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Are tour guides worth it?

Hello everyone :) I just wanted to ask if local tour guides are worth the money? I'm afraid of getting scammed and going to tourist traps. One more concern is getting lost :D I really don't want to waste my time and money during my vacation :D Please do share your experiences with them and anything I should be aware of, thank you!

Posted by
1617 posts

It really depends on many things: how much research are YOU willing to do on a location? Are you really interested in the history of the place? Where are you going? Do you have a very limited amount of time?

We’ve done short walking tours, which we really enjoyed. Especially in places with lots of history (like the Forum in Rome).

I did a full day bus tour around Scotland, which I did NOT really enjoy: it was very rushed (45 min - 1.5 hrs each stop), other participants didn’t respect the time limits so the rest of us were stuck sitting on a bus while the guide had to search for them and to herd them out of the gift shop, and it felt like we were expected to buy stuff to get the tour company a kickback.

I like the research part of a trip. Others may want to just show up and have someone else tell them about wherever they are.

I would recommend looking for local guides, if you go that route. Viator is a “middle man” that you see all the time. They aren’t a tour company. Many cities have free walking tours by locals (who accept tips). I would look for them if you’re interested. Rick’s books often mention local guides also.

Getting lost is how you find some of the absolute best spots! It’s part of the adventure. Besides, you’re never truly lost with a cell phone.

Posted by
5888 posts

Good advice above. Here's more good advice from our host about hiring an individual local guide for yourself or your small group. That's expensive but can be worth it, especially if you can split the cost among several people. Good guidebooks usually have recommendations of particular guides like these, who have to be booked in advance.

Another approach is a walking or driving tour with a larger group. For me the gold standard for this is London Walks or Paris Walks. You sign up for the tour, either in advance or on the spot, sharing the guide with others. This is easier to afford but not as personalized as hiring your own guide. Many cities have "free" walking tours that can be worthwhile but could also be a bad use of your time, where the guide works for tips and may be better at showing a winning personality than really informing you well about what you're seeing. And there are plenty of tours, and individual guides, who will focus mostly on "shopping opportunities," taking you from store to store with some demonstrations of how things are made and plenty of time to buy stuff. I've been roped into some of these, usually in connection with cruises, and their only value to me is the transportation they may provide.

So it's worth some research to identify a guide or tour that can provide an enriching experience, especially in a place where you'd have language or transportation barriers otherwise. I depended completely on guides in China. I appreciated the van and informative driver in the Cotswolds. I like the London and Paris Walks because they're low cost, high quality, and mostly don't require advance planning. Hope that helps.

Posted by
7552 posts

Have you traveled to Europe before?

Or visited US cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco?

Asking because I’m curious why you think you would be scammed or get lost?

Lastly, where’s your vacation destination?

Posted by
15121 posts

I hire a lot of day guides; didn't think so until I started adding them up.
And in the more off the beaten path countries I usually rely on them.
But not so much to prevent scams, but to move about more efficiently and to have someone to learn more about life in the country from.
Most often I find them online and I spend months interviewing them; so far I have been lucky, no, blessed to have met them.
A couple have become friends going on 20 years now.
Nothing wrong with a guide if it works with your style.

Posted by
3148 posts

Agree with hiring guides. We just took a walking tour around Toledo, Spain yesterday with one and we are meeting the same guide this afternoon for a tour of the Cathedral and Santa Tome. We had private guides for the Prado, a tapas tour, and a few others places around Spain (we are 4 people). I feel there is more flexibility - you can ask as many questions as you like, you can go a little off topic with complaints, and if tired, you can cut the tour short without being rude and just leaving. We’ve used Rick’s recommendations and tours by locals. I have found private guides on line but not as many. And just like Mr. E, we have become friends with 2 guides we used in Croatia.

Posted by
3489 posts

I very much enjoy using guides. I read a lot about places I am visiting before trips, but I find that guides add a lot of information and increase the efficiency of seeing sights I want to see. Like others, I have become friends with one of my guides — a guide in Berlin with whom I have ranged far off the beaten tourist path, exploring an abandoned Soviet military base, an old East German air base for MiG-21 aircraft at Neuhardenburg, and underground bunkers where Soviet nuclear warheads were stored. I would have not known about these places without him.

