4 Keys to Choosing the Best Private Guide

Posted on August 4, 2020

As a professional Local Guide and Tauck Tour Director, I know first-hand the value that a personal local expert adds to the travel experience.

I ALWAYS book at least one private tour in any new destination. At first my husband protested the expense (I’m flattered by his faith in me to figure out new metro systems, but …NO…). After several years and many successful “tourist” experiences, he’s fully on board with the investment. Put simply, the right tour guide sets our trip up for success.

Its important to me that you too have the best possible experience when you visit MY City (even if its not with me!). So, before you invest your time and money in any tour, I encourage you to find out a little bit about your guide and why they are uniquely qualified to be your new best friend in town!

OK, but how do I do this???

1- Check out guide staff bios!

For many operators, this information is right on the website in the form of staff bios. Feel free to inquire directly with the company which guide is going to be assigned to your experience. There might be someone you gravitate to based on their bio or background that would be the PERFECT fit for your college-bound daughter studying architecture, or your father-in-law who’s an avid birder.

Often you can adjust your time slightly to get that particular guide, or the company will be willing to tweak their schedule. Please don’t be shy! We want to have groups who are interested and resonate just as much as you do. If I’m a birder, and Pops is a birder, he’ll be on board and we’ll hit it off right away!

I personally ONLY hire guides with high quality bios and photos. It shows that the company is proud of their staff, invested in continuity, and I know what I’m booking. Companies without bios often have high staff turnover… and everything that implies…

2- Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

If your guide’s info isn’t posted, I encourage you to take 5 quick minutes to pick up the phone and give them a call. It may feel awkward at first, but its a wise investment of your time. After all, private guides aren’t cheap and you’re likely spending the whole day together, maybe more.

Honestly, the person who picks up may be surprised to hear from you, but if they are a high-quality operation, it’ll be EASY for them to tell you EXACTLY why their people are particularly fabulous.

So, what to ask?

The 3 most important Qs I ask when selecting guides for my own personal and professional travel:

What are their qualifications?

START WITH THE MOST IMPORTANT. PAY ATTENTION TO THIS. Many limousine companies (and even top hotel concierges) sell “luxury tours” to wineries and city highlights. However, their guides are basically very polite, well dressed chauffeurs. They drive you there safely and then are happy to sit in the car and wait. This is NOT the same as a quality guided experience with a knowledgeable local expert. If all you see on the site is a picture of the car, thats a hint that its ACTUALLY a transportation company.

Many actual tour operators will have their own quality control and training programs in customer service, technique and content. They may or may not participate in local licenses and qualifying exams. Just ask what they offer.

Some companies even sell fully-scripted tours. The Boeing Plant in Seattle comes to mind— they script it down to the WORD and its timed so there’s never a wait for the elevator. Great information, just a little creepy. Also- if the guide loses her train of thought to answer a Q, you can tell.

If guides are active members of a professional association they are probably more serious and invested in continual development. Bottom line: you want the most qualified guide for your investment.

Tell me about their personality? What are they passionate about?

You want to spend the day with someone fun, engaging and empathetic. Maturity is important, but they must also resonate with your group. Ie- Your teenager may engage more easily with someone young and vivacious. Similarly, if you are hard of hearing, you might not enjoy listening to someone in their 20s, who talks REALLY fast and uses a lot of slang.

Are they passionate about quilting and canning peaches? While thats a admirable hobby, that person may not be the best fit if you are hoping to ask lots of questions about modern art and the best new exhibits at the MOMA. The same company may be able to match you with someone on staff who is an artist and dialed-in to the local creative scene. If you don’t ask, they can’t offer.

How long have they been guiding?

Some people are naturals, but most take a little time to develop. I find 3 years is a good amount of time to be solid. Similarly, after 15-20 years, some become amazing, others just get comfortable, stale and out of touch.

What’s their connection with the community?

This is another way to ask the Q, do the guides actually know this place? Are you taking tours with locals who live and breathe the destination, or is this just a job? The guide may not be able to afford to live in that particular neighborhood, but do they maintain a meaningful connection to it?

Also- some companies recruit students who are in town for a year and want “easy cash” that doesn’t require a tie (or taxes). That may work for you, especially if you are on a tight budget and want to check things off with a short tourist highlights tour (<3hrs). For those of us looking for deeper more authentic experiences, you probably want a committed professional.

3- Read online reviews carefully, then take them with a grain of salt.

High volume enthusiastic reviews are great sign, and I absolutely encourage you to read them! That said, caveat-emptor! Online reviews have their caveats too.

  • Are they just stars, or also descriptive qualitative feedback?
  • Who is leaving the reviews? Are these college students or adult professionals? International tourists or domestic? First time visitors or locals? —Ultimately— are YOU likely to share their opinions?
  • How’s their grammar? Reading with a critical eye may tell you a lot about the standards of the reviewers and if the reviews are even real. Hint- fake or “bought” reviews may be more generic and have spelling/grammatical errors. Just like that toaster on Amazon…

Its also an extremely common practice for many commercial tour operators to incentivize positive reviews with free swag. Its amazing what some companies can get in exchange for instant digital downloads pics of peoples’ kids, a free water bottle or a discount for something.

4- If you want quality, choose small and local, and trust your gut!

I hate to say it, but for companies at a certain price point and volume, the emphasis may be on quantity rather than quality. Those companies have high turnover and they are willing to hire guides with little experience or professional training. Look past the brightly colored website and you can usually sense which ones those are.

They feel commodified because they are, and they may or may not pay their local people a living wage. Ever feel uncomfortably pressured for tips at the end of an experience? Thats why.

Above ALL else, trust your intuition.

Once you’ve made the decision and booked your tour, commit yourself to RELAX and ENJOY the experience!

…Then please leave a grammatically correct review to help the next person. 😉