As an independent traveler, I like to experience each place on my own, in the most personalized and unique way. By traveling independently, I avoid hordes of tourists, whistle-stop sightseeing, and generic itineraries.
This is easy when traveling to countries with a well-traveled tourist trail, but I love to get off the beaten track and have a more local experience – which is sometimes challenging when traveling independently.
I can’t, and neither could you, without help.
The crossroads of independent travel and enjoying authentic, local experiences while avoiding group tours IS possible, with the use of a local guide.
Many local guides have decades (or a lifetime) of experience and know much more than any tour group passing through or even the thickest guide book.
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The Joys of Traveling with a Good Local Guide
As an animal aficionado, I was super excited about a trip to Costa Rica. My first few days, though, I didn’t see anything more than a few common birds. I was pretty disappointed.
Thankfully I stumbled upon a local guide, Hector, who offered nocturnal wildlife tours. Hector went above and beyond to ensure I saw as many animals as possible and his expert eyes could find the animals that I would otherwise have missed. He would point to a faintly rustling branch that I didn’t even notice, and a few seconds later a monkey face would appear.
I realized that there were actually animals everywhere – I just needed my guides’ eyes to see them! Upon leaving Costa Rica, I had a laundry list of animals spotted including armadillos, koatis, possums, toucans, tarantulas, and many more. The trip was a dream come true, but thanks only to the help of my great guide.
In Bhutan, I also had some of the best travel experiences of my life thanks to my local guide Sangay (first photo above). Before arriving to Bhutan, I had expressed my interest in exploring the nature of Bhutan, but also getting to know local culture on a deeper level. During my trip, I was surprised to hear that Sangay had arranged for me to visit a lady in a village who would show me how she cooked and answer any questions I had.
The visit was meant to be an impromptu stop and wasn’t part of the tour, but I ended up spending the whole afternoon there as it was just so much fun speaking to Oma (my host) and getting to understand her culture and traditions. It was truly a privilege to enter the locals’ home, see how they live and talk to them (with his translation). This was a rare opportunity that I would otherwise have missed if I was traveling on my own.
On another occasion, I was lucky enough to find an extremely hospitable local guide in Iran who invited our group of travelers to his house for dinner. It turned out to be a sumptuous feast that his wife and children had prepared for us: massive dishes of pilaf rice, slow cooked chicken in pomegranate sauce, spicy beef and spinach were served and we were just spoiled with one thing after another. His extended family even came to see us and welcome us to their country.
The whole experience made me realise how welcoming Iranians are — and I wouldn’t have had it without a top notch guide.
Pros and Cons of Traveling with a Tour Guide
For an independent traveler, visiting with a local tour guide can provide you with additional information and a local perspective that allows you to delve deeper into the culture you are exploring. But of course, there are a few negatives to hiring a tour guide. Weighing the pros and cons discussed below can help you decide whether hiring a tour guide suits your travel style.
Pros of Hiring Local Tour Guides When Traveling
- You will go to secret local spots that the vast majority of other travelers will never experience.
- You will learn about the culture and history of the place on a deeper level and from a local’s perspective.
- You will learn about etiquette and behavior (especially important at religious sites).
- You will be able to ask as many questions as you want.
- You can personalize your tour to fit your interests.
- You can choose a guide who suits you and your goals for your trip.
- You’ll get to explore places you can’t otherwise access, or do things you can’t do on your own (like high-altitude treks, or paragliding, etc).
- You’ll be contributing directly to the local economy when you hire a local guide instead of using a global tour operator.
Cons of Hiring Local Tour Guides When Traveling
- The cost of tour guide hire is an additional expense, whether small or large.
- You may be restricted to a fixed itinerary and not have the freedom to explore on your own.
- For the extremely introverted, you will not have the personal space you need.
- You may not meet as many other travelers (but a guided group tour can be a fantastic way to meet new like-minded travelers when solo!)
Choosing the Tour Guide that Suits You
Doing your research before deciding on a guide is of the utmost importance. Because the human element of a travel experience can be just as important as the choice of location, the guide you choose can truly make or break your trip.
GuideAdvisor is a great resource for finding the perfect local guide even before you arrive at your destination. Their easy-to-use search tool can help match you with the guide that meets your needs, whether you’re looking for a different perspective on popular spots or to get totally off the beaten track. Their simplified process provides extensive information on each guide, and offers the opportunity for travelers to connect directly with guides, and ask questions before booking.
GuideAdvisor also offers pre-planned trips to locations all around the world, including treks in Nepal, kayaking trips in New Zealand and safaris in Kenya. (For more information on taking a group tour, read this post: “Why Taking a Tour is Not Such a Bad Idea”.) Their website also has an entire section devoted to inspiring you with loads of travel articles and videos for when you need ideas for your next destination.
Some questions to ask before booking a guide:
- How experienced is the guide? Years of experience are required before becoming an expert, and a very experienced guide will have knowledge and expertise that a novice does not.
- How long has the guide worked/lived in this destination? Just because a guide is well-versed in one part of the country, does not necessarily make him/her an expert in the destination you are interested in. Choosing a guide that preferably lives in (or at least spends a lot of time in) your chosen destination can greatly enhance your experience.
- What languages does the guide speak (and at what level)? Having a guide that speaks your language is extremely important for comprehension and enjoyment.
- What is included in the price and what will cost extra? Check if meals, transfers, and any entrance fees will be provided.
- What is the cancellation and rescheduling policy? Many excursions are subject to weather and other unpredictable conditions; make sure you will be refunded or rescheduled in case of cancellation.
- What type of people usually work with the guide? Choosing a guide who caters to your demographic means the guide is more likely to understand and anticipate your desires. The goals of a gap-year working with a guide will be quite different than a retiree.
Sign Up on GuideAdvisor
By signing up for a GuideAdvisor Traveler Account, you receive access to VIP trip prices, are automatically entered to win prizes every month, and much more. Signing up is good for you and good for the world, as GuideAdvisor makes a contribution for every new traveler sign up to support micro loans in the developing world through their program with Kiva.
To start searching for a guide, simply go to the search box and type in your destination or type of activities you’re looking for (e.g. hiking) — a list of local tour guides who work in the area will appear. Each guide has a detailed bio with his/her number of years experience, languages spoken and awards or certifications listed. You’ll also be able to read reviews from previous clients on their profile as well as a list of tours the guide runs. Many listed guide profiles and trips listings include direct links to the guides’ website or email address and a “book now” button that leads to their own booking engine. To connect directly with a guide you are interested in, you can use any of the contact options offered.
For me, this is undoubtedly the best way to connect directly with local guides — the money goes straight to the guide, without any middle man in between, and you’ll get to see and experience a country through the eyes of a local expert. Travel doesn’t get more authentic than that.