Last Updated on February 5, 2021 by Jim Ferri
A tour guide who makes your travel experience come to life, is a wonderful investment…
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
By Donna Manz
The ten of us, all travel professionals, couldn’t take our eyes off the green lushness of the Galway countryside – except to look quizzically at one another to ask, “why are the sheep dyed different colors?”
Some sheep were green, some red, others blue … some red and blue. Our tour guide didn’t wait for any of us to ask him; he read our minds and supplied an answer.
As someone who travels for both love of the experience and the travel business, it’s not enough for me to merely touch the surface of a destination, a hotel, river cruise ship or restaurant. I yearn to discover a place’s “hidden” secrets or charms.
But the problem with relying on online travel guides or printed tour books is that they don’t provide an opportunity for interaction. After all, how often have you read an online “tour” guide and gotten an answer to a question you had in mind?
As much as I enjoy and pursue independent travel, I’ve learned the most when I’ve been with a local tour guide. I still do a lot of “independent” touring, but to get a panoramic overview I now seek out local guides or tours, from small-town docents to big-city experts, from pedicabs to tour buses.
Hire a Tour Guide for Cultural Immersion
When many people hear the term “guided tours,” they think of being herded from one sight to another en masse, not of cultural immersion. But a good tour guide can offer a cultural experience by focusing on detailed attributes of a destination or activity, whether it be whisky tasting in Ireland or touring Jewish quarters in Germany and Austria.
Another misconception for many is that a guided tour is always a group tour, which is not necessarily so. On each visit to London, I hire a licensed “Black Cab” (so-named not because the cabs are necessarily “black” but because the taxi drivers are also licensed London tour guides) for an hour. Usually, it is a driver that takes me from the airport to my hotel and, without being prodded, identifies landmarks along the route. He normally gives me a flat rate which is usually cost-efficient.
On every trip to Paris, and in some other cities, I also jump aboard a narrated hop-on, hop-off bus tour with a time-framed pass, good for 24 or 48 hours. One of the funniest Paris memories I have is that of walking near the Opera House only to have a Green Bus driver honk and wave as he passed; he remembered us from previous rides.
Sometimes, the guide experience is completely unexpected. In Paris, on the Left Bank, we took a one-hour pedicab ride, during which our ‘driver’ narrated along the way. He let us off at little local shops and came back for us at a designated time. In England, a boutique hotel manager took me on a tour of the grounds, explaining the history of the area and the property.
Black Cab Tours
A friend, a world traveler, recently shared some of his memorable tour-guide moments with me, with both private- and group-guides. “In Belfast I enjoyed an excellent tour with a taxi driver. I told him what I wanted to see and he took me all around the city one afternoon, showing me everything from historic pubs to Queen’s University and into the areas of “the troubles.” The Black Cab Tours in Belfast are highly rated, and people rave about them,” he told me. He’s also had some “interesting” group tours in Spain. He knows the importance of hiring a tour guide.
“And land-tour experiences with some river cruises can sometimes be a waste of time,” he said, “unless you’re wearing headphones you need to glue yourself to the side of the guide.” Actually, since I dislike earphones I do glue myself to a group-tour guide’s side and I’m always the one asking pesky questions. It’s something that paid off on my most recent trip to Germany.
During previous visits to Nuremberg, my tours of the city were influenced only by Internet information and guidebooks, which do little beyond directing you to significant locations. I had always thought that the city was chosen for the WW II war crimes trial because, with its massive rally grounds and documentation center, it was the epicenter of the Nazi propaganda machine. But a young local guide with an intimate and profound knowledge of the city opened my eyes to the truth.
He explained to us that the victorious allies held the war crimes trials in Nuremberg because the city fulfilled two major goals. First, a major train station was needed to transport people to the courthouse, and the courthouse had to be a secure addition to jails holding the accused. Only Nuremberg met both conditions, something only a knowledgeable local guide, not a guidebook, could tell me.
Hire a Tour Guide Who’s Enthusiastic
My world-traveler friend also prefers private guides. “Most times, I find that the best tours are private, with just my wife and me, since they’re tailored to your interests.” But in the end it all comes down to the fervor and personality of the guide.
“In Cuenca, Ecuador, we had a young woman as our guide and she was fantastic,” he said, “and full of enthusiasm. The next day in Quito, however, although the guide knew a lot about the city, but lacked enthusiasm which detracted from the tour.”
My friend was also in Dublin in September when the city hosted “Culture Night,” an annual event when cultural events are hosted all over the city. Guide Cathy Roche, of Dublin Art Tours, took a small group on a unique two-hour art tour of Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, an experience my friend describes as both “non-academic and fascinating.” Cathy, he said, explained the paintings in a very different and personal way, opening their eyes to several paintings as no one else could do.
Oh, and those dyed sheep? It turns out that although farmers have their own grazing land, they can also lease grazing land from Ireland’s government.
So, you see, there is only one tried-and-true painless way to distinguish one farmer’s sheep from another’s…
If You Go:
World Federation of Tourist Guide Associations http://www.wftga.org/