Posted by
1816 posts

I don't do the local guide thing mostly because I'm not into the deep-dive minutiae of anything. I'm sure there is some reason that big toe, at the 4th Station of the Cross, is out of character; or why that Wasserturm was built on SW quadrant of the corner and not the SE quadrant, but I'm just not interested.

If I have something of particular interest that I want to see in a town or city, I'll have done the leg-work before I travel and, if something caught my eye while I was out there roaming the streets, I'll look it up on my iPad in the evening.

Posted by
11887 posts

I’d second Claudia’s question about where you are going?

I’ve done lots of local guides on Rick Steves and Road Scholar tours for specific targeted areas - either towns, museums or sights.

A friend and I made arrangements with Paris Walks for a private tour for a themed walk we wanted to do that was not offered during our time frame. It was excellent and well worth the money. I’ve also done small van day tours for a couple of areas that were successful for my purpose of avoiding driving, lol.

If you are hiring a private guide And are worried about being taken to tourist traps, Id be specific about your focus for the time and that you are not interested in spending time shopping.

Posted by
7126 posts

Getting lost: Put City Mapper app on your phone. It will show you your location and even what direction you are heading. Put in your destination and it will show you how to walk or take transit to get there.

Local guides; I have mixed reviews. I felt the money I spent for a private guide at Hadrian’s Wall was well spent. It made a huge difference. I’ve arranged for another private guide at the Alhambra in December. I learned about both of the guides here on the forum.

Some of the local guides that I’ve used in a group setting were good, some ok, and a few irritating. I always learn more with a guide.

Posted by
11887 posts

I like Carol’s suggestion of Citymapper app which I like a lot BUT if you are headed for a smaller town check to see if it’s covered. Milan, Venice, Rome yes, yes, yes. Verona? Uh, no. Defaulted to googlemaps which I don’t find as useful for leading you on a walking route.

Posted by
9630 posts

In many years of traveling world wide we have only hired a guide three times for these very important sites: Pompeii, Knossos and the Parthenon. Our Pompeii guide was a huge disappointment. We do our own research, and bring high quality guide books along.

Posted by
2950 posts

The only time my traveling companion and I signed up for a guide, prepaid with Viator, she was a no-show! Viator refunded the fee before the day was over.

Posted by
70 posts

This is a tough question. I've just returned from a research trip and project meeting (art history) to Madrid and Toledo. While walking in Toledo with a colleague, we overheard what the guide was telling his group about a striking medieval building (formerly a mosque later converted to a church). Coincidentally, we had toured the site the previous afternoon with the archaeologist who excavated the building, but I think that even most non-specialists would have been disappointed by the guide's comments. They went something like this: "scholars say that this small mosque was just like the big one in Cordoba but smaller." Factually incorrect and not exactly a deep analysis.
It became a running joke for the rest of the week.
My advice is to be careful about who you hire - especially regarding "cultural tourism." There are lots of sites and tours based more on attracting tourist income instead of actual scholarship.

Obviously, not everyone expects a tour directed at specialists. But everyone deserves an honest, well-prepared, and thoughtful guide.

Posted by
5719 posts

One other option is to sign up for a city bike tour. The guide will share interesting info at each location, plus you’re on a bike with a small group so you won’t get lost. They are relatively inexpensive and we thought they were a great use of our time. Each of these were a fun & interesting option - Munich, Seville, Verona, Florence and even Honolulu, Hawaii.

Posted by
3212 posts

I really like a guided tour. For me it helps me understand what I'm seeing. For example in June, we took a group tour of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh which opened our eyes to the history of the Mile and how and why it was built that way. For the two previous days we'd walk up and down and all we'd see was a tourist jammed road with restaurants and tacky gift shops. We were seeing the Mile but we weren't understanding the history behind it. Another example was a group tour of the Colosseum and Forum in Rome. For us, the Forum is just a pile of rubble without an understanding of what we were seeing. But our guide who was an expert in ancient Roman sewer systems brought the place to life on what it was like 2000 years ago, plus an extra insight on the water and sewer expertise that the Romans had.

