While planning a trip to London in 2010, I worked with a travel planner for the first time. And she suggested something odd. Or at least I thought it was odd at the time.
She recommended hiring a private tour guide. I cringed. All I could envision was having to follow around a perfect stranger robotically rattling off a bunch of boring facts on things about which I didn't even care. But the time I spent with the guide turned out to be one of the best parts of my entire trip, a lavish affair that included luxuries such as sipping champagne while watching the sun set on the Thames from atop the London Eye.
Leisure travelers such as myself aren't the only ones taking advantage of the joys of working with a personal tour guide. Business travelers have discovered that hiring a local guide is an extremely smart and convenient way to make the most of any downtime they may have.
"The biggest pro is that it's on your time schedule, so you have full control, which is especially good when you're trying to maximize a long layover," said Lauren Fairbanks, a partner at the marketing firm Stunt & Gimmick's, who typically spends seven to 10 days on the road each month. "I'm actually a fan of checking things out on my own, but only having a few hours in a city and not knowing your way around is a good formula for getting lost and missing your flight."
Plus, you're likely to learn more, as Fairbanks discovered when she hired a private guide for a visit to Teotihuacan during a long layover in Mexico City.
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"I got a lot of insider information that I wouldn't have gotten had I toured the site myself. My guide had a lot of great stories and history to impart," she said. "The other great thing was that from our conversation, the guide got a good sense of my personality and recommended making an unplanned stop on our way back, where I got to watch and learn how tequila was distilled."
Having the flexibility to tailor the tour and add an activity was a bonus, Fairbanks said.
"Private tour guides can easily adapt to the needs of their customers, whereas on a packaged group tour that wouldn't be possible," said Tanja Markmann, of the German event agency Feine Fluchten, who used the services of a guide during a three-day corporate outing in Italy.
"A private tour guide comes with a lot of pros -- individuality, privateness without any interruptions, the personal touch, flexibility, and so on -- and is definitely worth the money."
The cost of hiring a private tour guide varies, but for an experienced guide, you can expect to pay around $70 an hour. In London, my friend and I paid $470 to have a guide for the entire day; that price included admission to all of the attractions we visited as well as all of our subway, bus, taxi and even boat fares.
That fee may sound like a lot when you consider that you can sightsee on your own for free, or when you compare it to the cost of the latest guidebook or destination app. But when I factor in the one-on-one attention and expertise we received, not to mention the convenience and ease of negotiating the city with someone who knew the area like the back of her hand, it seems like the deal of the century. And when you're traveling for business, your big expenses and most of your meals are covered by your employer, so isn't it worth spending some of your own money to make the most of the trip?
Dan Nainan, a comedian who flew 200,000 miles and performed in 11 countries last year, said he thinks so. In particular, he values the insight and even companionship of having a local expert show him around.
"Since I travel by myself quite a bit, my favorite part is having somebody to talk to," he said. "I think it's great from a security standpoint, too. Not that I'm paranoid about being robbed or anything, but I think it's much less likely to happen if you have a local with you."
On the way home from a recent corporate gig in Dubai, Nainan arranged to have a long layover in Nairobi, Kenya, so he could go on a safari in Nairobi National Park.
"It was great having someone who knew how to deal with the local authorities at the park and who could get us in quickly instead of waiting and trying to figure everything out like all the other tourists," Nainan said.
"I think you can save a tremendous amount of time, because a guide is obviously going to know the quickest way to get someplace, instead of you having to consult guidebooks and maps and so forth. One also gets an excellent sense of the local flavor, and, if it's a country that's not English speaking, it's wonderful to have somebody who can translate for you."
Of course, as with most things, finding the right tour guide is key. Most countries, and even a lot of cities, have a professional tourist guide association to which you can turn. For example, Deborah Charles, who so expertly introduced me to London in 2010, is a member of Britain's Guild of Registered Tourist Guides. More importantly, she is a certified Blue Badge Tourist Guide, each of whom undergoes a vigorous qualification process and a two-year education and training program.
Robert Blessing, a former guide who launched LocalGuiding a year ago, started his site as a way of connecting travelers with locals in a new, more personal way.
"When I was a tour guide, every time I picked up a new client, it was like a blind date," Blessing said. "The clients booked me through a travel agent, and so I didn't know what kind of people they were, what their expectations were, etc. With LocalGuiding, travelers get to know the guide before they go and can establish a direct relationship with them."
His site also incorporates ratings and reviews from previous travelers.
"Traveling so much for work can be really tedious," Fairbanks said, "so it's nice to have a few hours or a day scheduled for relaxing and checking out a city at your own pace."
And hiring a qualified, knowledgeable tour guide allows business travelers to make the most of that free time.