Last updated: 01:00 AM ET, Tue December 22 2015

9 Indispensible Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Guided Tour

Features & Advice | Chris Owen | December 22, 2015

9 Indispensible Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Guided Tour

Photo by Chris Owen

When traveling to a new place we have not been to before, we rely on the expertise of local guides sourced from sellers of travel. Assuming the travel company did a good job of vetting that local guide, at the end of our time with them, we come away with great memories of visiting a place we may have dreamed about for years.

If any result less than that occurs, we have a problem and we don’t travel to deal with problems.

We want a smooth tour that is well organized and thought out. We want to walk away from the experience with more information, understanding and familiarity with that place than we had before the trip.

When we talk about the receiving end of a tour and what we experience along the way, it’s all about us; as it should be. Unfortunately, that positive situation does not come about automatically and can take some input and direction to make happen.

Before The Tour

Before the tour begins, smart travelers take a few moments to find out what their particular guide has in store for them. Often, the catalog description does not match the actual experience, for a number of reasons.

Good guides will cover all the bases outlined on the tour description … plus a bit more. That “bit more” might be a stop by a favorite local eatery or watering hole along the way, one where the guide is well known and appreciated for bringing tourists by to possibly buy something.

More might mean less too. On a Viking River Cruise in Bordeaux, our local guide made quick work of covering the planned tour itinerary to allow extra time for the final stop, a government-subsidized wine venue that sold a variety of vintages by the glass at a reduced rate.

Ensure You See Specific Iconic Destinations

If we did our homework before traveling, there will no doubt be specific places we want to see on tour. Double checking with the guide to be sure they are taking us there might seem like it should be unnecessary but getting to the end of a tour without seeing that reason for being there is worse.

On a recent ocean sailing of Viking Star we visited Athens on an included tour that did not have the Acropolis on the itinerary. We were specifically told the Acropolis was not a stop on the tour in advance, and again on our tour tickets. Still, one of our group members was quite upset that they came to Athens and did not see the iconic monument. Assuming things when traveling nearly always causes very avoidable problems.

Communicate Your Interest

In the above example, the tour guide really had nothing to offer the man who wanted to see the Acropolis other than telling him to “look up” to see the highly-visible structure from several places along our route. After the upset traveler took off, determined to see the Acropolis on his own, I asked the guide “Is there any other way to see the place?” Indeed there was, that traveler could have opted for a different tour that went there first and spent a good amount of time exploring the area.

Get Your Free Time

Nearly everyone who has been on more than a couple tours with local guides knows to ask “When will there be free time to explore on our own and how long will that be?” It’s a simple enough question to ask and any decent guide will fire back the answer, as “free time” is one of the most popular parts of any tour.

Still, if questions from group members, heavy traffic in the area or an abundance of other groups are affecting how the tour is progressing, guess what part will get cut short to get the group back on time? Almost universally, it’s the free time that gets cut.

Ask For Advice From The Local Expert

If lunch at a nice sidewalk cafe is your idea of a good time while relaxing and people watching, tell the guide that right up front and ask for recommendations. Few travelers do, which makes absolutely no sense to me. We came all this way to visit this significant place and want to end it our way. That local guide who lives there will surely have some specific recommendations for you. The more they know you, the better those recommendations will be.

Get To Know The Guide

In line with asking the local guide for recommended places to eat, drink or shop comes getting to know the guide and building a rapport. In addition to gaining a friend at that destination, recommendations for places to visit during free time or after the tour will be more genuine and specific.

On a tour of Vienna during Christmas Market-time last year, we happened to be there at a time when the area chosen for our free time was very busy. Our local guide provided directions to a place that was a bit out of the way that was not quite as busy but more eager for our business. Mentioning our guide, who sent us by name, seemed to add a degree of familiarity that added up to a more enjoyable experience, too.

Don’t Expect Miracles But Be Happy When You Get Them

Having someone along to guide us through some place we have never been before is good if they cover the hot spots, answer questions along the way and get us back on time. It’s way better if that guide happens to engage us throughout the tour. The guides who ask and answer their own questions lose me after a few of those. They are watching the clock and counting heads to be sure they come back with the same number of people they left with.

On an Abercrombie & Kent tour titled "Egypt and The Nile," we were in the care of a certified Egyptologist who knew the topic from an academic viewpoint but went far beyond hauling us from one place to another. On that tour we explored not only the diverse history of Egypt, but also the social, religious and economic situation of the past, present and hopes for the future.

On a Viking River Cruise in Germany, we enjoyed having a college professor engage us to the point where travelers along on that tour were on the edge of their seats, ears and minds wide open. We figured out very early in that tour what this guide’s process was: explain the place we were seeing, its historical significance and what the place means today … then quiz us on it. It was a masterful display of guide prowess.

It’s Your Travel Experience — Take Responsibility For It

It seems a simple enough procedure; book the tour, show up on time, dress appropriately for the climate and terrain, and pay attention. That way of looking at tours increases the odds of enjoying them, but is not always the end of the story. As travelers, we might only visit that place once in our lifetimes. The tour guide lives there and sees that place every day. To get the most out of a tour, we may need to provide direction, communicating to the guide in advance what we hope to gain from their tour.

Walk Away With A Friend

Everyone it seems is on Facebook these days, including tour guides, who absolutely love when someone they guided engages them after the fact. This might be a very good and indirect way to get the most out of a forward-thinking guide. Ask “are you on Facebook?” and if the answer is yes, get that contact information in advance of the tour. Nearly every time I have done this, the inquiry seemed to bump up the live engagement anywhere from a bit to a whole lot.


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