Our recent trip to Eastern and Central Europe had me thinking about the advantages of spending money on local guides during our travels.
It seems when we are trying to travel on a budget (and aren't most of us!) we look for ways to economize. In general when Jeff and I travel we prefer small groups or traveling independently. One of the things we won't economize on is good local (and often private) guiding in the destinations where we travel. One of the things we've learned over the years is that a good local guide is invaluable and usually worth every penny.
Here is why:
1) Some places are not easy to navigate on your own; the language is unfamiliar and it could be easy to get lost in areas that may not be safe for tourists. Having a local guide ensured we could see the places we wanted to and stay safe while we did it. This was the case for us in Ecuador at the tourist craft market in Otavalo. There is great market for the locals just a few blocks away from the tourist markets. Our guide offered to take us there. Unfortunately, when we visited, there were also a couple of never do wells looking for tourists wandering in that area. We were cased for a moment by a pair of them who noticed us, they reversed direction and started following us. It only took a meaningful look from our guide, Robbie, for them to move on.
Having a local guide helps you stay safely on the tourist path, but also allows you to get OFF the tourist path safely. If you want to venture into a place where locals live and work and stay safe and have someone who can ease the transition between local and tourist, a local guide can do that.
We had this experience in Istanbul...we were able to stroll in a residential neighborhood and witness an impromptu market for sheep being sold for a national holiday. Without our guide, we might not have felt safe in the neighborhood, and with our guide, we had the opportunity to take photos of this market because he could ask the people there if taking photographs would be ok.
2) Even in places that are "easy" to see and tour on your own, having a local guide adds context to what you are seeing...this was especially important on our most recent trip because so much of the history was recent history and we were touring with people who actually LIVED it. Hearing their thoughts and opinions created a far richer experience than just wandering around and reading about it out of a guide book.
An example of this was our local guide Magdi Pelech in Budapest. One of our interests was learning about life in a communist country, and Magdi had lived in Hungary through the 70's and 80's. She had stories to share that made the seeing the "sights" far richer than if we had just been touring around using our guide book. The picture below is what you would see if you visit the Rock Church on Gellert Hill. When we toured with Magdi, we learned that she never knew this church existed! During the Communist regime, the cross was removed, the monks were forced to leave and the entrance was cemented over (you can still see some of the cement around the entrance today) While most of us knew that religion was suppressed as part of communism, hearing about how easily it was literally erased from the consciousness of a local person was very interesting to learn!
3) We are not retired, time is precious, and we have little time to "get lost" and miss hours of sight seeing time. Losing oneself in a place is a luxury professional travel writers may have and write poetically about in glossy travel magazines (while someone else is paying for their time and travel!) Most of us are on a shorter holiday with little time to spare. It's fun for most of us to stumble onto a market or celebration and change touring plans (this happens to us all the time!) but time spent arguing over a transit map, or going in circles for an hour is not the same as whiling away an hour in a cafe, or ditching a tourist site to watch a festival parade. I like to have a local guide who can maximize our touring time, including finding the perfect place to while away an hour with coffee!
4) If you want to participate in something unusual (like that festival parade!) or avoid a traffic jam up (due to a strike for instance), or avoid traveling to a closed-for-renovation museum, a local guide is your best bet. They know what is on, what to avoid and how to maximize the tour to your time and interests. For instance, Magdi knew there was a large horse race going on in the City Park on Sunday. While it might have been interesting, it would have impacted our ability to see the other sights in the City Park that day. By going the next day, we avoided the crowds and closures due to the local event. Or if we had decided to go to the local event, having a private guide would allow us to change our itinerary to accommodate that!
5) A local private guide can tailor your tour to your interests and to your pacing in a way that a group tour can't. Jeff and I like to cover a lot ground, so we like to work with a private guide and not be beholden to bathroom breaks or bus loading for 20 or 50 people. Being a photographer, Jeff often looks for a guide too come out early or stay late when the light is good. If he wants to stop for a longer time to get a shot, the guide is happy to indulge us and we aren't holding up the group. This happened in Istanbul when Jeff wanted to get a shot of the sun setting over the Old Town from the Asian side, we arranged for our guide to stay out late with us to get his shot.
A good guide will also pace your tour for your group. When my sister in law needed a little break to sit in Budapest, Magdi would provide a safe, comfortable location to rest for a bit or for her to wait while the other 3 of us moved on to saw another sight nearby and then return for her later.
6) A certified guide often has professional credentials that allow them to skip the lines or use a special guiding entrance with their clients. We had several instances where our private local guides flashed their credential and went to the head of the line while other tourists had to wait. It may not feel "fair" to our US sensibilities, but I feel like you do business as business is done in the places where I visit, and in many places having a credentialed guide saved us lots of time in lines!
7) Its not as much of a splurge as you think it might be!! In many places excellent local guides can be found for $100 dollars a day or less. In some bigger more expensive tourist areas you might pay $100 per person for a 1/2 day, but generally, it's well worth it to assure that your trip includes the the kinds of experiences you want and smooths the way to have them comfortably and safely!
Tips for Finding Good Local Guides
Use a good destination specialist travel agent
Finding a great travel agent is whole other topic, but it's very important to find an agent who has been to the place you are going, and/or has local resources where they regularly refer clients. They also have to be willing to listen to YOU and what you want. It's not as easy to do as it seems, there are still a lot of generalist agents (whom I refer to as "let me book that for ya" travel agents- they sell what they sell, and usually only do what you could do yourself on line, and don't offer any expertise or advice about your itinerary and local guides to use.) My advice is don't book with an agent until you've had conversations about your destination with them. If they don't know more than you can learn from a travel brochure, move on. What you want to find is a travel agent with expertise and contacts for guiding in the destination you are visiting!
- Ask friends who have had great trips about their travel agent, I recommend mine (Travel Beyond) to everyone because I meet a lot of other tourists and they want to know how we managed to have the experiences we've arranged!
- Research the businesses of the destination experts on Trip Advisor whose advice you respect
- Look for Wendy Perrin's WOW list of destination specialists http://www.wendyperrin.com/wow-list/
Ask friends who have had great guides
Nothing made me happier than recommending Michael Kay's excellent Costa Rica Expeditions to friends traveling to Costa Rica for a 25th anniversary and hearing that they had an amazing al fresco surprise anniversary dinner planned for them by CRE. I knew I had had an excellent experience with them, and I knew they would have great experience too!
Read reviews and trip reports on travel review sites
Read reviews on Travel websites for your destination; take notes about guides mentioned who have consistently good reviews.
Book an Organized Small Group Tour
We've taken some smaller group tours that bundle lodging, travel and guiding. The best of these include excellent local guiding, and the tour company does all the research to find them! Of course you still need to adapt to the needs and pace of a group, but generally, we've found that there is still a very high level of knowledge and quality in the guides.
On a really tight budget? Troll social media
There are options that may be short of being professional guides, and that's a risk- if you are paying, its always good to check that the guide has the credentials required by their destination. Without them, you never know what you will get. But if you really can't pay for professional guiding at all you can at least have a "local" experience.
- You can find friends of friends who live in your destination and might be willing to show you around.
- Take advantage of "free walks" offered in some cities.
- You can also use message boards and forums to find others traveling to the same destination on the same days to share the cost of a private local guide. It can be difficult to tailor these tours to your needs, but if there is a set itinerary and everyone agrees and pays directly to the guide, it can work well. We made some very good real life friends when we chartered a sailboat with online "friends" we connected with on Cruise Critic.
I'd love to hear your ideas too! Any tips to share for finding great guides?