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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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