Tips on Estimating the Value of a Local Guide

tourguideAh, when to get to a guide and when to work it all out on your own? Yours truly, for years, was a travel-solo-only snob. Why shouldn’t I have been? I research where I’m going with a level of neurotic obsession that has been suggested is, perhaps, a mental disorder. I’m a two hundred and thirty pound second degree black-belt. I have a shabby looking bag and travel in shabby looking clothes on purpose so as not to attract attention (though I always have a few nice things tucked away in case of a night out). My day bag is made of steel-meshed fabric with locking clasps and steel cables embedded in the straps. I have been all over the world by myself, figuring it out by myself, and I have enjoyed myself doing so. Still, the more I travel, the more I’m willing to get a guide, or even, maybe, hop on a tour.  Although, you have to be very careful on the selection of a tour and/or a guide. The good ones are more efficient, more secure and often offer things that you cannot do on your own. The bad tour companies and guides insulate you from the best parts of foreign travel AND cost you more money. How to evaluate a tour company will have to be a whole other blog post sometime. If anybody wants a tour soon, let me know.

There are certain spots in the world where you must have a guide. For example, if you have ever dreamed of hiking Kilimanjaro (as I have), you would go there and find that a guide is required and not optional. Likewise, try to hike the Machu Picchu Trail and you will find that a condition on your reservation is that you hire a local, professional guide. Then there are places where you don’t necessarily have to have a guide, but you really, really should hire one no matter how experienced a traveler you are. Want to go to Colombia to party in Barranquilla for Carnival, see pink Dolphins in Amacayacu and admire the colonial art at Ciudad Perdida? Well, not only are some of those places hard to find, but also travelers tend to get kidnapped and ransomed in Colombia. It’s not as bad as it used to be there, but similar dangers are starting to pop up in other parts of the world now too. Having a guide that is seasoned and confident is a huge deterrent for those who would prey on tourists. I was in South Africa recently and as far as Africa goes South Africa is probably the best country to not have a guide in. However, I could still give you a list as long as my arm as to why our guide in South Africa made the whole trip immeasurably better. He was paid to do it, but still, we put together a collection for a good sized tip at the end. I put as much as I could afford (you tend to be pretty broke at the end of a good trip) into the kitty for our guide’s tip. I would have doubled it if I could have. He made all the difference between a good trip and a GREAT trip. In some countries, if you didn’t get on the RIGHT tour or if you have done a bad job on your own in planning, you are really helping the chances of making your dream vacation turn into an unpleasant (and sometimes horrific) experience.

We were just talking about South America and Africa, right? Sure, you need guides and tours in places that are less developed, but what about the developed countries? Traveling around Western Europe, while expensive, is easy and, for the most part, pretty safe. Why bother with a guide in places like Western Europe? I have only done it a few times; a few times that have worked out fantastically for me. One of these times, I did have to go to Mia Martin of Cartolina Tours, an Italian travel expert of the highest caliber, to help me out a bit.

