Improve your Travel Experience with a Personal Guide

by SteveMadsen on December 2, 2010

Florentine Artisan

Florentine Artisan at work

Independent travellers create their own itinerary, choosing where to go and what to see with the freedom to make changes if something unexpected occurs or the weather is bad. This also means that we use guide books or recorded walking tours to provide most of the back story for everywhere we go across the earth travelscape. This often means we get a superficial experience, we know it was beautiful but not why they built it, what happened to them or how it relates to our modern world.

How can we enrich our travels?

Use a personal guide.

By choosing independent travel, we forsake the ever present tour group guide but that does not mean we never want or need a guide while we travel. For our adventures I am the guide, assembling the information that will inform most of our journey but I need help, and one effective way is to hire a personal guide. In Venice we learned that as the nouveau-riche started to build their grand houses, the established aristocracy felt they had to outstrip their splendour. These, and other grand gestures and excesses, led them to impoverishment and in many cases the families no longer exist. They bred themselves out of existence. It is an insight that I would not have found in the general history themes that I studied for our trip.

A personal guide is also a local who can give you insights or advice that get lead you to other experiences. We had two great meals in Venice at restaurants recommended by our local guide, and bought a beautiful etching whilst on a guided artisan workshop tour in Florence.

How to pick a guide.

Whether you want a general overview tour or to explore a specific aspect of your destination, these guidelines will help you select the right guide for you:

  • Establish how much to spend on guides in your travel budget.
  • Find a well-established individual guide or company. How long have they been in business, and what qualifications and affiliations do have in your destination.
  • Pick a guide who has specialist knowledge in your area of interest. Many academics act as guides to supplement their income but a passionate amateur historian or a local artist may also be the answer to your need.
  • Read and understand their payment and refund policies, and decide whether to book ahead or wait until you get to the destination.
  • Look for recommendations and positive reviews on sites like Trip Advisor and in your guide book. Check travel forums and friends for recommendations but always cross check in different sources.

How much will a guide cost?

We took several personal guided tours in Italy, costing as little as US$70 each (2-3 hours) to several hundred dollars for an extensive day tour in Venice. Each guide took us deeper into Italian culture and history than our previous visits. For $70+ each, we took part in small group (no more than six people) tours with docents (academics) from Context Travel. In Venice, we engaged Venicescapes to take us deep into the decadence of Venice’s decline and open doors to rarely seen spaces and little understood history. This cost over US$400 for two people, and proved intellectually challenging but we now see Venice as more than a beautiful photo opportunity. (Watch for my Venicescapes review in the future.)

Depending on the length of your stay, one or two tours is usually enough for any one city especially if you are seeking out intellectually challenging guides. Knowledge is great but it is a vacation, and sometimes you just want a coffee while you watch the daily interplay of people.

Final thoughts

There are numerous options to get a general feel for your latest destination; walking tours, hop-on hop-off buses and your guide book will provide the basics so spend your money to go beyond the usual. Millions of people visit Venice but very few have seen inside an 18th century Venetian casino where the wealthy entertained small select groups. It is a memory I will cherish and a part of Venetian history that is alive in my mind rather than a dreary fact in a book.

A guide will take you places you never new existed, give you new insights and for that they are worth considering for your next adventure.

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