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 or comment below.

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Cruise the San Diego Harbor with a Boat Tour

San Diego Harbor

The weather in San Diego is great all year round and I’d say that it has one of the prettiest harbors in all of America so while you’re visiting and, especially if it’s for the first time, you may like a harbor boat tour.

What is a Harbor Boat Tour like in San Diego?

Manchester Grand Hyatt seen from the boat tour
The Manchester Grand Hyatt sits on the San Diego Bay

Hornblower Cruises offers six daily cruises that are one hour in length and occur every hour and fifteen minutes between 10:00am-5:15pm. Each cruise is narrated by a crew member as you tour the harbor. The boat is two stories and has both indoor and outdoor seating and has a small snack bar serving cold and hot items and beverages including beer & wine.

Before you board, you’ll have a souvenir picture taken with your party that will be available for purchase after the tour. The boat itself is kind of like a ferry so while you tour the harbor you don’t feel an exorbitant amount of motion if you are prone to seasickness.

There are two boat tours you can choose from—North or South. I’ve done both of these and they are relatively different. The southern route takes a course that focuses on Mission Bay, Point Loma, Cabrillo National Monument and Coronado island before swinging back around to see the ships of the Maritime Museum and the USS Midway. The northern route is much more military/Navy focused in my experience as you swing past a handful of Navy ships in the harbor and receive information about each of those in addition to the USS Midway, Coronado island and general San Diego history (SD history is given on the southern route as well). A main draw to either of these is the opportunity to spot sea lions. Hornblower touts the northern tour as the most popular for sea lion sightings but I’ve seen them plenty of times on the southern tour as well (though note that it’s never a guarantee you’ll see them at all).

A boat tour is a lovely way to introduce yourself to San Diego and learn a lot about the city’s history while catching some sunshine and hopefully spotting a smelly, barking sea lion in the water.

What others are saying about Hornblower Cruises:

Trip Advisor

Other San Diego harbor cruises:

Flagship Cruises


Questions? Comment below or email us at

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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.


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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!


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



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Tour the Grand Canyon in a Helicopter

The Grand Canyon

Taking a helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon is nothing short of a dream for most people, but that dream can easily become a reality when visiting the south rim of the canyon. Just outside of the National Park, the small gateway town of Tusayan houses a heliport for the adventurous.

What helicopter companies can I tour the Grand Canyon with?

Papillon Helicopters offers multiple flights from the south rim of the canyon with a variety of lengths and prices. Getting to the heliport takes roughly 15 minutes in a car from the Grand Canyon Village or can be accessed by a short walk from stop number 2 from the purple route NPS shuttle bus that operates during peak travel season from March-September.

Grand Canyon
A view of the south rim of the Grand Canyon

It is highly encouraged to make online reservations ahead of time, as flights book out very quickly during peak months. Once you arrive at the heliport you’ll enter the small building and walk up to the registration desk where they will take your name and ask you to stand on a small piece of what I call “magic carpet.” Here, they will record your weight (don’t worry, it’s not advertised to others) and direct you into the small theater to watch the safety video. Do not try to skip this video, as you’ll receive a small sticker upon exiting the theater that confirms you’ve seen the film. Outside the theater, there is a small waiting room, restrooms, a very small coffee bar (if Dan is there say hello!) and a gift shop. Wait until after your flight to purchase from the gift shop, as you cannot have additional items on the helicopter. In fact, upon entering the building, the only thing you should have with you is a camera—no backpacks, large purses, etc—leave all of the in the car (it just adds weight on the helicopter and is not permitted).

