A Guide to Guides: 21 Questions to Ask and Tips to Make the Most of a Group Tour or Private Guide
--Amy M. Gardner with Keith R. Sbiral
On our most recent Facebook Live (you can see them all on our Facebook page if you missed one), one of the questions was about using guides. It is important to us that RedDotBlueDot be a place where readers can learn from our mistakes and benefit from our experiences. So a more detailed answer to this question is in order . . . .
While most days we travel on our own, the group tours we’ve taken both this trip and in the past, and the times we’ve worked with a private guide or driver, have nearly always greatly enhanced our experience in a country, whether because of their specialized knowledge, the access they’ve provided, or “just” the way they’ve made our trip easier and made us feel we knew a culture much better. Here is how we decide whether to do a tour at all, when to use a private guide, some tips to help you make the most of working with a private guide, tips to get the most out of a group tour, and some tips to how tours and guides can enhance your photography.
First, we consider whether a group or private tour will save us time, money, or add to our experience in a way that we can’t on our own. For example, when we decided to visit Chernobyl, we looked into going on our own, particularly because we wanted to be able to take a lot of photos. We quickly discovered it’s impossible to go on your own, and then looked at the various group tours. We considered doing a private tour, but after looking at the cost differential and reading reviews, we instead decided to choose a group tour with a company that people said was very flexible about giving you time and space to take photos and explore on your own (within reason and safety restrictions).
Particularly when we’ve traveled either with families and friends, we’ve often found that doing a group or private tour rather than organizing independently allows the group to off-load the work of herding the group, and can make for a more pleasant day. We’ve also sometimes found that the cost of a private guide is actually the same, lower, or not much more than a group tour for multiple people anyway, and the flexibility can be priceless, particularly if the private guide is willing to start the tour at a more convenient time or location.
And of course, many or most days we don’t go with a group tour or guide at all, instead choosing to explore on our own.
Regardless whether you do a group tour or private tour, we’ve found doing any tours earlier in a visit to a city means we can go back to places a tour may just pass by, take advantage of restaurant and activity suggestions from the guide, and return to places we want to photograph under different lighting conditions. (More on photography below.)
So how do we decide between a group tour or guide? Here are some criteria to consider:
1. Does the group tour match what you want, in terms of the logistics like timing and sights visited?
2. What is the cost of the group tour for the number in your party compared to a private guide with a similar level of expertise?
3. Are you interested in a guide because you want someone with specialized knowledge about a particular place (say, a museum or city center) or because of the access they can provide that you can’t get/would be cumbersome to get on your own? If it’s the former, what expertise do you need/want to take advantage of? Is it something only a professional, well-trained and certified guide can do? Or are you just looking for someone to tell you some stuff about the place and send you on your way because you don’t have time to plan something on your own? If that’s the case, could a low-cost or free overview tour be sufficient?
4. Do you really need a guide at all? If you just want something that will be easier than figuring it out on your own, 15 minutes with a guidebook or on Google may allow you to go independently. Or, signing up for a free or inexpensive group tour may be a good, middle-of-the-road option allowing you to do something more easily, but at less expense. In the Sacred Valley of Peru, we discovered that a knowledgeable and kind taxi driver met our needs without the hassle of renting a car on our own, or the expense of a guide-driver.
5. Do you want to meet other travelers? You don’t meet other travelers on private tours, but we’ve met fun and interesting people on group tours. On a food tour in Istanbul, we met a chef from a country we’ll be visiting soon. We’ll be dining at his restaurant, which we were excited to discover is one of the best in the world. Likewise, on a tour in Tbilisi, Georgia recently we found ourselves having a great time with a couple who we never would’ve met otherwise.
6. Do you want the guide to do a different schedule that includes sights from one or more regularly offered tours? We wanted to do two different food tours in Mexico City, and found that the cost for a private tour for three people encompassing both of the tours ended up being less than the cost of doing both tours as part of a group.
