Joan Fernald, an avid traveler from Las Vegas, has found that she prefers using private guides to group tours, or all-out solo travel. “When we were in Peru, we picked up private guides as we went along and were really impressed, they were so knowledgeable! It just made the trip feel extra-special,” enthuses Fernald. “In Cusco, we were stopping by the trekking group who organized our Machu Picchu trek and just happened to ask if they could recommend somewhere to find a driver and guide for a few days to see sights in the Sacred Valley. The guy who volunteered had a degree in tourism and was really, really great.”
By leaving her choices to serendipity—and the last minute—Fernald paid less than many travelers do for this sort of personalized service. “I’d say, on average, we paid about $100 for two full days of guiding,” she says. For pre-booked, personal tours in Europe or the United States, it’s not unusual to pay between $200 and $400 a day. Fernald also kept her costs in check by traveling in a region where prices are lower. “Travel in Africa or Latin America, and you can pay as little as $50 a day for guiding,” says Mike Petrovsky of Private-Guides.com (see below).
But despite the uptick in costs, most travelers prefer booking private guides in advance. Not only does it offer peace of mind, it also allows the visitor to better customize their experience. So how does one find the right guide?
Some ask their travel agents to do the legwork and that can work quite well. But in those cases where the agent isn’t versed in the destination, or the traveler prefers to book independently, browsing the internet has become the go-to option. And a slew of sites have emerged in the last decade to connect travelers with guides.
Problem is, the sheer volume of locals hanging their virtual shingles at these sites—whether or not they have the credentials to be guides—makes the actual choosing quite, quite tricky.
Here are some of the best guiding sites, followed by strategies for finding the right guide:
For Classic Private Tours: Two websites outshine the pack when it comes to finding guides who are expert in the major touristic sights. Both include a large number of licensed guides, post user reviews and allow travelers to correspond with guides prior to booking. The first, Private-Guides.com, has been in business since 2004 and represents close to 700 guides in 122 countries. Because each guide pays a flat $5 fee to the site per booking (as opposed to the standard 20% of the cost of the tour required by other sites), spokesman Mike Petrovsky claims that its members can charge more reasonable rates for tours.
But Vina Vongvarotai, marketing manager of TourGuides.Viator.com refutes that, noting that Viator’s “100% Satisfaction Guarantee” covers pricing issues. “If a customers feel that they see the same guide listed elsewhere for a lower rate they can contact us, and we’ll fix the price,” she says. The Viator site (associated with the well-known, activity finder) is much larger, working with some 4000 guides in 145 countries. It is also the only guide-finding company on the web endorsed by the World Federation of Tourist Guide Associations (www.wftga.org), an organization that’s attempting to formalize and standardize accreditation for guides around the world.
For unusual, off-beat experiences: Turn to Gidsy.com, Vayable.com, CanaryHop.com or HipHost.com. These sites offer a hodgepodge of private tours from standard itineraries (going to monuments, museums and historic walks) to those that offer quirky experiences revolving around food, nightlife or current cultural trends. You might find yourself taking the outdoor murals of San Francisco in the company of a local artist, or gorging on a tapas tasting tour of Barcelona. Other experiences: hitting the clubs of Buenos Aires with a professional tango dancer, spending an afternoon learning to build gasp-worthy sand castles in San Padres Island, Texas or touring the food markets of the Bastille in Paris.
Asking the right questions: Whether you use any of these sites, or head to a travel agent, it’s important that your would-be guide knows your requirements for the tour. Here are the questions you need to ask before booking:
Can I do what I want to do within my time frame? A lot of cruise ship passengers choose private tours, as do folks with long layovers at the airport, according to Vongvaraotai. So assessing just what you can get done will help you better decide whether the tour is worth the outlay.
What mode of transportation will be used? Some private tours can be done by car, others rely on taxis, public transportation and walking. If you have mobility issues, it’s important you discuss transport methods prior to booking.
Will shopping be involved? Sad but true, some guides make a little extra money on the side by steering tourists into shops from which they get a commission. So find out, in advance, whether shopping’s on the agenda. Heck, if it isn’t, and you’re a hunter-gatherer type, you can always add it to the tour. But it’s important to clarify your expectations in advance when it comes to shopping.
Does the guide have a specialty? In places like Paris, New York or Cape Town, dozens of guides will be vying for your business. So try to find one whose expertise jives with your interests. Remember, one of the best perks of hiring a private guide is not just getting a knowledgeable raconteur’s take on the famous sights, but the side trips you’ll take to spots tourists usually miss.
Do you have a license? This is important in those destinations where only licensed guides are allowed to lead tours to so-called “heritage sights”. It also shows that the guide has passed a test on his or her knowledge of history. A license is less crucial for the quirkier tours that concentrate on food or current culture.
A final word of advice: The best guides are often booked months in advance, especially for high season travel. So if you’re interested in this form of travel be sure to begin your research well before your actual vacation.