Tour guides — I don’t remember a lot of them. Why? Because they sucked. They were boring, they were greedy, they couldn’t give me the knowledge I needed to fully enjoy a place, or they were just plain creepy.
Pedro, though, my European tour guide — I remember him. And Artie, who took me and some friends around Paris for the first time. I also remember the jovial trolley drivers of Washington, DC, who played games with me and my siblings when I visited the US capital back in third grade.
What kinds of characteristics make up the perfect individual to guide people in group tours around places they’ve never been before? Here’s my list of qualities that have made guides like Pedro and Artie more memorable than my high school prom date.
When I visit a new country, I expect my tour guides to answer every single question I have, from “What is the capital of Luxembourg?” to “Can you tell me the pH level of the soil in Parc Edouard André?” A good tour guide will be able to do that. Not because he/she studied Luxembourg history and geography at university, and not because he/she memorized the information in the tour guide training manual. No, these knowledgeable guides know their stuff because they absolutely love the places they show travelers.
A crappy guide will tell me to Wikipedia it because they can’t be bothered to understand the place they were hired to show off. But an awesome guide? If marriage to a country were possible, they would totally make Luxembourg their spouse.
The worst guide is the kind that stands in the front of the coach and talks like one of the adults from a Peanuts cartoon. “BLAH BLAH BLAH history, BLAH BLAH BLAH volcanic ash,” and so on. I’m not nasty to them, but I sure as hell don’t appreciate a person who lacks a sense of humor. Crack a few jokes, or laugh at mine. Smile once in a while. Look like you’re having fun. If not, quit being a tour guide and start making podcasts about ancient Egyptian papyrus manufacturing…that no one will ever listen to.
At a club in Paris, my group of travelers tried to take a photo together. Our guide Pedro pulled down his pants and mooned the camera as the shutter went off. Even if I can’t remember what he looks like, that ass reminds me of how much fun I had that night. His jokes and pranks made us feel comfortable at times when being in a new country was overwhelming.
Don’t just drop me off at Shanghai’s Forbidden City and then disappear to have a beer — walk around with me. Tell me why you like — or dislike — this particular place. Seeing my tour guides rediscover attractions they’ve been to a million times is one of the coolest things, because it makes me realize they truly enjoy their job and what they do.
Once, I asked a guide in Florence, “Do you ever get bored of eating at the same places, and seeing the same things?”
“I go to these places because they’re good,” he replied. “If they weren’t, I wouldn’t take you here.”
He danced with us at the Space Disco and we toasted our shots to him as he sang “Barbie Girl” during karaoke. He made sure everyone was having a good time because he was also having a good time. He became a temporary family member, and my group cried when we had to leave him at the end of our trip to Italy. Now we keep in touch via Facebook, and plan on meeting up next time I’m in Europe.
Yes, it’s a tour guide’s job to ensure you have an awesome trip. But part of that includes letting me know the “real deal” when it comes to the areas we’re visiting.
“Is the Louvre really worth standing in line for two hours?” I asked Artie, my guide in Paris. “It seems like a lot of work and Euros for a couple of pieces of art I’ll stare at for five seconds.”
Artie shrugged. “The Louvre will always be there — if you plan on returning to Paris, you can visit at a different time of day, or get a discount if you plan correctly. I prefer the Musée d’Orsay, which has a more defined art collection, especially if you like Impressionism and Modern Art. It’s a lot less crowded too.”
He didn’t try to “sell” me on how visiting the Louvre would change my life and was a not-miss attraction. He gave me his honest opinion based on his past experiences, and my preferences. The Musée d’Orsay remains one of my favorite museums, and I probably wouldn’t have seen it if he hadn’t told me the truth.
5. Not in it for the dolla’ bills
I can always sniff out a money-grubbing tour guide — they’re disinterested in the group, but quick to remind us that “This is how I make my living” when it comes time to tip at the end of a tour. The worst are the ones who “recommend” an appropriate amount of gratuity. I “recommend” you remember why you signed up for this gig in the first place, and don’t sniff at the leftover Euros I have to get rid of before I board my flight to the US.
Don’t get me wrong — I always like to show my appreciation, where appreciation is due. An awesome guide doesn’t need to worry about reminding folks to drop him/her some change at the end of the experience. They’re attuned to the fact that they’ve done a great job, and they also understand they might not get tipped regardless of how many people they toted around town that day.
A kickass tour guide doesn’t enter this line of work expecting to get rich — they do it because they love people, love travel, and love helping people have awesome travel experiences. If they get a little extra cash because of it, cool. If they don’t, no worries — they move on to the next group and just enjoy the fact they get to travel around the world instead of being stuck in a cubicle all day.
6. Goes the extra mile
As we drove from the Rhine Valley to Munich, I asked Pedro if he ever brought groups to Dachau Concentration Camp.
“Not very much,” he told me. “It’s a bit of a downer, and most times, we can’t fit it into the schedule.”
I replied that seeing it, or any concentration camp, is something I’ve wanted to do, and that maybe once we got to Munich I could take a quick trip the next day.
I fell asleep on the bus and was woken up when we stopped outside of a wooded area. Pedro announced we were making a “special stop” at Dachau, which was 30 minutes outside of the city. It was particularly awesome because we were the only people there, so the experience was much more intimate.
The fact that he’d made a pitstop on my behalf sent me over the moon. Obviously guides can’t conform to the specific wishes of every group member, but when they go out of their way to make a travel experience extra special, I can’t help but admire them. It shows they really care about the kind of experience you have.
A good tour guide will turn me on in no time. I think it’s the combination of knowledge, passion for their job, fun personality, and adventurous spirit that makes me fall in love. And while beauty is subjective, if I’m going to be with this person for the duration, it’d be awesome if he/she looked like Channing Tatum / Keira Knightley.