Compared to some of you, my wife and I are European newbies, but now that the kids are grown we're making up for lost time with 4 trips in the past 5 years and Scotland on the radar for next year. One thing we love are Tours, be it a 2 hour tour such as London Walks of Westminster Abbey, an all day tour of the Vatican, or as we did in May this year, a Rick Steves tour of the Loire Valley to the South of France. A good tour guide can bring a location to life that I don't feel I get wandering myself or even using an audio guide (better than nothing but doesn't thrill me, even the RS audio guides). On the other hand a poor guide can ruin a well planned day or trip. Our guide on our RS trip was Virginie More, and she was one of the 'wow' moments of our trip. I mentioned in a comment on another thread that I wondered if she was the best of the best of the RS guides or if they're all that good. What did everyone else think about their RS guides and how did that guide turn your trip from good/really good to great?
A similar topic on this forum was taken down, yesterday - for some reason unknown to me. So, you may be skating on thin ice, here - again, for reasons unknown. As (the Legend) James E. stated in that now deleted posting, a tour guide enhances the experience, and he recommended, especially in Eastern European locations, the value of their service.
I believe RS supports the "local guide" enhancement theory as many of his radio, podcast and video series episodes contain participation with local guides. I do that, too. As to my experiences with RS guides on RS tours......I feel like I've hit the jackpot every single time.
I guess my question isn't as original as I thought. I actually did a search before I posted because I thought it would be a popular topic. If they delete I wonder if they send a message to let me know how I violated. Now I'm curious about two things.
I suspect rating guides is a slippery slope. I decided not to post on that previous thread because I couldn't see how to name the great guides I've had with RS without msking it seem like others were lacking, which is not the case.
I think one problem is that you can't choose your RS tour guide. The office won't tell you and you don't find out until you are 30 days or so out so discussing the merits of different guides can be a bit pointless. Why get all excited and hopeful that you might have Virginie and then be disappointed when you have someone else. The other person may be as good as or better then Virginie but it can color people's experiences.
To me, it also has the chance to deteriorate into a bashing of a guide if someone had poor experiences. These should be discussed directly with the RS office and not on the forum. That's a Human Resources/Personnel issue and must be handled privately.
I hope this post doesn't go downhill, but I guess that's the nature of sone posters. I'm really trying to find out what makes the RS guides so good so I'm asking for examples of how they made the trips great. It's a lot of money to spend on a tour; especially when I convert it to Canadian dollars (multiply by 1.36), I'd like some examples that Virginie is not the best of the best but they're all that good.
I would guess that the organization probably doesn't want folks playing favorites on the forum but if you browse the reviews of the individual tours, there are simply oodles of shout-outs to leaders and local guides and for all sorts of stated reasons. Those might be the best places to look?
Allan, its probably a sensitive topic because they dont want to turn it into a competition, like a TripAdvisor review thing. To address your question ". . . I'm really trying to find out what makes the RS guides so good . . ." I'll mention two things that I think are part of the reason.
One is the "no tips" policy. Since they are paid well (as they've confirmed) and not dependent on fishing for tips, they don't have to be afraid of upsetting tour members who are not following the "no grumps" rule, being late, or otherwise causing problems for the rest of the tour. Thus, they can manage the group well, and keep the schedule under control, and make decisions without worrying about pissing someone off.
The second is the RS company gives them a lot of autonomy and discretion over spending funds to enhance the tour and address problems. I think RS trusts their judgment and that encourages them to be more professional. I have seen them make impromptu behind-the-scenes decisions in dealing with hotels, drivers, restaurants, local guides, etc., for the benefit of the group, that they could do without having to get permission from anyone.
I think it helps that RS tour members are also above average (as one of the coach drivers told me).
how did that guide turn your trip from good/really good to great?
Allan, May I suggest that you edit your original post to make THIS the title?
In other words, you’re asking (forgive the corporate jargon) what is the value added of a Rick Steves Tours guide, right? I’m happy to share 2 stories from my first RS tour, Basque Country, last year...
1) I was puzzled that the elderly couples I was passing on the street in Pamplona on a free afternoon didn’t return my “hola” even though they looked liked they had expected me to greet them. I told my guide about it. He said yes I should say hello. But he figured out that I wasn’t saying hola with enough musicality and that I should put the L more in the front of my mouth. I practiced with him a few times, and the next day it was a complete turnaround. I received smiles and return greetings from the couples I passed.
2) On the last full day of the tour, lunch was on our own, and the guides (as they always do) made sure that everybody had a plan for lunch. Although there were plenty of tapas bars in the immediate vicinity, I expressed a weariness of having to “forage for my food“ at which point the guide got a pained look on his face and proceeded to completely turn around my attitude with his impassioned description of a particular tapa (pintxo) called Gilda, named for the movie character played by Rita Hayworth, a combination of salty spicy and creamy. He assured us it was early for the locals to eat lunch so the bars would not be crowded. He was right on all fronts. And made my last full day of the tour very memorable.