When they call your name from the waiting room, you’ll be given a piece of paper with a number on it. This is where you’ll sit on the helicopter. If you were given the number 1, consider yourself lucky, as this is the seat up front next to the pilot that has floor to ceiling views of the canyon. Unfortunately, you do not get to dictate or even request where you sit on the helicopter as it is all determined on how they balanced out the weight. Each helicopter fits six people and its also not a guarantee that you will be facing forward, as some seats face backward. But it’s all worth it once you get over the canyon! Before you get into the helicopter they will take a souvenir photo available for purchase of you standing in front of it—if they take a photo of the whole group your with and you’d rather just have a photo of you and your partner/friend/mom/etc don’t hesitate to ask them to take another; they want you to buy this photo so they won’t mind doing it.

What is it like to fly over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter?

Helicopter over Grand Canyon
The pilot actually took this photo of me mid flight, 2008

Once you take off you’ve got about 10-12 minutes flying time over the South Kaibab National Forest. You’ll be listening to theme music in from the headphones they give you (think Frank Sinatra “Come Fly with Me” etc) and things start to intensify once you get closer to the rim (maybe you’ll hear the theme song from the movie Rocky). One of the coolest sensations I’ve ever had is the feeling you get once you hit the rim of the canyon. I won’t go into much detail here so you can experience it organically but it’s just incredible. As you fly along the canyon, your pilot will provide you with information about what you’re seeing and famous rock formations if they appear.

When determining how long you want to fly for take into account that 10-12 minutes to and from the canyon is spent over the forest. I always used to tell clients that if their budget allowed they should go for the longer flight—if you’re going to spend the money on something you’ll most likely do only once you might want to maximize your time over the actual canyon. But that’s just my two cents.

Helicopters can be a rocky. They are much smaller than planes and fly completely differently. But if heights and movements don’t scare you, it’s totally worth it. They are so fun. If you have no interest in trying out a helicopter but still want to fly over the canyon, Papillon also offers an airplane tour.

Please note that flights can cancel at anytime due to inclement weather and/or too much wind.


We’ve been to the Grand Canyon collectively nearly 100 times. If you have any questions, email us at

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Tour the Southwest in a Hot Air Balloon

Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival

The romanticism of a hot air balloon flight is alluring to many and while you can probably take a ride in nearly all 50 states, there’s something special about the Southwest. This post will highlight rides in both Phoenix, Arizona and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

What Should I know about a Hot Air Balloon Flight?


Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival
Balloons flying at the annual Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival

So the basics are that hot air balloon flights typically take place during sunrise and/or sunset as that’s when the air is the stillest. I have experience with very early (yawn) sunrise rides. The way it works is that you book with a company and they will send one of their chase vehicles to your hotel to pick you up pre-ride. This is usually at the crack of dawn, say 5-5:30am. Yeah, early. Next, you’ll drive out to their launching site which could differ depending on the day and the direction of the wind but it is usually an open field. Once there, you’ll watch the crew—for lack more industry specific terms here—unfold and blow up the balloons. This is honestly an incredible sight to see, as it really puts into perspective how big these machines are. For the ambitious, the crew will often let you help with set up if you ask nicely.

The whole set up time might take 30-45 minutes or so. Then, you get in! Now if you’re thinking of a rickety old basket hanging from the balloon, think again, as the baskets in real life could not be more different. They typically fit anywhere from 6-12 people (depending on their size) comfortably. That’s a huge basket! And the baskets are broken up into compartments so there might be 2-3 people in each compartment rather than all of the riders together in one area. This is so the weight is evenly distributed and if something really cool is seen from one side of the basket not everyone tries to rush over there at once to see it beacause that could easily be a recipe for disaster.

Your pilot (yes, in America hot air balloon pilots are FAA certified with the same airman’s certificate you’d have to get to fly any other aircraft) shoots up a few good bursts of hot air and the crew lets go of the holding ropes and you’re off!

So what does this feel like for the flyer? This is by far the most common question I ever got from travelers who were weary of going up in a balloon—especially for those who get motion sickness. Let me be the one to tell you, it feels like nothing. Truly, being in a hot air balloon is completely motionless. If you were to close your eyes while you were taking off, I doubt you’d even realize when you were one hundred feet off the ground–it’s that still. And for those afraid of heights it naturally depends on the severity of your phobia but if you keep your eyes trained on the horizon it shouldn’t be much of a problem.