On the other hand, I'm uncomfortable with private guides. There's nothing I like less than feeling obligated to engage in small talk for an entire day with a stranger. I'd rather be an invisible person in a group of 10-15, free to turn my ears off or wander away at times when I need a short break from people, but still getting the benefit of the guide's knowledge.

Posted by
24030 posts

There are all kinds of tours. As others have said, it would help to know where you're going so posters can give more specific guidance.

There's excellent advice above. I have a few additional comments.

About "free" tours: If you take a "free" tour offered by a commercial company (rather than the local tourist office or a greeters' organization), you are expected to tip. The guide will have to pay the organizing company a fee for everyone who shows up for the tour; some years ago Rick said that the fee was likely to be 3.00-3.50 euros; I suppose it may be higher now. I avoid "free" tours when a standard tour is an option. I especially like tours offered by the local tourist office, which usually do charge a fee; I figure they have an interest in imparting accurate information. When a paid tour is not available and I'm stuck with a "free" tour, I tip the guide about what I would expect to pay for a paid tour, which is at least 15 euros for a tour lasting 90-120 minutes. I haven't had a really inadequate guide on any tour (for that I'd shade the tip for the "free"-tour guide downward), but I wouldn't stiff even a bad one unless the guide was abusive or grossly negligent. That guide has had to cough up money just because I showed up that day.

The guides for commercially-offered "free" tours may well not be licensed; I think they usually are not. Licensed guides can be trusted to know their stuff; the licensing exams can be very difficult--they can require months of study at considerable cost. A guide on a "free" tour may choose to embellish the facts (assuming the guide even knows them) to make a better story and encourage higher tips. That's all well and good if you're taking a ghost tour or something like that, but it seems counterproductive for most other types of tours.

It has seemed to me that "free" tour groups are often considerably larger than fee-paid tours covering the same general territory at the same time. Obviously, many people like the idea of a "free" tour, but a smaller tour group is one of the reasons I prefer a paid tour.

Many museums, both art and historical, offer tours conducted by staff members or docents. Those tours are often free (especially if the museum itself charges an entry fee); others have modest fees. I confess I haven't taken advantage of many of those tours; they are usually not offered frequently, and I'm reluctant to commit to a sightseeing schedule unless I must pre-purchase a timed entry ticket. But the few such tours I've taken have been very good; they were definitely worthwhile. Information about those tours will be on the museum's website.

Even with a map in my hand, I'm totally capable of getting lost in a large garden, so I'm sure navigating around a site like Pompeii is a real challenge. For general sightseeing, though, I don't find it much of a problem to use a mapping app or Google Maps to get around. I just look at the You Are Here dot and walk in the direction that has it moving toward where I want to be, making course corrections as I go. Venice and medieval districts are more challenging than places laid out on a grid, but it's usually not all that hard. I recommend testing this out in your hometown or a nearby city. Walk around and follow your progress on a map on your phone. See if you are comfortable doing that so you can eliminate the concern about getting lost.

I wouldn't want to take a tour purely because I thought I needed navigational help. I like to explore interesting neighborhoods, and (unless you have a private guide) you can't go where your whims dictate if you are on a tour.

Posted by
13810 posts

@ Dave.... Reading your post on Neuhardenberg brings back the memories of the 2 visits I made there. I went back some years after the first visit, the second visit was better, more meaningful, less rushed, etc.

I didn't know about the place and its Cold war era connections , eg, the MIG-21 (I've seen that in Calif) but rather went to Neuhardenberg in terms of Prussian-German history from Berlin as day trips to see the Von Hardenberg Estate, the family got back it after the fall of the regime in 1989.

Historically, it is well worth it seeing this place, even more the male member of the family in WW2 was part of the Army resistance, Colonel (Oberst) Carl Graf von Hardenberg. He survived although that wasn't his intention. The museum also shows the photos like that of a gallery of men and women, civilian and Army , members of the German elite involved in the Resistance, no names provided under the photos and no dates , so you don't know who perished or survived. ....all in all, very poignant.

