The best way to find a great local guide

The best way to find a great local guide: Local guides in the desert What’s the best way to find a great local guide?

A great local guide can dramatically enhance your trip. But how do you find a great local guide? This means more than looking up a list of options. The best way to find a great local guide starts with knowing what you’re looking for in a guide, doing some research and then asking the right questions. Let’s explore all of those steps and more.

Realize that your best guides may not be the ones you pay

Often people you meet along the way may turn out to be wonderful informal guides. The man who invites you to his mother’s house for a family supper or the group of children that lead you to a hidden courtyard that takes your breath away, these are all guides. You may informally tip them or not. But guides show up in many guises. Being open to the possibility of encountering them can enrichen your trip. What we’ll focus on here, however, are people who professionally guide you in a variety of ways on a trip.

Research before you go

You have essentially three overall ways of finding guides before your trip: offline printed resources, online resources and personal connections. Let’s look at each.

Offline printed resources

Your primary source will be written guidebooks. Many have some listings of local guides, drivers or tour operators in various locations. Because the printing cycle makes some guidebook listings obsolete by the time they are published, you’ll want to go online to double check if the guide is still around. However, the good news of guidebook recommendations is that usually only well established local guides get recommended there.

Travel magazines and even newspaper articles about destinations may mention positive experiences the writer had with a guide. Follow-up on these since the number one way to find a great local guide is to leverage a trusted recommendation.

Though not a print resource (but not “online” per se) are travel shows. Get the names of the local guides used by the hosts of travel-related shows (e.g. many cooking or sports shows that visit foreign locations in addition to typical Travel Channel fare use guides as part of the program). Get the names and follow up with them. And no matter where the local guide’s name comes from, always research online for reviews about him or her. Being on TV doesn’t necessarily make them a great guide for you, but it could be a good starting point.

The best way to find a great local guide: Telouet guide

Rashid was a great local guide at the kasbah at Telouet. He came recommended by our main guide in Morocco, Abdul. If you find one great guide, ask for recommendations of others.

Online resources

There are literally millions of options online. So what’s the best way to find a great local guide that is right for you?

Start with a strategy

Here are some key points in your search to find a great local guide.

  • Know what kind of guide you’re looking for. A person who can point out the highlights of the Louvre is a very different animal than someone who will bike with you through the Mekong Delta for five days. The greater the time, cost and even risk, the more homework you want to do. Sounds obvious, but many travelers don’t check references and rely only on a few online reviews even for guides taking them way off the grid. Do your homework when necessary but for a two-hour tour, don’t spend two hours researching.
  • Know if you need to reserve a guide in advance. Even on crowded days at Machu Picchu there are guides waiting at the entrance. Some are better than others so again, a bit of pre-trip research can help, but you don’t necessarily need to pre-book. Some friends just got back from Normandy. They booked their guide two months ahead of time to tour the WWII beach sites there and were fortunate to get a guide since all the others were already booked that far ahead of time.
  • Determine your own travel style and needs. Personally, I’m not a fan of big group tours. But if I just show up in some locations, those are the only ones available to me. Do research on alternatives before your trip if you want a private guide since they obviously take fewer people and thus may have fewer slots open. In addition, know specifically what your interests are. For example, I didn’t even think I needed a guide in Fes, Morocco until I saw a listing for one that introduces you to local artists. Researching guides can reveal all kinds of possibilities you may not have considered and that don’t show up in the normal list of activities in a particular place.
  • Know the right terminology. “Guide” can refer to a person, a guidebook, an online planning tool or a brand of dental floss. So to make your searches more accurate, try using the term “local guide” or if you need a specific type of guide (e.g. museum, fishing, hiking, cooking instructor, etc.) add that phrase. You may be brighter than me, but when I first started searching on “guide” I got way too many irrelevant results.

Check out travel forums

On travel forums, you can ask about other people’s experiences and get specific recommendations. Here are ten of the most popular travel forum sites listed alphabetically. They are useful for all sorts of destination and other travel-related questions, not just guides, so consider bookmarking some of these for your next trip.