Hot Air Expeditions
Hot Air Expeditions gets ready to fly in Phoenix, AZ

While in air, you’re able to view the incredible mountains around you and don’t be surprised if your experienced pilot takes you up and down in elevation. I personally enjoy being closer to the ground to see what’s happening on the desert floor. On some of my flights, I’ve seen jack rabbits and coyotes running around which has been a cool experience from a birds-eye view. I’ve also had my pilot talk extensively about operating balloons and show off a few gravity tricks (involving water) mid-air. Of course, not every pilot is chatty but most are willing to answer any questions and speak about their positions as pilots.

Landing can be adventurous. A still, soft landing can be as easy as touching the ground, lightly bouncing a couple of times and then touching the ground again. A rough landing might mean that the basket touches the ground, drags a few yards and topples over on its side. Before you land, your pilot will instruct you with the landing brace position you’re to be in while landing as to not incur injury and believe it or not, the rough landings are usually more fun.

When you land whether it be in the middle of a desert field or off the side of the highway, your chase team will fetch you and take you back to your hotel.

Often times, balloon companies will take landing one step further in creating a special moment for the flier.

My personal favorite, Hot Air Expeditions, will set up picnic tables for you wherever you land and set out breakfast (usually a small quiche, apple slices, cheese, and a croissant of some variety) and champagne. They will toast you with The Balloonist’s Prayer before giving you your flight certificate and sending you on your way. It’s a magical experience in the desert.

Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloons
Rainbow Riders flying over the Rio Grande River in Albuquerque, NM

In Albuquerque, New Mexico I’ve flown with Rainbow Ryders who fly in multiple locations. One of the perks of the flight scenery there is flying over the absolutely gorgeous Rio Grande River. And if you happen to be in ABQ for the annual Hot Air Balloon Fiesta—an outstanding event that I’ve been lucky enough to attend twice while on tour—it’s great to couple a flight with your time at the event. Rainbow Ryders will also toast you with champagne post ride and present you with a flight certificate to commemorate your ride. They too provide post flight refreshments but it’s more of a selection of juices and granola bars—not a full picnic breakfast.

While preparing for your flight you should plan to wear closed toed shoes (for the possible rough landing) and I would always suggest a baseball cap or other hat to men especially who might be lacking thick hair. The closer you are to the flame, the hotter it will feel on your head. Now, this warmth is welcome in the winter months, as even the desert is cold at dawn during winter but the flame can be quite hot during summer months so take precaution. It is a hot air balloon after all!

In my experience, the average time spent in the air is roughly 45 minutes to an hour and the whole excursion usually lasts about three or so hours. So, if you’re choosing to do a sunrise flight you’ll be done and ready to carpe diem by the time you’d normally wake up.

What others are saying about Hot Air Expeditions:

Trip Advisor


Experience Scottsdale

What others are saying about Rainbow Ryders:

Trip Advisor


Balloon Fiesta

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Taking a Tour at the Neon Museum in Las Vegas

Neon Museum

Naturally, when you think of Las Vegas the first thing that pops into your head is not taking a tour the Neon Museum. And if it is then you and I would get along fabulously. But I am here to tell you that if time allows and you have a general interest in Vegas/Americana history and a little kitsch, a guided tour at the Neon Museum is well worth your time (hint: a guided tour is the only way to experience the museum).

Neon Museum
Casino signs in the boneyard of the Neon Museum

I’ve already talked about my time at the Neon Museum in Las Vegas (with a larger photo gallery) here but wanted to write a post that was more descriptive of the tour itself. Since opening in 2012, the Neon Museum “boneyard” is gaining steam quickly with a over a record breaking 100k visitors in 2016 alone. Here’s what you’ll need to know if you plan to go on a tour.