If we’ve decided that a private guide is more desirable than a group tour, we consider:
7. What are the odds that a group tour is going to have other people in it? (We’ve often priced a private guide, decided to do a group tour instead, and then showed up to find that the group tour was only us anyway.) One way to know is to look at reviews, and to ask.
8. Do you want the guide to do the same itinerary that they normally do with a group, just at a different day or time? If so, it doesn’t cost anything to ask the guide to offer an additional tour that works with your schedule.
Once we’ve asked ourselves those eight questions, if we’ve decided to take a group tour, we always try to:
9. Engage the guide early and often, if s/he has time. Walking between monuments or during a lunch break, we’ve learned so much by asking guides questions – about their cities, their lives, their favorite restaurants. Often, especially guides working with big groups, can be very glad to have someone truly interested in them.
10. Show up early and prepared. We’ve had the good fortune of being early and getting great bus seats for our long ride to the DMZ when the bus opened much earlier than promised. We’ve also had the experience of very bad seats and lots of stress when we showed up only a few minutes early for our Chernobyl tour and there was confusion over our reservation. (That is a post for another day, but fortunately my irritation and grumpiness were met with great kindness by the only other Americans we encountered in a week in the Ukraine.)
11. Along with being early, be prepared – stop at the bathroom, bring a bottle of water and a snack, and have currency ready to pay for the tour and/or to tip the guide. On a recent day trip from Dubai to Oman, one of the group members didn’t have currency and hadn’t prepared for most of the ATMs being shut off on a Friday morning. Not only was he stressed, but it cost the group some time as he hunted for an ATM machine each time we picked someone up or made a stop.
12. Be kind. The bigger the group, the more people there are to pop into your photos, have different expectations, and different preferences. The Americans above who were so kind to me on our Chernobyl tour completely turned my day around.
13. Don’t act like you’re on a private tour. Don’t be the people talking loudly on the bus when others are trying to sleep, dominate the guide’s time and attention, allow your children to drive the rest of the group crazy, talk on your cellphone when everyone else is trying to listen to the guide, etc.
14. Have cards or an e-card ready to exchange with people you’ve met with whom who you’d like to stay in touch.
If you’ve decided to work with a private guide or driver, we’ve found the following tips important to make sure everyone has a great experience:
15. Be clear in advance about what you’d like to see and do, and about what you are wanting out of the experience. A person you’ve just met can’t read your mind, so be clear both when booking and first thing during your excursion to make sure there isn’t any confusion, particularly if you are booking through a company rather than directly with the guide. It is far better to feel a bit awkward having an initial conversation in the morning about what you want to see and what was agreed on than spending a day feeling trapped in a car in a foreign country driving around with seemingly no purpose. (Ask me how I know. . . .)
16. Understand what’s included. Is your lunch included? Are you expected to pay for the guide’s lunch? Regardless of what’s formally included, we generally assume we’ll be paying for snacks and beverages for the guide whenever we’re buying any for ourselves. We save booking confirmations in an Evernote notebook downloaded to our phones so if we need to refer back to a booking confirmation, etc., we can access it easily without internet.
17. If you need/want someone with a particular educational background or English skills, say so up front. These days no one wants to risk a bad TripAdvisor review, so they would much rather you ask about the guide’s level of English skills than leave a negative review. And regardless of the answer, check online reviews to see what other people’s experiences have been. (A quick search for the word English, for example, on TripAdvisor will help you quickly see what other guests have thought of a guide’s English skills.) Many times we’ve found that a recommended guide we’ve carefully selected speaks excellent English only while on a script, but speaks very little beyond it. (Actual conversation with our Machu Picchu guide who was excited to see a particular type of bird: “What kind of bird is that?” “Yes.”) In addition, many people are more comfortable writing in a foreign language than speaking in it, so don’t just rely on email communication. If a particular tour is really important to you (a bucket list trip to learn about the pyramids, for example), consider doing a phone call with the guide and asking him/her questions to see how well s/he converses beyond a script.
