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Private Tour Guides: Worth It?

Gary Lee

Most times I like poking around cities on my own. But sometimes a great tour guide offers glimpes of a place that I would have a tough time discovering on my own.

Not long ago, I found myself in need of a guide who could take visiting friends around Washington. Bill Blackwell of Sterling Transportation Services turned out to be pleasant, amiable and knowledgeable about the city, taking my friends to some of the best-known sites around D.C. -- and some little-known ones too ($175 a day, 703-869-4426, wgbsenior@hotmail.com). I have also had good luck with guides in other cities -- the San Francisco Tour Guide Guild ($175 for four hours, $35 an hour thereafter) and the Chicago Tour Guides Institute ($180 for three hours).

Is hiring a guide a cop-out, or a practical way to get to know a city? Does it take something away from the process of discovery? What do you think? If you have a good guide story, share it here.

By Gary Lee |  March 5, 2007; 3:51 PM ET  | Category:  Deals , Gary Lee
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On our trips to the big cities of Europe, we've tried three answers to the "hire a guide" question: going it alone, joining an inexpensive local tour, and hiring a private guide. Even though I do a lot of pre-trip research, we've found that a private guide makes the best use of our all-too-limited vacation time. They are flexible enough to change their tours to fit our style. Yes, they're expensive, but by the time we've paid for airfare and other expenses, a personal guide seems like a small enough extra expense to maximize the value of the trip.

Posted by: Salem, OR | March 5, 2007 4:22 PM

I think a guide can be a great choice. We found a tour guide through Enjoy Rome to do a walking tour through Rome on our first day there. It was a great way to get comfortable in the city and see a bunch of tourist attractions right off the bat. We also enjoyed her long analysis of the Roman Forum--so much better than doing it by ourselves. I've also enjoyed tour guides through the Templo Mayor in Mexico City and walking tours in London (can't remember the name!) If you can find the right tour guide, it can be a really terrific way to start getting to know a new place.

Posted by: gretchen | March 5, 2007 4:23 PM

I think private guides are the way to go and if I had more money I'd do it more often. My best experience with a private guide was in Iceland and we had a guide from Embla who drove us around the countryside for three days. We saw things we otherwise wouldn't have, and many of the museums out of Rejkyavik only have signs in Icelandic, so without her we would have had no idea what we were seeing. She was a botanist by training and pointed out all the native plants and also knew the history of every hill we passed. It was expensive but totally worth it.

Posted by: arlington, va | March 5, 2007 4:34 PM

Private guides are worth every penny if you can afford it. When my family and I are traveling on our infrequent "big trips", we always try to hire one for at least a day. We usually get them through our hotel. Highlights: in Oxford, our guide knew all the "Harry Potter" movie locations that delighted our daughter, and the JRR Tolkien hangouts that delighted me. In Venice, our guide took us into San Marco bypassing the 2-hour wait legally; they don't make the guides wait because they couldn't earn a living that way. At Versaille, the guide did the same thing, taking my family right up to the front, then confessed once we were inside that guides don't have any right to do that, but it always works for him!

Posted by: Cabin John | March 5, 2007 4:50 PM

We usually are 'do it yourself' tourists, but at times a guide is indispensible, especially when transportation is hard to figure out. We used a private guide in Africa that was phenomenal. His knowledge of the animals and ability to spot them substantially enhanced the safari days - SunWorld Tours. We hired a guide in Kyoto for a walking tour in Geisha District and learned things and met people we would not have from a book, we believe (Peter MacIntosh). In Agra, India, you need a car and driver and for little extra you can have a private guide too. Prices seem to be set by some government agency, so really both a bargain and a necessity to have a guide. The themed walking tours in London are fun. I agree with an earlier poster on that comment.

Posted by: Baltimore | March 5, 2007 4:54 PM

In Naples, we had a guide who picked us up in a mercedes and was fantastic. Our train was late coming in. No problem. Went to Pompei, where we missed our prearranged tour, no problem, he found a guide he knew and it was great. Took us to a fantastic restaurant overlooking the sea. Spoke to the owner - instant feast, best food we'd ever had. Took us to obscure places, great scenic rides, great stories and shopping. Worth every penny.