Posted by
13810 posts

The only cities where I have taken extended guided bus/walking tours were in Dresden and Potsdam, in Potsdam using different tour companies. They do not go to exactly to the same places other than the obvious in Potsdam, which was a surprise to me, ie some deviation on the tour sites exists

Other tours were those where it was mandatory, ie, you go with the guided tour or you don't go at all. This pertains to chateaux in France and those Schlösser in Germany where individual exploring and wandering on the premises was not allowed.

Posted by
3643 posts

By coincidence I recently "took" some Youtube tours in London that were done by out of work tour guides during the recent unpleasantness. They just basically recreated what they would have done if I was with them.

The tour of the V&A was good and informative. The tour of Westminster Abbey was dull and tedious, the tour of Trafalgar Square a little bit better. So it's the luck of the draw when hiring local "talent." I believe they were both from the same company.

I agree with the idea of being in a group so I'm not obligated to constantly interact with a guide.

Rick and the other tour books do a pretty darn good job of giving you a tour, in fact after reading them or listening to them you'll probably be better informed than most guides.

Posted by
457 posts

I don't have a very popular view. If I am never again part of a group following around someone with an umbrella or a flag, I will die a happy woman. For us, it started on our first trip to Rome. We told as we entered the Colosseum that our tour was unavailable, the money was refunded but we were free to enter and walk around by ourselves. We looked at each other and said, "We got this." That we did, saw what we wanted in a nimble manner and saved major $$. A day later, we were on a very expensive four-hour tour of the Vatican where we did not see a pristine Sistine Chapel and emerged exhausted with information overload. In contrast, on our last trip to the Vatican, we did it with audiotours and were very happy. We've been very choosy about our tour dollars.

Figure out what you need and want. If you need to know every detail and have "history brought to life" for you, maybe a tour is for you. If your personal group is big enough, a personal guide might be the best choice. If you prefer the "taster" version and want to make up your opinion on the importance of what you see, book a ticket and do it on your own. If a tour gets you to a place that is logistically difficult, it might be a good choice. There's good value in somebody else doing the driving. Maybe tours work for you or maybe they don't. That's up to you to figure out. We've also got different travel styles.

Posted by
3489 posts

Interesting range of comments here. As CT notes above, we all have our own travel styles, and the decision of whether to use a guide depends on your personality and your travel goals. There is no right/wrong on this topic. As mentioned above, I'm biased towards using guides and have done several carefully-selected group tours and used dozens of private guides. My experiences have been almost universally positive.

Cool things that happened on tours that I otherwise would not have experienced:

  • I've stood in a bunker in the former East Germany that held Soviet nuclear warheads. How many people can say that? Afterward, the wife of the current owner of the property provide snacks, including cheese and wild boar that was hunted/killed by the owner.
  • After a day of traveling the Solčava Panoramic Road in the Logarska dolina in Slovenia, my young guide took me to her family home where I met her family (including her 14-year-old brother and her blind uncle) and was treated to sweets and herbal tea made by her mother, who had collected the plants for the tea herself.
  • Another guide in Berlin with whom I did a Berlin Wall tour was an 11-year-old living in a committed East German socialist family on Nov 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. It was super cool to talk to her about her experience growing up in East Germany, her experience of the fall of the Wall (stayed home and watched soccer with her father), and her experience of the day after the fall of the Wall (going to school; all the students in her class were absent -- as was her teacher; but she dutifully did her schoolwork).
  • Numerous post-tour conversations with guides over drinks, coffee, cake, ice cream, or even dinner.

You don't have to have a guide to have cool experiences, of course. You can do things like use a Beanie Baby to strike up a conversation with a kind German Oma on the train and end up having her offer you homemade cake topped with fresh blueberries from her garden, for instance.

I do feel like some on the anti-guide side imply that people are lazy tourists (as opposed to well-studied travelers) when they rely on guides. That's a false dichotomy. I read like crazy about the places I see. For example, I read 20 books on Normandy before a trip there, but hired a guide to see the big sights/sites and to see more obscure sites I wanted to see (like the WXYZ Complex). It improved my efficiency of sight-seeing and allowed me to see places I otherwise would not have known to visit. I read 30 books before my first trip to Germany but used 5-6 private guides on that trip. I read 50 books on Poland before... COVID cancelled my fall 2020 trip. I had a 20-something guide who was studying tourism in the well-off-the-US-tourist-beaten-path city of Kranj, Slovenia. He told me that Americans have a reputation for being stupid but that I was not stupid because I knew a lot about his obscure city before I arrived. During the tour, he told me a nice souvenir at the France Prešeren Museum would be to buy a book of the writer's poetry that was for sale there. I opened my backpack and produced the exact same book that I had brought with me from the US.

