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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Guides: who needs them?

Guides. How many people use them I wonder. Do you? And I don't mean travel guidebooks. Nor the guides who take package tour groups around. And not the specialist guides who lead treks through mountains, jungles, glaciers and other hard-to-get places we might not otherwise have access to. I mean the specialized personal guides who people hire to escort them around a city for a few days, walk them around a museum or archaeological site, and take them on walking tours, culinary tours, and so on. I'd never given the subject much thought, until recently. We've only ever used guides a handful of times and on all but two occasions they ruined the experience for me and I swore I'd never use them again. I keep reading and hearing about people hiring guides: the owner of a travel website we were consulting on was creating itineraries that inevitably involved using a guide in each destination and sometimes several specialist guides in one place; in a travel magazine I read the other day a reader asked the expert to suggest guides she could hire in a popular European city; and a trip planner recently asked if there was a guide in Dubai I could recommend. Dubai is the last place on earth anyone needs a guide. The city is easy to get around, people are friendly, and everyone speaks English. And surely they're the main reasons you'd consider hiring a guide: accessibility challenges, hostile 'natives' and language barriers? I've occasionally felt while researching a guidebook in a place where we only speak the basics that we could have benefited from a translator. And when we trekked the hill tribe villages in Thailand, we certainly would have had a warmer welcome if we would have had a guide from the area - as promised! A visit to an art gallery or archaeological museum can be enriched by a guide familiar with the work on display. But it baffles me when I see a guide bringing a tourist into a café in Damascus and I overhear an explanation which seems to come straight out of our guidebook (the one we wrote!) or I see a guide walking a couple around an easily-navigable city such as Paris, Milan or Madrid. Part of the fun of visiting a place for the first time is getting lost.

Pictured? The last place I'd want a guide - no way would I want anyone to get between me and the wonderful assault on all senses that is Aleppo souq.


Teacher Girl said...

I read this post with great interest. We use guides in Europe and are getting much more out of our trips than ever before. Although I am a great believer in research (in fact I LOVE reading and watching films about our next destination... I am famous for it in my family), my actual life as a full-time teacher/counselor does not always allow sufficient time to read a full history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before our trip to Budapest.

We are very selective about our guides; we are looking for local guides who really know their stuff AND for the smallest groups possible. Two to six people is perfect for us. We tend to take a guided walk at the beginning of our trip as this gives us a nice orientation to the city.

Our favourite guides have been from Context Tours in Rome and Venice. You can check them out at:

Although I used both the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet in my twenties, I now prefer Rick Steves' travel guides for Europe. He offers great recommendations for guides in each cities and provides instructions for do-it-yourself walking tours. We use both methods when seeing a new city.

I don't think of a guide as a person who will help me get around a place (we have legs and maps and my partner has an excellent sense of direction) but as an expert who knows the city in a deep and meaningful way and is able to share this sense of place with me as a traveller.

laradunston said...

Hi - thanks for commenting. It's so good to hear this feedback.

I guess if we'd had more positive experiences with guides I'd be more positive and certainly use them more. I've just come across too many bad ones and see tourists using them looking bored and appearing to be shut off from really experiencing a destination with the guide acting more like a minder. I guess like Thomas Kohnstamm and travel writers, there are a lot of terrible guides around giving guiding more generally a bad name.

But I'm so glad you mention Contexts. I came across them recently - their walks look so fascinating! - and I contacted them. I was so excited to see they use specialist guides with PhDs - we're trying them out next week in Rome actually, so I'll report back on that experience

Thanks again!