The Good or Bad Tour Guide
Published in the June 2006 issue. This article is viewable for non-subscribers.
At the suggestion of Ellen Jacobson of Centennial, Colorado, we asked readers, “What makes a good guide and why and what makes a bad guide and why?” We threw in the questions “What are some constructive ways to communicate with a guide or help him or her better their performance, deal with a specific expectation of the group or improve the progress of the tour?” and “Have you come up with ways to salvage a tour led by a poor guide?”
We requested comments of a general nature, excluding names of specific guides, but allowed that if there were a particular tour company whose guides have been consistently great, it would be okay to mention it along with when the tours were taken. Shown below are replies from readers — an experienced bunch of tour takers.
If you have something to add, write to The Good or Bad Tour Guide, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818, or e-mail editor@intltravelnews. com (please includse the address at which you receive ITN). Remember, photos are always welcome, and ITN prints no info on destinations in North America or the Caribbean.
Having taken dozens of guided tours (among them an hour’s visit to a president’s boyhood home, a 2-hour city highlights tour and a 3-week multicountry trip), my husband and I have experienced the skills (or lack of same) of many guides. Fortunately, we can honestly say that we have had far more good guides than poor ones. Whether they work for Grand Circle, Trafalgar, Viking, Vantage, Globus or Cosmos or independently, in general they seem to be well trained.
A good guide is cheerful, good-natured and confident. She (or he) has good communication skills and speaks clearly. If English isn’t her native language, she must speak it well enough to be easily understood. She may, however, teach the group some words in her own language or even a song or two, as our Norwegian guide did.
Guides should not single out any individual or couple for special attention. Usually, guides do follow this rule and do not sit with the same people at every meal, instead often eating with the driver (probably a company policy), but we have had some who consistently got into long conversations with one or two people, ignoring the rest of the group.
Flexibility is important. On a Scandinavian trip, we told our guide that we really would like to see a stave church. Other members of the group agreed, and she took us a few miles off the planned route to accommodate our request. Seeing that church was a highlight of our tour, and many of the group were able to take wonderful pictures.
On the other hand, sometimes far too much time is allowed for a planned activity. Unfortunately, many guides (tour companies) have bought into the notion that most women like nothing better than to spend most of their vacation time shopping. It is very disconcerting to be dropped off in a small village for three hours and in less than 30 minutes to have visited every little shop within walking distance. Whether or not it is true that guides get a percentage of everything purchased by their group, tour members should have some say in the length of time allotted for shopping.
When taking a group on a walking tour, the guide should be careful to include everyone in her comments and to speak loudly for those in the back. The best system I have seen of communicating with a large group of walkers was on a March ’04 tour with Globus (Littleton, CO; 800/221-0090 or www.globusjourneys.com) in Italy, where the guide had a small microphone and we all had earphones. The guide was very careful to be sure that we all knew how to use our earphones before we started out. He could speak in his normal voice, and even if we were 20 or 30 feet away we could hear him. Even in the Sistine Chapel, where quiet is mandatory, he could talk to us softly and unobtrusively.
If a tour covers several days, the guide should explain a seat-rotation system on the first day and then stick to it, allowing everyone a chance at the front seat. Otherwise, there will be one couple who will pitch their tent on the front seat and remain there for the entire trip.
A good guide is an expert on the area covered by his tour, whether it is a single house or an entire country. He must transmit a lot of information and not allow too much “dead” time between information bites. He should also know the territory well enough not to get hopelessly lost, as our guide and also the driver did in Brussels when we were trying to find our hotel for the night.
If it is necessary to vary from the published itinerary, the guide should explain clearly what is happening. Although tour companies, not guides, make decisions about alternatives and/or compensation for promises not kept, it is up to the guide to communicate what has happened. On a cross-country rail trip in Canada, our train sat on the track without moving for several hours before our guide finally explained that we had to wait for a delayed freight train.
A good guide keeps his group on schedule. If some people are consistently late for morning departure or in returning to the bus during sightseeing excursions, the guide needs to deal directly with them and explain the consequences that could occur.
If the subject of tipping must be broached, the guide’s comments should be tactful and concise. Nearly all tour members are aware of what is expected and should not have to hear the lengthy guilt-trip lecture. Extraordinary guides deserve to be well rewarded. Those who do only what is required do not.
To salvage a bad situation, such as a guide who is too chummy with a small faction of the group, honest one-to-one communication is the best policy: “Some of us are feeling left out. Could you come and talk to us for a while?” or “I would really like a chance to sit in the front one day. Could you arrange that?”
Guides have a huge responsibility, and travelers certainly appreciate those who take their job seriously and help make the experience one to remember.
During the past 30 years, I’ve enjoyed superb tour guides and endured the opposite.