Ever heard of Stendhal Syndrome? Well, neither had I until recently, but I had heard of Paris Syndrome, a condition where Japanese people actually experience a culture shock so severe they become physically ill. In Japan it’s called “Pari shoukougun“. It’s common enough that the Japanese government warns travelers of it on their French Embassy website. I also have heard of people having extreme reactions to places like Florence because it is so incredibly rich with culture, but was unaware there was an actual syndrome associated with this: Stendhai Syndrome. Jerusalem is another place noted to overwhelm visitors with the magnitude of its history, culture and religious significance. It’s just culture shock, but culture shock can be very, very extreme. I once talked to a person that got on a plane to India for a two month trip and was so disgusted that he changed his flight to come back two days later. I also have a friend who visited India once, ended up getting married, continues to live there and still loves it. Culture shock is a strange thing. Some of us love it, some of us learn to love it, and some need a little help to love it. Even if you’ve never had a reaction so strong, I think that anybody who has toured places like Paris or Florence, places PACKED with so much art that it all can look the same after awhile, knows what it is like to feel at least a little overwhelmed by it all. Ever gone to the Louvre and found yourself walking faster and faster because it is all looking the same? Museum burnout is what I call it. You go to all of these places filled with marvelous things, but also, in with all of those marvelous things, is a bunch of stuff that maybe isn’t so interesting to you. How do you know what piece of art is what? You often can’t tell just by a quick glance. You could rent one of those little audio devices where you punch in the number on the display and it tells you about that particular display. You could find some reading material and go looking through each item to find out what in the Museum is really interesting and what is, for lack of a better word, filler. Go with a guide and the guide will be able to tell you what the most impressive pieces are and why. A guide can keep museum burnout at bay and keep all the art and culture from blending together into an incoherent melange. The best thing is that you can ask questions of a guide which, for a person like me who always wants to know everything, is a big deal.  A guide can help to make sure that you really do appreciate all of the things you see and can be a buffer against museum burnout and culture shock, especially severe forms like Stendhal Syndrome, Paris Syndrome, Jerusalem Syndrome or whatever you want to call it. Also, with a lot of guided trips, you are able to pass lines entirely or at least get into a much shorter line.  This alone can make the guided tour worth it. If you’ve ever seen the lines going out the front door of the Vatican or the Louvre in July, you know what a GODSEND this line skipping really is.

What kind of hidden treasures might your destination have that most people don’t know about? Is everything in your guidebook? More importantly, did you read everything in your guidebook? What are those places in towns that only the locals know about? My travel expert tells me there are special guides who know how to get into the Sistine Chapel after it’s closed with only 20 people in the group. I’ve been to the Sistine Chapel. It was so stuffed I felt like a sardine. Though it was still a magical experience,  I have to say, the idea of seeing it with just a few people around sounds like pure bliss to my ears. Want to visit St. Marks privately in Venice? There is a special tour that takes you to parts of the church that most people never see. My Italian expert and friend also tells me that the right people can arrange that too. Know how to get tickets to Il Palio or Giro d’Italia? My Italian expert does. Ever wonder what it might have been like to have gone on vacation like a Roman Emperor would have? Well, he probably would’ve gone to Capri and probably would’ve taken a nice, languid cruise around the beautiful island before arriving at his villa. A private yacht cruising the Tyrrhennian sea is a dream worth making a reality, but how do you book it and who knows who the good captains are with the best boats? Somebody knows. Wouldn’t you want to know that person if you decided to make that dream come true? If you are going to pick a captain, crew and/or boat, you better make sure they are worth their salt.

I love guidebooks. I have several favorites and one of the things I love most are the restaurant reviews. The gastronomical aspect of travel is one of my favorite things about travel. Sure, you can just stop anywhere for a sampling of local cuisine and I encourage this. I love sidewalk vendors in all countries. I once had jerked goat that was eaten on an impulse.  I pulled over to the side of road and bought it from a guy making it using a steel trashcan for a BBQ. To this day, I fantasize about that goat. It was succulent, tender and made my eyes water with the sheer power of that man’s particular formulation of Jamaican jerk. However, I also stopped in at probably the one place in Mykonos with food-poisoning inducing souvlaki. I once ate some tacos al pastor in Mexico that kept me captive to el baňo for at least six hours. In every country I go to, I want to be guaranteed a sampling of quality cuisine of that region, AT LEAST ONCE. My girlfriend remembers wanting to kill me. We criss-crossed across Istanbul looking for this one place that Lonely Planet recommended. I studied the map, walked, made a wrong turn, walked some more, corrected the wrong turn, walked some more and went around the block twice before realizing that particular spot was gone and had changed ownership a couple of months back. I looked and felt like a doofus the whole way. You can’t blame Lonely Planet for that. It’s a book, it won’t update magically. That’s why they keep printing new editions. We just went to another place my LP book recommended that was not only delicious, but also offered a sweeping view of the Golden Horn. It was so good that I was completely forgiven for making my girlfriend tromp half way across Istanbul and back.