I’m an independent traveler for the most part but I was blown away by the quality, efficiency, companionship, and fun of Rick Steves Tours.
Allan, May I suggest that you edit your original post to make THIS the
Excellent suggestions, and I'm going to do it, that reflects the better meaning of what my question is, thank you. Your first example is the kind of experience if had that made enhanced the trip. Everyday on our bus trip, Virginie would give us a french lesson, not only a phrase to practice using, but how a local may respond and why. We also had lessons on the french culture and she explained how the french are not rude, but very formal. I came away with a much better understanding of how to engage with a local and a better understanding of why they may respond in the way they do.
I have taken 17 RS tours and with those 17 guides plus 2 assistances I would rate them all in the high 90% profile. I have even offered a place to stay for several of them if they ever get to my neighborhood.
I've been on 13 RS Tours and every single guide I've had has been great. It would be sad if someone thought that they wanted a specific guide for their upcoming tour and when they got the room list and saw it was a name they didn't know, that they would be disappointed and think that their tour wouldn't be good. I think it's great that we can give accolades to a great guide here on the Forum and in our reviews of our trips. Every single guide has a different personality and brings something different to the tour. I really think that the RS company does a great job vetting and training their guides. Looking forward to my 14th!!
My RS guides have been like a glorious box of chocolates! All different but tasty! This is why I keep coming back.
- First guide - Best of Italy back in the days of the 21 day tour. Fantastically knowledgeable, with a terrific assistant guide. Only two of us traveling as singles on the trip and she arranged for each of us to have our own room in Alpi di Suisse, and arranged a hike for those who wanted it during her free time, but also moving heaven and earth so that we could arrive in time to see the Regatta in Venice.
- Next - Best of France - also 21 days. Phenomenal job explaining French culture and norms - has been so helpful to me still in all of my return trips to France.
- Eastern Europe - a dynamic young renaissance man - speaking 7 or 8 languages! The little things he thought of made the trip amazing. Traveling through Slovenia - briefly with a one night stay, as we crossed the border and took our rest stop, he had "Pay-to-Pee" money for all of us. Fascinating discussion about Roma culture . . . and so much more.
- Spain and Portugal - made sure we tried different foods -- meats, fruits, vegetables, sweets, cookies from a convent - and broadened our horizons.
- Greece - during the horrible fires - so we were routed to Meteora and Corinth - who was a practicing archaeologist with a fantastic breadth of knowledge and personality, lots of little extras thrown in, along with a bus driver who was one of my favorites and taught us various Greek dances.
- Turkey - spent a great deal of time talking with me about Turkish history/culture - very memorable lessons. Explaining that military service was required and helping us brighten our days and those serving in the military with requests for pictures.
- Belgium/Netherlands - pointing out the best chocolates, always. Taking us to a coffee shop :)
- Eastern France - Amazing winery tours/champagne/cremant - food; and a late night walk up to the top of a little village for the best views of the stars, moon and landscape.
- Ireland - a guide who was interested in everyone and, for each member of the tour, found out their interest and matched the member to the interest, whether it was a game of golf, the best yarn store, or for me, stopping the bus in front of a town where my ancestors were from so I could get a picture.
- Sicily - I had three guides and an assistant guide. The first guide had a medical issue; the next morning we had the second guide and later in the trip the third. All three were absolutely amazing - and the transitions were seamless - they immediately knew our names and such. The assistant guide did an amazing job as well, educating the lead guides, tending to a ton of details. Incredible levels of professionalism and - again, knowledge and humor and flexibility.
- Scotland - tons of knowledge, willing to listen to our horrid attempts at playing the bagpipes, arranging an unscheduled day at the local highland games, and with an awesome knowledge of Scottish gins (as well as scotch). Plus all of the local guides - one who makes the Roman forum come alive, another with the most wicked sense of humor that my stomach and face ached from laughing so hard! With one exception, they have been fantastic and the exception was good but not fantastic - but we all can have "off" times. This is why I continue to return. I hope you and your wife have many more wonderful trips to Europe!
The guides on our Best of Ireland tour were amazing! Both had different personal experiences and knowledge to share so they swapped out for whoever had the most knowledge on a place or subject. They always had multiple suggestions or organized optional outings for our free time and usually the entire group went along. I felt like they never had a break from us but they got the vibe of the group by day 2 and engaged with us until we rolled our bags to the airport schedule the last morning. In Belfast we didn't need a local guide because one of our tour guides grew up there and recently retired from being a school teacher. He provided us with such insight and personal experiences we were enthralled. Those are a few of the things that made our tour great!