Posted by: Alex, VA | March 5, 2007 6:19 PM

Seconding (or thirding or fourthing) what others have said, private guides are pricey but can definitely be worth the money. My wife and I hired a wonderful woman to give us a two-day tour of the high points of Rome and it was worth every penny. (I think it was $150 for four hours a day.) We not only got a comprehensive history lesson on each of the city's historial sites but could ask all the questions we wanted and could tailor our visits to our particular time frame and interests. It's also an incredible time saver, as accredited tour guides in Rome can purchase tickets to the various sites for their clients without waiting in the brutally long lines of non-guided tourists. In fact, it probably saves money in the long run, as you spend your time doing what you want to do rather than queuing up halfway back to Naples. And the truffled Parmesan fonduta and a bottle of Tignanello at Al Bric is the perfect way to end the day.

Posted by: Bill | March 5, 2007 7:20 PM

While I've never hired a private tour guide, I keep meaning to do it. I've gone on the London Walks, and they are relatively inexpensive. So the fact that some tour guides are better than others isn't much of an issue. I suppose I hesitate because I've gone on free tours in museums, etc. While some are guides/docents are wonderful, some are not. I'd be really bothered by paying someone a lot of money, and finding the person lacking. Other than personal recommendations, and getting guides who are certified by local governments, does anyone have any suggestions for getting a good tour guide and getting the most out of him/her?

Posted by: Alice | March 6, 2007 9:18 AM

Using the services of a professional tour guide, whether in a private or public tour setting, can be a very efficient use of your time. The city you're visiting is relevant to your broader understanding of history and human nature, and a good tour guide enhances national and world citizenship. This level of quality tour experience is more reliably achieved through use of a private tour guide. Public tours of Washington DC can be hit-and-miss. Google "best tour of washington" to increase your chances. I give tours for the company listed in the first 3 hits. For private tour guides, the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington DC is a good first call. The Guild takes quality touring of DC very seriously.

Posted by: Mr. Holiday, DC | March 6, 2007 9:43 AM

During a stay in Dornoch, Scotland, our hosts hired a driver to take us whereever we wanted. He took us to Loch Ness, Fort William, pub for lunch, shopping, Culloden, little turn offs, and back home again. His name was Konrad and he was fabulous! We never would have done all of that on our own!

Posted by: tofumidget | March 6, 2007 4:29 PM

I think it might be somewhat dependent on where you are going. But on my trip to Thailand I loved having a private guide show me around. Very professional but also friendly and flexible. The company I used, Purple Dragon, who I have raved about near and far was terrific. Yes it is expensive, but I thought it was worth every penny especially since I had never been to Asia before. I think they charge $59 a day for just a guide but their package customers get first dibs on their guides so if you are there at a busy time you might be out of luck. The guides are included in all of their packages. In Bangkok it is usually a different guide each day but in Chiang Mai I had the same guide every day for a week. So it was like touring with a friend. Since I was solo it was even nicer. I am going back this year and will use them again for my time in Thailand and Cambodia.

I am also a planner by nature so I usually know what I want to do and where I want to go. But there's something nice about letting some one else do the legwork and show you around.

Posted by: Glenn | March 6, 2007 5:14 PM

My husband and I have used two tour companies that we would recommend. First, London Walks, and its affiliate, Paris Walks. Both have very interesting, lively, and knowledgeable guides. We have taken our then ten- and twelve-year old girls on both tours. They did not care for the history and architecture tours that my husband and I enjoyed, but they liked Beatles Walk and Jack the Ripper tours. Be aware that there are walking tour companies with similar names in London. We took a tour of "The Jewish Quarter" with one of them and were very disappointed, and left before the tour was over (although this may have been due to jet lag; I'd advise not booking a walking tour on the day you arrive from the West Coast!). The BEST tours we've ever taken have been through a company called Context Rome/Context Florence. They have a Context Naples and are soon to open a Context Venice. They arrange group tours of no more than six people and offer
various art and history tours of the Vatican, Roman history, etc. Their tour guides are often native English speakers and have advanced degrees in art history and history. In Florence, our favorite tour about the Medici family history and art patronage was led by a woman with a PhD in art history, who teaches part of the year at Columbia and lives part of the year in Florence. After the tour, she e-mailed her personal "Secrets of Florence" list to us. It included things to do, places to go, best restaurants, best ice cream, etc., from the point of view of a resident. These tours are not inexpensive, but if, like us, you are usually "do-it-yourself" tourists with no time to plan ahead, if you have a short period of time in a city and want to maximize your time, or if your art/history interests are deeper than the usual general overview that you would get from a guide or guidebook, Context is THE only choice. They will arrange for private tours based on your interests as well (Tuscany wine region, for example). They will also arrange pick up at the airport and hotels. Context Rome website is http://rome.contexttravel.com

