How to Hire a Travel Guide

When it comes to travel planning, you can turn to a seemingly endless number of tools. Apps can translate menus, crowdsourcing sites can allow you to reserve everything from chalets to yachts, and booking sites can bring a city's top chefs to your hotel suite’s kitchen. You can go online to customize every detail of a trip to your liking.

But while technology can help you plan a trip, much as a travel agent would, there are no apps or websites that can help you interpret the culture, language, and customs of a destination in real-time. That’s one reason some travelers hire guides to help them experience a deeper level of meaning and connection during their trip. 

“If you wanted to get the best results at the gym, you’d hire a personal trainer,” says Marisa Lassman, founder of Another Africa, a London-based company specializing in high-end travel experiences. “The same principle applies to most things in life, including travel.”

For some, the phrase “travel guide” conjures up images of tour buses, crowds, and one-sided conversations in which you’re bombarded with facts, figures, and boring anecdotes. This can be the case, but there are also plenty of guides offering bespoke experiential tours—ranging in length from a few hours to a few weeks—tailored to your interests and goals. Good guides can get you behind the scenes at a destination, offering access and insight that you can’t find in a guidebook or arrange through even the most technologically advanced booking tools.

“Private guides may be able to showcase areas of a destination not generally open to the public,” says McLean Robbins, founder of Lily Pond Luxury, a travel agency. She recently helped clients schedule a private boat tour of Amsterdam, Holland, on the same ship that hosted former President Barack Obama during a recent visit. Another client was able to visit a Tuscan winery not open to the general public. Robbins also arranged for clients to be the first visitors of the day to the Tower of London.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” says Lassman. “We’ve created night-sky safaris with renowned astronomers, offered clients Swahili language classes aboard a sailboat, and paired people who want to hike Mount Kilimanjaro with one of the best mountain guides you could ever hope to meet. Once we know a client’s interests and passions, the sky's the limit.”

If you’re visiting a place where the cultural norms differ from those in your own country, guides can also help you get your bearings by offering translation services, cultural insight, and etiquette tips. They can work to ensure safe passage in destinations with civil unrest and, in an emergency, connect you with the services you need. 

When one of Lassman’s clients lost a passport, the guide brought him to a consulate, explained the situation to officials in the local language, and provided emotional support until a replacement passport arrived.

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An increasing number of hotels and resorts will lend you clothing during your stay.

Some guides are also medically trained as first responders. Others offer security services or act as bodyguards, says Jimmy Carroll, cofounder of Pelorus, which organizes travel and yacht expeditions.

In most cases, guides will be flexible regarding your requests, even adjusting a tour in real time, if needed. “For a travel adviser with the right connections, no ask is too big or too small,” says Robbins. “As long as your requests are reasonable, safe, and legal, they will likely be considered.”

If you’re traveling to an all-inclusive resort and want nothing more than to relax by the pool with a drink in hand, then hiring a guide likely won’t add any value to your trip. 

But if you want to form a connection with a culture, have a particular experience or adventure, or learn about a specific aspect of a destination’s history—without having to invest a lot of time and effort—then hiring a person, team, or agency with local expertise, insight, and connections can be a smart move. 

As long as you find the right guide, of course.

Start with your personal network, recommends Laura Rosales, marketing manager of Say Hueque, a travel agency in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Ask friends and family who have traveled to the destination you want to visit or booked a similar experience whether they can recommend a guide or guide agency.

A Facebook post could help you find a well-reviewed guide. Your college alumni association may be able to connect you with a school travel club. Some credit-card companies offer travel concierge services. 

You can also search the forums of sites like fodors.com and ricksteves.com to find recommended guides and companies. If you don’t see your destination or desired experience mentioned, you can post a query asking for suggestions.

While many guides and agencies offer online booking, the experts we spoke with advise getting on the phone to talk about your needs before breaking out the credit card. During the call, be open and honest about your expectations, interests, and physical capabilities, and the type of traveler you are. Be specific about sites you want to see and experiences you want to have. Talking about past travels—what you did and didn’t love—can also be helpful. 

Most good guides will walk you through the conversation. “If a travel adviser is not taking the time to get to know you and your preferences, then move on,” says Heather Keller, of Perfect Landing Travel. “Luxury travel is an investment, and an adviser should be willing to get to know you before putting together an itinerary.”

During the call, be sure to ask about the guide company’s training and certifications, its insurance coverage, and how it deals with emergencies. This is also the time to learn exactly what’s included in the price. Will the company help you chase after lost luggage or paperwork? What’s the backup plan if the weather’s not up to snuff?

Getting on the phone with a guide also allows you to suss out his or her personality. If you’re planning a multi-day itinerary, you’ll be spending a lot of time with this person. "You want to make sure you like their personality and that the tour will be a fun experience,” says Newsha Tarifard, founder of TravelWell Adventures.

If it feels like a good match and you like what you hear, ask for references, ideally from repeat clients, before making a down payment. “There’s no better benchmark than recommendations from other similarly discerning travelers with high expectations,” says Lassman.


How to Read Online Reviews

You’ll find many guides and agencies listed on review sites like TripAdvisor.com. But going through the recommendations and critiques of other travelers can feel overwhelming. Marta Laurent, founder of the ForeverBarcelona tour company, recommends narrowing the field to guides or agencies that have mostly five-star reviews.

If you see any reviews for three stars or less, says Laurent, look at what the client was unhappy about and whether the company offered a good response. If the company didn't reply, that might also be a red flag. To find out, search the reviews to see whether anyone else mentioned the same issue. For example, maybe a three-star review said the food was poor. Did others comment similarly or did many recent reviewers rave about the meals? “Some people just have different tastes,” Laurent says.

As you read the reviews, note which buzzwords travelers are using—for example, “knowledgeable,” “fun,” “kid-friendly,” “flexible,” “patient”—and make sure those adjectives resonate with you. 

“If you're looking for a laid-back tour where you can take a lot of photos and relax, but everyone describes the tour as fast-paced, it may not be the best fit for you,” Laurent says. 


Prices and Tipping

The price of tour guides varies widely, says Lassman. “It depends how exclusive the experience is and the elements involved. Some guides might charge $500 to $600 per day, while others might charge thousands, especially if they’re leading experts in their fields. If we’re working with helicopters or in remote, unusual places, this could drive the price up significantly.”

Tipping also varies, depending on the destination and cultural norms. For safaris, Lassman usually suggests that each person in your group tip each guide $20 per day.

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