Photo courtesy Nick Rowlands.
Read this before you sign up to become a tour guide.
What better way to up your travel game than by becoming a guide for other globetrotters? It almost sounds too good to be true: You get to hang out with people who are on vacation and see all the major sites of a place while also, over time, becoming a local. But what is the job really like? That’s what we set out to find out from former travel guide, and current AFAR editor, Nick Rowlands.
Nick was a math and English teacher before he fell into leading tours after visiting Egypt with his family in 2006. He worked for a worldwide tour company called Imaginative Traveller, and spent two years leading tours in Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia. We asked him to give us the down and dirty on what it really takes to be a travel guide, and what you should know if you want to jump in.
1. The application process is not easy.
“It was actually the most intense application I’ve ever been through. After the initial paper application, I was called in for an interview. At first it was pleasant, and then they started asking me stuff like, ‘You’re hiking to the top of a mountain and a member of your group falls down and breaks their leg—what do you do to help?’ Or, ‘A group of your pax [passengers] challenges you in front of everyone and says they think you should do an alternative itinerary—how do do deal with it?’ What they’re really interested in, more so than your answer, is how you react under pressure and what your problem-solving skills are like.
“But even once you pass the interview you’re still only provisionally accepted. Around 15 of us had a week-long training in England where we covered what the job entailed, what it meant to be a tour leader, presentation skills, first-aid training, that sort of thing. We were being assessed throughout all of this; it was made very clear that we didn’t have the job yet, and anyone could be sent home any time.”
2. But it prepares you extremely well for the job.
“Imaginative Traveller ran trips all around the world, and when you sign up to work as a tour leader you don’t know where you’ll be placed. Around 10 of us ended up going to Egypt. (They’d asked me in the interview if I’d be happy to go back there, and I’d said yes.) There, we had another month or so of training. We had about a week when we got there to acclimate and get settled in, and then we shadowed seasoned tour leaders on two tours—helping them along the way.
“Having gone through all that, it’s fine once you get your own group. It did help that I had a teaching background, so I felt comfortable giving people directions, controlling groups, public speaking. But really it’s all about being able to be flexible and comfortable outside of your comfort zone, especially in a country like Egypt.”
3. There’s a difference between a tour guide and a tour leader.
“So I’m only really speaking for Egypt, here. It might be different in other countries, but a guide is the person that actually takes you round a site, like The Pyramids or Karnak Temple, and explains it—in Egypt they’d often be a professional archaeologist, and had to be Egyptian, unless the group had a special language need, in which case an exception was made. The guide doesn’t really have anything to do with the group—just shows them around one or two sites. We got a new one everywhere we went, though some companies have combined tour leaders and guides.
“A tour leader takes care of the logistics—staying and traveling with the same group through the whole of their trip, coordinating the hotels, the ferries, the trains, the meals, the tipping. We’d brief the pax on where we were going and what we were doing, the significance of what they were seeing, explain what options they had for their free time and help them organize it, show them round town, everything. There was lots of troubleshooting, too—mainly minor complaints, lost bags, upset stomachs, but sometimes more serious stuff like theft, assault, or broken limbs.
“Basically, tour leaders handle anything and everything required for the smooth running of the trip. For many people this would be the trip of a lifetime, and as a tour leader, your job is to make it as fulfilling as it can be for them—to assess what they’re looking to get from it and try to make that happen.”
4. It’s a 24/7 job…
“It’s wearing. You’re always on. There’s always something to arrange, or someone who needs something; never any downtime or time just to yourself. You have to really love people, but you’re constantly saying hello and goodbye to your pax, and maintaining any kind of relationship of your own is difficult, because you’re so transient. You’re supposed to be the last to bed and the first to rise—the life and soul as well as the firm, steadying hand. You can’t get up in the morning and be like, ‘I can’t be bothered.’ If you’re ill, the tour still happens. It doesn’t matter if you’re vomiting your guts up.”
5. But it’s so worth it.
“It was the best job I ever had. I got to see Egypt from so many different angles that most people don’t get, and that’s an incredible privilege. In the same day I might visit a 3000-year-old temple, ride a camel, and swim in the Nile, but also hang out with professional Egyptologists, smoke shisha with a felucca captain, and play dominoes with the chef on the cruise ship. I got to move between different worlds, like from high-society Cairo down to really baladi [kind of hyper-local and earthy] neighborhoods and markets, and make connections with locals and pax from all walks of life. I really got to know the country, and I fell in love with it hard: I stayed and lived there another few years after I stopped leading tours.”
Nick is currently the Guides Editor at AFAR.
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