Posted by: Marilyn | March 6, 2007 6:39 PM

We usually don't use a private tour guide, but did on a recent 5-day trip through Burma (Myanmar). One reason: we were traveling with three youngish kids. Another: Burma seemed to be the type of place that needed that extra effort we may not have been able to make, especially in ticketing and dealing with the Orwellian bureaucracy (Orwell lived and worked in Burma.) In the end, we did sacrifice spur of the moment activities for a more "canned" experience. However, we did see some things that we would never have thought to plan for on our own.

Posted by: Omar | March 6, 2007 7:40 PM

My husband and I generally prefer to do it ourselves, and find it's a great way to meet local people. However on a trip to Morocco we used private guides twice. In Rabat our guide was OK, a nice man and rather knowledgable, but not really needed. In Fez our cab driver recommended a guide who we still correspond with 2 years later. He is a retired university professor who knew everyone in the city and made our day one of the most enjoyable of the entire trip. Just one example - this gentleman heard my husband mention his interest in woodworking and while we toured a museum arranged for us to visit a woodworker's shop. What did he charge us for a full day of touring? $5o! (The same amount we paid the Rabat guide for 2 so-so hours.)

Posted by: Karen | March 7, 2007 9:16 AM

Ten years ago in Costa Rica, a friend and I backpacked around. We liked going it on our own. In La Fortuna, we hired a taxi to take us to see the arenal volcano. In our limited Spanish, we asked him questions, and he turned out to be quite a tour guide. For the next two days, he took us to a little known waterpark with a waterslide and hiked with us to a nearby waterfall. Hiring an "official" tour guide would have been an antiseptic version of this experience. We tipped him well for his taxi services, and he was invaluable. So, I vote do it yourself!

Posted by: Luanne | March 7, 2007 12:48 PM

there is a guide named Sierra Sam in Las Vegas who is the best of the best! Knowledgable, entertaining and charismatic. No one does Las Vegas any better than him. He made our trip so memorable. Best trip ever!

Posted by: jill fosco | March 7, 2007 3:42 PM

As a free traveler, I find it good to find a tour, usually walking or cycling, to find my way around a new city. I frequently stay in hostels and find that they usually have tour advertisements and personal recommendations that are very useful. For example, in Budapest my companion and I found a tour - 6 people with an English-speaking guide that did a communist-era tour of Budapest including the "statue park" of the communist era statues on the outskirts of Pest. It was fascinating and I would not have found it on my own. We also found a bicycle tour of Munich that allowed us to get introduced to the city quickly, along with a brief intro to the best haufbraus.

Posted by: Dick | March 11, 2007 9:35 PM

In Morocco, we had a guide who picked us up(Party of five)in a Mercedes Van and was great. Took us to a fantastic restaurant overlooking the Old Berber Souk, best food we'd ever had. Took us to obscure places, great scenic rides, Camel ride, great stories and shopping. In fact, Using the Services of a Professional Tour guide, whether in a Private or Public Tour Setting, Can be a very efficient use of your time. Worth every Penny.

We are "do it yourself" tourists, but at times a guide is needed, especially when transportation is hard to figure out. We used a Private guide in Tangier that was phenomenal A.Charif (viptour@gmail.com)
We hired him for a walking tour and learned things and met people we would not have from a book.

Posted by: Nancy D. Boston | March 14, 2007 1:41 PM

I will have to agree with everyone else that say a guide is value for money. I had gone to Italy and wanted to get a different experience than just being a fleeting tourist and I didnt have much time to spend in each city. So, I found Yourfriendinitaly.com and had them organize an itinerary and guides for me. It was definitely worth it because they showed me things while I was there that I would have never experienced on my own.

Posted by: Iris | March 16, 2007 3:21 AM

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