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How to Be a Tour Guide Part 2: Landing the Dream Job

Running at Monument Valley

Ok, so here we are talking about a dream job. You’ve read my first article on how to be a tour guide. You’ve weighed all of the pros and cons and now you are ready. SIGN ME UP, COACH. I get that you’re an eager beaver. You do want to “travel and get paid for it” after all. But before you run to tell your mom and dad that you’re quitting your comfortable corporate job to travel the world ask yourself these questions:

What qualifications does it take to get this dream job?

Group on the motor coach
A group of sleepy travelers on the motor coach
  • Are you a good great public speaker? As a tour guide, one of your main responsibilities is to talk. A lot. You are consistently providing your group with information. This could mean the historic and culturally significant details about the Eiffel Tower as you stand in front of it or it could be a run down of restaurants, pharmacies, and convenience stores within walking distance of your hotel. How’s your vocabulary? Do you consciously use inflection and excitement when you tell stories? Do you talk too fast or too quietly? Can you command a large group? If you aren’t sure about these things it’s time for self-assement. Next, take the time to hone your craft. No guest on any tour wants monotone, bulleted facts about XYZ–if that were the case a lot of tour guides would be out of a job–guests want an interesting story to listen to. A real story, based on fact, but one that is entertaining and all consuming. Now, PRACTICE. Talk to yourself, your cat, your baby sister. The more you tell a story, the better it’s going to be. Additionally, if you are leading multi-day over the road tours, it’s almost a guarantee that you will spend a lot of time talking to your guests on a motor coach, which means you will be using a microphone. Have you ever spoken on a microphone at a time that didn’t include a drunken karaoke version of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”? Quite honestly, it can be daunting to hear your voice amplified. Do yourself a favor and borrow your cousins sing-along machine and start practicing speaking into a microphone. Even if its just reciting your ABCs to your dog–you want to be comfortable hearing your own voice.
  • Do you have excellent customer service skills? You better. The longer I worked as an over the road tour guide the more I realized that my job was 80% customer service and 20% everything else. When you are on a multi-day tour, you are the face of the company. You are the one person that a guest will come to if there is a problem. What is a problem? A problem could be that they are unhappy with their hotel room because they were placed too close to the elevator or that they are gluten free and even though they have the option of eggs, cheese, meat, yogurt, and fruit at breakfast, they want gluten free toast and are up in arms because it’s not available (this actually happened to me once on a Trafalgar US tour). A problem could also be that they have a medical issue and need to seek treatment or they have somehow lost their passport. All of these things happen while on tour. It is your responsibility as a guide to make sure that a sound solution is found quickly and you are present to mollify ANY situation in a thoughtful and professional manner. To be fair, if you are a local guide who is leading walking tours you might not need to address the scope of problems an over the road guide would. However, you’re still responsible for something as little as making a restaurant suggestion, helping someone get a Lyft, or find the nearest restroom.

    Contiki Group Jeep Ride
    A Contiki group gets ready for a jeep ride in Durango, CO
  • Time management and superb organizational skills: like most (any?) job these need to be on point at all times. Enough said.
  • Are you a people person? Really ask yourself this. When you are leading a group whether it be for two hours or two weeks, you are surrounded by people all the time. You are asked dozens of questions–about your background, your job, the destinations–over and over and over again and you need to answer those questions with the same zeal whether it be the first time answering or the fortieth. You genuinely need to like people if you want this kind of job.

In my next post on “how to be a tour guide” I’ll talk more about specifics on how, exactly, to apply for such a job and what training might look like (though this certainly varies from company to company). Questions? Thoughts? Shoot me an email at scuttabout@gmail.com or comment below.

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Should I take a double-decker bus sightseeing tour?

Red busses in London

I often think a big, red, sightseeing double-decker bus (like City Sightseeing)  you see in nearly every big city (save for London where their double decker red buses are actually just public trans) get a bad rap for

Red Double-decker bus
A queue of red busses in London

being a way to check out a city. This could absolutely be because I am biased to more organic forms of touring and small companies that I think employ more informed guides with better public speaking skills. But, with that said, there is certainly nothing wrong with touring a city via a huge double-decker bus and there are actually some positive takeaways from choosing this way to sightsee.

  • They go everywhere. Usually with your ticket purchase on the double-decker bus you can take any one of the routes the bus company offers. These routes are typically color coded and as long as you’re at a stop that services multiple colors, you can easily switch routes and see much more of a city—or even another state. For example, in Washington, DC some sightseeing buses service Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia
  • You can hop on and hop off. This means that you don’t have to really stress about a schedule. If you’re with a group tour, you are often only allotted a certain amount of time at each location. With the flexibility of hopping on and off you can take more time at sights that really interest you and even skip sights that don’t do anything for you. Usually companies will have buses making their rounds every 20 minutes or so, so as long as you know their schedule you can plan accordingly
  • They will provide commentary. While you’re driving around you should be getting commentary on the major sights you’re looking at. Sometime this commentary comes from a pre-recorded audio tape and other times it come from a live tour guide. Level of knowledge and ability to answer questions can naturally differ between guides so if you’ve noticed you’ve got a good one, it might be in your best interest to ride along a bit longer before hopping off—it’s never guaranteed that you’ll be on the same bus twice as companies have multiple buses servicing their routes all day long
  • They make traversing a city easy. Let it be known that I am always a fan of public transportation to get around a city but I am also an experienced traveler who is comfortable with this sort of thing. Absolutely no judgement if you are not. Therefore, the double-deckers buses are nice because they provide you with a map of the city that conveniently has all of their (usually color coded) routes on it and you just have to show the driver your ticket stub or sticker upon returning to the bus. You don’t have to figure out subway maps, ticket kiosks or any other routing when you’re riding a double-decker around. This type of sightseeing is good for families who are juggling young children and have enough to worry about
Group boards Trolley Bus
A tour group boards a trolley in Savannah, GA

When available, I personally always direct guests to Old Town Trolley. They currently only run in seven cities—Boston, Washington, DC, Key West, St. Augustine, San Diego, Savannah and Nashville—but I find that the guides on them are usually really knowledgeable and easy to listen to. I’ve personally taken rides with them in Boston and Savannah and know a load of guides who have worked for them in DC. The trollies are open air and some of the newer models have stadium seating. But more importantly, the guides that drive them around give live commentary and really do know what they are talking about—often times, they are a complete wealth of knowledge. I don’t always feel like this is the case with the larger, double-decker companies.

 

And if you are in London definitely take advantage of the iconic red double-decker bus. You won’t get commentary but at a low fare it’s a great way to cruise around the city and take it all in.

 

Questions? Comment here or email us at scuttabout@gmail.com

 

 

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How to be a Tour Guide: Pros and Cons of a Dream Job

Group at Grand Canyon

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!

BUT.

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?

Running at Monument Valley
A typical photo opp after visiting Monument Valley on tour

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?

Tour Guide in San Francisco
A candid shot by one of my guests. I was gathering maps and headed to UPS as the group enjoyed lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf

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 scuttabout@gmail.com

 

 

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