We’ve done 5 RS tours, 2 Viking river cruises, and 1 Odyssey Unlimited tour, so I’ve been comparing why traveling with RS tours is our preferred choice. I think it comes down to the feeling of ownership our RS guides have had for the group. It’s more like they are hosting us rather than guiding us. On our Greece tour, it felt like we were the guide’s guests rather than people he was paid to lead.
An example of the difference for me is the way I have seen guides approach someone who is ill. This has happened on at least 2 RS tours and once with each of the other companies. On the RS tours, the guides were proactive about making sure people who needed medication knew how and where to get it and took them when necessary during free time. That didn’t happen in the other situations, to the detriment of the group. Keep in mind this is anecdotal.
I also know that Rick Steves hosts an annual event where all the guides (and bus drivers) are invited to the headquarters in Everett and I believe he picks up the tab. Guides also get a certain amount of discretionary funds to use as they see fit. I think this attitude inspires the guides to have ownership for the tour process. There is a great bit in his (RS) video on the history of the company where he talks about handing the tour cash to one of the tour participants to take to the guide in Europe because he forgot to give it to them ahead of time.
We have been on 12 tours with 4 different companies (RS, Lindblad, Odysseys and Scenic). All the guides have been excellent. They wouldn’t last long as tour guides if they weren’t. They have an ability to handle any situation that may come up, handle logistics amazingly well and are personable to boot. We have had guides on RS, Odysseys and Scenic who have had to deal with medical emergencies on the tour and still do their job as tour guides with a smile on their faces. Our last tour guide with Odysseys went to the emergency room with a guest who had cut his foot and needed surgery and was at the hospital most of the night until the tour member was released. He got less than 3 hours sleep and still managed the tour. Seriously, I don’t know how they do it. As our guide in the Adriatic said to me, “My main concern is your safety and well being.” Kudos to all of them.
Gosh, so many awesome guides and experiences, I hardly know where to start....Here are a few. South of France: something got in the way of the originally planned activity at Les Baux and on-the-fly our awesome guide arranged for all of us to visit the quarries where the art of Van Gogh and Monet (yes, both!) was being projected on huge slabs within the actual quarry. What an amazing experience and this was way back when. Not like what I just saw in the similar exhibit in Paris. Greece: our guide was always telling us "here's what I will be doing/where I will be going during the 'scheduled' free time tomorrow and if anyone would like to join me, join me in the hotel lobby at 9am". Nearly the entire tour group would show up every time and were happy we did. Most recently, on our Paris city tour, we were going to tour Versailles the day it ended up being 108F last month. Our awesome guide surprised us (and possibly the tour office???) by arranging a private air conditioned full-sized bus for the return trip to Paris rather that returning by train or bus on our own, as originally planned. I cannot express how grateful we all were! I have been on lots of RS tours and never had the same guide twice. I can say without equivocation that they have all been amazing, full of personality, personable, knowledgeable, well-educated in a variety of fields, and their people and organizational skills are extraordinary.
On our 17 Day Best of Italy Tour, I think we had 7 or 8 group dinners. The rest of the dinners we were on our own. Our guide would often tell us that he knew a great place to eat and would ask if anyone would like to join him. Surprisingly, many of our tour member chose not to, but those of up that took him up on his offer had better meals than the group meals. It was a lot of fun sharing stories in a smaller group setting. I also really appreciated the local guides.
Love this thread! Any from the GAS tours?
I have been on three RS tours and am planning my 4th now. Each guide has been super, in their own way....treating the tour members as their own guests and taking time to get to know them and getting to share their love of not only travel in general, but their country in particular. Each guide I have meet has a passion for learning, education and travel. Making them a perfect fit for the job they have chosen. There are plenty of places they could work....but they also chose RS tours just as we do.
I also think that it helps that most RS travelers following the no grumps, make it easier on them. And the autonomy they have to make decisions and spend the resources as they see fit I am sure makes each tour that much more rewarding for them personally. Each guide I have met, seems to love guiding for RS as much as we love taking the tours - and that includes some of the drivers...at least one of whom is now a guide too!
I took the RS Scotland tour a few months ago and it was our first RS experience. We worried that OUR guide was the best we would ever encounter 😄. Our guide helped make the experience truly exceptional. The guide played place appropriate Scottish music on our journey, gave us great restaurant tips for “on your own” meals, even meeting us at a fabulous fish and chips shop or at a pubs. And this was on the guide’s own time! The guide was always making sure that everyone was having an enjoyable experience.
I love reading that others thought THEIR guide was the best!