For travel fanatics like me, working as a tour guide seems like a dream job. You mean, someone will pay me to travel?! Yes, please 🙂 I’ve worked as a tour guide in a couple of different capacities. There are certainly a lot of cool perks to the job, but it’s not all fun and adventure, that’s for sure! This post will explore the life of tour guide, including both the pros and the cons. If you’re thinking of trying out this profession or are interested in the guide’s perspective on the tours you take, read on!
Tour Guide v. Tour Director/Manager v. Trip Leader
First off, a definition clarification. I’m using the term “tour guide” as a broad classification, though “tour director”, “tour manager”, or “trip leader” would be better terms for what I’m talking about in this post. All three of those titles basically describe the same position: someone who travels with a group of tourists to multiple destinations, coordinates their travel, hotels, and activities, and is with them the entire multi-day trip. Technically, a “tour guide” is a better description for a slightly different role: someone who is a specialist in one destination, sight, or activity, who stays in one place, sharing the same information with multiple different tour groups who visit that place.
I have experience in both of these roles. I was a zip line tour guide, leading three groups a day through a 2.5-hour treetop canopy tour. I followed the same course, giving roughly the same information to each group, tailored slightly to their interests. I was a tour guide. In another position, I lead groups of foreign tourists on adventure camping tours lasting 1 to 3 weeks each, to multiple destinations on a road trip across the United States. I drove the group in a van, gave them basic information about each of our itinerary stops, and coordinated all meals, hotels, campgrounds, and activities. I was a trip leader, though could also be called a tour director or manager. The pros and cons in this post will focus on this style of trip leader role, though some may also relate to a tour guide role.
I mean, this is the main pro, right? Gotta love free travel! There are lots of ways to get some aspect of your travel for free (travel hacking, house sitting, hitchhiking, work exchange, Couchsurfing, free-food bins, to name just a few I’ve written about…) but to combine them to have every aspect of your trip free would be a bit of a challenge. That’s basically what you get as a tour director, though. You may have to pay for some of your own meals, while others are included, and, of course, any souvenirs or personal items you buy would be at your own expense. But all transportation and accommodation are completely free for the trip leader.
Opportunities for Amazing Experiences
As a budget traveler, I often have to choose which sights and experiences are most important to me. I can’t afford to do everything and some things are eternally out of my price range. As a tour manager, you don’t get to do everything your group does, especially optional excursions, but you do get to do most of them. And sometimes, the vendors will want the trip leaders to have experienced their optional excursions so that they can better sell them to their guests. This means they let the trip leaders try them for free.
In just one summer leading groups around the US, I got to take helicopter flights over the Grand Canyon and the Las Vegas strip, multiple “party limo” rides up the Vegas strip, and multiple sunset catamaran sails under the Golden Gate Bridge. I attended two difference Cirque du Soleil shows, slept under the stars after a Native American dinner and performance in Monument Valley, and got free entry into 20+ national parks. All incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experiences that were essentially perks of my job.
Meet People from All Over the World
You never know who you’re going to meet in your tour group. People from various countries and backgrounds come together in a situation where they are regularly having conversations with you and asking you questions. It’s a great way to get to know a lot of different cool people who are specifically interested in what you have to say and getting to know you. It’s a great way to learn about other cultures and sometimes you can make friends and stay in touch.
Depending on how long your trips are and how many you do back to back, you may be able to get away with not only no travel expenses, but no living expenses also. I was on the road as a trip leader for months on end and I did not maintain a residence or vehicle during that time. No rent or mortgage, no utilities, no car payments, gas or insurance. I didn’t need them! For some tour directors, however, trips can be spaced far enough apart or you only do them seasonally in the summer, for example, so you do want to maintain a permanent residence. In that case, you can’t cut living expenses entirely, but perhaps you can reduce them by looking for a tenant, subletting, or getting someone to help you run an Airbnb rental while you are away.
Earnings Can Be High (+ Tips!)
Depending on the style of trips you do, tour managers typically make between US$100 and US$200 per day. Plus tips! And having limited or no expenses mean you can save everything you earn. It can be a great way to save a lot in a short amount of time.
Great Learning Opportunities
As a tour director, you are the first authority your group will go to for any and all information about your destination in general and all of the specific sights on your itinerary. Some tour companies arrange for “hop on” local guides who come in just for the day or lead your group around one particular attraction and can provide much more detailed information. Even if this is the case, as the trip leader, you need to have some basic facts about everywhere you go. This means a lot of research but also a lot of cool new knowledge. And if you do get local guides, you’ll learn even more from them!
Potential to Rack Up Major Credit Card Points
This one is not always the case, but can sometimes be a cool bonus perk. Tour managers are given a certain amount of money to cover expenses (entrance fees, tips, meals, etc.) as they come up on the tour. You might have a company credit card, a prepaid credit card, cash, or some combo. The company I worked for gave us our allotted budget for each trip upfront and allowed us to deposit it into our own personal bank accounts if we wanted.
We could then put all tour related expenses (which could be thousands of dollars per trip) on our personal travel rewards points credit card. The company cash would then be in our accounts to pay for the credit card bill when it came. This way we could “spend” a ton of money and gain a lot of points quickly, which we could then translate into free flights and hotels for personal trips. If you are allowed to do this, you will still have to be accountable for every penny. Keep track of all expenses as you go so that you never overspend and can withdraw any unused funds to return to the tour company at the end of the trip.