So, Jake, if this is about guides, why all this info about guidebooks? Well, first of all, even though I love good guidebooks and though the map I had in Istanbul was a perfectly decent one, I still had to walk through the streets with a map in my hands trying to find the place. I still got lost, looked lost (making me a more likely target for a thief), and lost valuable time. Inshallah, I shall return to the city of Emperors someday. However, if I don’t, I lost hours wandering around Istanbul that I will never get back. I lost hours that I could have spent doing other things and who knows what part of town I may have missed out on exploring? I love Istanbul, but it’s one of the biggest megalopolises in the world with some extremely tough areas. A guide would’ve meant walking with a confident person through the streets which is not only a convenience issue, but a safety one as well. Also, what about the personal touch? You may know of this one restaurant in Rome that you have heard raved about across the world. What kind of extra special treat might come your way if you walk in with somebody who knows the owner? Maybe the review you read about the place was a year old and has since changed ownership. Want to find out the hard way that this place hasn’t been the same since Giovanni, the head chef, retired two months ago? A local guide would know that and would know where you could still have that Cucina Romana that you’ve drooled over, from afar, your whole life. Would you like to visit a traditional Italian wine-maker, view his estate, see his cellars and more importantly, try the wine he and his family have grown themselves for generations? A local guide can arrange that. On your own, it could be difficult, if not impossible. In a region known the world over for food and wine, don’t you want the best when you go? Would you want to know where a 500 year old restaurant that serves three course lunches of Tuscan culinary treasures if you were passing through a particular town or just any old place you happened to stop by? These are all things a good guide can arrange for you.

Guides, sometimes, are mandated by law. Sometimes, you don’t have to have one, but you are taking horrendous risks if you don’t. All of them, well all of the good ones anyway, will enrich and ease experiences that you will treasure for the rest of your life in ways you cannot imagine. Travel budgets don’t always allow for the extra of a guide, but many people fail to see the real value of having one. If you have a choice between going without a guide or not going at all, still go. A trip to Pompeii is still wonderful even if you just wander around and read all the plaques. Remember though, what’s more important than price is value. A good guide or tour can add tremendous value to your trip even if it’s more expensive. Many of the places that a traveler will see in his or her life will sadly only be seen once.  Make the most of it when you go.

I want to thank Mia Martin of Cartolina Tours for all her help with this particular blog and Fumiko Yoshikawa for verifying and finding the information on Japanese “Paris Syndrome.”

Written by: Jake

IMAGE VIA: lamrock-images on Flickr

16 thoughts on “Tips on Estimating the Value of a Local Guide

  • Enjoyed the article, and as someone who trains and certifies Tour Guides and International Tour Managers, endorse the hiring of a local expert in the area or taking an escorted tour. Guide books are good but not always up-to-date as a good guide will be nor does a book have “personality”. A Tour Guide or Tour Manager will help create memories and help you transition through any “culture shock”.

    One statement that I do want to comment on was the “collection of a tip” for the guide. Over many years of experience as a Tour Guide and Tour Manager throughout the world (over 50 countries) I have found that a “collected” tip is usually far less then what the total would have been had the passengers individually tipped. When you personally hand the tip to the guide it is just that “personal”. Putting money in an envelope makes in anonymous and some people then just put in their loose change.

    Again, a good article.

    Frank Slater, Ph.D.
    Certified Tour Guide
    International Guide Academy
    Denver, Colorado

  • You’ve made me hungry, Jake, as you always do when you talk about Italian food; but also fret on the marvels I may have missed on my own misguided travels. Next time, I’m bringing you along 🙂

  • Frank~

    That is such an excellent point. We did put a kitty together for our guide and several members of our little tour were bad tippers. Actually, one person in particular, put in the lion’s share for our guide’s tip. There were several members of the tour that put in an amount that I considered shameful. I’ve always put together a ‘kitty’ for the guide and I have not been above putting extra pressure on those that were cheap. However, letting each person tip the guide, look them in the eye is better. Some people behave more poorly when hid in anonymity.

