What better way to get to know a country than to meet the people who live there? To let them guide us and tell us the story of their nation and involve us in their customs.
During my travels, I found that my experiences were maximized when I could be invited to the locals and interact with them. To do this, I used my contact network or the site couchsurfing.com.
However, in this article, I was interested in the way oftravelling with a private guide and visiting families, coming from the travels of Andre and Florence, Milesopedians of another generation than mine (they are my parents!) who have already set foot in about sixty countries.
First experience with a private guide
The couple had their first experience as a private guide in Tunisia.
They had dealt with an agency in Quebec that had offered them a private trip by providing them with an itinerary that included the guide, hotels, and lunches. Dinners were not included, so the guide suggested that they eat with families of different social classes, which they gladly accepted.
One by one, they will experience eating in a Berber home, in a troglodytic house and in the home of a wealthy family. A great opportunity to visit the houses, see the layout and understand the customs related to the meal. For example, Berbers sit on the floor and eat their meals from a common dish.
The women and children, sitting in a corner, wait for the men and guests to finish eating and then have their turn at the same dish, with what’s left over.
We didn’t eat too much… Let’s just say we made sure there were some nice pieces of chicken left.André
The second house that was dug underground offered an unusual experience.
In addition to the meal, they were able to visit the house with a mini-museum that informed them about Tunisian customs and offered them the opportunity to try on traditional wedding clothes.
The visit of the well-to-do house was not so exotic compared to the first two. The meal was made as at home, in the dining room with a table and comfortable chairs.
How do I find a private guide?
Satisfied with their first experience, they started again in a few countries (Senegal, Gambia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, etc.).
As they gained experience, they realized that by eliminating the middlemen, the price went down. It is important to understand that the guide is hired by a local agency, which in turn does business with an international agency. By doing your research yourself, you can choose :
- A Quebec or French agency (France sometimes has more choice of destinations)
- A local agency
- A guide that can be displayed on the internet, tripadvisor, or social networks.
- On site by visiting agencies or talking to people
- Hire a taxi for the day
It all depends on your budget, the level of involvement you want to put into it and the service guarantee you are looking for.
When dealing with a local agency in Vietnam, André and Florence were surprised by the quality of the service. A French-speaking guide with driver, several gifts on arrival, a cell phone was provided to them to contact the agency in case of need and this, at a better price than what the French or Canadian agencies offered.
This same agency had contacts with guides in neighbouring countries (Laos, Cambodia), so it was able to organize an itinerary to several destinations by taking care of the transfers.
For Senegal, it was while searching on the internet that André found a guide that had a website. After a few written exchanges and reading customer comments, he has a telephone conversation with the guide. Reassured, he makes a commitment with him without however giving a deposit.
On arrival, the first moments with the guide were disturbing because it was the wrong way, it was dark and there were gatherings around them.
We were really lonely because we had all our suitcases, all our things, our money. We’re in his vehicle. He doesn’t seem to know where we’re going. We’re on a dirt road with gangs that have gotten together: we were wondering if we had done the right thing.André
In the end, the experience was enjoyable despite the false start. The guide had selected some interesting activities and really facilitated the trip and the passage through Gambia. He invited them to his family to share the meal.
Interestingly, the meal is again served in a common dish, but this time there is no individual plate to transfer the food to. Six people were eating from the dish.
I had an imaginary triangle in front of me for eating.Florence
In Gambia, the couple fraternized with the security guard of their hotel who agreed to change his work schedule to act as their guide for a few days. There was an agency near the hotel that offered guided tours, but in groups.
So they opted for their improvised guide who was able to make them discover things they never thought they would see or even knew existed.
They tell me of a boat landing where, for lack of a dock, porters would walk into the water to pick up passengers and carry them on their shoulders to shore so they would not get wet.
You couldn’t have a more authentic experience. In this case, they had also hired a taxi driver for the day because their guide’s car was not in order.
The agencies propose itineraries that can often be modified according to our preferences when we have a private tour. If you’ve done your research, you can ask directly for the attractions you want or make a mix with their proposals.
Sometimes it’s interesting to give the guide some freedom. He usually knows what the customers like to see and that leaves room for nice surprises. Do not hesitate to ask for quotes from different agencies to compare prices. If possible, contact the guide directly to avoid agency fees.
Advantages and disadvantages
As I talk to the couple, I realize that they can hardly name any disadvantages when their list of favourable points is much larger.
The bottom line is that the more you try to get a better price, the more you have to live with the uncertainty of the service and the lack of recourse afterwards. The customer service at a Canadian agency, for example, may not be the same as at your destination. However, one can be reassured by reading the comments on the internet.
Apart from that, there have been one or two experiences of slightly lazier guides who did not follow them when they visited or went on hikes, but that did not really bother them. The other concern was when they had to pay a deposit to a local agency before the trip.
Let’s just say we were hoping they were really streetwise.André
What they appreciate most about this type of trip is the flexibility it brings.
Unlike organized groups, they don’t have to wait for others to finish eating or shopping to continue the day. In China, it was raining when they visited the Great Wall.
Even if 3h30 was planned in the agenda, we had finished after 90 minutes, we could continue our journey without waiting.Florence
They’re saving time to do what they really like, like photography. André explains that he has requests for spontaneous stops on the road when he sees unusual scenes of life such as a coffin on a motorcycle.
In Gambia, the guide gave him access to photo opportunities in villages where people did not want to be photographed. An explanation from the guide in local dialect settled everything.
They also talk about reaching places that, as tourists alone, would not have been possible to visit. They went to an African village of barely 10 houses and fraternized with the inhabitants. Without the guide, they would have been looked at strangely and would not have dared.
The little extras offered by the guides are also a major advantage, such as going to a school at the beginning of classes to watch the students line up and sing the national anthem, or stopping in a rice field and talking with the workers to understand how to farm.
Another positive aspect is that the guide can negotiate for them at the market and avoid the tourist price.
In addition, they talk about the feeling of security that comes from being accompanied by someone who speaks the language and often by a driver who stays with their luggage when they visit a place.
Until now, they have not known a private guide through a reference. They hope that their style of travel can inspire people or encourage those who doubt. In this way, the beautiful community of travelers will be able to help each other and refer to the best guides in the world.
Feel free to read or reread the other articles in Valerie.
We would like to thank Florence and her husband André for sharing their testimony with Valérie. If you have any additional questions about their personal experience, André is kindly available to answer them.
How about a trip with a private guide?