During my travels, I came across many different guides. Some were great, some so-so, and some probably chose a wrong occupation. Altogether, the majority of the tour guides were excellent. I will give you a few examples.
Probably the most colorful guide was Bonnie, an American woman who lived in India for more than 30 years. Bonnie was a real professional. She loved India passionately and told us a lot about the local customs, traditions, history.
We saw Bonnie talking and joking with officials as if they were her best friends. Then she would wav
e her hand to our group, and we would follow her without any delay. We moved through the passport controls and customs like a knife through soft butter. Such treatment made us feel like VIPs.
We had an absolutely incredible tour guide in Greece – Demetra. She could lead tours in Greek, English, French, and Russian. Demetra was incredibly knowledgeable, almost like a professor. She lectured us on Greece history, culture and customs, and presented everything in a very digestible way.
Demetra was always attentive to needs of members of our group. For example, one man, Al, forgot to remove passports and money from the safe deposit box in his hotel room in Athens. Al found out about it two days later, when we were many miles away from the capital. Al was in despair, his wife was mad at him.
As soon as Demetra was told about Al’s misfortune, she immediately called the hotel. Demetra insisted that somebody in the hotel would go to check the safe deposit box. They opened it and retrieved the passports and the envelope with cash. Al got his valuables back when our group returned to Athens before the flight home.
Our Turkish tour guide, Sali, was a big guy – tall, heavy, with deep, thunderous voice. He knew everything about his country and enjoyed sharing this knowledge with us. It also helped that his English was excellent, with just a trace of an accent. Many years after the trip to Turkey, I still remember some of his stories.
In South Africa
In this country, we had probably the best guide ever – Rod. He was born and raised in Johannesburg. We appreciated that Rod was telling us about the complicated life in South Africa without the pretense of political correctness. His book about South Africa was published a few weeks before our trip, and we were lucky to find it in the local bookstore.
This tour with Rod’s commentaries was an eye-opener for all of us. South Africa is not a safe country, at least, not everywhere. Rod told us where we can go on our own and the places that we should avoid. I wish all guides would be as experienced and caring about their charges as Rod was.
The guides I did not like
I changed their names of the guides I did not like. Despite their shortcomings, I still have wonderful memories of all my travels.
Driver/tour guide in Ireland
We were not lucky with our guide, Mike. He was a driver/tour guide – not the best combination for travelers. Such arrangement happens when the tour company tries to save money. For many years Mike worked as a truck driver. When we met him, he was taking tours around Ireland only for a year or two.
Mike was a good driver, but I would prefer he did the driving, and our group had a second person, a professional tour guide. In all countries I visited, travel companies provided two people – a driver and a tour director. The only exceptions were my trips to Ireland and New Zealand. I was not thrilled with the quality of information we were getting from Mike. Ireland is a fascinating and complex country, and it must be better presented to the tourists.
Like many Irish people, Mike likes to sing. There is nothing wrong with singing. I just have a problem when I am a captive listener. If you are on a bus and a driver sings into the microphone, there is nothing you can do. It was a long trip, two weeks, and after the first day on the road, Mike’s singing became annoying to the whole group.
Another part of Mike’s “entertainment” was telling jokes, mostly dumb ones. I would prefer to hear about history, culture, and customs of Irish people. Instead, I had to listen to the anecdotes that I did not find funny.
In the future, if I decide to travel with that company again, I will ask if the tour group will have a guide AND a driver or just a driver/tour guide. We still loved Ireland, but our experience would be much better with a professional tour guide.
Indifferent and lazy guide in Auckland, New Zealand
When we arrived at Auckland airport (New Zealand), we were met by Bob, an Aboriginal guide from the Maori tribe. We spent only two days with him, but we got our ears full of Maori words. There is nothing wrong with learning a few words in the local language, but our guide concentrated only on teaching us these words instead of telling us about his country or even about the Maori people and their fascinating customs.
On the first evening, we had a scheduled “welcome dinner.” On all our trips, during “welcome dinners” the tour guides tell us about the itinerary, guidelines, answer numerous questions. This event is also an excellent opportunity for travelers to introduce themselves to the group.
However, Bob was unavailable to us for the whole evening. Where was he? Bob was having dinner with his wife in the same restaurant. It looked romantic: a couple in their 50-s has a table for two and spends lovely time together. Wasn’t one of them (Bob) obligated to work with us during that evening?
Unknowledgeable and disorganized guide in Australia
From New Zealand, we flew to Melbourne, Australia. There we had both – a driver and a guide. Our Melbourne guide Sally, an older woman, told us from the very beginning that she is not from Melbourne and she does not know much about that city. Hah? We are scheduled to spend three days in this exciting city with a guide who “doesn’t know much” about it?
Our driver, on the other hand, knew the city very well and told us a lot of interesting facts and stories. If anyone of us had a question, we would ask the driver directly. Our whole group just ignored Sally.