  • I have actually never heard of Paris Syndrome. Out of curiosity, I did some research on that from Japanese website to get their input. And this is what I found:

    What is Paris Syndrome?
    It is a kind of culture shock.  Japanese who had dreams of living in Paris filled with glamorous images of the city go there, but they can not adjust themselves to their customs and culture and lose their mental balance.  They end up getting depressed.   Young Japanese ladies(20 -30 years old) who are from the very wealthy families tend to have this syndrome.   They are affected by the image of Paris through books and movies and wish to work in Fashion, Travel or other media and to study-abroad.

    The symptom of Paris Syndrome….
    1. They start to think that French people are discriminating them.
    2. They start to think that Japanese men are distracting them in their activities. ….. (Very funny 🙂
    3. They blame on themselves because they think they can’t fit in the society.

    The reason of Paris Syndrome
    1. They get confused with the big gap of the imaginable Paris and the real Paris.
    2. Their language skills don’t improve.
    3. They can’t find the job they want.
    3. Just blame themselves too much….

    The background of Paris Syndrome
    1. They want their opinions to adapt with French culture (but usually doesn‘t).
    2. The huge passion for Paris
    3. They feel that Japan is inferior to France/Paris
    4. They dislike toward Japanese men……..(very funny)

    1. They have to have pride for Japan
    2. They need to know the real/current condition of Paris.
    3. GO BACK TO JAPAN!!!   🙂

    I wonder if this could apply to anybody who travel to other countries?

  • Andy,

    Great posts both of you. It’s funny, the first time I acquiesced to a guide was in Siem Reap as well. He wasn’t even that great of a guide in terms of what he knew, he was just one guy with a moped that had a more honest face than the other guys in front of the guest house that morning. Vibol, my guide, provided all of my transport and guiding in Siem Reap itself. He didn’t know much about Angkor Wat itself, but he was a nice guy, his parents had been rounded up and put in camps by the Khmer Rouge, he told me a lot about Cambodian life, particularly HIS Cambodian life. We spent a lot of time together for three, long full days and two of those days; late into the night for me to go out. It was almost like renting a best friend for a few days that had wheels and knew where all the good bars were, even if he would not go into said bars with me and waited outside the whole time…. Wait. I guess I had unofficial guides before that. I have visited friends and family overseas… those can make both great and terrible guides at the same time, depending.

    I just remembered somebody else too, my real FIRST guide, it was just a long, long time ago. like Vibol, I also once made friends with a Jamaican tour bus driver that was also a guide-ish. This was one of my first trips out of the country aside from Mexico and Mexico nor Canada really seem like ‘real’ foreign countries to me even though they are. Our driver, Randall, drove us from site to site, usually mega-resort to mega-resort. Mostly he was just the drive, he spouted off facts as we drove along and I would ask him questions; We hit it off, so a few nights after everybody was dropped off and eating lobster bisque I was back at Randall’s house up in the hills behind Montego Bay. I got almost no sleep those nights. So I guess that, was my first guided tour. I was working for a travel company back then that did ALOT of Caribbean so that’s how I ended up on that tour. Don’t get me wrong, I like an ultra-luxurious hotel as much as the next guy. My Dad actually is in the luxury hotel business, I dig that whole thing, would wouldn’t. The best part of that particular trip though, was heading back to Randall’s house with his friends, kids, nanny and girlfriend. The guy was the coolest…He once said to me “Two guineas, one spleef, make any man da perfect lova” For a second I thought, *cornish game hens????* and then I realized we were drinking Guiness beer and THAT was what he meant, his accent was a litle thick. I also think it takes more than a couple of beers and some cannabis to make a man good in bed, though it’s possible it might help some dudes. Randall swore by it and you have to admit; if you think of it with a Jamaican accent it just sounds cool as hell.”

    I got lucky that trip, but Randall aside, that trip was one of the reasons I knew I never wanted to take what your average American thinks of when he thinks of tour, it was a tour like that. Cool, air-conditioned bus, ferried from one private beach to another… YUCK! There ARE a lot of bad tour companies that separate you from local culture instead of helping you to embrace it more fully… There are a few gleaming examples of tour companies that ARE awesome, that have great guides.

