Traveling for many people is a great adventure. Going abroad or outside of your familiar territory can be exciting or stressful. When deciding to take a guided tour of a location where you are visiting, particularly in a place where there is a lot of history and culture, going with a private tour guide is a great investment and can relieve a lot of stress.
Depending on the size of your family or travel group, hiring a private guide can even be more economical than the perceived money-saving small group tours. I’ve investigated those tours with several companies and typically they charge a flat rate per person and will have up to 25 people or more while still claiming they are a “small” group. I’ve even attended one like that while traveling with my family before I began organizing for my own company.
Although I had fun because I simply was spending time with my family, you end up feeling like you are in a herd of cattle being prodded along by the static of your headsets if you linger too long behind looking at something of interest while the others move ahead to the next stop on the tour. With a private tour guide you can stop, ask as many questions as you like, and the only people you are holding up from moving forward is your own family or travel partners. The guide then can adjust the tour as you go along in order to cater to your preferences and time spent lingering on different subjects.
Need to stop for a restroom break or want an espresso while on a city tour of Rome? With a private tour guide you can do this easily as needed. On a group tour, not so much unless it is scheduled into the itinerary. Sure, places such as art museums or archeological sites will take a bit more planning since you are restricted to stop when they become available, but then it is much easier to tell your guide when you need to go on that sudden potty break because you had too many espressos before the tour.
Why hire a private tour guide?
When making the decision to invest in a tour guide you should consider if having a guide is important to you.
Some of the reasons why you would want a guided tour with a local private guide:
- To save time and avoid getting lost in unfamiliar territory while ticking off your bucket list of sites to see
- Entertainment and/or educational purposes
- Learn general knowledge about a place without studying
- To provide company (as well as a sense of security) if you are traveling alone
- Having someone speak your language to help you understand the local language
- Local guides can also advise you on the best places to eat or drink after the tour and where to avoid the tourist traps.
Some reasons why you would not want a guide:
- You love getting lost.
- You have plenty of time and don’t care if you never see places that you did not even know were as special as the popular well-known monuments.
- You do not care about culture. You’re only going for the shopping.
- You understand not only the local language but also the dialects spoken.
- You prefer tourist traps where you eat from high-priced menus serving mediocre food.
When to book your tour
If you would like to plan to book a private tour guide, the best time book is at least 1-2 months in advance depending on your travel destination and the season of your visit. Having worked for a private tour company before in Rome before creating Inspiration Trips I can tell you that you ideally want to give a minimum of 2 months in order to find a highly rated and legally licensed guide who still has a schedule available that fits your travel plans during the high season. High season in Italy (as it is in most prominent travel destinations) generally runs from the time of Spring Break, with a bit of a lull in May, and picking back up in June when schools are out until October. There is another high season period during the holidays from mid-December until after the first week of January.
Prices vary between travel and tour operators, so if you need to shop prices give yourself another week to make email inquiries before making your decision of an operator to use since many do not post prices on the website and rates can vary depending on the tour and the quantity of people attending. (Please note that here at Inspiration Trips we charge one flat rate for a private guide on a tour of up to 6 people. Other factors such as transportation needed may vary depending on the size of your group.)
If your trip is scheduled soon and you don’t have 2 months to shop around, don’t delay! Make your inquiries now and come to a decision quickly when you find an operator who has an available guide for you. The schedules fill up rapidly and guides they trust to give a quality tour will disappear quickly. Many guides work as freelancers between several tour operators and they receive orders from different agents.
No waiting in lines!
Most tour operators claim there are no waiting in lines when you book a tour with them. What this means is that for extremely popular venues where it is common to have a wait in the general admission lines to enter and purchase your tickets (this can be over 2 hours at some venues) they will schedule or advise you to purchase tickets in advance. Certain destinations such as the Vatican and the Galleria Borghese in Rome, The Last Supper in Milan, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris often sell out their advance tickets online that are needed when booking a private tour to avoid the wait times of standing in line.
Be careful of booking tickets first before ordering your tour guide because the time available for tickets can be a difficult schedule to fill with your guide. They usually will advise the best time that is needed for their schedule or a planned itinerary. You should always inquire first with your chosen tour operator what is needed. Some may handle this step for you and include it in the price of the tour fee.
Upon arrival to many of the destinations you will show your pre-booked tickets to a guard to allow admittance at a separate entrance from the large crowds waiting in line. Sometimes you will have a ticket you can print at home and sometimes it will be the reservation only. With a reservation you will collect the tickets as you enter past the crowd. In that case you might wait just a few minutes at the reservation desk depending on how many others have also booked your same tour time.
Security lines are unavoidable. At some places such as the Vatican museums this process moves very quickly and is barely noticeable. At other venues such as the Colosseum (a new policy implemented in 2015) the security is not as efficient and you may have a bit of a delay to enter.
Depending on the tour operator you choose, the price of entrance tickets may or may not be included in the rate for your tour. Generally speaking your tour guide will not need a ticket if you are instructed to purchase your own tickets for your tour. Legally licensed tour guides in Italy are usually allowed to enter all sites free of charge.
Not all countries or cities require guides to be licensed in order to conduct tours. You may want to ask if you do not know the local laws. Booking with a tour operation or someone you find on the street that offers to supply a private tour without using licensed tour guides can be risky and embarrassing if you are caught. Places that strictly enforce this law in Italy are the major art museums such as the Vatican or prominent historical sites such as the Colosseum.
City tours that do not enter any monuments or museums are okay for having a tour leader. This is why you might find some tours where your guide does not enter a museum with you to explain about the artwork you are seeing inside. It is common on big group tour packages, especially those with multi-city destinations.
