We’ve only been taking package tours since about 1998 when we went with Travel Editions to Hidden Italy. We were based in Padua and I seem to remember it was early in the year and that the weather was not great.
We’ve subsequently taken lots of such tours, several with Travel Editions, within Europe and further afield, and Voyages Jules Verne (VJV), a couple with Brightwater and one with Riviera (never again) and many others. And during this time of course we’ve experienced many tour guides, some locals and some who travel out with the tour, ranging from the excellent to the mediocre. It’s time to take stock.
The reason for opting for a package tour by the way was that I felt others might know more and be able to schedule an activity tour better than me. This would leave me free to make the more important decisions like where to have dinner and what wine to drink. It’s a principle which has now served me well for nearly 20 years.
As I hunt for the best guides, I spare the blushes of those less good, what do I look for?
- The qualities that follow are in no particular order but this one is the most important. The guide must look after the wellbeing of the group. It’s a bit like the cabin crew on an aeroplane. You grumble about not getting your G&T quickly enough but they’re really there for your safety. Tour guides fortunately rarely have to take care of emergencies but you still expect them to be taking care of those travellers who are perhaps less able.
- He/she must know his/her way round and a part of this is speaking the local language. We had one tour guide who failed the local language test and couldn’t command the confidence of the driver let alone the tour group. They should be source of advice for restaurants and shopping.
- Knowledge of the subject matter of the tour is important as is the ability to present it simply, clearly and enthusiastically. We’ve had guides who knew everything and wanted to share it all with you with the result that he/she was gold medal standard in boring. And in this respect he/she should retain objectivity and not allow his/her political views to get in the way of telling a good story.
- And finally all those other small factors like approachability, willingness to answer silly questions, knowing when to talk and when to shut up and, especially, giving clear direction so that the group knows what’s going on and what to expect.
So here goes. Which guides would have won gold medals? Three are easy and they starred as a result of their circumstance.
Number 1 was Raji our guide in Sri Lanka on a VJV tour. He had it easy of course because for some reason VJV allowed the tour to go ahead with just the two of us (or maybe we were an incremental two which they’d overbooked). He was super knowledgeable, he took us to the top of Sirigaya and to excellent restaurants every day; he made sure that we were well looked after wherever we were. Full marks all round.
Number 2 was the guide in Costa Rica. We were 2 of just 4 Brits on a 40 strong US tour and he did an excellent job of herding us. Like Raji he was also super knowledgeable. However his challenge was to get the doctor in when Juni became sick with her gall stone problem which he responded to with alacrity. Also full marks and a special mention for coping with the emergency!
Number 3 was Ravi from Travel Editions when we went to Kerala. He also benefited from a small group, just 7 of us with a couple not engaging, but he did a really good job and showed lots of flexibility when we asked to vary the itinerary.
And a fourth one after some extra deliberation: Lucia (pictured above) who looked after us in Puglia early this year, another VJV tour, for her simple vivacity. We were a lively group but she handled us with aplomb even if we felt a little over-churched by the end of our week.
I’ll squeeze another in although he scored a demerit. Dennis was an American guide with Travel Editions who was with us in Tuscany and Calabria. Again super knowledgeable and especially excellent at telling stories and at engaging with the group. We enjoyed two trips with Dennis but his problem was his enthusiasm to arrange special deals for the group to have lunch or dinner which denied individuals options which they might otherwise pursue.
Others deserve a mention. These include the excellent Egyptologists when we took our Nile cruise with VJV, the rangers who looked after us twice in South Africa, the two guides who took us round East Java and those who explained everything at Uluru last year, the scouser in Grenada and the ‘old man’ who hosted us in Assisi.
But there are others who don’t deserve a mention. They were either unimpressive but simply held the show together, that’s enough you might say, or down right bad because they performed badly against one or more of the qualities suggested above.
And finally let’s not forget that any tour guide depends on a good driver. The best ones you don’t notice but they’re always there when they’re expected, they avoid the worst of the traffic and don’t get involved in anything untoward, and they help with getting on and off the bus when it’s needed. Without a good driver we’d all be lost.