    I have done a mix of fully independent and fully escorted tours, even sometimes on the same trip.

    I find myself agreeing with your points of course. However I can’t entirely disagree with Rachel either. I too, love getting lost, though, getting lost in the backstreets of Tokyo, is not like getting lost in the back streets of Sao Paulo. Also, you have to have more time to be willing to just kick it as you go along and there is a certain joy in that freedom. As far as seeing the sights, well, I want both myself, I want a little local and unique, actually I love that kind of travel. There is also no way I am ever headed to Cairo without seeing those Pyramids or heading down the Nile on a cruise. It will just never happen. I think that Rachel is under the impression that a guide will keep you separate from the culture you have come to visit, I think that’s only true for the bad ones. The good ones, the good ones mind you, bring you deeper into a culture than you can on your own unless you’ve got a month or so to just kick around one city or area. Which everybody should do at least once in their lives: live in just one place in one country for one month, preferably longer at least once before you die.

    We do all agree, sometimes a good idea, sometimes it’s not. Each circumstance must be weighed individually.

    I should do a blog on who I felt was the best guide I ever had, that was my South African guide. I don’t know, Rich was on that trip too, we’d have to flip for it to see who got to sing TJ’s praises. Rich I know, thought just as highly of that guide as I did. Maybe Rich has had a better guide somewhere else…. somehow I doubt that, TJ was a GREAT guide.

  • Thought I’d drop in & continue the conversation 😉 Thinking about it more, I have been on walking tours and in a guided group to places (like the Domus Aurea) where it’s impossible to go alone. I suppose I’m happy with the idea of a guide who knows the history of a place, but less interested when someone wants to suggest where I should eat or drink or wander. I think it comes down to balance… I’d be okay with a guide or a group for short stretches but mainly I need my own space! 🙂 Always fascinating to read others’ opinions.

  • Hi Rachel,

    I like to do a mix regarding food. I like to just stop and try stuff, the whole “that looks good, let’s eat it!” but… Each region has it’s own cuisine, it’s own specialties and I want at least one meal that is guaranteed to be a very good example of that particular local cuisine. I have an epicurean nature, but I also am an opportunivore, which means, I will pretty much eat anything edible.

  • After spending 35 years traveling professionally organising specialist group travel and also for pleasure I have experienced travel from the ultra budget, $1 a night in India, to ultra luxury $5,000 a night, also in India.

    The correct guide for you and your circumstances can save you time and widen the great experience that is travel. Not all “official” guides are good and not all “unofficial” guides are either. With the official you are likely to get a minimum certified standard for the specific function you engage them for and mostly far, far in excess of that. In unfoffical guide territory I have literally “been taken for a ride” to nowhere and had to pay a lot to get back. I have also met some incredible people who have shown me things, taught me things, shared things that I simply would not have experienced either on my own or on an official guided version.

    When traveling in any new place your traveller bullshit meter and danger meter needs to be on high alert. That goes for any country 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th world or whatever you want to classify your visit as. A wealthy western country is no guarantee of safety although it is painfully obvious when you are travelling in counties of abject poverty or political unrest an insider on your side can help you avpoid many dangers and relax a little more and enjoy the travel experience you are in that place in the first instance for.

    I personally find that guidebooks can be useful, they can however be limiting if you slavisly try to keep to them and that great place they mention may have irevocably changed by the time you get there. I also find that the walking tour guides either in a guide book or provided by some local tourist organisation whilst setting out a route do not give more than cursory facts about the items/places on the route. That is where a personal guided tpour or good quality audio guide come into there own. It’s maddening to be looking at a sight, say a building, and just be told it was build by so and so in so and so a little more. That sort of information, often found in porinted guides, doesn’t bring the sights to life. A real life guiode or good audio guide goes far beyond that.

    To me travel is just not ticking off the sights and moving on. I want to know more about the people, the place, architechture and customs of the people. I want a destination to come alive. it’s up to each individual traveller to selectively use the tools that best deliver the expreince they want. A great guide wheter official, unofficial or virtual in the form of an audio tour wil deliver just that.