  1. BootsNAll. This site for independent travelers has a forum organized by destinations, travel resources, ways to go, etc. Some topics get more recent posts than others.
  2. Cruise Critic. This forum is geared toward people taking cruises, so if you want to find a local guide to avoid paying the high price of cruise excursions, this site has some great advice. But you can also use it even if you’re not cruising to find guides in major cities frequented by cruises.
  3. Fodors. The community here is very helpful and can often recommend other sources of guides such as a recent response noting how, for example, the Japanese National Tourism Organization has a listing called Goodwill guides of free volunteer guides in Japan. Who knew?!
  4. Lonely Planet. From destinations to general travel question, this active community has over 1 million members.
  5. Rick Steves. If you’re going to Europe, this is the forum to check out. Lots of insights and tips offered by an engaged community.
  6. Travbuddy. The most popular topic here is around travel buddies but they have a large number of discussions on both destinations and other info like gear or travel alerts.
  7. Travelfish.  Going to Asia? Check out this forum of questions and answers pertaining to that part of the world.
  8. Travellerspoint. This site offers a large community plus many other resources like an interactive travel planner.
  9. Trip Advisor. The most popular site of those listed in terms of traffic, here you can get people’s recommendations in addition to finding guide listings on the main part of the site.
  10. Virtual Tourist. This forum isn’t structured as some of the others where you can search based on category of topic. But for general travel questions and answers, it has a dynamic community that regularly contributes.

Review local guide websites

If you’re not getting any decent recommendations on how to find a great local guide on the forums, try going direct. Here are ten sites (listed alphabetically) where you can find, review and hire a great local guide. I tested each out by searching for guides in Seattle, Washington and Granada, Spain. My results varied greatly as noted below. Thus, what may be a great resource for one destination may have few if any options for another. It gives you a chance to explore them all!

  1. google.com/local/guides – This site isn’t necessarily the first place to go to find a great local guide, but it’s useful if you want to BE a local guide and help improve Google Maps by adding your own photos and comments about places. The community aspect is fun: You get the chance to meet others through periodic hangouts in different locations.
  2. likealocalguide.com – This is supposed to provide tips and tours by locals. Nice idea, but looking through the site, it seems to need more contributors at this point to make it more robust. As noted above, however, you may still find what you need depending on where you’re going.
  3. rent-a-guide.com – This site offers guides in over 110 countries and though the English site works well, the options for Europe are better than tours in the US which makes sense given this is a Germany-based site.
  4. shiroube.com – Advertised as “the world’s largest marketplace for travelers and guides,” the interface isn’t quite as seamless as some of the others but it does provide many choices, depending on the destination. It isn’t clear how they vet the local guides.
  5. showaround.com – Like many of these guide sites, they offer a way to pick and choose which local guide you want in a particular city (assuming that city is on their list). Their selection process makes it easy to find a great local guide that matches your interests and needs.
  6. tournative.com – As the site states, “Request a tour, let the locals bid for your tour and enjoy authentic experiences.” The emphasis here is on cultural and experiential tourism.
  7. toursbylocals.com – Another site where you can choose your own guide. These guides are selected and approved by the site. Tours here are priced by the tour, not the person. So it pays to have a bigger group.
  8. vayable.com – This site has (to me) some of the most interesting local tours listed. A search for Seattle offerings presents tours ranging from local islands to thrift store tours to art and food tours. The focus here is on the experience more than the guide (though you do get a full profile and reviews of each guide).
  9. tourguides.viator.com – Listed as “the largest online network of qualified local guides,” like many of the others, you get to select your guide, contact them for details then book through the site where they offer a 100% guarantee.
  10. whosmyguide.com – The site provides guides of all sorts from cooking to outdoors, freelance tour guides to tour companies. But my test of “Seattle, WA” produced results for Washington, D.C. so it’s hard to say how many options they have.
The best way to find a great local guide - local guide on steps

Another local guide, this one at Ait Benhaddou in Morocco

Personal Connections

The best way to find out just about anything is through people you know. They are (hopefully!) a trusted resource and you can usually determine what they like and decide if it matches up with what you like. But “people you know” is a broader category than you might think. Here are some of your most common options:

  • Friends or acquaintances – Ask everyone you know who has been to the place you’re going and see if they used a guide. But don’t stop there. Ask them if they know anyone else who has been there, then reach out to them asking about any guides they used and their recommendations.
  • Social media friends – You may clump these in with your other friends, but I’ve found followers online that I don’t really know well but who can be great resources. For example, I found Abdul through Kane at Roam and Recon simply because Kane had liked one of my Instagram images and in checking out his profile, I saw he happened to be in Morocco right then. A quick review of his site and then a follow-up email produced a great recommendation.
  • Tourism professionals – You need to be careful you’re getting an objective recommendation but tourist boards and visitor centers often have lists of guides and talking to people there can result in more specific recommendations. But don’t overlook one of my favorite approaches: ask local hotel, apartment, guesthouse or B&B owners for recommendations. Start by asking about general things to see how responsive they are and if you get a good reply, ask about guides. One of our favorite guides, Andy in Granada, Nicaragua came from Chris who runs Miss Margrit’s there. These guesthouse owners know their reputation is tied to your overall experience, so they tend to be quite careful as to who they recommend.
  • Fellow travelers — People you meet while traveling can be another great source because their experience will be fresh. Ask not only about the city where you are, but also about places you’re going. And if you hear of a spectacular guide in a place not on your itinerary, jot it down for later. You never know. A stellar recommendation might cause you to change your itinerary.

