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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Guides: how to pick them

If you must hire a guide (well, you know how I feel about guides), whether it's simply to show you around a city you're a first-time visitor to, escort you on a day-trip, or lead you on a longer trek or journey, here are a few tips:
1) do your research: start with the guide, agency or tour company's website. Are the services, options and prices described? Is there a bio? Are there testimonials?
Compare the offerings with that of other guides and companies.
2) go with a recommended guide: nothing beats a recommendation based on first-hand experience. Read testimonials - and read between the lines. Google the guide's name. Consult traveller forums.
3) opt for a specialist: look at the guide's bio. Does the guide have relevant qualifications, skills, experience? If you're looking at art, architecture or archaeological sites you want an archaeologist, artist, teacher, curator, gallery owner, architect, or masters or PhD student. Not just someone who has an interest. If you're doing a cooking or wine course, opt for a chef, caterer, sommelier or wine-maker over a foodie or wine-lover. If it's a bush-walk or trek, has the guide had years of experience in the area and survival and first-aid skills? Are language skills required?

4) go for a local: was the guide born in the place, was his/her family/tribe from the area, or is the guide a long-term resident? You want someone with a connection to the place and is passionate about the destination. For me, the guide's first-hand experience, personal insight, and opinions and feelings can really make the experience special.
5) look for imagination: are any itineraries for walks, day-trips and excursions offered well thought-out, themed and focused? Has some creativity gone into their creation? Are they inspired and unique? If they're the same as other offerings and just like the one in your guidebook, give it a miss. You want to have a reason to pay for something that you could otherwise manage yourself.
6) consider the fee: remember, cheaper isn't necessarily better (you get what you pay for) while expensive doesn't necessarily mean 'best' (some guides over-charge because they know some travellers won't quibble over the price). Look for guides who charge a fee that seems fair for what's offered.
7) meet the guide beforehand: this isn't always possible, but try to meet before you agree to use the guide's services. You want someone who has personality, confidence, social skills, and can communicate well. Does the guide speak your language as well as you'd like? Does the person listen to what you want rather than simply telling you what they think you should do? Does the guide seem like a genuinely nice person? Is this someone you want to spend a day (or longer) with?
A guide can make or break an experience of a place, so make sure you choose well.

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