Advice for a solo on a custom guided tour

This item appears on page 40 of the June 2018 issue.

Mazel Pernell of Rockville, Maryland, wrote, “I’ve enjoyed international travel with group tours. In planning my sixth trip to Africa for the fall of 2018, I didn’t find a set tour that I liked, so I’m working directly with a Ghana-based company to customize a 3-week guided tour that includes Ghana, Benin and Togo. I will be going solo.”

“I would appreciate hearing from any traveler who has been on an extended solo tour. Specifically, did you eat all or some meals with the chaperone/driver/guide? Did you pay for his or her meals? What would be a reasonable amount to tip the chaperone for a tour of nearly three weeks? (If a percentage of the total tour cost, what percentage? If a set amount per day of touring, how much? Another option?) What else do I need to consider?”

A number of subscribers sent responses, and we are sharing them with readers this month and next.
 


For a West Africa tour of about three weeks in 2008, visiting Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo and Benin, my husband and I were provided a driver and guide, for the entire trip, by a travel agency in Mali. 

We did not share meals with either the driver or guide, nor did we pay for their meals. I believe we tipped the guide $15 per day and the driver about $7 to $10. We tipped in US dollars.  

The tip must have been OK because months later I received a small spoon from Togo from the guide. (I collect spoons from every country I have been to but could not find one in Togo while I was there.)

We were in Ghana when they won the semifinals during the African Cup of Nations (soccer). There was much excitement in our very small hotel.  

Overall, it was a good and very interesting trip.  

Anne Warburton
Yorba Linda, CA

 

I have done solo custom guided tours almost exclusively for the last 15 years (about 20 trips). One of them, to Ghana, Togo and Benin in 2012, was organized by Blastours (No. 10 Palm St., CFC Estates, Dome, Ghana; phone +233 302 404460, blastours.com). On that trip, I had a great guide/driver.

When I eat in the hotel or in a tourist restaurant, I don’t eat with the guide; the guides usually eat in inexpensive local restaurants. When I do eat in such local restaurants, I often eat with the guide but don’t pay for his meal. On my Ghana/Togo/Benin trip, I ate in inexpensive local restaurants several times with my guide.

I usually tip my trip-long guide between $5 and $10 per day, adjusted according to the prices in the country. In more expensive countries, I tip more. If I have a guide and a separate driver, I tip the guide $4 to $8 per day and the driver half as much. 

If I have a local-site guide in addition to my regular guide, I usually tip the local guide $2 to $3 for a half-day tour or $4 to $6 for a full-day tour. If I have several excursions with local guides and the regular guide is not with me during them, I may reduce the overall tip for the regular guide somewhat.

Make sure you have the phone number of your guide so you can contact him.

I have had mostly very good experiences with locally organized private solo tours. I can only recommend them.

G√ľnther Eichhorn
Scottsdale, AZ

 

Tipping is always a big question for a solo on a custom tour. In developing countries like Ghana, I think 10% of the cost of the trip is a good ballpark figure for total tipping. This would include the tips for the main guide, the driver, half-day and full-day guides, porters, chambermaids and restaurant waiters. The main guide should receive the larger portion of the amount you set aside.

I always ask the company providing my services for tipping guidelines. They have always responded, generally adding that their comments are guidelines only and that the amount is at my discretion. In Ghana, you may find the company’s recommendations on the low side compared to American standards.

Check with someone on site to see if it is best to tip in Ghanian cedis or in US dollars. In countries with high inflation, locals sometimes prefer currency that is likely to keep its value, such as dollars, euros or pounds. (In my travels, most people have been happy with the US dollar.)

It is nice to have “tip envelopes” with you to present to the local guides and your driver/guide at the end of your journey together.

Regarding meals, your driver/guide will know of restaurants along the way that serve food that is safe for you. Breakfasts will most likely be on your own at the hotel. 

For lunch or rest stops, chances are he will drop you off, then join the other drivers. Consider this his “off-time” lunch break. Your dinners probably will also be at the hotel.   

The benefit of having dinner in your hotel is that there probably will be other Western travelers there with whom you can chat. But know that there are sure to be wonderful local restaurants in Ghana, and, once you feel comfortable with your driver/guide, you can ask him to suggest some. If you wish, invite him to join you. 

If you invite him to join you for lunch or dinner, you will be expected to pay for his meal.

Whenever I will be riding in the same vehicle for an extended amount of time, I take a small pillow (or buy one in-country) to make leaning against the car door more comfortable and for taking a nap on a long drive. 

I also take a container of wet-wipes and a box of Kleenex that I leave in the car. 

In addition, I take snacks from home to share with the driver. After your snacks run out, you can buy local ones.

You should let the driver/guide know of your personal interests — market days, photo opportunities, handicraft villages, etc. — in case there is an opportunity to stop along the way.

Consider buying a local SIM card for your phone. This will come in handy for keeping in touch with your driver/guide and for making local calls. 

If you don’t have a GSM (Global System for Mobile) phone, it is very inexpensive to buy one locally. Stop in any public market and ask the driver to help you buy an “open line” or “quad-band” mobile phone. You can later use this phone anywhere in the world with a local SIM card. 

You can also buy a GSM phone before you leave the US. Just make sure you buy one that is unlocked (so it can work on more than one carrier). You can get one for less than $50.

Before you leave a big city, buy a case of bottled water to leave in the vehicle. When you stop for the night at the hotel, take some in with you. This is not a question of saving money; it’s to insure that you will always have something safe to drink.

On the slim chance that you discern problems with your driver/guide after a day or two (i.e., he does not speak English well, does not know the route, is not a safe driver, etc.), call the booking company immediately, explain the problem and ask for a change of personnel. Don’t wait thinking things will improve. They might not.

I’ve always enjoyed the freedom of private guiding, as it is tailored to my interests, time-frame and capabilities. I think that once you try it, you will like it, too.

Esther Perica

More travelers’ tips next month.