The author on a guided tour of the tidal pools in Santa Cruz, California
Photo Courtesy of Renee Sklarew
You bought a guidebook and read about the destination online. Next step: hire a tour guide.
As a travel writer, I often hire a tour guide when I’m exploring a new town. Tour guides can make introductions and share insider information. Shouldn’t travelers have a point person, too? An experienced guide can demonstrate how to use public transportation or provide private transportation for you; they often recommend restaurants the locals know and love.
What else can a tour guide do to enrich your travels?
- Local guides know the terrain and will help keep you safe.
- Guides teach you the lay of the land.
- Guides can handle unfamiliar transactions, such as exchanging currency or purchasing trans-portation cards.
- Guides clarify local customs, such as mannerly dining behavior and tipping etiquette.
- Technologically savvy guides use new technologies, such as virtual reality, to enhance your travels.
- Private guides allow you to choose when to go places and what to see.
Perhaps more important, tour guides can add a deeper level of understanding and access to your travels. They answer questions like, “What happened here and why?”
“A well-trained, accredited tour guide can transform your life completely. You’ll never be the same. You will not leave the place exactly the way you entered,” says Maricar Donato, global brand ambassador and international trainer for the World Federation of Tourist Guide Associations. “Guides tell stories and put emotion into the experience.”
The author with a Navajo tour guide at Horseshoe Bend
Photo Courtesy of Renee Sklarew
I experienced such transformative travel firsthand during a recent trip to northern Arizona. My guide from the Navajo Nation explained the distinctive desert topography and drove me to a remote slot canyon on private Navajo land. He described the history and lifestyle of his people and even demonstrated how to take cell phone pictures of the landscape.
Similarly, my visit to Shanghai, China, could have been over-whelming if not for the guide whom the Mandarin Oriental’s concierge recommended. Along with interpreting local historic sites, my guide took me to an exclusive Chinese tea ceremony, which was a highlight of my trip.
So, how do you go about hiring a knowledgeable tour guide?
- Start scouting. First stop: TripAdvisor.com, where you’ll benefit from the website’s crowd-sourcing information. Search by Private Tours, Top Tour Operators or options such as Food, Walking and Sightseeing. See which guides rise to the top of the rankings. Read descriptions and user comments, and then check the guides’ websites for information, including cost and whether the guide is licensed. Professional guides in the U.S. typically charge $50 per hour with a four-hour minimum.
- When you book a hotel, ask the concierge or front-desk manager for recommendations. If you like what you hear, have him or her book the tour guide for you. You’re likely to receive VIP treatment since tour guides value hotel referrals.
- Consider consolidators such as tour-guide guilds as well as Viator.com and ToursByLocals.com. These websites list guided group tours and private guides, too.
- Check the National Park Service’s Permitted Guided Tours website, which lists accredited, authorized tour guides who go beyond ranger-led tours. nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/permittedtours.htm
With the help of a qualified, licensed tour guide, your next trip can be one of your most memorable.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 edition of AAA World.