Posted by
3489 posts

Oh yeah... Who needs small talk with private guides? They offer a great chance to learn about the place you are visiting. I have found that nearly all the private guides I have used are eager to share about their country, their culture, and their lives. I'm the worst of small talkers, but I rarely find myself resorting to that when with a private guide. I have too many questions to ask!

Posted by
8485 posts

Dave, I loved talking with you when you were in Frankfurt. Any guide worth their salt loves good questions!

Be aware that some Tourist Infos do not have guide recommendations, they only sell their own tours, not anyone elses.

Have been on 2 of the "free" tours in Frankfurt and literally everything they told the group was incorrect. Have heard the same thing from those who live in Berlin and Munich. They are astounded at the information being shared to the huge groups of 40. The "free" tour I took in Edinburgh was just sad. Total waste of time.

A good guide can make your visit to a city memorable. They should pique your interest and make you want to come back or at least stay longer. It shouldn't be about just dates and toes of saints in churches. If that is all you got on a tour, that was one crappy tour and does not reflect the majority of good guides.
A private tour should be interesting and tailored to YOUR interests. An email exchange is important. Perhaps a Zoom chat? A tour can also be the most efficient way to see a city if you are short on time. A guide will know of local events and you can ask questions about where to eat, which museum is worth your time or not, etc.

Posted by
11887 posts

Sorry OP hasn't been back. I am guessing they are going to Paris since they've posted the same query on the Paris Trip Advisor forum.

To the OP - IF you are going to Paris and have the time and money, I recommend Rick's Best of Paris tour. The guides focus on teaching you the transportation system so you can get around on your own and .... trust me on this .... will NOT take you to any "tourist traps".

Posted by
34 posts

To add a couple of thoughts to this interesting discussion:

  • Audio guides are great. I really enjoy RS's audio tours and do them any time I am in a place that has one. Ditto for museums. I have never regretted shelling out for the museum audio guides as they tell you so much about the art or artifacts you wouldn't know otherwise.

  • Some specialist group tours seem like good value for money to me. I did the "Secret Itineraries" tour at the Doge's Palace in Venice, and even at €32, I thought it was fantastic and was the only way to see those rooms (prison, torture chamber, inquisition room, etc.).

  • Lots of churches and other sights have booklets you can buy for a few euros that provide more detailed information like you would get from a guide. I bought a book in Ravenna for €8 that covered all the mosaic sights and in addition to providing me the depth I wanted, I now have it as a souvenir.

Posted by
14 posts

Sorry for the late reply as I was busy over the weekend. I'm overwhelmed with all the answers :) Thank you everyone! I haven't gone through it yet, will let you guys know if I have any more questions or concerns :)

Posted by
14 posts

Great insights from everyone! Thank you!

I for one, am an introvert. I really don't like talking too much and just want to enjoy and relax with my family. It has been a while since we went on a REAL vacation. We have no plans of going to any specific place yet, just looking around and still planning our trip.

Contemplating to just hire a private tour guide so that we don't have to worry about unnecessary things during our travel and maybe customize our tour (if possible).

Any place you guys would recommend with a guide? I'll be bringing my wife and 2 kids (ages 5 and 9) with me :) We like nature more than the city (I'm tired of looking at buildings every day :D).

Posted by
3959 posts

Hi Kenzo, I am just catching up on your posting. Excellent contributions. What caught my eye was that you are interested in a family trip. I can suggest a favorite blog that caters to families. They have great tips for hiring guides. We have hired guides throughout Europe and hired a couple of guides recommended for Budapest & Prague. I have since recommended them to friends and family. We have always had positive experiences with both private and small group tours.

Posted by
14 posts

Thank you, Janis! God willing, we will probably go ahead and use a guide in our next trip :) The blog will definitely help us choose which place to go to with our kids :)