“Tour By Locals” – Being Guided When Traveling

April 4, 2014

in Travel Tech

  • SumoMe

I usually travel “independently,” which means I don’t go on days-long bus tours, cruises, or any sort of trip where a tour company is herding me (and 20-40 of my new “best friends”) from place-to-place like a bunch of cats too lazy to bother figuring out how to come up with their own “see-and-do” travel plans.

Herding Cats

(Jim Holmes Flickr Photo)

On the other hand, I highly recommend that travelers use “local” guides to help them explore the guide’s home turf instead of just relying on a guidebook or smartphone app to discover the most interesting and unusual aspects of a destination.

On a trip to Italy, I hired Americans living in that country to show me and my wife around Venice, Florence, and the Tuscan countryside. In Amsterdam, Munich and Prague, I hooked up with “born-and-bred-there” guides to fill us in on the history of their cities while we did a “walk-about” with them.

Katka St John IMG_1782

(Touring Prague with “Katka”)

But finding such guides isn’t always easy, so when over coffee this week a friend told me to check out “ToursByLocals.com,” I took her advice to see if this Website could solve the find-a-good-guide problem.

How It Works

Vancouver, B.C. based ToursByLocals.com has created a fairly-easy-to-navigate Website that lets travelers find individual, locally-based guides that offer tours matching a traveler’s dates of visit, activity level, and interests.

You can browse through regions, enter the name of a city or other destination, or click on an interactive map to find a tours available when you’ll be in town.

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I decided to look for tours and guides in my home locale (the San Francisco Bay Area), and some of the European destinations where I’ve hired guides during past trips.

Here’s what I discovered.

Monterey Peninsula

Next week I’ll be headed south from San Francisco to Monterey where I lived many years ago and which I have visited numerous times over the past 40-odd years since.

Monterey was once the state capitol, so the two-and-half hour, aptly named “Monterey – The Cradle of California” tour that would cover the “history from the Spanish explorers to California statehood” sounded ideal. And if you’ve read the works of John Steinbeck, the “Monterey – the Sardine Capital of the World” tour of Cannery Row would probably appeal to you.

Both of those tours were offered by the same guide, cost from $150-$160 per tour (not per person), and could be booked right from the tour’s description on ToursByLocals.com.

Clicking on “Book This Tour” brings up a calendar of available dates.

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You pick a date, then jump to the next screen where you select the starting time and place for the tour, indicate the number of people who will be going (from 1-10 in the case of the “Sardine” tour), answer a few questions (e.g., “My tour is approximately 2 hours of leisurely walking – do you have any physical limitations that would prevent you from doing this?), and then fill out your contact information and complete the booking process.

San Francisco and “Wine Country”

ToursByLocals.com lists 61 tours in the city of San Francisco itself, and 18 in the nearby “Wine Country” in Sonoma and Napa Counties.

You can narrow down the list by entering the start and end dates for your tour search, and also pick an “Activity Level” (from “Minimal” to “High to Extreme”) and “Type” (such as “Cultural,” “Food & Wine,” or “Youth and Family.”)

Then the process of selecting and booking a specific tour is the same as for the two Monterey-area tours I mentioned.

Amsterdam

I found 68 ToursByLocals.com tours for Amsterdam in the Netherlands, but was disappointed that none were offered by the guide we had hired during our 2009 visit.

However, the ToursByLocals.com Website does provide detailed information about several other guides in that city.

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And ToursByLocals.com has a process for vetting guides to help insure the one you pick will provide you with an informative and enjoyable tour experience.

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If I went back to Amsterdam, I’d feel comfortable trying out one of ToursByLocals.com guides.

Munich

As with Amsterdam, the tour guide that had led us around Munich isn’t a member of the ToursByLocals.com network. But as with Amsterdam, there were several other guides to choose from.

Prague

I was pleased to see that “Katka,” (pictured with my wife near the top of this story) who had been our tour guide for a half-day on each of our two days in Prague, works with ToursByLocals.com.

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Her “Prague at a Glance” tour is very much like the stroll through the various districts of the city that we took, although our tour with her was about twice as long as the one listed on the ToursByLocals.com Website, and was spread over two mornings.

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Katka’s own Website offers a broader range of tours than available through ToursByLocals.com. But the pricing of her “Prague at a Glance” tour is about the same whether booked through her Website or ToursByLocals.com, although a bit different since the lower tour price listed on her Website is for a 1-6 person tour, while the slightly more expensive tour that she offers through  ToursByLocals.com is for up to 8 people.

The “Find A Guide” function of ToursByLocals.com is great if you know, either from your own experience or that of a friend or family member, or a recommendation found in a guidebook or smartphone app, which of a great local guide at the destination you plan to visit.

The Low-Cost and Free Tours vs. Personal Guided Tours

One way to take a guided tour in a city is on free or low-cost ones offered through the local visitor’s bureau, chamber of commerce, city government, or non-profit entity, such as an historical society.

For example, San Francisco City Guides offers terrific free tours led by extremely knowledgeable docents. In London, you can take the same type of tour from London Walks by just showing up at the tour staring location without booking in advance, and pay just a few Pounds Sterling for a top-notch walk through the city’s history.

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Some cities have “hop-on, hop-off” bus tours with pre-recorded narration or a “live” tour guide on a microphone telling you what you are seeing. It’s often a good way to get a reasonably priced overview of the place on your first day there, while being able to hop off the bus to sightsee “on the ground” or grab a bite to eat, before hopping back aboard another bus to complete the tour.

The advantage to those type of tours is that you spend little out-of-pocket to take them. The disadvantage is that you are usually in a group of 10-20 other tourists, and may have only limited opportunity to chat with or ask questions of your tour guide.

On more personal, small group tours led by a private guide, you’ll pay more money, but get a richer travel experience in return, something well worth the extra expense. On such a tour you may be able to gain access to places not generally open to the traveling public, meet “locals” that are friends of the guide, or even be invited into someone’s home for a chat and cup of coffee, as was the case when we took a tour of the back streets and passageways of Venice with an American ex-pat who had moved there from New York and bought and remodeled a flat overlooking one of the city’s canals.

ToursByLocals.com presumably gets a commission on tours booked through its site. Unfortunately, that means it makes no sense for it to list free or low-cost tours, but instead to focus on tours by individual guides that will cost more, but deliver good value for the money spent.

What, No App?

When I’m “on the road” I tote along my iPad tablet computer. Finding and booking tours through the ToursByLocals.com Website is almost as easy to do on the iPad as on my desktop iMac computer with its much larger screen.

What’s missing from ToursByLocals.com is that there is no smartphone app that you can use to find and book tours, and its Website doesn’t have a “Mobile” version, either of which would make it much easier to read about the tours on a smartphone’s small screen.

The Bottom Line

ToursByLocals.com seems to be a very easy-to-use method for finding and booking individual or small group tours by local, private guides. It doesn’t have listings for every possible destination on the planet, but it does work with guides in a world-wide network.

If I were planning a trip, I’d use Google search, visitor and convention bureau Websites, print/smartphone-tablet apps/online guidebooks, plus ToursByLocals.com to help me find the best tours that fit my travel budget.

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