who work solely for tips. Companies include Freetour.com, Free Tours by Foot and Sandemans New Europe Tour.
A day tour covers a set agenda with little room for individual preferences, and might include up to 10 or more people. Being able to hear the guide may therefore be an issue, but you can look for a tour that offers headsets for its participants, so even if you're far away from the guide, you can still hear the commentary.
A day tour covers a set agenda with little room for individual preferences, and might include up to 10 or more people.
A group tour: This is usually a multi-day tour that you book through a travel agency for soup-to-nuts travel, accommodations, meals and activities. As a group trip, the itinerary is preset, but may include free days to explore or rest. It's important to be sure you can keep up with the group's activities before you book a tour; for this reason, many companies rate the activity level of their trips so you know what's involved.
You can also find group tours that cater to specific interest groups, from over-50 travelers, single adults, families or LGBTQ+ individuals, and different activities, like birdwatching, quilting, exploring battlefields or viewing gardens. Well-regarded group tour companies include Intrepid Travel, National Geographic, Road Scholar and Smithsonian Journeys.
A customized private tour: The most expensive type of tour (though not necessarily prohibitably so) is one that you book just for yourself and your party. The advantages of these types of tours are many: You get to choose what you see and how much time you spend at a particular attraction or destination.
How to Find and Vet a Guide
So you may be convinced to hire a guide on your next trip — but don't pick just any guide, advises Stimmler. "I had an awful experience myself with an American tour guide in Mexico City who was unprepared, sloppy, lacking in knowledge — she didn't know that the Sunday we were visiting was actually a national holiday, so we couldn't do what we wanted to do — and who actually had us pay for things because she forgot her wallet one day. She was so bad that we cancelled our last day with her."
"Make sure that whoever you book with — if it's directly or through a travel agency — that you will have a way of getting your money back if things don't go as planned."
There are many ways to vet a guide. Word of mouth is best, but you can also ask a travel agent for recommendations. (The driver and guide for my trip to Ecuador both have a long-standing relationship with the travel agency that booked our trip, so we were assured a good experience.) You can also peruse travel guide reviews on TripAdvisor, Tours by Locals and Viator.
"If you book directly with a guide, get their full name and look to see if they have a book they've authored or a website with a physical address and phone number listed, and they are registered and certified if need be," says Stimmler, noting that in Paris, tour guides must have a license from the city to take guests to museums, and in Italy, all tour guides must be certified by the country.
"Make sure that whoever you book with — if it's directly or through a travel agency — that you will have a way of getting your money back if things don't go as planned. There are a lot of scammers and bad companies offering guiding services, so you need to be careful," Stimmler says.
Beyond that, she suggests having discussions with prospective tour guides about what they think is worth seeing and doing, and if they have suggestions that are off the beaten path.
You also want them to know if you have any food, allergy or mobility issues, are traveling with kids or older adults and if you have any special requests. Finally, think about how much down time you'd like to have during your tour and make sure the guide knows this when planning your itinerary.