The superb guide is enthusiastic and knowledgeable about his country, demonstrates great interpersonal skills and is organized. To be more specific, the superb guide. . .
• shares a broad knowledge about his country’s history, sights and contemporary culture, including religion, the economy, education, etc.;
• desires his guests to “love” his country as much as he does;
• is sensitive to the special interests and needs of each individual in the group while creatively keeping the tour flowing positively for the welfare of the group;
• provides maps, introductions to public transportation systems, and suggestions for optional sights, restaurants and experiences that might be missed;
• enables independence for those who want to explore and “find their way back to the hotel” rather than staying with the group;
• can manage the difficult traveler — the tardy, the know-it-all, the obnoxious — without detriment to the group;
• is flexible and open to serendipity or the bringing in of extra experiences, such as watching net fishermen or witnessing a Buddhist ordination ceremony;
• provides helpful information about a site before arrival so that time at the site may be better used to savor the essence of the place, and
• loves life and the world he lives in.
When enduring a poor tour guide, I learn as much as I can from hotel staff, information services, etc., as well as from my own guidebooks and maps. I seek out the travel-savvy, like-minded, compatible members of the group and share insights and experiences.
When enduring a prolonged shopping experience, a wait for the tardy or the eternal lecture at a site, I explore and appreciate the world around without disrupting the group flow.
The simple question “When should I be back at the bus?” grants time away from a poor guide at a site or store. Furthermore, the statement “I’ll find my way back to the hotel from here” nearly always results in interesting experiences.
Most importantly, I try to keep a positive attitude and make happy memories. I can’t change others; I realize I am responsible for my own happiness.
I am sure that everyone will mention the obvious qualities — a professional manner, knowledge of the area, good grooming, punctuality and reliability — all necessary requirements for a good tour guide.
However, the attributes that make a tour and a tour guide especially memorable are those “extras”: a genuine enjoyment of the job; a great sense of humor; giving that little bit more than what was expected or paid for, whether it be time, energy or personal contact, and dealing with unscheduled, unexpected events (good or bad) with a calm and professional manner — in short, giving the tour participants the best possible travel experience. These are the hallmarks of excellence in guided tours.
I have had the good fortune to travel extensively using various tour companies, and the company that comes to mind when I think of consistent excellence is Midway Motor Travel (800/214-8738) in Great Britain. Having made more than a dozen tours with this company (at least one tour annually since 1998), I can say with confidence that their guides possess all of the necessary characteristics found in great tour guides.
Markham, Ontario, Canada
Thankfully, there are more good guides than bad guides in the world, and in over 20 years of traveling I can think of only two instances where I’ve had a really bad guide.
• In Azerbaijan in 2001, I was with a group organized by Regent Holidays (15 John St., Bristol BS1 2HR, U.K.; www.regent-holidays.co.uk), a British company that specializes in the Commonwealth of Independent States. The young lady worked for a reputable travel company in Baku and spoke excellent English, which I suspect is why she got the job. But she knew very little about the history or culture of her own country. The bus driver kept prompting her (he didn’t speak English but fed her the info), and she would repeat what he said. Our “full day sightseeing” ended right after lunch each day, at about 1:30 p.m.
What do to? I consulted my Lonely Planet guidebook and contacted a guide mentioned. I explained the problem, and on the four days thereafter he picked me up at the hotel at 1:30 p.m. for another six to eight hours of guiding. He told me more in the first hour we were together than the assigned guide had told us in three days.
He and I didn’t have the luxury of a car/driver, so we used taxis and public transportation and did walking tours. Yes, it cost me extra, but I feel I salvaged that week, which was part of a 3-week trip in Georgia, Armenia (both of which had excellent guides) and Azerbaijan.
About a month after returning home, Regent Holidays sent a letter acknowledging the problem plus a check for the “inconvenience.”
• In India in November ’05, it was just bad luck. I was with Explore (U.S. contact, Adventure Center, Emeryville, CA; 800/227-8747 or www.adventurecenter.com), a British company known for its excellent itineraries and young, energetic, well-informed tour leaders. We had a last-minute substitute guide for a 17-day trip in Rajasthan which included the Pushkar Camel Fair, the reason I had selected that particular itinerary.
He was a very nice man, but I suspect his experience was with FIT passengers (guiding single travelers or a couple). He had very poor group skills and never had anything to say to our group of 17 beyond “toilet stop” or what time we were leaving the hotel in the morning. He was pleasant to talk to one on one but clearly could not handle a group.*
In four instances, when problems arose en route, some people on the tour used their cell phones to contact Explore’s London offices to complain. Luckily, local guides and a company representative stationed at the Pushkar Camel Fair filled in the gaps and answered all of our questions.
I learned an important lesson here: don’t let a poor guide ruin your trip.
A good guidebook is one of the most cost-effective and essential purchases you can make. I like Lonely Planet or Rough Guides, as they are geared more toward independent travelers who want to see everything and do everything.