Identification may be required when collecting pre-booked tickets. Some travelers are extra cautious or worried about bringing their passport with them outside of their hotel. Don’t worry, you can also bring your driver’s license or other official identification with your photo. If you are a student and are receiving a student discount on your entrance ticket, then you will need to show your school ID in order to verify your qualification. For safety no matter where you travel it is always a good idea to scan copies of your travel documents and email them to yourself or someone you trust so that you can retrieve them if needed.
An expense that may be required are radio headsets. With a private tour this is not usually a concern because they are most often not needed, but if you have a larger family (6 or more people) going to the Vatican then it will be required by the museum. It does help with bigger parties so everyone can hear your guide as you move about in one big room or when maneuvering through the crowds. At places such as the Colosseum it may be up to your guide if they require it with bigger groups. During high season they stay very busy and when talking for 6-8 hours each day they cannot be expected to speak loudly for extended periods on a tour to your larger group so that all can hear him or her.
Transportation from and to your hotel is not always included on your tour. Depending on the operator, the tour you are ordering, and the location this may or may not be included in the tour price but can be added for an extra fee. Inquire for the rates from your hotel’s location before you add this service or assume it is included when it is not. It might be more economical for you to take a taxi or close enough that you can walk to your meeting point. However, sometimes it is worth the extra expense depending on the location simply because they are providing a confirmed driver that will bring you directly to meet your guide. There is less confusion about where you will find them.
Food and drinks on a tour are not typically provided unless explicitly stated. Many places do allow you to bring in a bottle of water. This is recommended since purchasing them at food trucks or cafes at tourist destinations can be quite expensive. It is common throughout Italy to find drinking fountains where you can refill your bottle, so don’t throw them out when you have finished.
Gratuities are not usually included in your tour fee and are greatly appreciated by your guide, especially if they have done a wonderful job of navigating you through crowds, assisting you with purchases of souvenirs, taking photos of your family at memorable points, paying extra attention to the youngest travelers in your family, answering endless questions, and recommending good places for lunch or dinner. Employment taxes are high in Italy and the rates they are paid can often be low depending on the tour operator they work for. The work is seasonal too so any extra amount they take home can make a big difference to support them in the off season.
How to dress and what to bring
Assuming you are on vacation you will want to dress in something casual and comfortable. If your tour includes destinations such as religious sites like St. Peter’s Basilica at Vatican City, then a dress code may be required. Most often shoulders and knees should be covered. This means no tank tops should be worn (or bring something that can cover them temporarily like a scarf) and shorts or skirts need to go below the knees.
Presumably you will walk a lot during most private tours, wearing comfortable walking shoes cannot be stressed enough. In Rome and in many Italian cities the streets and sidewalks are paved with old cobblestones. After walking around on this terrain for a few hours you’ll be swearing at your flip-flops for not providing better support and crying if you make the mistake to look fashionable in 3″ high heels. If you wear sneakers with socks and don’t want to be ridiculed by the locals in Italy, wear black socks or ones that do not show. Trust me on this. The Italians consider white socks outside of a gym as a major fashion faux pas.
Don’t forget your camera! This may be a once in a lifetime trip for you so don’t forget to pack your camera or at the very least make sure your smartphone is fully charged with some memory space left to document your visit. Some museums and inside churches may not allow photos to be taken. This could be for any number of reasons. To avoid embarrassment check for signs or ask your guide as you enter if photos are allowed.
Selfie sticks have become very popular in the past couple of years. Most museums and historical sites are banning the use of these items because of the risk they pose to artwork and people trying to pass when you become so absorbed in taking that epic selfie. If you have booked a private tour for a museum or historic site, leave the selfie stick at the hotel and retrieve it later when you are out walking around exploring on your own. When you’ve booked a friendly tour guide and photos are allowed at the venue where you are visiting they are usually more than happy to snap a few photos and will even suggest the best angle to capture the monument or artwork you want to include in your photographic memories.
Sunscreen and/or rain gear should be considered when booking a tour at an outdoor venue. If the weather calls for rain, be careful of bringing or purchasing long stick umbrellas. Some museums do not allow you to enter with them and retrieving them from a check counter at the end of a tour could be difficult. Compact folding umbrellas are a better option and can often be purchased easily from street vendors in crowded tourist areas if any drops of rain start falling from the sky. Outdoor walking tours will often continue as scheduled despite the weather unless it is severe. If you have concerns about this, ask your tour operator about the options to reschedule if possible or their cancellation policy should you have concerns about getting wet or being too hot.
Enjoy your tour!
Once you have booked your tour it’s always a good idea to check-in prior to arriving to make sure there are no surprises or unexpected cancellations. If you are planning to take public transportation you might learn of a last-minute strike which could delay you or your tour guide’s arrival to the meeting point. Communicating in advance helps avoid any problems and prepare for alternatives.
Mistakes can happen. A reputable company will provide confirmation to you when your order has been finalized at the time of your order. You should always check and confirm the details right away in the event there is something not as you expected. It’s easier to correct at the time of your order than at the last minute on the day of your arrival.
Final tip: If you are traveling from overseas, don’t plan to start off immediately with a tour. Allow yourself some time for overcoming jet-lag or any unexpected delays. Use some common sense when planning your itineraries. It’s not logical to have a flight arrive at 8am in Rome and you expect to start a tour within the next 3 hours. Don’t forget you need time to retrieve luggage, pass through customs, travel into the city, check in at your hotel to drop off luggage, and find your way to the meeting point. By then you may be starving and need some lunch before attending a 3-hour tour. If you are coming from overseas with a huge time difference you’ll likely get hit with jet-lag and an extreme desire for a nap after lunch. Forcing yourself to attend a tour at this point would be a waste of your money and a disappointment to both you and your guide as you fight the urge to stay awake and pay attention.