Independent travelers and escorted tours go together about as well as arachnophobes and crawly things. In fact, most independent travelers who see a tour group trailing behind a guide holding aloft a closed yellow umbrella feel a bit smug. And yet, do you ever wonder if you might be missing out on information that tour guide is sharing? For the best of both worlds hire a private guide!
I am not talking about a small group tour, but a true one-on-one travel experience designed specifically for you. On this type of tour, the “tour group” is just you. I have successfully hired private guides all over the globe in Peru, Cambodia, Thailand, China, and Russia. And I can tell you that the private guide business is booming. From university-educated, certified guides to former taxi cab drivers turned energetic entrepreneurs, you have plenty of choices.
Why hire a private guide?
Private guides enhance the travel experience of even the most fiercely independent backpacker. Here are the best reasons to hire a private guide:
• Customized itineraries: You build your own itinerary based on your interests and according to your time schedule. And a private guide can take you to places that are difficult or impossible to reach on your own. Plus, your private guide will take you where you want to go and nowhere else. No annoying shopping stops at the local leather goods outlet or “cultural experiences” at souvenir places masquerading as art galleries.
• In-depth knowledge: In my experience, private guides know their stuff and impart a commendable love of their country and its history. They also tend to be professional and patient — which is a good thing because having a guide all to yourself means that you can ask endless questions.
• Inside track: With a local as your guide, you benefit from insider knowledge that can get you off the tourist treadmill. Avoid the crowds and walk right into places that are infamous for long waiting lines. Or eat lunch in a restaurant that seldom sees a Westerner’s face.
• Sightseeing and transport: You can combine transportation to your next destination with a day of sightseeing. This efficient option offers real travel value and also eliminates a ride on that rickety local bus! Include some hill tribe visits on your road trip across Northern Thailand or stop at Inca ruins and handicraft markets as you make your way from Cuzco into the Sacred Valley.
• A day with no worries: For the independent traveler, letting someone else manage the details can be as restful as a day at the spa. What a relief to put aside the guidebooks and the maps and let someone else do the heavy lifting.
• A chance to spend time with a local: My favorite reason for hiring a private guide is for the pleasure of their company. This is a priceless opportunity to spend time with a local who speaks your language. Most guides are more than happy to share the details of their lives with you. Your guide may tell you their whole life story offering you the chance to learn about a life experience totally different from your own.
Where to find private guides
Guidebooks occasionally recommend private guides. And of course, guides can be hired through hotels or travel agencies. But the best way to find a guide is by word of mouth, and the best sources are online travel forums. Websites like Trip Advisor and the BootsnAll Boards provide the real skinny from fellow travelers whose private guide recommendations are based on personal experiences. Travel forums have become quite powerful, and a guide’s livelihood depends on good recommendations.
How to choose the right private guide for you
• Background and abilities: Finding a capable guide is not as hard as you may think. The top requirement for a guide is the ability to speak English well, and this is something you can easily confirm from other travelers’ experiences.
• Transportation: A good car is a must, and in hot climates, air conditioning is a blessing. Rely on your fellow travelers for verification.
• Guides and drivers: You may have a choice of hiring either a guide who drives or a 2-person team including a guide and a driver. Obviously, hiring a driver and a guide is more expensive, but if the drive is a pot-holed cliff-hanger, a separate driver may be the safer way to go.
• Chemistry: For me, chemistry is the most critical factor. Unfortunately, it is also the most elusive. The best way to find a good match is by closely evaluating other traveler’s recommendations and through your own communications with potential guides. It is surprising how much you can learn about a person in an email.
The hiring process
The hiring process can be easily conducted via email. Use this emailing time to hash out the details of your itinerary and get to know each other. I usually contact at least two guides for a comparison. The best guides are very popular so start the process as soon as you make your travel plans.
Agreeing on the itinerary
Your initial email should include a detailed description of where you want to go, and what you want to see. The clearer you are on what you want, the better your tour will be. Be sure to mention how you heard of the guide (i.e. on which website or other source).
Don’t be concerned if your guide responds in less than perfect English; guides often speak English better than they can write it. Finalizing your plans may require numerous emails, but that’s good because this is how you develop a relationship.
Be sure to keep emailing until you have complete agreement on: itinerary, cost, start time, and pickup location.
Your guide will provide a cost for the day, but don’t forget other potential expenses. Entrance fees are often excluded, and sometimes you must pay your guide’s entrance fee as well. Tipping is also extra, and depending on the circumstances, you may decide to ask your guide to join you for lunch.
Payment is usually made at the conclusion of the tour.
What to expect
At minimum, you can expect a full day of guided sightseeing according to your specific itinerary. However, the beauty of having a private guide is that you don’t need to be rigid. You are not on a canned tour — this tour is all about you, so make the most of it. If you want to hang out longer at one site or quickly ditch another, you can do it. And special requests are seldom a problem. Your guide has hired on for the day and will spend the time as you choose.
Be sure to take full advantage of your guide’s expertise. Get advice on where to buy the best souvenirs (and how much to pay). Improve your foreign language skills (and maybe learn some useful slang!). And don’t hesitate to ask for recommendations on restaurants, local dishes to try, or even where to get a haircut.
Most of all, you want to get to know your guide. Make this an interaction you will remember long after the images of the must-see sites start to fade.
All photos courtesy of Frank Supsic and may not be used without permission.