Last year I wrote about my belief that a good tour guide can transform a travel experience into something remarkable. In this case I’m talking about tour guides you can hire for a day or half a day to lead you around a new place and teach you more about it than any guide book could ever hope to impart. I personally have been on a lot of these lately and almost all were truly excellent, except for one. Ironically enough, it was one of the most anticipated guide experiences that turned out to be the worst.
I’m not sure how it is here in the U.S., but in most countries around the world tour guides aren’t just some interested people who decide to lead groups. Instead they are well-trained professionals who have made the art of teaching new comers about their cities and regions their career. They have to be specially trained and advanced coursework and certification is required in most locales.
The result is (hopefully) an interesting tour with lots of information and answers to any question you could possibly pose. The tour, especially if it’s a walking tour, is also well thought out, efficient and makes sense. At no time does the travel guide seem lost or out of their element.
Having participated in a number of these I forgot just how well trained these professionals are, until I met one who wasn’t.
There’s a new-ish trend in tours lately called . On the face of it, the concept seems like a great idea. The tours are free because they are led by locals who “love their city so much they volunteer to show their city to visitors.” Sounds kind of cool, right? The web site goes on to make clear that these individuals are not tour guides, but “new friends.” I know now why they make that distinction, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that most tourists use these volunteers as de facto tour guides and are attracted by the price: free. As my mom always said though, you get what you pay for.
I didn’t have much time in Marseilles, France, just a morning to try to see and do as much as possible. I was there in cooperation with Provence tourism and so was in their hands as to how best experience this massive city. Its size was a shock to me after having spent a week in quiet villages of rural France, but it was good to be in a city again. I was excited for the three hour tour as I waited with fellow participants at the allotted hour. And waited. And waited. The fact the guide was late wasn’t a good start to the day.
In spite of her tardiness, the tour began on a promising note. Three hours isn’t a lot of time but she had her instructions to provide us with a good overview of the city and so we started at the most logical place, high above the city at the basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde. However to get there we would have to take a public bus, a fact none of us knew. Luckily I had some cash otherwise it would have been an awkward moment.
After spending half an hour getting to the basilica, I saw that the expense of time and effort was indeed worth it. The views of the city and Mediterranean were stunning and I was looking forward to learning more about the church itself. Sadly, the guide really didn’t know anything about the structure. I asked about the history only to be met with a blank stare. (She later found a brochure in English for me to read) After spending a week being led around by true experts in their cities, the total lack of knowledge came as a shock.
But, as the web site says, the volunteers aren’t guides and instead the goal is to show me a side of the city I might not otherwise see. Unfortunately that never happened. We left the church and arrived back at the Old Harbor with barely an hour in our three hour tour remaining. There didn’t seem to be a plan and instead of finding out of the way neighborhoods or quirky sites, we walked around the waterfront for an hour before being deposited back at the tourist office. I could have led the group better with a copy of Frommer’s and a map.
By the end of the tour I had made fast friends with the other participants, we were all joking about how bad the experience was. Not exactly what you want tourists to say after experiencing a tour recommended by the tourism office. Instead of learning more about Marseille culture and history, I learned only how bad free tour guides can be. I also learned about how much work real tour guides have to complete in order to become experts in their field and how important they are in framing a positive travel experiences for visitors to their cities.
I’m sure that some free guides, somewhere are good and perhaps even excellent. But that wasn’t my experience and I for one will always opt to spend a few bucks in order to get the most out of my travel experience.
Have you used free guides before? What was your experience?