Do a bit of research and bring magazine and newspaper clippings on the area. Use the information from these sources to plan your activities.
Talk to hotel personnel and have them help you arrange day tours and trips to museums or archaeological sites. If you want to be more independent, ask the hotel to organize a taxi or tuktuk and get out there and do things. It will cost you extra money, but it will salvage your trip.
Arlington Heights, IL
*In a follow-up letter to ITN, Ms. Perica said that she asked Explore for a credit voucher to assist in taking the India trip over again and received one for $174.
I have taken probably 30 or more trips using Trafalgar (Long Island City, NY; 800/854-0103 or www.trafalgartours.com), the last over Thanksgiving 2005 to Scotland, and have always found their tour guides more than satisfactory. The company makes a real effort to please, and I have never had a really bad trip with them. Their guides are very knowledgeable and seem to love their jobs.
I became a “tour guide” in 1952, at first leading grand tours of Europe. In 1974 I organized a Spanish travel seminar from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and my husband and our three children went along. Our university had a yearly trip nearly every year. So here I am, 79 and going on 60, still taking groups to Spain, Portugal, Central America and on cruises.
My wonderful assistant on the last several tours has been our son Peter, who has taken university groups abroad. Our son Paul has also led tours. They, of course, rate among my good guides. Why? In addition to language, teaching and leadership skills, they are clearheaded in emergencies.
On a bike trip in the north of Spain, a bike spill sent the carry-on holding all the passports into a ravine. Paul had to scramble to find people with mountain-climbing equipment to rescue the bag.
Peter’s ability to read maps, train schedules and signs saved us kilometers and time when our driver ventured off the scheduled route.
Guides — local guides or tour leaders — need to be calm in emergencies. Contacting a doctor is often not enough. The guide often has to take a prescription to a pharmacy, make a hospital visit if a physician cannot go to the hotel, and even help with plans for evacuating a tour member, all the while keeping the rest of the tour moving smoothly.
Eau Claire, WI
My husband and I travel extensively and prefer to work with individual guides and drivers. Our experiences have varied widely, but there are a few “musts” we believe make the trip a pleasure rather than a disappointment. All of these traits, we believe, are equally important.
First, the guide must speak understandable and relatively fluent English. Our guide in Beijing spoke English so poorly that he could not understand us nor we him. We finally gave up trying. However, on that same trip, our guide in the far-flung city of Urumqi spoke near-perfect English and took us through a fascinating itinerary.
Second, the guide should love (or at least pretend to love) what he or she is doing. Our guide in Bulgaria was so outstanding, because of her love for her country and her work, that we asked her to dine with us each evening of our stay. We laughed our way through dinner and couldn’t wait for the next day’s touring.
Conversely, our guide in Romania was moonlighting to pick up extra money and had virtually no interest in even staying with us at a site. We took to calling him Waldo after the children’s book “Where’s Waldo?” because after taking us to a site he would disappear.
Third, the guide needs in-depth knowledge of his or her itinerary. Granted, guides can’t be expected to know everything; nevertheless, we have never had a guide in Israel who wasn’t totally knowledgeable about every aspect of the history, geography and politics of the country.
Fourth, a guide needs to be a good storyteller. A pure recitation of facts is mind-numbingly boring. Our Peruvian guide in Machu Picchu made the Incas come alive for us as our guides in Vietnam and Cambodia did for their peoples.
Next, a guide should try to go “above and beyond.” This does not have to be a gigantic act. For example, we loved some Peruvian CDs that the driver played in our car, and the next day our guide found them for us.
Finally, a guide should be a human being, not an automaton. Granted, we spend time with our guides on a one-on-one basis, so we have a closer relationship with them than do most travelers, but we have gotten to know many of these people as not merely professionals but family men and women willing to discuss their countries and their lives quite candidly with us. Our guide in Laos was a charming young man who shared with us his rather touching and, ultimately, inspiring life.
All in all, we have been more than pleased with those who have led our travels. Guiding is not an easy task, and we have been fortunate to have had some of the best men and women in the field.
Boca Raton, FL
Good guides. . .
• are technically competent. They are well informed about their country, the locale and the sites they guide people through. Equally important, they can speak the language of their clientele well and are easily understood.
• have the discipline to be well organized, alert, on time, conscientious, energetic and flexible. They follow through on what they say they’ll deliver.
• have the personality to be outgoing, to like people and to enjoy their work. At they same time, they can skillfully manage opposing interests in a group setting, set limits and keep everyone on time and on task.
• have the judgment to gear the information they present to the interest level of their clientele, the resourcefulness to adapt activities for varying physical abilities, and the experience to provide alternatives when well-laid plans go awry.
• have the maturity to not take things personally and to maintain composure, professionalism and a high level of service even when clients are having a bad day.