What Should I know about Touring the Neon Museum?

The museum is located pretty far north on Las Vegas boulevard—even further north than (old) downtown Vegas and Fremont Street. They have a free parking lot but if you are traveling without a car (as most do in Vegas) you can take the double decker Deuce bus to get there as well. This is the mode of transportation I chose and it took me a little over an hour to get there from Caesars Palace which is about half way up the strip—so plan accordingly if this is how you choose to travel to the museum. Of course, there’s always Lyft/Uber/cabs.

You must book your timed tickets ahead online (and they will sell out quickly) as space is limited and tickets are not transferable meaning if you arrive early you will still have to wait for your designated tour time and if you arrive more than 20 minutes late you may forfeit your spot on tour. You’ll check in at the La Concha which is a very Space Age, mid-century former motel lobby. They have a small gift shop to check out while you wait.

Neon Museum
The old Stardust casino sign in the boneyard of the museum

From there, your guide will gather your group (small, I would say under 20 people) and you’ll head into what they call the neon boneyard. And this is where it gets cool. Your tour around the boneyard will last roughly an hour and your guide will tell all kinds of stories about the old neon signs you see—casino/restaurant/mob/Vegas strip history go hand in hand with these signs and you really get a feeling that you’re strolling through the golden age of Las Vegas—like the rat pack may be right around the corner. Still photos on tour are welcomed and encouraged, however, audio and video recording is prohibited. The museum does not let you wander the boneyard after the tour concludes so make sure you are getting those pictures in as you go along.

I chose a daytime tour in September and it was HOT. Vegas is the desert after all and you are outside in the open air for the tour so come prepared with a bottle of water (they also sell these in the lobby). The Neon Museum also offers night tours and a limited number of signs still light up (restoration is a lengthy and costly process) so it really depends on your time schedule and what you’re in the mood for.

Adult ticket prices are $19 for day and $25 for night tours (current February 2017). For other FAQs of the museum click here.


What others are saying:

Trip Advisor


Have time for a video? Check out this story about the lights at the museum from CBS Sunday Morning

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What You Should Know about a Group Tour

Tour Group

What is a tour operator?

A tour operator is the business or corporation behind each and every tour and they can widely vary in size. Large corporations (like Trafalgar, Tauck, and Contiki) typically brochure multi-day itineraries for numerous states and/or countries. TO’s (as they’re called in the business) most often have sales and marketing teams and departments that contract with hotels, vendors, bus companies and tour guides.

Contiki Tour Bus
The Contiki tour coach sits on the side of the road outside Monument Valley.

However, a tour operator can also be a small, local company responsible for building and executing a tour from the ground up (like Florence for Foodies and Biking Buenos Aires). Now this may seem simple if you’re only advertising a one-hour walking tour, but there are small start-ups who cater to hundreds of guests and only have a few employees. Often, when you’re dealing with a large brand that offers tours internationally, you may book a tour through their company and their website but once you arrive at your destination you may come to discover that they’ve actually sub-contracted with a more local company. For example, I went on a two week tour through India in 2010 and I booked my tour through Imaginative Traveller. When I arrived at the starting point of my tour I realized it was actually being run by a company called Geckos Adventures but was being branded as both. While this really shouldn’t affect any part of your tour, it’s worth noting that large tour operators sometimes don’t run ground operations in each brochured destination.

What is a tour guide/manager/leader/director?

For multi-day tours:

Simply put, your tour guide is the face of the company you booked with while you’re on tour. But they are so much more than that. A tour guide’s typical job responsibilities include all ground logistics. They do things like check the group into the hotel, confirm meals and dietary requirements with restaurants, call in confirmations to activities like wine-tasting or hot-air ballooning, and handle all issues that arise while on tour. Sure, they have an operations team that can help them when serious issues come up but it’s really up to your tour guide to make sure the tour runs smoothly. This is not an easy task and (in my experience) most guides consider customer service to be their most important job function—their guest evaluations and gratuity depends on it (more on that later).

