5 Key Traits Of A Great Tour Guide!

The thrilling potential for postponing bedtime aside, I would always insist my parents read to me as a child for one purpose: to bring the stories to life. And though, two decades later, I am no longer read to, I am, admittedly, still a sucker for being told stories. But how, you may wonder, does a “young professional” get away with story time? I’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s all about tour guides.

Tour guides, like bedtime storytellers, come in two varieties: those who, through their complex, actor-like narration, transport you to a faraway land, and those who, through their pained, let’s-just-knock-this-out-so-I-can-return-to-me-time intonations, land you counting down the minutes until it’s all over. Having experienced many of the former during my trips around the world, and only one or two of the latter, I feel confident explaining the foundations for what make a good guide.


Number 1:

Grade A tour guides have verbal diarrhea: While living in Paris, the guide I couldn’t help but go on multiple tours with – she was truly as addictive as croissants – spewed out facts of all sorts. Normally I’m not terribly interested in history but something needs to be said about a guide who unleashes so many fascinating historical facts that even I remained gripped and wanting more. Bottom line, tour guides should blow your mind with their knowledge, and this brings me nicely to the next point…..

Number 2:

Grade A tour guides should be so enthusiastic about the region they’re in that it’s simply infectious. You may have arrived at a location and been excited to see it more closely, but a great guide should stoke that excitement and leave you awed by the sense of place.


Number 3:

In Japan, I booked a tour guide that meets the third criteria for enthusiasm. From his flawless ability to speak Japanese (he’s originally from the US), to his bottomless knowledge of Asian culture, to his enthusiasm for making me and my fellow travellers feel so at home that he actually invited us to his home to enjoy lunch with his Japanese wife and daughter, he is the hallmark of a good guide. Arriving early to the hotel to eat breakfast with the group, and then later joining us to soak in the hot springs, meant this guide took our relationship to a deeper level, one that permitted questions galore, and, in turn, a rich understanding of the city of Kyoto. This was an invaluable gift that cannot be obtained through travel books, no matter how colourful they may be.


Number 4:

A memorable guide goes beyond the task-at-hand, they’re a Jack-of-all-trades. I’m reminded of the time a river rafting guide we had hired in Idaho tackled a slew of feisty rapids then beached the raft, threw on an apron and created a makeshift kitchen to assemble a rice pilaf accompanied by stuffed chicken breasts and sautéed spinach topped with raisins and pine nuts. This guide proved that river rafting and luxury are not mutually exclusive.

great wall-sm

Number 5:

Finally, the best guides come rigged with a bunch of keys that permit access to the out-of-bounds. In Beijing, it was my savvy guide who convinced two aged inhabitants to kindly show me around their ancient home. This was a life-long memory that I would not have gained had I entered the hutong with just a map in tow. And the same can be said of my trip to the Great Wall of China: if it weren’t for my guide, I would have ended up a sardine in the throngs of other tourists. Instead, I was driven to a remote village where we parked and then walked peacefully to the wall via working farms. No crowds. Just a wonderful, authentic experience.

In sum, the guides I’ve hired in France, Japan, America and China have made it clear that their success lies in knowledge and enthusiasm. A good guide never stops learning and they bring a vitality to the tour that enlivens the region, activity and history at hand.

Here are a few pics from some of my excursions with guides around the world:

What other characteristics do you think are critical in a great guide? Also, we’d be thrilled if you’d like to share stories of great guides you’ve encountered throughout your travels in the comments below.

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  • peter and xiaoli tours

    Your words on good tour guides I agree with but your last sentence really summed it all up. A good guide never stops learning.

    As a tour guide I believe the key is knowing when to be very ‘present’ and when to give space.

    Early on in any tour I try to learn my guests. I watch how they interact. I try and observe what draws their eye and what doesnt. If they are photographing, what seems to be important in the subject matter.

    Learn your guests behaviour and then you can better cater to it.

    • Sheila

      Soundes like excellent advice. I know for me, personally, the guide knowing when I am just enjoying a quiet moment of observing the beauty around me is often more appreciated than having someone talking all the time.

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