When you live in DC (I lived there for over five years), anyone can tell you that the first “getting to know you” question is “What do you do?” This is code for a) do I make more money that you? b) do I work for a more recognized company than you? c) Do I live in a better apartment than yours? Usually, when I tell people what I do for a living, the honest response I get is a tad bit of confusion followed by a pinch of snark and then a lightbulb realization: “Oh wow. Your job is awesome.” This prompts me to take a little smug moment to myself. Once that’s over, I kindly agree and move on.
The thing is, being a tour guide–or as I much prefer, local expert–kind of is the best job in the world. I get to travel! I get to meet people from all over the world! I get to geek out in front of historically and culturally significant places all over the United States and share my knowledge with thousands of travelers! I get to eat! A lot! And I make money while doing all of it! Then, I get to take my “off season” and head overseas!
Please don’t be fooled. It’s not all sunshines and rainbows.
I would, however, like to highlight the pros first. Because I am a positive person. And I don’t want to scare anyone.
What are the pros of being a tour guide?
Its hard to put a finger on what exactly the best part of being a tour guide is (and to clarify, when I say tour guide here, I am also including tour manger/director/leader/etc into that phrase and though some would argue that each of those titles is a different position–they’re not). So, here’s what I think:
- You are an independent contractor: This means that you aren’t really an employee of any one company. There are a small number of tour operators in the industry that hire their guides as full time employees with benefits/401k but even these companies usually only require 100 days of work out of the year. With most others, you are on a contract-by-contract basis. This could mean that you’ve said yes (read: contracted) to lead a two hour city tour one time, or that you’ve actually signed a hard copy sheet of paper stating that you will take on a 30 day cross-country itinerary five times a year. The beauty here is that you can create your own schedule without worrying about a dwindling number of vacation days that some corporation allots you annually. If you want to take the entire month of January off to go explore Fiji, go for it because no one will be stopping you. Most guides typically work their tails off anywhere between mid February through Thanksgiving, but a lot work continuously throughout the entire year. Others work a lot less. As an independent contractor you truly are in charge of your own schedule.
- You get to travel. A lot: I had barely been west of the Mississippi River when I got my first gig in the industry with Contiki Holidays. After I finally led my last (maybe) tour for them in 2015 I had been to 45 US states, nearly 30 other countries and had lived in Australia for a short time. Not all of this travel was on the job. Most of the state visits were thanks to the job. But, most of the international travel came during long breaks I scheduled to travel abroad. I was able to do this because I was an independent contractor (see above).
- You meet people from all over the globe: Over the years, I have guided thousands of people around the United States. My clients have come from every inhabited continent. I’ve met people from all sorts of places–Iran, Namibia, Finland, Ukraine and India. The job is a two-way street. As I was showing off my country to paying travelers, I was also learning about dozens of other cultures.
- You are very rarely in an office: I learned from the ripe age of 21 that cubicle life was not for me. Being a tour guide means you are constantly out and about, talking to large groups and mingling with guests all while leaving behind a very small paper trail. Tour operators always have some sort of admin paperwork for you to finish that goes along with the tour but it is very minimal compared to what you would face in an office.
What are the cons of being a tour guide?
Like most things in life, traveling all of the time has its pitfalls:
- You are an independent contractor: Wait a minute…wasn’t this a pro of being a tour guide? Yes. And no. Being an independent contractor means that if you are not working, you are not being paid. So the hustle is real. For most of us, that’s ok, it’s the right fit for our personality. But, for many, not having a salaried income is too much of a risk.
- You provide your own health insurance and 401k: Most (there are a few exceptions) tour operators in America do not provide their independent contractors with health benefits or a 401k. The bright side to funding your own is that there are some tax benefits that will come back to you.
- You are “on” all the time: Even during your downtime–whether that be tucked away in a cafe for lunch or in your hotel room for a few hours before a group dinner–you are kind of working. For example, let’s say you have to go to the hotel’s front desk for something and you see one of your guests in the lobby who has a problem or question. You’re on! Or how about if you see one of your guests at the airport after you’ve just spent a 20 day tour with them? You certainly can’t ignore them. As the face of a company, you just always have to be on your “A” game.
- It gets lonely: Sure, you’re surrounded by interesting people all the time. But they’re not your people. Even for the biggest extroverts, I would say that there are bouts of loneliness living on the road away from your family and friends. Being a tour guide sure *can* be a glamorous life but you will eventually miss out on a lot of life events. I’ve personally missed weddings, funerals, showers, graduations and other events that I’ve wanted to attend. When you are on a tour, you don’t have the options to just leave and come back in a few days. You either lead the whole tour or you don’t. You have to ask yourself if attending a wedding is worth giving up what could be a large chunk of income. After a while, that and not having your own shower/coffee maker/bed can take its toll.
On the next “How to be a Tour Guide,” I’ll talk about what it takes to actually get there. It’s not just a job application.
Did I miss some pros/cons? Comment here or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org