While few truly independent travelers look forward in rapt anticipation to a guided tour, many will admit to a pang of curiosity (or, as the times would have it, FOMO) when they overhear a gifted guide explaining the history and context of a place. Even those who love wandering around on their own have likely experienced the benefits of an intimate small-group tour with a local expert.
If this seems familiar at all, and you are considering hiring a guide on an upcoming trip, here are some questions to ask before booking a tour.
1. Is the tour tailored to beginners or experts?
If you are going on a specialty tour (history, art, cooking) and you already know a lot about the subject, you might be bored silly by information that a non-expert would find fascinating. The reverse also applies; dense art historical information may not appeal to a lay person, for example.
2. Does the tour guide speak throughout, or is it an audio tour with headphones or other media?
Will you be learning from an individual or listening to a taped expert played over headphones? Each has its pros and cons; the former is ideal if you like to ask lots of questions and interact with an expert, while an audio guide allows you to customize the volume and go at your own pace.
3. Who is your guide?
Are the guides locals? Trained historians? Degreed naturalists? Whoever the company could find who needed a job? The personality and knowledge of your tour guide can make all the difference.
4. In what language(s) will the tour be given?
Clearly you will want the tour to be given in a language with which you have a degree of fluency so you won’t miss any important points. If the tour will be given in more than one language, you may want to ask if one language will be considered the main one for the tour. For some tours, translating to several languages can reduce the amount of time and detail the tour guide can give you, and often the information in one language is more cursory than another.
5. Is it all-inclusive, or will you have to pay additional admission fees?
If you will be visiting attractions during the tour, the price of the tour may be completely separate from the admission to those attractions. Be sure you budget for such additions so you don’t miss out on part of the tour.
Another way to ask this: What is not included?
6. Is food provided?
If the tour bridges a mealtime, ask if food is included in the price of the tour. If not, will there be time and opportunity to purchase something, or should you bring your own snacks? If food is available, what options are there? You’ll want to make sure the offerings suit your taste and dietary limitations.
7. What weather can you expect?
If your tour requires you to go up a gondola to a mountaintop covered with mist, or to get on a windy ferry to an island, or to walk for two hours in the summer heat, you’ll want to know ahead of time so you can dress appropriately.
8. How much physical exertion is required?
Unless it is a bus or boat tour, most guided tours require you to walk a bit. Find out how far, whether hills or stairs are involved and what shoes would be most appropriate.
9. Is the tour kid-friendly/handicap-accessible/etc.?
If you or anyone in your group has any special needs, even if they are as simple and common as being a young and restless kid, ask ahead of time if the tour will work well for that person.
10. Where does the tour pick up and drop off?
This seems like an uncomplicated issue, but that’s not always the case. Many tours operate without official offices, so they might meet at street corners, near a famous statue, on the steps of a museum … you get the idea. Take the time to map out how to get there from your lodging, as this is often the most difficult part of taking a tour (go figure).
11. How long is the tour?
You know your own threshold for being led around and told stuff; some may want hours and hours of information, while others want concise overviews before going on their own again.
12. How much time is spent in each place?
Sometimes folks on tours complain of having been rushed through a place they really wanted to see and absorb, while others report having had to linger over something in which they had little interest. If there are specific stops on the tour that are (or are not) important to you, a little research will help make sure you see what you want to see, and not more or less.
13. Are there other tours along the route?
Travelers who prefer to avoid the built-in crowds that tours bring with them can feel even more hemmed in when there are multiple tours all visiting and talking about the same thing at the same time. You can sometimes avoid this by taking your tour at off hours; first thing in the morning often works well.
14. What size is the group?
A tour that’s too big will make you feel like you’re walking around town in a giant swarm of tacky tourists; one that’s too small can feel awkward. (On a visit to Berlin some time ago, I spotted an American couple being led around by a tour guide who was nearly yelling in hopes of attracting the attention of potential additional subscribers. The couple was clearly uncomfortable.) Even if you like the idea of a small tour, find out whether there’s a minimum required number to keep the tour from being canceled.
15. Will you get to break off on your own?
Even on closely guided tours, it’s nice to be able to break off on your own a little bit, whether to linger in front of a painting, dwell on a beautiful view or read a historical placard. Many tours will give you a bunch of information followed by a little bit of time to poke around yourself.
16. Is it safe?
Having lived in New York in the early 80s, I find edgy urban environments fairly comfortable. But when I was considering a favela tour in Rio de Janeiro last year with a 9-year-old in tow, I asked specifically about safety on the tour. The guide’s answer suited me very well, and we enjoyed the tour with no problems.
17. Does pricing change by the week or day?
Many tour companies and guides offer peak and off-peak pricing, depending on when you come; you can save money by looking into your options.
18. What’s the inclement weather policy?
If your tour is outdoors, will you get a refund in foul weather, will you be rescheduled or will you simply be expected to show up and get wet/cold/etc.?
19. What’s the cancellation policy?
You’ll often have to schedule and pay for your tour ahead of time. Before putting any money down, find out what happens if you need to cancel or reschedule.
20. Is the tour well reviewed?
TripAdvisor, Yelp and other similar sites often have reviews of tours and even specific tour guides. Knowing as much as you can about other folks’ experience on a tour can be extremely helpful (and can give you answers to many of the questions posed above).
Have we missed any questions that are important to you? Let us know in the comments!
Editor’s Note:is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.