Additionally, a sufficient tour guide should be able to provide historical and cultural information about the places you visit and should also be able to answer questions about the itinerary or the properties you’re staying at. For example, your guide should have a rough idea of what time you’ll be arriving at the hotel and should know if the hotel offers laundry services or a continental breakfast.

When booking multi-day tours with large tour operators, the guide is usually touted as a tour director or manager or trip leader. There are some people in the business who make a distinction between this role and that of a local tour guide. On multi-day tours it’s quite possible that you will have what’s called a step-on guide (literally a local guide who steps-on your motor coach to provide a city tour) who has more in-depth local knowledge. With that being said, any guide who takes his/her job seriously should also be able to provide information about the places you are going—perhaps not to the degree of someone that actually lives there, but the guide should have a solid knowledge base of the places visited. For example, your tour director should also be able to explain the Boston Tea Party to you if you’re headed to Boston though they might not be able to suggest a restaurant that serves gluten free crab cakes. It is ok for the traveler to assume the guide has actually visited all of these places before, as most companies offer what are called “shadow” trips to guides who are learning new itineraries. However, this is not always the case! “Fake it till you make it” deeply applies to being a tour guide. When I started in this industry I had a flip phone, a paper atlas, and a binder with printed out information about the places we were going. Needless to say, it’s so much easier now for a guide to quickly look up information to answer questions when needed.

Washington DC Tour Guide
Here I am leading a local city tour for Trafalgar in Washington, DC during the summer of 2015.

Do not assume your guide knows everything about everything. During my first year guiding across America (2008, I had a flip phone), I had an Australian journalist come on my two week tour of the west coast and follow up with a magazine article about the tour and the company. In the article, he mentioned that my knowledge base was a mile wide and an inch deep and at the time I remember being highly offended. But the more I traveled and thought about it, the more comfortable I was agreeing with that statement. Guides are often only spending a night or two in a destination before moving on or they might spend half of their calendar year leading tours on one coast and the other half leading tours elsewhere. It is not until guides build up the experience in destination after destination that they will be able to tell you where to eat the best sandwich or get the richest coffee. We are lucky technology now provides the guide and traveler with endless information, but the bottom line is that any traveler should not rely on their guide for the answer to every question they have. I once had a women point to a golf course in the distance off the side of a highway and ask me what the green fee was. To something like that, I will never care about not having an answer.

For local tours:

Local tour guides are typically invaluable—especially if guiding is their full time gig. The city/park/farm/etc is their office. Use them for their knowledge. Ask them questions about anything from how to use the metro system to their favorite craft beer bars to the cleanest public restroom. It is almost a guarantee that their knowledge will be much more accurate and in depth that the guide book you’re carrying with you.

Something to note: Most of the time tour guides are independent contractors. There are a few large tour operators who hire their guides full time and provide a salary and health benefits but in my experience 3/4 of the guides you’ll come in contact with work contract to contract. This means the same guide who leads certain tours for a five star luxury company may also work for a budget family company at other times of the year. Guides often change hats depending on the day. I have a drawer full of uniforms from all of the companies I contracted with over the years. However, does that mean my knowledge base or customer service skill set changed from tour to tour depending on the company I was working for? Of course not—I always wanted to maximize my income potential.

Which leads me to…

Tipping and Evaluations

I’ll keep this short because I hope for most it’s common sense. Tour reviews and tipping are taken very seriously by everyone in the tourism industry. Please review your guide fairly. If it was raining one day and an activity was cancelled because of inclement weather, it’s not the fault of your guide and should not be reflected in his/her evaluation. I’ve been blamed for snow storms in the Grand Canyon and wildfires in Yosemite. It happens.