Bad guides. . .
• lack knowledge. A local guide on a trip to China gave us no information about the places we were visiting but launched instead into how she overcame immense difficulties to become a tour guide when she lacked the usual formal training.
• lack adequate language skills, for example, having a really limited vocabulary or a heavy, difficult-to-understand accent.
• are lackadaisical in their attitude, such as being late, appearing disinterested or not following through on what they offer. Recently, I had a guide who tried to cut short an itinerary.
• try too hard to be liked by everybody, such as catering to a small but vocal subgroup instead of the group as a whole, or not firmly keeping the group on time.
• allow self interest to precede the interest of the group. I had a guide who tried to rush us through a museum and into the gift shop. I have also been in groups where we were dragged from one overpriced factory to another, at the expense of free time for us to browse small shops or markets at our own pace.
• are immature and unable to accurately gauge their position or their impact on others. I had a group leader once who joined in the group dynamics and ostracized one of the travelers rather than try to defuse the situation. Another group leader, a professor, fancied us his adoring students rather than paid customers. His knowledge and great lectures did not compensate for his talking down to us and freely interrupting and correcting. On a recent tour, a guide had a wealth of knowledge but rigidly gave us all of the information, in excruciating detail, before we entered an archaeological site. When we suggested he save some of the details for when we were at the specific locations so we could better utilize the information, he sulked for two days.
What to do
Since I happen to be an atmosphere junkie rather than an information junkie, on a group tour I usually just wander away and do my own thing when bored, when I’ve had enough or when I’m otherwise not enjoying what is happening. There is always something else to get interested in, even if it’s just reading a book, taking a walk or attempting a conversation with the driver while others are going through the second or third carpet shop. My expectations are different when traveling in a group.
This is more difficult on private tours, as there are no buffers between the guide and me. Over the years, I have learned to take deep breaths and communicate calmly but firmly, asking for what I know I have a right to expect. I have learned that as long as the words are polite and the tone of voice calm, there’s not much that cannot be addressed.
I’ve also found that it’s much better to tell the other person the solution I want rather than just recounting the problem, which is far more likely to elicit a defensive response. I keep it short and simple, without explanations or reasons.
Do not expect guides to understand you, but be satisfied instead with getting the service you need. Then let it go and don’t allow any grudges to mar your trip.
For what it’s worth, here are “Tourist Guide Ethics & Standards” as adopted by the National Federation of Tourist Guide Associations - USA (Vicky Schwartz, President, NFTGA-USA, 2242 North Columbus St., Arlington, VA 22207; 703/524-4448 or www.nftga.com).
1. A professional tourist guide provides a skilled, knowledgeable presentation; informs, interprets and highlights the surroundings; maintains objectivity and enthusiasm in a courteous and polite manner.
2. A professional tourist guide ensures that all information presented is factual, and makes a clear distinction between what is true and what are stories, legends and opinions.
3. A professional tourist guide keeps current on changes throughout the area s/he works, including but not limited to seasonal events, new exhibits, traffic laws and facilities, and follows the rules and regulations at all sites where tours will be conducted.
4. A professional tourist guide is prepared for each tour when the itinerary is furnished in advance; reports on time and is responsible for facilitating the smooth, safe, efficient and timely movement of the tour.
5. A professional tourist guide is sensitive to the interests and values of the tour group and does not share his/her personal views on controversial subjects such as religion, politics or lifestyles.
6. A professional tourist guide knows and follows the policies of the company that contracts him/her and does not solicit a job from that company’s client without the consent of the company; maintains loyalty to the company and protects the confidentiality of proprietary information. Also, s/he strives to establish a friendly and helpful rapport with the client, and uses discretion in the conduct of the personal business while on tour.
7. A professional tourist guide dresses appropriately for the type of tour being conducted.
8. A professional tourist guide extends professional respect and a spirit of cooperation to fellow guides, and strives to establish a good working relationship with all service providers on the tour route.
9. A professional tourist guide accepts each tour as a serious commitment and cancels only when absolutely necessary, providing as much advance notice as possible.
I found the above list in the Arizona Guides Association newsletter.
Several years ago while visiting one of those remote islands in the South Pacific, my wife and I, along with two other couples, engaged a driver, his ancient van and a female he referred to as a guide.
Upon introducing the guide, she said, “Hello,” and three hours later when we departed she said, “Good-bye.” But each time we got out of the van to visit a site, she held the doors open for us; while we were gone, she swept the seats and swept the sand from the floorboards, and, upon our return, she held the doors for us and shut them once we were inside.
Upon completion of the tour, I looked over to my wife and said, “My God, that may have been the best tour guide we ever had.”
All was not lost, though, for the driver drove on with a very nice commentary, and we tipped them both.
Richard T. Skinger