Finally, whether you get the name of a guide online or from a friend, don’t stop there. Search online for reviews or ratings for that guide. See what others have said. If you find a particular reviewer that seems to like the same things that you do, email them or contact them through the site with follow-up questions. Again, if it is a 90 minute city overview, you may not need to take so much time. But if you’re investing in a guide for days or weeks, do your homework well.

Key things to look for in a great local guide

So once you get a name, how do you evaluate if they are right for you? Consider these questions either about them or for them.

  • Are they licensed? This isn’t always a requirement, but given a choice, I’ll always go with someone who has some professional credentials. This may show up as a government-approved registration, an actual license or some form of accreditation. If in doubt, ask to see it.
  • Do you feel safe? This isn’t just personal safety, though that’s a very big factor. Does the whole payment process seem secure? Are there any guarantees? What currency do you pay in? Can you pay by credit card (which adds a layer of protection)? Do you have to pay anything ahead of time and if so, can you get your deposit back?
  • Is this a good fit? Do they cater to single women, families, elderly travelers or whatever your category is? Do they know their stuff (and how do you know that, e.g. beyond guide credentials, do they have degrees in the subject, have lived there their whole lives there, have other recommendations or reviews, etc.)?
  • Similarly, do they share your same interests? For example, a guide who is well acquainted with local sports teams won’t be useful to you if you don’t care about sports. But a great local guide will be flexible enough to adjust to your needs. Moreover, a great guide loves what they do. Their enthusiasm will likely be contagious and you’ll walk away with much more insight and excitement about a place as a result.
  • How well do they speak your language? Ask beforehand as to the level of fluency and, if possible, speak to your actual guide to see. I’ve had great guides with minimal English who are more driver/facilitators. But for deeper insights, it helps to have someone who can explain things in detail in your language.
  • What are the logistics involved? Where will they meet you? Do you have to figure out local transportation on your own to the starting point or will they come to you? Are meals or admission fees included in the tour price?

If you can, ask all of these questions ahead of time or at least start off the tour with them. If at the tour’s start, you may be committed to pay already, but at least you can get some norms clarified with your guide so they know what you expect.

Some concluding thoughts on how to find a great local guide

Finally, realize that you can never 100% guarantee finding a great local guide ahead of time because it all comes down to chemistry and compatibility and a host of other factors you can’t control. But if you do some research beforehand and know what you’re looking for, ask the right questions and take steps to find a great local guide who is enthusiastic, knowledgeable and trustworthy, he or she can literally make the difference between a good experience and a life-changing one.

If you have other ideas or have other tips on how to find a great local guide, please share them here.

 

Want an even better trip? Consider hiring a great local guide

Hiring a great local guide: Abdul and boys

Here’s our local guide Abdul hanging out with my two sons after a day of driving in Morocco.

When you might want to hire a great local guide

Group tours are perfect for some people. Then again, so are tie-dyed jumpsuits and lima beans. It’s all a matter of taste.

For me, I prefer to explore and discover something on my own rather than have a tour guide tell me and my fellow herd members about what the guide thinks is important. But there’s a downside to such independence: I sometimes don’t learn as much or see all that I could.

Moreover, I’m learning that if I

  • only have a short amount of time,
  • am in a country where few people speak my language,
  • want to travel far off the usual tourist routes or
  • am in a place where logistics  can be messy,

then I likely want to do what my two sons and I did on a recent trip to Morocco: hire a local guide.

We had the best of both worlds in Morocco: a tour guide/driver without the tour or the group. Someone who drove just the three of us on our trip around the country. Someone who had a general itinerary in mind but was open to alterations and spontaneous departures from the plan. Someone who knew the top tourist sites but also the off-the-beaten-path gems untouched by the wheels of a tourist bus.

Our guide’s name was Abdul. He works with Authentic Berber Tours. If you’re going to Morocco, you should check them out. I cannot say enough good things about Abdul, Samira and the team at Authentic Berber Tours. They literally and figuratively made our trip.

