The more time I spend with private local English-speaking guides—and I’ve used them in countries worldwide—the more I think it’s one of the hardest professions around: part psychologist, part historian, part logistician, part fixer, and all-around charming travel companion. That is why guides vary so vastly in quality; I’ve had a few I wanted to fire, and a few I wanted to invite to my wedding.
The cream of the crop, in my experience, come via top-notch destination specialists such as the ones on Wendy’s WOW List. Our Trusted Travel Experts spend countless hours every year in their destinations vetting new guides and educating old ones. They build loyal relationships with the best guides in a region, so that those guides will go the extra mile for their clients. That’s why I’m more comfortable spending my money on a guide vetted by a Trusted Travel Expert, as opposed to a guide I find online. Here are a few examples of what makes a guide booked by a TTE different:
They whisk you past the lines. They’ll pre-buy your admission tickets so that you don’t have to wait in lines at museums and other sights. I myself have been whisked past a long line at the Taj Mahal, my guide leading us with tickets already in hand.
They get you in. Different regions, cities, and even museums or monuments require different guiding licenses; only the best guides have the licenses to chaperone you everywhere you want to go. If you’re stuck with a guide who’s not licensed to show you a site, he’ll have to hand you off to someone else, and that locally licensed guide could be terrible. On a different visit to the Taj Mahal, I was handed off to someone who did nothing but recite historical dates and attempt to restrict my photo taking to only the corniest shots. (No, I do not need to pose while seeming to pluck the top off of the dome—thanks, though.)
They answer every question. Guides clamor to work for the top firms, who can feed them a steady stream of clients—so those firms hire only the most knowledgeable guides. When reader Courtney Hartness reviewed a trip booked by Trusted Travel Expert Joe Yudin, she called her guide “a walking encyclopedia.” From Montana to Mendoza, from Saigon to the Serengeti, I’ve had the same experience with TTEs’ guides.
They connect you with local influencers and other interesting people. In fact, often the guide is a local influencer or expert in a particular subject matter. In their review of Italy Trusted Travel Expert Maria Gabriella Landers, readers Bob and Linda Infelise describe their guides as “a professor at the University of Edmonton’s campus in Italy, a television personality in Bologna, and a wonderful retired librarian in Venice.”
They hold the keys to the highest level of insider access. In many cases, a guide alone can’t open doors that are closed to the public. “It takes years to cultivate relationships with museum curators, theater directors, palace management, etc.,” says Greg Tepper, Trusted Travel Expert for Russia. No single guide in St. Petersburg or Moscow can get a traveler behind all or even most closed doors. But Greg can, and so his guides can when they’re working for him.
They take you to only the most worthwhile shops and restaurants—not those that give kickbacks. The best guides command the highest rates; lesser ones are forced to supplement their wages with kickbacks from cronies at touristy stores, eateries, even museums.
We’d love to know: What do you value most in a private guide?