Here at IndependentTraveler.com, we tend to be go-it-alone types when we travel — the name of the website would almost demand it. We believe in the fundamental fun and value of hitting the road with only your wits and experience (and a credit card, admittedly).
That said, we can also understand the value an experienced, knowledgeable and outgoing tour guide can offer, from lowering language barriers to recommending the best non-touristy local restaurants.
Not sure when you need a tour guide? Here are my suggestions to help you figure out when to hire a guide and when to go it alone.
When to Hire a Tour Guide
1. When you have very little time.
A knowledgeable guide can lend a laser focus to any sightseeing visit, and this may never be so valuable as when you have very little time in one place. The right guide can give you a customized and thrilling blitz through the destination of your choice.
2. When visiting ports on a cruise.
Talk about having very little time! After a recent cruise in South America, traveler Judie House wrote to tell me that rather than follow the hordes coming off the ship to the same shops, she hired a tour guide in advance, with instructions to get her and her companion away from large groups and into nature for their half-day stay in port. The guide showed up at the ship ahead of time with a comfortable car, and proceeded to drive her and her companion up into the hills to a remote and little-known waterfall, followed by a lunch at a village eatery, all with nary a fellow cruiser in sight. They were back at the port in plenty of time to reboard comfortably, and House said it felt like they had been away for days, not mere hours.
3. When revisiting a place.
If you are visiting a location you have visited countless times before — like your in-laws’ home town or the same city you have been visiting since you were a kid — hire a guide who can give you an offbeat look at a familiar place. A talented guide with a heap of local knowledge will have something to offer even those who think they’re sick of a particular place.
4. When visiting dangerous or chaotic locations.
If your destination has a reputation for dangerous or unpredictable street life — a trip I took to Tangier comes to mind — hiring a good tour guide can not only save you time, but also keep you safe and out of tight spots.
5. When visiting extremely popular locations.
A good tour guide will always know the best hours to visit attractions, when prices are best, which places you can skip, how to avoid rush hour, what is closed or under construction, and any number of tricks and tactics that will help you get the most out of a heavily visited location. You can also inquire if the guide has special access or rates. A good guide might bring you to the Grand Canyon early in the morning before the crowds arrive, or arrange for a private, after-hours tour of the Vatican.
6. On long stays.
When you are staying for more than a few days in the same location — let’s say you have a two-week vacation rental in London — consider hiring a tour guide for the first couple of days to help you get your bearings early in your trip … or perhaps merely to get all the touristy stuff out of the way. Alternately, you can hire a guide late in your stay when you have exhausted the obvious attractions and want to seek out a deeper, more informed or more intimate knowledge of a place.
7. When visiting historic destinations.
In places that are exceptionally rich in historical or cultural significance, an educated tour guide can offer a depth of experience and knowledge that goes beyond guidebook snippets or plaque-reading. A good guide can explain the stories behind the complex carvings on an Indian temple, or veer away from the canned history of Thomas Jefferson to describe what life at Monticello was really like.
8. On an adventure trip.
Safaris, mountain climbing, scuba diving, deep-sea fishing, white-water rafting … unless you are an absolute expert at your chosen adventure, hiring a guide may be a matter of life and death. White-water rafting down the Colorado or piloting a fishing boat back to port in a storm are not like hiring a rowboat in Central Park, and no one should treat it as such. Even if you are an old hand at the particular skill in question, it’s still a good idea to hire a guide who knows the local area and can help you navigate an unfamiliar place.
9. When language barriers are high.
When visiting a place where you do not speak the language and the locals are extremely unlikely to speak yours — for most of our readers, that will mean places where exposure to the English language is minimal — a local tour guide who does speak your language can be invaluable in countless ways. When choosing a guide, try to chat with the guide by phone in advance to determine how strong his or her command of your language really is.
10. To hand off the logistics of travel.
The hassles of obtaining tickets, making reservations, checking operating hours, figuring out options when you have problems — all of this is easy stuff for a good tour guide. If you are on vacation and don’t want to have these mundane tasks on your plate while traveling, hire a guide to take them on for you.
11. When you don’t want to drive.
There are any number of reasons not to want to drive while traveling — you don’t want to spend your vacation getting lost, you can’t read the road signs, you’re not confident driving on the opposite side of the road, your spouse is a terrible copilot and you just want to have fun instead of arguing. Hiring a tour guide to do the driving for you can save you a lot of headaches and unwanted distractions.
12. On hikes or nature excursions.
On a boat trip in Costa Rica a few years ago, we took the launch into the jungle, where a guide who knew our captain was waiting for us. This guide could find quarter-inch-long camouflaged frogs in such abundance that it felt like a Disney World ride with planted robotic animals. To the uninformed eye, the forest around you can seem like a pleasant bunch of trees, but an experienced nature guide can point you to the teeny little poison dart frog on a branch, identify that raucous bird cry overhead or even keep you out of the way of poisonous animals and plants.
When You Shouldn’t Hire a Tour Guide
1. When you’re traveling loose with no real agenda.
When you are traveling in an open-ended and open-minded way, hiring a tour guide can remove opportunities for spontaneity and luck (both good and bad, of course). If you want to hang loose, do it — you don’t need to hire anyone to help you.
2. When revisiting after having already used a guide.
When you return to ground you have already covered with a guide, it may be time to venture and find your own hidden treasures, rather than having someone show you a map.
3. When traveling solo.
Traveling alone gives you plenty of opportunities to interact with locals and allows you to improvise in a way that hiring a guide might hinder. (That said, in places where security is an issue, a guide can offer solo travelers some degree of protection.)
4. When you have a lot of activities planned.
If you’re already heavily scheduled, avoid adding to your sightseeing obligation by hiring someone to help you pack in even more stuff.
5. When you do not want to be on a schedule.
Sometimes travel isn’t about sightseeing or investigating history — sometimes it is purely a time to unwind. If this is the case, having a guide who will rouse you from the balcony of your hotel room and force you to get dressed and go “experience” things is simply counterproductive.
6. When in a very small place.
Let’s face it, you don’t need a guide to take you around a place like Whidbey Island in Washington; you need a bike.
7. When you want quiet time to yourself.
More than just pointing the way around a place, a good tour guide engages his or her clients on many levels — with conversation, storytelling and humor. If you are feeling antisocial or just want to be left alone for a few days, hiring an enthusiastic tour guide is probably not your best option.
8. When you want to practice a language.
If you want to challenge your language skills with complete immersion, hiring a guide who speaks English can create a buffer that will undermine any attempt to see if you make the grade in a foreign language. If immersion is your goal, force yourself to operate and communicate without the safety net of a (paid) native speaker at your side. (One caveat here: Practicing a language one-on-one with a dedicated tour guide who is willing to speak to you entirely in his or her native language may be better — and more affordable — than a language school.)
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