I’ll cover the details of that trip and how to find your own great guide in later entries here. But for now, let’s explore what makes a local guide like Abdul great versus just competent. Here are fifteen ways a great local guide adds so much value to your trip. They align but expand on this list from another guided tour closer to home.

The value of a great local guide: Tinejdad

One of the many places we visited with Abdul

Fifteen ways a great local guide can make a great trip

A great local guide will:

  1. Customize the experience for you. In our case, Abdul learned quickly what we liked and adjusted both the places we visited and the way we visited them – the timing, cadence, length of time there, etc.
  2. Flex. We traveled during Ramadan when many businesses and restaurants were closed during the day. Abdul worked around this and found alternatives. Great local guides stay flexible.
  3. Be relatable without being intrusive. For us, Abdul was there when we needed him, talked when we wanted to talk and was quiet when we didn’t (four males, after all, can comfortably travel for quite some distance without words).
  4. Look out for your best interests. From pulling each hotel owner aside to ensure we had the best room to rousing a chef at a restaurant from a Ramadan-mid-day rest to make us a special lunch, Abdul made sure we were well taken care of. Great local guides go the extra mile for you.
  5. Translate more than words. Sure, you can get by with gestures, but if you only speak five words of the language and vice versa, it’s hard to engage meaningfully with locals. A great guide not only translates the words but explains (usually later) the meaning behind them. Great local guides provide great insights.
  6. Value long-term relationships over short-term revenue. This is their job so of course guides need to make money. But a great guide knows that they’ll likely make more by creating a great experience for you than they will by exploiting you. For example, Abdul made sure that any of the specialist guides he introduced us to didn’t take us to shops where they’d get a kickback.
  7. Help you see differently. A great guide doesn’t just show you different things. He or she helps you see the world in a new way. For example, Abdul’s explanation of the differences between Arabs and Berbers helped us understand both the people and the history of Morocco in a completely different way.
  8. Be careful and considerate. This sounds obvious, but it’s not. In a country like Morocco where drivers either poke along like an ornery camel or treat the highway like the Bonneville Salt Flats, Abdul (who was both our driver and our guide) put safety above everything else. Unless of course we asked him to go off-roading on the sand dunes. But that’s another story.
  9. Empathize well. A great guide can sense when you’re tired, hungry, nervous, excited or even bored and they adjust the plan or their approach accordingly.
  10. Hiring a great local guide: Camel

    Our guide wasn’t the only one with a good sense of humor.

    Have a good sense of humor. With Abdul, there were some moments when our humor didn’t translate, but even then he wanted us to explain it so that his English was continually improving. And later, he’d make a joke about it. We laughed every day with Abdul.

  11. Practice patience. Great guides learn quickly what matters to you. For example, Abdul never rushed us whenever we stopped for me to take (yet another) photo. Great local guides put up with a lot and don’t complain.
  12. Take responsibility. Great guides free you to enjoy the journey rather than worrying about where to go next. With Abdul, he gave us choices, but also allowed me to relax and not worry about having all the answers.
  13. Vet the good from the bad and show you the best. Good guides show you interesting places and give you facts. Great local guides create experiences that change you. They go beyond facts to provide you with a richer understanding of what you’re encountering.
  14. Reveal places and experiences you’d never find on your own. Abdul took us a back route along a gorgeous river that few visitors ever see because they just don’t know about it. Local guides know the back doors that you might discover on your own…if you had far more time than you do.
  15. Make you feel like a local. Abdul taught us various Berber phrases and customs, took us to a locals-only weekly market, offered to find nice Berber brides for my two sons (who politely declined) and even invited us to his home where we met his extended family. It was, in fact, such a personal experience and not the norm that I will say no more out of respect to Abdul and his family. But I will note that this glimpse into a daily life in a Berber village was one of the highlights of our trip.

I could go on and on but the point is this: a great local guide enables you to gain and discover more in a short time than you could on your own. With a great local guide, as in the case of Abdul, at the end of your time together, you have more than new insights to the country: you have a new friend.

I still may not be a fan of group tours. But I’m starting to wonder if I will ever want to do another trip that doesn’t, at least for part of the journey, include a trusted local guide. A great guide.

Join me next time for ways to find a great local guide wherever you go.

 

Food tour of Seattle’s International District

Chinatown on a food tour of Seattle's International District

Hing Hay Park was one of our last stops on the food tour of Seattle’s International District and Chinatown

We started our food tour of Seattle’s International District and Chinatown a few weeks ago with, naturally, food.

