Being a traveler, I crave the opportunity to learn more about how people live, what makes places special and unique culture. I’ve had the opportunity to travel across Asia, parts of Europe and across the United States. Through all my travels, one of the most invaluable resources I always turn to is a local tour guide. While this may not be a popular opinion among the backpacking and adventure set, a tour guide can help transcend cultural and language barriers that will prevent you from maximizing your trip. With vacation days being so scant in the US, I try to maximize my vacation anyway I can and a tour guide generally does the trick. If anything, a tour gude can help mitigate the scams that are sure to come your way. Heed this warning from Business Insider.
Here’s my top 7 reasons on why I choose to hire a local tour guide.
1) A guide gets you where you want to go, quickly and efficiently. Because I have a full time job, I am allocated a limited number of vacation days every year. Therefore, when I do take my trips, I try to pack in as many things as humanly possible and try to cut down on the time asking for directions and figuring out how to get from point A to point B. While some larger cities(eg. Tokyo, Hong Kong) have ridiculously great public transportation options, some sights/cities don’t, and getting around can be a huge time sink. Buses are great if you are able to figure it out, but with a limited number of vacation days, time is of the essence. Hiring a tour guide not only allows me to get to where I want to go as efficiently as possible, but more often than not, my tour guides practically guarantees I’ll do everything I set out to do.
2) A guide can serve as your personal translator & haggling machine. Having grown up in the US, I have the luxury of a western education where English is my primary language. While English can get you by in many parts of the world, there are a lot of places where speaking English is as useful as matchsticks in pouring rain. A tour guide serves as your own personal translator and will come in really handy when you find yourself haggling over prices in far off lands. Although I’ve never done it myself, I can imagine a guide can be useful in picking up cute locals at different bars and clubs.
3) A guide can provide a perspective that Wikipedia can’t. I’ve spend countless hours researching Wikipedia and Wikivoyage to better gauge my destination, I always feel that there is a much larger picture that online resources simply can’t provide. From getting into a spirited discussion about the perception of the Chinese minority in Ho Chi Minh City to a personal tutorial on how to track for bears in the Alaskan wilderness, there are experiences that text simply can’t instill. Your tour guide can be your window to a foreign land and tell you the real story of what actually goes on in their country.
4) A guide can answer questions about local life. I love being able to pepper my tour guide with random questions and I find that the tour guides equally enjoy answering them(as long as they aren’t stupid). In China, I learned about the hidden culture of Chinese business men and their affinity for taking on mistresses. In Vietnam, I learned that a $400 USD monthly salary makes you extremely well off and the envy of all of your neighbors. In Japan, I discovered why there are more Japanese tourists that go to Hawaii instead of Okinawa.(it’s 10x cheaper)
5) A guide can take pictures of you. Because you can only take so many selfies and I have this innate fear of trusting random strangers with my camera.
6) A guide can take you down roads less traveled by. Check out our latest article on Latitude34 where our own Andy Blake talks about how a local guide took him through a secret adventure in the temples of Angkor Wat. If this article doesn’t inspire you to give local guides a chance, then nothing will.
7) A guide can become your new friend/drinking buddy. One of my most memorable experiences was sharing a frothy pint of “fresh beer” with my tour guide in Hanoi. We swapped stories, laughed it up like old friends and exchanged emails to stay in touch. It is experiences like this that can help alleviate bouts of homesickness and leaving you feeling like you’ve made the most out of your trip.
At the end of the day, the decision to hire a tour guide really comes down to your own personal preference. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the freedom of getting lost in a distant land. But, when push comes to shove, I have to think practicality and efficiency. I think of a tour guide as your own personal encyclopedia, GPS and bodyguard all rolled into one. The convenience of having one on hand is invaluable when you find yourself lost in the middle of a city, with no english speaking people around and no google maps for your smartphone.
Viator Tour Guides http://tourguides.viator.com/ – Excellent selection of local tour guides with reasonable rate. I highly suggest Napha Ploykrajang if you are touring Bangkok and its surrounding areas.
Tokyo Free Guides http://www.tokyofreeguide.com/ – Free service provided by people who want to show you around Tokyo while getting a chance to practice their English with you.
ToursbyLocals http://www.toursbylocals.com – An online marketplace for locals who are interested in being a tour guide in their spare time.
Handspan http://www.handspan.com/ – For Vietnam, I used Handspan for trips around Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Ha Long Bay.