It’s a LOT of Work!!!
People travel with group tours for convenience. All the work is done for them and they can just enjoy the trip. As the tour manager, you are the one doing all that work. You are coordinating all travel, vendors, sights, tours, hotels, not just for yourself, but for a large group. And that is on top of all the hours interacting with the group, planning, doing paperwork, and researching each destination. The company I worked for had their trip leaders double as drivers, so I couldn’t do paperwork, relax, or sleep in the van like my passengers. I had the added work of planning a route, gas and rest stops, navigating to places I’d never been before, and keeping the van clean.
Plus, my tours were adventure camping tours, so we cooked many of our meals over a camping stove or fire at the campgrounds. This meant I also had to meal plan and grocery shop for 2-3 meals per day for up to 12 people, some with particular dietary requirements. Any time I had away from my group was spent doing the extra planning, research and shopping that was “behind-the-scenes” of my job. There are no lunch breaks as a trip leader. It was so much more work than I ever thought it would be! This is probably an extreme example of a particularly taxing travel style, but even luxury tours require a ton of work than the group never sees.
You’re Not a Tourist – No Time for Sightseeing
Even though I was traveling to tons of cool places and bringing my group to amazing sights, a lot of the time I did not get to enjoy them myself. In order to accomplish my other tasks, if the style of attraction allowed, I would drop groups off to explore on their own while I got the van cleaned, went grocery shopping, looked up where the heck we were supposed to go that afternoon, or sometimes tried to get a quick power nap. When I did go with my group, I was supposed to be the authority on the sight, showing them the highlights. There was no time to explore different areas I might want to see. This can vary, depending on the tour company, the tour itinerary, and if you get local guides or not. In some cases, you may be able to play the tourist to a point but it’s not your role. You won’t have time to take photos and selfies everywhere. In fact, you’ll probably be taking tons of group shots for your travelers on their cameras instead.
This was one of the biggest cons for me. From the moment you pick up your group to the moment you say goodbye to them, you are “on” 24 hours a day. Even when they have time to explore on their own or after you are in your hotel room for the night, if they have a question or an issue, they will come to you and you have to deal with it. You can’t say, “Sorry, I’m on a break,” or “I’m off duty for the evening.” As a camping trip leader, I had the further obligation of hanging out around the campfire with my group every night. I couldn’t close a hotel door and at least have some privacy and downtime. Tents are not soundproof… Even if you are generally enjoying the trip and your group, this can get super exhausting. I was already burnt out from being “on” all the time about a month into my job. As an introvert who absolutely needs my alone time to recharge, this was especially difficult.
Don’t Get to Choose Your Group
You never know who will be in your group. Most of my travelers were nice people having fun but there were often one or two people who were… difficult. From making off-color jokes or getting drunk every night, to being extra inquisitive and demanding or just clashing personalities. You still have to be nice, friendly and accommodating to these people while attempting to manage their behavior so it doesn’t negatively affect the rest of the group. You can’t walk away and you’re the one people will complain to.
Don’t Get to Choose Your Itinerary
While there may be some freedom within certain trips, for the most part, the itinerary will be set by the company. This is to make sure everything is booked and that everything they’ve promised their clients will be included. If you particularly want to visit a place that’s not on the itinerary, you most likely can’t. If you absolutely loathe one of the stops, you can’t skip it. There’s not a lot of travel freedom or room for spontaneous choices, as you would have on your personal travels.
Must Solve Not Just Your Travel Problems, But Everyone’s
Inevitably, something will go wrong when you travel. A flight will be delayed. It will rain on your nature walk. Someone in your group will get lost or hurt or robbed. As a tour manager, their problems are your problems! You have to deal not only with any issues you personally come across but those of your entire group. Sometimes dealing with one person’s problem creates a larger problem for everyone else, such as a delay, detour, or missing an activity. It can be tricky to balance everything so everyone is happy.
Earning Can Be Low (Per Hour)
I know, I know, I listed a high wage in my pros column, and that’s totally true. As a whole, you can make and save a lot. But if you look at it in comparison to the hours you work and the amount of responsibility you have, it’s actually not that great. Let’s say you make US$150 per day. That sounds pretty decent, right? And it absolutely would be for a typical 8-hour workday. But as a trip leader, you work much longer hours and are technically “on” 24 hours a day. US$150 for 24 hours of work is only US$6.25 per hour. That’s way less than minimum wage! You’ll have tips, too, but even then, the hourly breakdown is very low and they are not guaranteed.
Your success and ability to handle the intense demands of a trip leader position will probably be dependent on your personality. If you are outgoing, love being around people all the time, and are good with stress-management, it can be a really cool job. For those people, the benefits would probably outweigh the drawbacks. For me, as an introvert and a very independent person, however, it actually turned something I absolutely love, travel, into a total nightmare. Tour guiding, on the other hand, where I could share a cool experience I was very knowledgeable about with different people each time, then say goodbye and clock off, was a total blast. If considering a tour director job, think about not just the free travel, but if your personality and stamina are suited to the role. Or next time you take a tour, you’ll have more insight into your guide so hopefully both you and they will have a better experience.
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