On tour from Cairns to the Great Reef, Sally managed to lose several members of our group, including myself and my husband. Her directions regarding how to get back from the port to our hotel were so vague that several of us did not find our tour bus.
A few people, who did not want to walk, took a taxi to get back to the hotel. My husband and I preferred to get to the hotel by foot. I used a map, and we had a lovely time walking and enjoying beautiful water views.
Sally knew Sydney much better since it was her hometown. However, by now she lost all credibility with our group. We continued to direct our questions to the driver, instead of her.
What upset our group the most, was the wrong timing for the sightseeing tour of Sydney. Sally scheduled it for December 31. It was the worst day for driving around this fantastic city because Sydney was getting ready for the New Year’s fireworks. The police were installing fences and closing many streets in preparation for enormous crowds which would gather near Sydney gorgeous waterfront.
We spent lots of time in detours, and the group felt that the day was wasted. Finally, my husband and I decided to do something more interesting than to sit on the bus in traffic. We asked the driver to let us off at the Bondi Beach – the world-famous beach in Sydney. Why not spend the rest of the day on the seashore and return to the hotel by city bus?
When we came back to the hotel, other people from our group told us how envious they were of our decision to drop from the tour. They spent a few more useless hours on the tour bus, going in circles, trying to avoid the barricades.
Since we had two more days in Sydney, everyone blamed Sally for planning the city tour on December 31. It would work much better if the sightseeing were scheduled for January 1 or 2.
Clash of cultures in Thailand
One of our first trips to Asia was very memorable. This trip included Singapore, Bangkok, and Hong Kong. We had local guides in each city. In Bangkok, our guide was Suzy (sometimes Asian tour guides introduce themselves using Americanized names to make it easier for tourists). Suzy was very knowledgeable. However, occasionally her conduct was not compatible with Western ways.
During bus city-tour, a woman (Maryann from New York, in her 60-s) was sitting in the front seat, just above the bus driver. Since it was a two-story bus, the driver was sitting way down, below passengers.
Only later, someone read in the guidebook that in Thailand, a person’s head is considered “clean,” while the feet are “dirty.” How could Maryann or the rest of us know about this?
Another episode happened to me. I started asking Suzy some question. Unexpectedly, she stuck her hand in front of my face, almost touching my nose. She wanted me to be quiet!
I understand that the tourists should try to learn customs of the country they are visiting. But shouldn’t the guide learn some manners as well? I decided not to be upset. Maybe Suzy never heard about the “personal space” we Americans are used to, and treated me like another Thai person.
On the last morning in Bangkok, as we were driving to the airport, we were sure that Suzy will use the extra time to talk to us about her country. No such luck! She was silent all the way from the hotel to the check-in counter.
Are we good customers?
Let’s be fair. Tourists may be not happy with their tour guides, but quite often the guides get frustrated with how travelers behave themselves.
The most significant problem for the tour guides is our tardiness. For instance, the guide would tell the group at what time everybody has to be in the lobby to go on a sightseeing tour.
From time to time someone is late. This makes the whole group (20 or 30 travelers, guide, bus driver) wait for the person who is either still sleeping, or finishing breakfast, or taking a shower, or forgot something in the room and had to go back and get it. It is very annoying for everybody.
During group tours everything is pre-planned. By being late and holding the whole group, unpunctual people can shorten the sightseeing program, the entire group can be late for the performance and miss seats in the front row in the theatre.
People do not listen
My personal pet peeve – people who do not listen during the guided tour. In almost every group that we joined, there are a few travelers who just don’t care to learn anything about the country they are visiting. Such people like to sit in the rear seats of the bus and talk non-stop. While the guide is telling us about the history of the country, the customs, the culture, these people keep chatting about clothes, relatives, sports, etc. And when the group is standing close to the guide, listening to some information, these chatterboxes keep on talking, sometimes even louder than the guide.
Trying to learn something new, I always walk just behind the guide in order not to miss anything. In crowded museums, I try to anticipate in what direction we will be moving. It helps me to be close to the guides and not to miss their comments on some masterpiece.
Some travel companies provide “whispers.” Every member of the group gets one and can hear the explanations even from a distance. The earphones help to concentrate on the guide’s commentary and not be distracted by the people who need to talk.
The only time when I was not a good listener
Pam was our guide in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Besides giving us a lot of information about the ancient history of her country, she also talked about the recent tragic history of Cambodia. She and her husband lived through the Khmer Rouge regime. They both were imprisoned. After they were released from the prison, Pam’s husband died a few weeks later.
Almost two and a half million people were murdered by the communist Khmer Rouge. We visited the school which was used as a prison during that time. Each room of the school had a photo display and explanations about torture, suffering and mass murder of innocent people.
I was not able to listen to such disturbing information. Instead of following our guide through the rooms of the museum, I sat in the courtyard and read a book.