Let’s face it: Travel can be, and very often is, expensive. Many of us need to budget in some way, shape, or form, no matter if we’re planning a weekend road trip or our dream vacation abroad. There are tons of ways to stretch your dollars, and many of them don’t at all dip into your overall travel experience. In fact, many of those decisions can make it all the richer.
But there’s one splurge that I will always make monetary space for when I’m visiting a new city, especially if it’s in an international destination: a great local tour guide. In my experience, they can truly elevate a holiday, allowing you to see things from perspectives you hadn’t previously considered. When it comes down to it, hiring a private guide is consistently the best money I spend on vacation. No question.
Here are nine reasons why!
1. You’ll Get The Lay Of The Land
Arriving in a new place can be discombobulating even for the most seasoned traveler. You’ve been in transit, so you might be tired, stiff, or dehydrated, and perhaps dealing with a killer case of jetlag. Chances are you’ll be bombarded with new sights, sounds, and languages before you even leave the airport. Even the most thorough research done from home can never completely prepare you for seeing and experiencing a city for the first time.
Having a tour guide all to yourself can give you a good level-set lay of the land. They can tell you about the historic centers, hot spots, and other areas of interest you might want to return to later. Also important: They will point out the areas you might want to avoid altogether. Having a day (or two) with a local guide will help you get more comfortable with the new destination, and that’s a big confidence boost that will last for the remainder of your holiday.
2. Language Won’t Be A Barrier
I always try to learn a few words of the language that’s spoken wherever I’m headed; the last thing I want to do in a new place is be rude! I took French in college and can muddle my way through it, or any of the Romance languages, really. But it can be tough even just to learn key phrases, especially when you’re dealing with a new alphabet, sound, and sentence structures.
A guide helps cut through the complications of a new language, interacting with others on your behalf as you explore. At least for the first day, especially in places like China, Croatia, or the Czech Republic with languages that can be difficult to get your ears around. A good guide helps soften that transition, and might even be able to teach you just a couple of easy phrases you can use the rest of your trip.
3. They Can Give You Real Insight
Your own personal tour guide will help you go far beyond the guidebooks, and truly bring a place to life. Remember: They grew up here; this is their home. They understand the people, the places, the customs, and the culture, and they can help you better understand it all, too. They provide valuable insight, context, and backstories that no book or website can because it comes from personal experience. If you really want to soak up the true essence of the spot you’re visiting, a guide can help you do just that. You’ll see, do, and interpret things like a local; an invaluable benefit that’s worth every dollar.
My guide Jelena in Split, Croatia, pointed out many fascinating things I would have simply walked by had I been on my own. From pointing out the perfect selfie spot to small historic details, she had me covered, and I so appreciated it.
4. Got Questions? You’ll Get Straight Answers
My husband and I are both journalists so are curious, inquisitive folks by nature. It’s our job to ask questions, after all, and that doesn’t stop when we are on vacation! With a personal guide, we don’t have to worry about taking up a group’s time when we’d like to know more about a particular architectural style or the social/political influences on a city or town.
We can just ask away.
A great guide will be thrilled you’re interested enough to inquire about their hometown and be happy to address your question. Word to the wise: Be prepared that the answer you might receive might not align with your insights, and that’s okay. That’s what makes travel the great educator and equalizer it is: We don’t all feel or think the same way. Learning to understand and appreciate our differences while away from home is one of the best soul stretches I know. I always come away the better for it!
5. Expect A Customized Experience
The guides I’ve hired in the past made absolutely sure they knew what I was expecting from our time together and went the extra mile to make sure my preferences were taken into account. The best ones have been in touch well ahead of time to inquire about what’s important to me when visiting their hometowns. Getting a great guide means you’ll also be getting a bespoke, personalized experience designed just for you, one that will set the pace for your entire vacation.
In the past, I’ve let guides know I was interested in wine, food, history, and art. They’ve always delivered with tours that hit all the right notes.
6. Skipping The Lines
When you’re visiting a new spot and want to hit up the big sites, waiting in line can be a bummer. Who wants to sit in a ticket queue when there are new things to see and experience? Quite often, a guide will purchase your entry tickets ahead of time, allowing to you enter without a wait. In some cities, we’ve seen separate lines (and they are far shorter) for guides to buy tickets for their customers. While this is a perk you might not have thought of before, it truly saves precious vacation time!
7. You’ll Get Off The Beaten Path
When you’ve got time with a personal guide, chances are you’ll go off the beaten path a bit, an opportunity I relish. Sometimes when I travel to a new place, I tend to focus on a city’s historic center. Of course, that’s to be expected, but there is so much more to a place than its core. A good guide will tell you about, and likely show you, parts of their city that DIY tourists might simply gloss over.
When Jelena learned I was an avid runner, she insisted I head out to Split’s gorgeous park, Marjan, a peninsula filled with forests, historic buildings, and incredible views of the sea. While in Istanbul, our guide Mustafa knew I wanted to shop for spices and textiles, so we headed to a few smaller bazaars not in the typical tourist zone. I was so thankful they got me outside of the half-mile area around my hotel!
With a guide, you’ll have the confidence to head off the beaten path, which can even further deepen your experience of a city.
8. Insider Tips And Tricks
In the past when I’ve been paired with a private guide, I ask all about their favorite restaurants, pubs, and other top things to experience. From the on-the-cheap choices (in Prague, our guide pointed out a local spot where we could have a dumpling lunch for just $3 a person!) to luxe, splurge experiences (where to find the best wine in town), your guide will give you tips and tricks that will be invaluable to you for the duration of your time in their hometown.
From favorite day trips you might not have considered to a town’s free festivals, performances, and quirky museums, lean on your guide for that terrific insider info. You never know where it might take you!
9. You Might Make A Lasting Friendship
Last but certainly not least, the relationship with the guide who helps make your vacation unforgettable might last well after you return home. Social media makes it a breeze to stay in touch, and I’ve made it a point to do so with several past guides. These are people I felt a real connection with, who truly enriched my travels. I love keeping up with them via posts and updates — they are like little virtual postcards. And should I return to their hometowns, I know exactly who I’ll reach out to first!
Pro Tip: Do your homework to find a guide that will truly add to your vacation experience. Get online, check out reviews, and find a company that focuses on the local aspects of your destination. On my recent trip to Croatia, I connected with Jelena via ToursByLocals, and I was super-impressed by her knowledge, expertise, and true love of her homeland. In the past, we’ve also hired university history students and government-licensed guides. Do your due diligence — it will absolutely pay off!
For more ways to maximize your travels, read: