Tours and tour guides.
Many travelers don’t think too highly of guided tours, but they not only are they a necessity sometimes, they can also be a great experience if you go with the right company and group.
The Inca Trail, for instance, must be done with a guide and tour group. There’s no other way to hike this classic trail. In other instances, a guide is extremely helpful as hearing about a site from a local can really add a lot more to your experience.
There are a lot of questions to address when you are considering going about it independently, hiring a guide, or joining a tour group:
- When are good times to get a guide?
- When should you steer clear of guides?
- How do you go about choosing a guide, a tour, and a tour group?
All are questions we’ll answer here in this guide to choosing the right tour for you. Because sometimes, no matter how much you hate them, a guided tour is a necessity.
When to get a guide or take a tour
There are some instances where you simply have to get a guide and go on a tour. Certain hikes and sites don’t allow independent visits. But there are also other instances where tours are really nice and helpful, even if you aren’t a tour kind of person. Not all tours are huge bus-loads of people being shuttled from one site to the next. There are plenty of those, sure, but options abound for tours.
If you are visiting a historical site, whether it’s Angkor Wat or the Incan ruins above Cusco, having a guide is very helpful. It’s nice to have someone who is extremely knowledgeable about the subject at hand. You simply get more entertainment and knowledge from a person rather than bringing a book with you.
At sites like these in developing countries, you can hire your own private guide for a relatively cheap price. There are typically local people standing outside these sites offering their services. Of course you never know what you’re going to get with a guide like this, though, so buyer beware. Be sure to talk with them at length and make it clear what your expectations are. Once you agree on a price and service, double check and go over everything that the guide is supposed to offer. Don’t allow room for any leeway.
If you go with a traditional tour and tour guide, then you can probably expect to have a large group with you. But it pays to shop around. In touristy towns, there’s going to be options galore, so go in and talk to people. Ask for names and email addresses of people who have done the tour in the past. If they scoff at this or act weird about it, then you are probably in the wrong place. Like anything travel related, it pays to trust your instincts. Make sure you know what the max number of people in the group will be. Verify what all is included in the price. Food? Equipment? Transportation? Find out everything you can and leave no stone unturned.
When it comes to big tour groups, much of the time it pays to go with the more expensive, popular tour. They are more expensive and popular for a reason, and while you can sometimes find a great tour for a cheap price, you’re taking a risk by going that route. The last thing you want to do is be stuck out in the middle of a jungle on a four day tour with a horrible tour guide and group.
Personal experience from a “non-tour” person
Guides and tour groups are offered for pretty much everything these days, so you are always going to have the option. For those who like to do everything independently, you probably won’t join a tour unless you absolutely have to. Trust your instincts.
We are not the tour kind of people, preferring to go at it ourselves and at our own pace. It’s just what we like to do. But we do join up with tours every so often, and it has come with varying results.
High above Cusco, Peru there are ancient Incan ruins which make a great prelude to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. We had no plans of getting a guide when we went, but we decided to get one with a friend we had recently met. It ended up being amazing as we had our own private tour for the three of us, and our guide was fantastic, offering local knowledge of the ruins that we wouldn’t have learned about otherwise. Well worth the small amount of money it cost all of us.
Then we did something similar in India, allowing a tuk-tuk driver to talk us into taking us on a tour of Agra to see some of the most popular sites. We were tired when we agreed to everything and were lazy about verifying what we would and wouldn’t do and where we would and wouldn’t go, which is not a smart thing to do in a country like India. We ended up having a miserable time, and it was mostly our own fault. It just goes to show that if you slip up, you can be taken advantage of very easily.
We’ve also had great experiences with big group tours. Bucking up and going with the popular Peru Treks for the Classic Inca Trail hike was an extremely smart decision, as we were pampered like crazy and had a very knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide. Same with our Pampas tour in Bolivia. Though our guide was a bit crazy, playing with crocodiles and piranhas, he was really nice and very educated on the surroundings and definitely added to the tour.
Again, we went with a reputable company and weren’t disappointed.
When to join up with a tour is a very personal decision that every long-term traveler will have to contemplate while on their trip. Sometimes it’s an absolute necessity, and in those times, it pays to spend a little more and go with a reputable company. By going with a place that has a history of good customer service and outstanding tours, you increase the chances of having a great time and not dealing with any drama that is sometimes evident in cheaper tours.
When you have the option of a taking a tour or going at it alone, ask yourself what you will get out of having a guide.
- Will it make the experience that much better?
- Are you visiting a place that you are really interested in and want to learn more about?
If so, you may want to look into your tour options. No matter what you decide, trusting your instincts is key.
If you are really pessimistic about tours, or you just want to learn more about them, check out this interview with long-term traveler Laura, who built an entire RTW trip around going on tours:
Read the following articles to learn more about taking tours:
- Maybe Organized Tours Aren’t So Bad After All?
- How to Negotiate with a Tour Guide to Get the Experience You Really Want