Cream puffs to be exact.

Our tour, led by Taylor Hoang and assisted by Rayleen Nguyen both of Pho Cyclo Cafe, departed from the Huong Binh Restaurant in Little Saigon. This Vietnamese dining place is run by Taylor’s mom and is, as we’d soon find out, amazingly good. First stop from there: Saigon’s Bakery and Bubble Tea where we tasted scrumptious cream puffs; light and not too sweet.

Cream puff's on food tour of Seattle's International Disrtict

The best cream puffs I’ve ever had are found in Little Saigon on this food tour of Seattle’s International District

I think some of our fellow guests on the 12-person food tour of Seattle’s International District could have gladly just spent the rest of the day there in cream puff heaven. But onward we pressed.

Time to go shopping on the food tour of Seattle’s International District

From there we visited Lam Seafood on King Street near 12th. If you live in the Seattle area and you want fresh produce or seafood, come here.

Indian Bittermelon on the food tour of Seattle's International District

Indian Bittermelon was just one of many fruits and vegetables we don’t see too often at our local grocery store

The prices are in many cases half to a third of what they are in the grocery stores and the selection, at least for Asian foods, is unbeatable.

Taylor explaining Caro on our food tour of Seattle's International District

Here’s Taylor our guide explaining how to look for and prepare caro root at Lam Seafood

We came back later on our own to shop and stock up on sauces, as well as buy from a huge selection of mushrooms, vegetables and fresh fish.

Fish on display at Lam Seafood on food tour of Seattle's International District

At Lam Seafood, you just point to the fish you want and then point to a sign that tells them how you want it prepared.  Compare the prices here with where you normally get your seafood…

Next stop, Thanh Son Tofu. Even if you don’t like tofu, you should check out the very affordable sub sandwiches and other treats they have in this brand new facility. And if you do like tofu or soy milk, well, this is your cream puff of a place…

Sesame balls on food tour of Seattle's International District

These sesame balls are just some of the tasty goodies you’ll find at Thanh Son Tofu even if you don’t like tofu

Back to the Huong Binh Restaurant for a wonderful soup of wontons, pork, shrimp, squid and quail eggs along with celery leaves, chive and fried shallots in a pork broth. That alone could have been lunch enough, but then came the “main course:” Rice noodles, grilled pork, pork meatball and grilled shrimp garnished with lettuce, peanuts, herbs, onions and a delectable sauce. Oh, and cookies for desert. Delighted and satisfied, our food tour of Seattle’s International District could have ended there.

Huong Binh Lunch on food tour of Seattle's International District

Our first course for lunch at Huong Binh. Delicious.

But wait (as they say in infomercials), there’s more on this food tour of Seattle’s International District!

We headed from lunch down to Chinatown where we tasted dim sum, stuffed buns, barbecued pork and coconut-infused rolls. We learned of other places to shop, restaurants to try and gift items to purchase. By the time we finished, we were full. OK, more than full. Stuffed. And not just of food.

We learned so much that day from Taylor that we’d never have uncovered on our own, at least not without considerable time and effort. It reminds me that sometimes a guide can make all the difference in your experience of a place.

Ten Benefits of Using a Guide

In fact, here are ten benefits a guide provides in a new place (or at least did in this situation):

  1. They make you aware of places you’d never find on your own
  2. They introduce you to new people
  3. They introduce you to new food types and sources of ingredients or new products and even ideas
  4. They show you how to use the things (ingredients in this case) you find there that may be unique to that place.
  5. They keep you from getting lost
  6. They vet the good from the bad and show you the best
  7. They make you feel like an insider or like you belong there or have a right to be there
  8. They create a sense of community, with your other group members on the tour and with the people you meet along the way
  9. They increase the number of customers and business for mom and pop stores: You know where your money is going and that it is a good deal. (Unfortunately, with some guides overseas, you are channeled to expensive tourist traps where the guide gets a kickback. Here, the guide does it out of a sense of community and desire to share what is good.)
  10. They show you how to do this yourself next time on your own
King's Barbeque House on food tour of Seattle's International District

Here Taylor explains the various types of roasted meat you can get at King’s Barbeque House on 6th Ave.

And in this case, they also give you a little goody bag with containers for all the food you can’t possibly eat at the time, as well as a coffee press that Taylor showed us how to use at the end of the tour.

This food tour of Seattle’s International District was a wonderful experience that revealed a hidden world in our own neighborhood. It also showed how valuable a guide can be to any place that seems foreign to you…even ones so close to home.