I love exploring a new destination on my own, like a frontierswoman. Hitting the road with just my wits and experience. It makes me feel like Calamity Jane, out there seeking adventure (except without all the murdering of Native Americans). We all have an innate desire to discover, and traveling to new places satiates our need to explore.
So why in the world would you ever want to sully that experience with a tour guide?
Well, having a knowledgeable tour guide can add new depth to your travel experience. Not to mention help overcome language barriers and provide access to places you can’t get on your own. Spending the extra money to have a curated experience can also save you time and energy in the long run.
So, here’s how to decide whether to go it alone or hire a guide.
Types of Tours
First, let’s talk about your guided options. There’s generally four types of tours that you’ll come across when traveling:
When Guided Tours are a Good Idea
You’re short on time
A tour guide can keep your itinerary fast, focused and customized to your interests. If you only have a fews days, or even a few hours on a layover or cruise, take a tour. Guides will make reservations and transportation arrangements so you can simply show up. They also know the best hours to go to attractions to avoid lines and may even get you discounts.
Revisiting a place
If you’re returning to a place you’ve been before, a tour guide can offer fresh perspective. They may help you uncover lesser known points of interest. There’s so many things we pass every day but never notice or understand the significance of. I’d been to Pike Place Market in Seattle dozens of times, but joining a food tour brought out so many more interesting things.
Long, slow vacations
When you’ve got the time, I recommend visiting attractions with and without a tour guide. Having a guide at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg helped me understand the artwork. After the tour I wandered alone to enjoy the pieces that spoke to me.
Tours provide context for all the things you see, and don’t see. Your guide shares stories about the history and culture that you may miss exploring on your own. Afterward you can return and linger over places that interest you. You’ll also have a good orientation of where things are after the tour.
Doing adventure activities or nature excursions
While in the Amazon, my guide Billy was able to point out sloths in trees a half-mile away. He showed us caimans, tree frogs and tarantulas that he caught with his bare hands. Obviously, things I never would have done on my own. His experienced eye made that trip unforgettable.
Whether it’s safari, hiking, river rafting, diving or mountain climbing, a professional guide will keep you safe when you’re exploring new terrain. For many of these activities you’re advised or required to have a guide. They will know how to adjust for weather conditions and other dangers, or provide first aid.
Visiting a remote or chaotic place
For a day trip or journey outside the city, you may want a tour to help with logistics. This way you can avoid juggling cars, buses or train travel. Usually, your ride will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel.
And, if you’re worried about safety a tour may be the way to go. The guide can navigate, translate and serve as a buffer for unwanted attention.
Seeing historic destinations
In places with a rich historical past, a guide provides more than you can ever get from a book. Places like Cairo, Athens and Kyoto have histories that come to life with an educated tour guide. An excellent guide can breakdown Maori tattoo art or make you feel like you’re standing in the midst of the Battle of Gettysburg.
You want to try something new
Food tours are one of my favorite kinds of tours. I mean, who doesn’t like to eat? But if a cuisine makes you a little nervous, a tour provides a friendly introduction with small portions. Or say you’re not a big wine or art person at home, but you’re in Italy and want to try both. A tour can give you a taste in a fun environment, without you having to devote more than a couple hours.
When You Can Skip the Tour
You want to relax or be spontaneous
A tour means having a schedule and being at a certain place at a certain time. If you want to be open-ended and spontaneous, skip the tour guide. It’s also okay if your trip isn’t about sightseeing. Sometimes quiet “me time” is all you need.
Revisiting a place you’ve already toured
Tours are great as a foundation. Once you have that, you’re off to the races. Revisiting places is a great time to explore and find hidden gems of your own.
You’re on a tight budget
Guided tours cost money. If you want the info and don’t mind skipping the guide, researching online or buying a good guide book is all you need. But, if you want a guide and cost is a factor, search online for free tours. Many attractions offer a few scheduled free tours and there’s a lots of free city walking tours. For city tours you pay what you want and can afford.
In a small place
A formal tour isn’t always necessary, especially in a small town where any local could be your guide for the day. Talk to people, ask them questions, read the plaques and you’ll learn more than you ever imagined.
If you want to practice the language or meet locals
Having a guide is helpful, but if you’re seeking an immersion experience ditch the tour. Challenge your language skills by talking to locals. They can show you around and provide a unique perspective. In Buenos Aires, I joined a strange man for a trip to El Tigre. I got to practice my Spanish and left with one hell of a unique story to tell.