Gratuity is often how tour operators justify paying their guides really low wages. When I started with my first company in 2008, I was making $5.50/hour. You read that correctly. Guides, like everyone in the service industry (in America), heavily depend on gratuity. Regardless of if your home country tips or not, please follow the suggested amount given to you by your tour operator and note that those are the average suggestions. If you had an outstanding guide who made your holiday a joy, please show your appreciation.

What are multi-day group tours?

Itineraries that range anywhere from 2 days and beyond qualify as multi-day group tours.

Tour guests eating dinner
Tour guests eating dinner at Dick’s Last Resort in San Diego, CA.

You would find these in the brochure of a large tour operator. I like to call them sampler platters because TO’s are consistently trying to pack in as much activity as they can in an allotted amount of time. It’s all about the bang for your buck. This, however, doesn’t bode well with some (more on that later). Most often, this is what is included on a multi-day group tour:

  • ground transportation (in the form of a motor coach with driver) from the starting point to ending point of a tour—not all companies provide shuttles/transportation to/from airports
  • hotel accommodation is typically based on double occupancy. This means that if you are a single traveler you will be paired with a same-sex roommate—unless you choose to upgrade to a single occupancy room, which costs more but you’ll get some privacy
  • a tour guide/manager/director/etc to take care of all tour logistics and to make sure your tour runs smoothly (hello!)
  • SOME meals—this is huge. Rarely does a tour operator provide all meals. It is very important that if things like breakfast are especially important to you that you read the fine print of the brochure. More often than not, the TO will provide some breakfasts and some dinners. Lunch is hardly ever included unless you are traveling with a luxury brand, and even then it’s few and far between. If a company does not provide breakfast, DO NOT assume that your hotel will offer a free continental breakfast. I truly have had countless guests blow up in my face because they were not provided breakfast by the TO or the hotel. This is all in the fine print. Like all things in life, if you are getting a really inexpensive deal on a tour you will make sacrifices along the way for it. However, does this mean that because you are not provided each and every meal you will go hungry? Of course not. Food options are always available at the guests expense
  • some activities—this really varies by TO

Typically NOT covered by a TO:

  • traveler’s insurance
  • air travel + baggage fees
  • some meals (again, read read read fine print)
  • hotel incidentals
  • souvenirs
  • most activities


Are group tours for me?

If you’re contemplating a multi-day group tour here’s a small pros/cons list:

Tour guests taking photos
Tour guests taking photos from the tour coach.


  • most things from start to end (on the ground) are handled for you by your tour director—it’s a easy way to travel especially if you’ve never been to any of the locations or just don’t feel like always having a map out, traveling with a group can alleviate a lot of stress
  • group tours come with a base price that covers the above mentioned amenities so you’re not worrying about booking hotels/restaurants/etc. You pay once price for the majority of your holiday
  • It’s a great way for single people to travel—this is especially true for single women who might not be comfortable venturing out on their own in big cities
  • if you don’t have time to research your destinations before your holiday but still want to learn about all of the places you’re visiting, group travel (through your tour guide) truly does provide you with so much historical/cultural/local information


  • groups are often big. The average motor coach can seat 54 or so passengers and each and every TO is trying to maximize their profit margin by selling each seat available (some companies will even cancel departures if not enough seats are sold). There are a handful of TOs who cap their group sizes around 15 or so depending on where you’re traveling (African overland tours come to mind) but in America/Europe/Australia you can often expect large group sizes—read the fine print if you take issue with too many co-travelers!
  • tours are not leisurely holidays—see above regarding packing it all in. Therefore, if you enjoy really taking your time places, a group tour may not be your cup of tea. Every time you disembark your tour coach the tour guide is going to tell you a pretty strict time to be back on it. That’s just the way it goes
  • there are often early mornings and late nights—if you enjoy sleeping past 7:00am (most days) you may want to reconsider a group tour. There’s a lot of ground to cover!
  • you might not like your travel mates or tour guide. This is rare but it can happen


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