Sightseeing…Tour Company, Private Guide or Go Solo?
Families travel to have fun, to unplug and relax, to spend time together, but most of all, to see and experience new things and places. When planning your vacation, you have to decide the best way to see the local sights, whether they be the best known and most famous or those off the beaten path. Usually, the options are to (1) sign up with a tour company, (2) find a private guide or (3) simply explore by yourself. Each offers advantages and disadvantages depending on your travel style, personality, and budget.
Certain attractions, of course, can only be experienced via a specialized tour company. Thinking back on our family’s past vacations, whale watching in Mexico, kayaking into the bioluminescent bay at night in Puerto Rico or dog sledding in Canada are a few experiences we could have never had without the help of a good tour company. In other cases, such as visiting Ellis Island in New York, touring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park or seeing the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, you have more than one option.
Here are some things to keep in mind to help you as you plan to see the sights on your next family vacation:
1. Tour Company
This option is often the easiest because it requires the least amount effort on your part. Other than having some idea of what you would like to see and choosing a tour company to take you there, it does not require much upfront work. You don’t need to plan your itinerary, research the attraction(s) or worry about driving directions, parking, entrance hours and fees, etc.
Tour companies are typically run by professional and experienced staff and offer established programs and itineraries. Your guide will likely provide information about the sights you will be seeing and sometimes you may be able to take advantage of special arrangements, not available to other tourists, such as early or late access or special programs.
In addition, because you will likely be part of a larger group, tour companies may be able to offer competitive prices. And, should something go wrong, you have a decent chance of obtaining at least a partial refund or some other form of compensation from a larger tour company.
On the other hand, cost can be one of the drawbacks of using a tour company, certainly compared to sightseeing on your own. There is also little room for customization or flexibility in the itinerary, and you must be prepared for the fact that you could be a part of a large group.
Being part of a tour group can mean long lines to see a particular attraction or when you need to use the bathroom. You may also experience challenges with being able to follow (and hear!) your guide or with having to wait for everybody to return to the bus in order to depart. The pacing of the tour might be too slow or too quick for you. Finally, there is also a chance you could be stuck with annoying or rude fellow travelers. For all these reasons, if our family decides to book a tour company to see an attraction, I usually look for those which operate smaller, more intimate groups.
2. Private Guide
Many people think that hiring a private guide on your vacation is something reserved for the rich and famous. However, a personal guide can sometimes be a more economical option than selecting a tour company, particularly if you are traveling with a larger party such as extended family or another family. Additionally, hiring a private guide is a great option if you are looking for a more customized, flexible and personal experience. Sometimes the sights are unique and hard to experience on your own and no existing tours are available, as was the case when our family wanted to witness turtle nesting in the middle of the night on a beach in Costa Rica.
However, the process of finding and hiring a private tour guide can seem daunting and feel risky. When I was preparing for our family trip to Costa Rica and contemplated hiring a private guide last summer, I had many questions:
- How do I go about finding a private guide?
- How do I select the best one among the many choices?
- How do I make sure their personality is a good fit for my family and also that they are good at interacting with kids?
- How do I communicate with them before our trip to make sure we are on the same page?
- How do I know they are knowledgeable, reliable and trustworthy?
Fortunately, the Internet was the answer to most of my questions. Once I started researching “private tour guides in Guanacaste,” the province of Costa Rica where we were staying, there was an abundance of information at my fingertips.
My advice, as you are doing your research, is to make sure you review neutral sources such as TripAdvisor. Personal websites or Facebook pages may be filled with glowing reviews. Use these sources to gain insight into individuals’ backgrounds and the types of tours they usually facilitate, as well as to obtain their contact information.
Another resource you might be able to leverage is your hotel’s concierge desk. Local tourist offices can be helpful as well. The most ideal situation, of course, is for you to get a personal recommendation from somebody you know and trust and who has “been there and done that.”
For our family, touring with a private guide proved to be by far the best option to experience everything we wanted to do in Costa Rica. Because we committed to booking three separate trips, we were able to get a much better price than we would by booking our trips with any of the tour companies I also researched. Most importantly, our day trips were completely tailored to us: from destinations to itinerary, timing of our meals, departure as well as the return. We loved that we were able to make impromptu stops and get hands-on information about the region we were touring.
Another great aspect of our privately-guided tours was that we were able to experience some attractions before the major crowds arrived (via tour companies!), as well as see a few things we would have otherwise likely not been able to, as part of a tour group or on our own, because our guide used his local connections.
Our guide was knowledgeable and great at interacting with our kids, offering facts appropriate for their ages and particular interests, who in turn, were very comfortable with him after the first trip. Finally, touring with a private guide added to our cultural experience of Costa Rica. Because our guide was a native, in the course of days we spent together he shared many stories about his own life, family, the towns he lived in, and the country in general.
3. Doing it solo (self-guided touring)
I have to admit that I’m partial to this option. Our family loves to explore things at our own pace and have a somewhat set, but flexible itinerary with plenty of opportunities for impromptu stops and adventures, especially important when you are traveling with children. Frequent bathroom breaks, a chance to snap a beautiful photo from the side of the road, ducking into a store you just discovered to buy a unique souvenir or simply taking a break because everybody is hot and thirsty are never daunting when you are in charge of your own tour. Needless to say, this option is also by far the cheapest.
However, self-guided touring does require some work, mostly as it relates to planning and research. Serving as our family’s travel director, I happen to love preparing for our travel adventures, but it can be quite time consuming. Additionally, this kind of sightseeing requires more active participation. For example, you may have to navigate the streets, find a bus or a train station, or know the hours when attractions open or close, so if you prefer to sit back, relax, and have others figure out the details, this might not be the optimal choice for you.
A few key things to consider:
- Are you good at finding locations and following directions?
- Are you comfortable getting lost and finding your way, especially if your destination happens to be a foreign country and particularly if you don’t speak the local language?
- If you are renting a car, are you comfortable driving in a place you have never been before, especially outside the U.S.?
- If you are making your decision largely based on your budget, make sure to consider the total cost, not just rental charges, but also for gas, tolls or parking.
If all this seems too daunting or you are generally not good at dealing with these ambiguities, you might be happier opting for one of the first two choices.
That said, touring on your own is a wonderful learning opportunity for the whole family as you are researching and, later on, touring your destination(s) together. It is also a great way to involve your children in vacation planning, as well as turn them into more active participants during sightseeing.
Most importantly, some of our family’s best travel memories, along with some serious family bonding, were created when we went out on our own and tried to navigate our way to the sights and attractions together. We still talk about how fun it was to get lost on the subway in New York City, how incredible it was to spot an adult crocodile on the side of the road in Mexico, and how entertaining it was to observe natives navigating (read: arguing) in a traffic jam while we were stuck on the public bus in Rio de Janeiro.
No matter what your touring style and preferences, I wish you lots of fun and memorable family travel experiences!
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