18. Be open-minded when considering the expertise you might like in a guide. We’ve taken food tours all over the world with guides who have written cookbooks or worked as professional chefs. But on a recent tour in Seoul, our guide with no formal culinary background conveyed so much a love for his city and its food that it was such a pleasant evening, I wouldn’t have traded it for an evening with a Michelin-starred chef.
19. Be flexible and open-minded about the experience. Part of working with an expert is that s/he knows the area better than you do. Especially if you want to take photos, ask him/her to add in any stops they think you might want to photograph. And be open-minded. Our driver between Cusco and the Sacred Valley added several stops we hadn’t anticipated, but the memories (and photos!) were well worth the time. And remember that things don’t always go as planned. Your selected guide gets sick. Others have adhered to different standards of hygiene than we prefer. On these days we remind ourselves, “If we wanted it to be the same, we would’ve stayed home” and “at least we’ll have a good story.”
20. Avoid discussing politics, at least early in the day, commenting that their country is inexpensive for you, or being late as that can be considered very insulting, and not the way you want to start your tour.
21. Be sure you know the local conventions and expectations for tipping before you depart and build it into your budget. (You don’t want to be googling “tipping customs in XXX” and digging through your pockets for cash as the guide pulls up to your hotel at the end of the tour. Again, ask me how I know . . . .)
Finally, here are some sites to find both group tours and private guides:
· Viator (now owned by TripAdvisor) is a good way to quickly get ideas for things you might want to do, and to find particular tours. They often offer a discount for joining their email list and for additional bookings in the same country. We’ve found and booked experiences on Viator (like getting to go into a restricted area of the Eiffel Tower) that we wouldn’t have otherwise. That said, if you can figure out who the company is that is listed on Viator and contact them directly, you may find the experiences they offer that aren’t on Viator are less expensive or better meet your interests. (The reviews often tell you the name of the company or give you clues so you can quickly figure out the company using google.)
· We’ve done group and private food tours with Culinary Backstreets on three different continents over the last 6+ years. Their tours are more than trying a few foods – you meet the people who make the food, learn the stories of their businesses, and meet some really great guides at the same time. As just one example, in Tbilisi, Georgia, we found ourselves not just tasting a local spirit but drinking it with butchers at a food market. And in Tokyo, we didn’t just taste miso, we met the man who made it and learned the story of how he went from resisting joining the family business to carving his own path within it. (You can read more about our Tokyo food tour on this blog post) There’s a reason Culinary Backstreets tours sometimes cost a bit more than the other food tours you might find, but if you’re having a once-in-a-lifetime trip, the $20 or so is worth it, in our experience. Again, we can't say enough about the superb tours they give. We've already recommended them to several friends, but wanted to do more to enable our readers to have these great experiences, so we have arranged a promotional code for our readers. Use promotional code "KEITH" and receive 5% off your tour and their products when registering. Also use the link above.
· Airbnb Experiences – We haven’t yet booked through Airbnb Experiences, but a friend’s mom recently got certified to offer a cooking class through the site, and he was impressed by the level of care they took to ensure that the guest experience would be excellent, as well as exceed what was promised.
· Tours by Locals – Tours by Locals is a great resource for booking private tours with local guides you may not find on the big sites.
· Google – Googling “photography tour Tokyo” yielded a number of options, and one Keith and his mom did wasn’t listed on any of the big websites.
One last note on photography. From a photographer’s prospective, flexibility is key. A group tour or overview walk can afford you the knowledge to ensure you know where to return when lighting is more favorable. A well-versed driver can get you to locations you want (or decide you want as you are driving down the road). A good local guide may be able to take you off the beaten path to deliver a location or subject you are in search of for your specific photography project. When photography is the goal, it never hurts to seek out a local photographer. You don’t have to necessarily take a tour or a “photo walk” (I know there are strong feelings on both sides of that), but even a cup of coffee and a discussion can give you some incredible insight as a travel, documentary, or street photographer.
Do you use group tours or private guides? Or do you prefer to go it alone? What tips do you have for working with a guide?