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Should We Hire a Tour Guide?

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Should We Hire a Tour Guide?

Mehmet, Turkish tour guide extraordinaire.

© Susan Breslow Sardone.
You're planning a trip to a place you've never been, and the question arises: "Should we hire a tour guide?" First, understand what a tour guide is:
  • a resident with solid knowledge of local history, geography, culture, contemporary life, and attractions
  • someone who can tailor a tour to your specific interests
  • a person who knows when to visit popular attractions and how to avoid waiting in line
  • a communicator conversant in both English and the official language of the country you visit
In many countries, a tour guide must have a license and pass an exam in order to be qualified. In other places, anyone can call him or herself a tour guide. Sometimes tour guides also double as a driver for visitors; other times they can arrange for a driver to work with them if a walking tour isn't practical. On my travels, I've met some wonderful tour guides:
  • Mehmet, a professional guide in Turkey, was able to put everything from Bodrum's ancient Wonder of the World to the deteriorated Jewish quarter in Izmir in historic context. And he was indulgent enough to let us fast-track through Ephesus in order to guide us to a government-supported rug-making school, which we were more interested in visiting

  • Anna, a guide in St. Petersburg, put together a special itinerary for me so that I could witness the June ritual of brides and grooms posing for photos at important monuments throughout the city

  • Susana, whose knowledge of the Jewish history of Buenos Aires made the past real and opened our eyes to the murderous violence perpetrated upon the innocent there in the 1990s

  • Bruce Bell, a highly knowledgeable tour guide and part-time thespian who led us on a dramatic, delicious, and fun-filled tour of Toronto

  • Harald, a retired pediatrician and official guide in Iceland, took me on a fascinating tour of Reykjavik that included visits to two sculpture museums, each dedicated to the work of a particular artist. Thanks to his deep understanding of both art and culture, this urbane and erudite guide helped me appreciate the two artists' different styles and understand the symbolism in their work that referenced Icelandic sagas.
And then there were some not-so-wonderful tour guides:
  • Howard, whose recitation of the history of Ireland from the moment the first ameba trod the Emerald Isle on pseudopods literally put us to sleep in the back of his car

  • Alaya, who decided that a twelve-hour day followed by another with a long uphill hike (with no warning to switch our wedge espadrilles to sneakers) were necessary to "show us everything" -- and then treated us with disdain when we got sick from her punishing schedule

  • Ari, in Israel, who decided that every question someone in our group asked was a personal affront, so he just stopped talking to us

  • Jenni, an American and compulsive talker who led us around South Africa, distracting us with pointless stories about her absent family.
Takeaway: There are good and bad tour guides.

How Can You Find a Good Tour Guide?
Word-of-mouth is the best way. If you don't have a friend or family member who can recommend a tour guide in a specific destination, try reading the bulletin boards and posting at sites such as Cruise Critic and Frommer's.

I found Anna, my terrific St. Petersburg guide, by Googling "st petersburg guide" (duh). I liked her site, she answered my email quickly, and she was able to provide multiple references from satisfied customers -- and I checked them.

Viator, which sells group tours in vacation destinations, also has a roster of experienced local guides who can lead couples on private sightseeing tours. Book a Private Tour Guide Online.

But Do You Need a Tour Guide?
It's fun to discover a city by yourselves, but you risk missing its biggest attractions if you don't do your homework or hire a guide. Guides are advisable for couples who:

  • are visiting a country where little English is spoken
  • want someone who can make in-country transportation arrangements for them
  • desire a deeper or more current understanding of a destination
  • get easily lost
  • prefer the comfort of having someone who can lead the way
  • have a specific agenda or itinerary in mind and need a local expert
Alternatives to Paid Tour Guides
Guides normally charge by the day, half-day, or hour, and a couple who hires one also typically pays for their transportation and admissions as needed. If you don't want or can't afford a guide, there are alternatives:
  • Buy a guide book -- and read it!
  • Download local apps including transportation maps
  • Find out if a destination has volunteer tour guides by contacting its tourism office
  • Take a hop-on, hop-off bus tour (purchase online); most are narrated, and you have the option of getting off at points of interest and catching a later bus to continue the tour.

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