If eyes are the windows to the soul then tour guides are the windows to exploring a new country.
Finding a good guide can make or break your trip. Depending on the country you’re visiting, a guide might be necessary. For instance, all throughout Africa, most travelers I know get a guide because it’s often vast and hard to get around without one. Europe, however, might be helpful to get a day guide to give you some historical perspective on what you’re seeing.
Safety should also be weighed here. Local guides know the in’s and out’s of the areas you are visiting and will not only teach you the customs (i.e. whether you need to wear a head scarf or bow or simply cover your shoulders), but they can also call ahead to friends to see if there are any trouble areas to avoid.
Here are some tips on how to check out the person you will come to rely on:
- Go Local—Nothing is worse than having a textbook guide, that’s someone who knows about the area, but didn’t grow up there. Get someone from the local region. It may be harder to find, but guaranteed, your trip will be better.
- Get a Personal Reference—Find someone who has visited the country you are going to and see if they have a reference. You can even post something on your Facebook page for suggestions.
- Find Them on Facebook—A lot of guides, even if they live in remote areas have a Facebook page. Tourists often post pictures of their trips on the tour guide’s page. They usually only do this if they liked the trip and the guide.
- Call Your Hotel Concierge—If you know which hotel you’re staying at the start of your trip, then contact the concierge for suggestions.
- Cross-check Your Guides—by going to the website for the local embassy of the country you are visiting. Often they will have a list of guides who are licensed to do business in that country. It’s always a good item to check off of your list.
- Visit Travel Forums—More well-known sites are tripadvisor.com, viator.com, and lonelyplanet.com. You should also check out some specialty sites like showaround.com, toursbylocals.com, and getyourguide.com. Pay attention especially to the ones that have forums with reviews on guides.
- Know What Your Focus Is—In my case, I need a guide who understands how a photographer works and can bring me places that are well-suited for my interests. A good guide will make suggestions to get up early on a particular day where you might want to take pictures of a nearby lake at sunrise.
- See How Long It Takes For the Guide to Return Your Email—This is the test for how they will take care of you on the trip. If they take too long to get back to you, they aren’t going to be attentive on the trip. One caveat to consider is the country they are living in. If it’s somewhere like Ethiopia or Cuba where the government controls the Internet, they might not have service.
- Consider Downloading WhatsApp—Most guides have this as a more convenient way to communicate. This is an instant messenger that sends text messages and will help you get more details about the trip you are planning.
- Ask If They Will “Hand You Off”—If you’re going to a country with a lot of stops in different towns, some guides will actually hire a local there to take you around. This is actually a good thing most of the time because you are learning from someone who grew up in that town, that tribe, or that local area.
- Agree on Price and Accommodations—If you are emailing and agree on a price, make sure you know what is included. Is it 2 meals a day and hotels? Which hotels? Can you have a list? You may be willing to pay more for an upgrade. Once you have it worked out, print out the conversation and bring it with you. There is nothing worse that getting to your destination and having a misunderstanding before you get in the car with someone.
- Know How You Will Pay—Never assume the guide takes credit cards. That doesn’t mean they aren’t legitimate, it just means they are a small operation or their country’s banking system isn’t set up that way. In many cases, they will take US dollars since it holds its value better than most currencies.
BONUS TIP: If you have to cancel, write them and let them know. I have met many guides where that happened and it wrecked their finances for a while.
Check out one of my trips where my tour guide made all of the difference in the trip.