When to Hire a Guide

Sometimes it may be worthwhile for you to hire a guide. Tours get a bad rep, and it’s partially deserved. What could possibly be less cool than walking around a foreign city with a bunch of people from your home country, all snapping photos, speaking your mother tongue, carrying multiple maps and multiple cameras, and potentially wearing fanny packs? That’s just about the least cool thing I can think of, off the top of my head.

Someone we met on a guided tour of Svalbard. Those three were not his only cameras.

That isn’t entirely fair, though. There are plenty of good reasons to join an organized tour, or add one to part of your trip.

1. When you don’t speak the local language
Your guide will. When I went hiking in Peru, I met some wonderful people who only spoke Quechua. I couldn’t speak with them, but my guide could, and he translated their Quechua into Spanish for me. I learned a lot from this experience. If you’re not going to be bothered to learn how to speak with locals, try to find someone who can help you, because being able to talk to locals will give you a much more complete understanding of the country you are in.

This woman spoke about her children, who have left her to go live in Lima. We chewed coca together and she had the coolest stories. I didn’t understand a word of them, though – thank goodness for my guide.

Of course, learning the local language is optimal. But you’re probably not going to attain fluency in every language you’ll need while traveling. If you do manage this, get in touch with me and share your secrets, please.

2. When you don’t have any context to help you understand what you’re seeing
Local guides will be a wealth of information, and will help to explain things which you probably won’t be able to understand on your own. My friend and I recently visited Turkey, and were dismayed by the absurdly long lines to enter the Hagia Sophia. A guide approached us as we took our place at the end of the line, and mentioned that if we get a guided tour, we can bypass the lines and go right in. It cost about 10 bucks for each of us, and we couldn’t have made a better decision. He saved us about an hour of waiting, but he also put everything into context for us, and made our visit way more informative and exciting. He held my attention and pointed out things which I would not have noticed on my own. I now know way more Turkish history than I would have otherwise, and he invited us out for drinks afterwards. It turned out to be an awesome way to meet smart, English speaking locals.

The Hagia Sophia was built as an Orthodox basilica and became a mosque later on. Although Muslims prohibited iconography, they also forbade destroying images of Jesus, since he’s a prophet. Instead, they opted to cover the images. Now that the Hagia Sophia functions as a museum, restorers are uncovering Christian images, but doing so can also hurt important Islamic art. What a dilemma! HEY LOOK AT THE COOL THINGS I LEARNED BECAUSE I WENT ON A GUIDED TOUR!

3. When you want someone to share the experience with
Solo travel is wonderful – it’s my favorite way to do it. But there’s plenty to be said for traveling with one (or many) partners. I mean, nobody likes always having to take selfies, right? And yeah, you’ll get plenty of opportunities to meet fellow travelers when you’re going solo, but tours ensure this will happen. Sometimes this can be a nice guarantee, especially for newbie travelers.

4. When you could never get there on your own
There are some places – Antarctica, Kamchatka, the far north of Svalbard – which just might not be feasible to travel to independently. Unless you’re an extremely intrepid adventurer with deep, deep pockets, you’re probably going to have to go with a group.

We saw these crazy rock formations as part of a tour around Salar de Uyuni. You gotta go by jeep.

5. When you’re a lazy bastard
Hey, it’s your vacation. Why not let someone else do all the planning for you? 

Tips for choosing a tour operator:

If possible, go for one that is locally operated. See what they’re doing to help the communities they visit. Look at a breakdown of where the money is going and how they are ranked in terms of sustainable tourism organizations. If it is a long tour, try to talk to your tour guide on the phone before committing. You’ll be spending a week or more with this person, so you’ll want to find someone you can get along with.

2 Comments

  1. I am very reluctant to hire guides because I don’t know in advance if I will enjoy it.
    But I have made very good experiences with meeting local members of the Couchsurfing community. Some of them have spent all day with me, showing me their city. I learnt a lot about the city, they of course spoke the local language and it felt less forced or structured than a guided tour.

    • dirtyv6 says:

      We agree! Couchsurfing hosts are usually the best way to go, but this is easier in some places than others. I had a lot of trouble finding CS hosts in South America outside of a few key major cities. It can also be hard to find a host who will be willing to take you on a three day tour into the desert! CS hosts are wonderful at helping you discover local treasures though; we’ve written about our fondness for couchsurfing quite a few times :) http://dirtyvagrant.com/couchsurfing-for-beginners/

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