  • The value of a good bullsh*t meter is inestimable, not only in travel, but in life in general. I agree, each must to their own, freedom is the heart of travel.

    I don’t know about audio guides. They can be good, but most just seem to be people reading somethign written down into a microphone. I can do the reading myself if somebody writes it down. I actually remember things better I read than those that I hear. I can read faster than most people talk. I like that, I devour guidebooks preparing for a trip. I then slice out the parts I need with an x-acto knife, take those parts with me and discard the rest. I also throw away the bits I don’t need as I make my way wherever I’m going. I read voraciously, but I’m afraid I tend to treat books atrociously. It’s one of my great failings.

    I do have to remember that all audio guides are not created equally. I have heard some that were better than others.

    A bad guide… I’ve never had one for more than an afternoon,I won’t tolerate it. I agree, they detract from, rather than enhance, an experience in a given destination. One must choose wisely and remember that the choice itself, is at the heart of the experience.

  • Another attribute necessary in a tour guide (although qualified myself, I know good unofficial guides and bad offcial ones) is the ability to adapt to your group or client. Even if the same route is used each time, you wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) give the same tour that you’d give to an adult culture lover, as you would give to a school party, a hen party, foreign fans visiting for a football match, senior citizens on a coach tour and so on. A good guide should ask you your interests if you book in advance, be able to tailor the tour to your requirements and have some idea of what would interest each group if they haven’t booked in advance. It may sound obvious but I’ve heard guides bore on in detail about architectural detail to people who obviously aren’t interested in architraves. Similarly, if you have a special interest, make sure your guide knows about it. I have a book club who are visiting Liverpool having read a couple of books set in the city so I have also read those books and am designing a tour that will visit as many of the sights mentioned in the book as possible. But if the group hadn’t mentioned that, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.

    Julie Kershaw
    Official Guide
    Liverpool, UK

  • Interesting article with many thoughts well-expressed. Like you, I have often travelled solo and not used a guide, relying on guide books or simply wandering & enjoying what I see without necessarily needing to know its provenance. Having seen many guides herding their clock like demented sheep dogs, getting tetchy if anyone strays and being highly focused clock-watchers, it is not for me …

    A few years ago I bit the bullet and we went on an Explore holiday in Turkey, discovering the Greek sites and experiencing Turkish culture with a local guide. It was a great experience with a small group of like-mended individuals; plenty of time to enjoy the scenery & absorb the journey at a gentle pace.

    I have recenlty set up a personal guide service for Cumbria & the Lake District aiming to provide exactly the kind of experience you describe here – only time will tell if I have got it right! Thanks for adding to the debate on the benefits of a local guide.

  • I think the need of a tourist guide is minimized as internet has lot of information on all topics and places. You can prepare yourself on internet about any place before visiting that place.
    For example you can get information on France before visiting there at this site:

  • Very useful and informative blog post concerning Tips on Estimating the Value of a Local Guide. I have bookmarked your blog for future posts.

  • This was an interesting debate, and somethiing I have not thought much about. I am a novice traveler so do not have much experience/knowledge on the pros/cons of travel guides but find that guides can be both a blessing and a curse. When I went with my family to India (homeland) we had hired a driver to take us to all the tourist destinations and found that though he wasn’t a tour guide, he knew much of the local areas and the best places to eat etc which was great. However we also noticed very quickly that he would show us after visiting the places, shops that would then in a way trick us into buying things. We would be ushered from room to room of just things…Sarees, trinkets, pictures, jewelry etc. These shops were not neccessarily associated w/ the tourist place, but the salespeople would know the driver and so the driver was in a way making money by bringing the tourists (us) to their shopsMaking us believe that these were “hidden shops” etc. It happened a few times before my dad finally requested not to take us to those shops. However it wasn’t all bad. I guess the only way to know is through experience, and of course by the help of fellow travelers such as yourself. Thanks again!

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