13 Takeaways From a First-Time Tour Guide

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Group tour El Tunco, El Salvador

If you told me six months ago that I would have run two successful tours by May, I wouldn’t have believed you.

How did this all come together? Leif and I met in Sri Lanka in November, became instant friends, and he told me about his plan to run a tour to El Salvador and Guatemala during the winter. I thought it sounded like a great idea and offered to promote the tour on my Facebook page.

Well, as soon as I did that, Leif was inundated with emails from my readers. Then we looked at each other and said, “Hey, wait a minute…”

And so we decided to run a tour together. To our great delight (and despite my fears), it sold out in a week and we decided to add a second tour. A March tour and an April tour were run with hardly a hiccup.

In short, running these tours is one of the most fun things I have ever done. And I learned quite a bit about tour guiding in the process.

I always love reading snippets about other people’s lives, so I thought it would be interesting to tell you what it’s really like to be a tour guide.

Kate and Leif in Antigua

Having multiple guides is beyond necessary.

Honestly, I don’t know how solo tour guides do it. If I were running a tour on my own, I would be miserable.

When you’re the only guide, you have to literally be “on” at every moment of every day. You need to be responsible for every single aspect of the tour. You can’t relax for a moment; all responsibilities fall to you.

Having two guides, or even being a solo guide and offering a friend a free tour in exchange for helping you out, makes such a difference. When you’re feeling overwhelmed and need a moment to step back and catch your breath, someone can jump in. You can handle the aspects that you do the best and your co-guide can take over the parts you don’t enjoy as much.

You can be in two places at once, essentially. A superhuman.

Leif and I quickly fell into a rhythm – he was the macro guide and I was the micro guide. Both roles were essential. Leif would lead the group at the front, and I would keep an eye on everyone from the back. He would give the tour, and I would gather up the strayers so nobody would be left behind. He would work with vendors and I would spend time with people who needed extra help.

If someone needed to be walked to the ATM, or had nobody to eat with, or was sick and needed help, I would spend time with him or her while Leif handled the whole-group aspects. This way, the tour moved at a smooth pace and everyone got the attention they needed. Plus, Leif is an early bird and I’m a night owl, so one of us was always available.

I honestly think that having two guides is the key to actually enjoying yourself while guiding a tour.

El Tunco Tour 2

You’ll have to spend more money than you think.

No matter what the situation is, you’ll have unexpected expenses crop up, so factor that in even after you calculate the perfect cost for a trip.

We had planned for our dorms at Papaya Lodge to be just fan-cooled, but after the first 85-degree night, our group begged for air conditioning. Of course we paid for it immediately. A few days of air conditioning was absolutely worth it, even though AC is expensive in Central America and it added a dent into our funds.

When the cheap pupuseria closed on the night of our included meal there, we had to move it to a more expensive restaurant. When we found out three girls on the first tour were celebrating their birthdays, we bought them gifts.

And those were just a few of several incidents when we ended up spending more money than we planned. It worked out, though.

Leif, Kate, and Bianka in Pool

Smaller group size is better than huge.

This is nothing meant to disparage our first group of twelve – I had the best time with those girls and at the time I thought that group size was perfect. But after running a second tour of six (plus two guides), I realized that I vastly preferred the latter.

I loved every girl in our first group to pieces and I couldn’t imagine the trip without a single one of them — but I now realize that 12 was a few too many. Lesson learned.

Everything was easier in a group of eight. Dinners out were less of a nightmare for restaurant staff. Our group was able to have a single conversation at once. And keeping track of people was much easier.

I mean, try to keep your eye on 12 different people in Antigua’s central market, making sure none of them get lost in the labyrinth as they buy huge bags of chia seeds and half the group moves onto the next hall. Not easy, and definitely the most stressful part of the trip for me, the guide in the back!

I think the ideal tour size for me would be eight travelers and two guides.

Truck to Panajachel Tour

The developing world will drive you crazy.

If you’re traveling in Latin America, or another developing region, you’ll soon become acquainted with the idiosyncrasies of life here. Food that takes forever to arrive in restaurants and dishes that come out 15 minutes apart. People who schedule things at the last minute. LATENESS.

“I swear to God, my next tour will be in Germany and Switzerland,” I muttered on more than one occasion. “Things work there.”

Every time something went wrong, I felt like I had failed my group and I apologized over and over. “Yes, I know it didn’t say on the menu that it had corn in it and it arrived with corn in it, but that’s Latin America…”

One of the best pieces of advice I got from a friend who runs tours was to create a document called “What to Expect in a Developing Country” and send it out to everyone. I wrote about things like not drinking the water, not flushing toilet paper, keeping small change on you, and expecting cramped public transportation, and I think it gave everyone reasonable expectations about what lay ahead.

You can’t plan for everything, though.

Motorcycle Tour with Leif

When you’re stressed, don’t let it show.

There was one day in Panajachel during the first tour when I got extremely stressed out. Arranging motorcycling and paragliding for 12 different people when the vendors were all very casual and lackadaisical was a nightmare for someone who likes things to be organized.

And I let it show. I was frustrated and griping and shriek-sighing when yet another thing went wrong. It all worked out in the end and everyone in the group had a fantastic day, but it nearly destroyed me in the process.

Then the next day, a few of the girls came up to me with a gift: a bag full of chocolate and booze. “Please don’t be stressed, Kate!” they told me.

I was so touched by their kindness – yet I felt awful. My being stressed out had carried over onto them. This was their special trip, and they shouldn’t have felt anything but joy. I dropped the ball on that one.

For the second tour, if I got stressed, I tried my hardest not to let it show. I plastered a big smile on my face and screamed on the inside (though with a smaller group, things were far less difficult in terms of coordination!).

Lipstick Girls

Food poisoning will hit. Hard.

On the first tour, half the group got food poisoning, mostly in the early days. On the second tour, a few people had it on and off throughout the trip.

When you travel frequently in the developing world, as Leif and I do, I think you can forget what a horror diarrhea can be. We’re used to just brushing it off and letting it pass; for our tour participants, they were freaked out.

Let’s just say that I knew there would be diarrhea at some point — but I was shocked by how many people had it and for how long.

I recommended that everyone see a travel doctor before a trip to the developing world to get a prescription for antibiotics in case of diarrhea that doesn’t clear up. But not everyone did that, and not everyone will do that in the future, so I armed myself with lots of Cipro and Imodium to hand out.

(While I am not a medical professional, several doctors gave the members of our group the same advice: in case diarrhea that doesn’t clear up after two days or so, take 500 mg of Ciprofloxacin twice a day for five days. Cipro is available over the counter in most of the developing world and if you go to a pharmacy, the pharmacist will usually give you the same advice: 500 mg, twice a day for five days. I recommend taking Imodium only when you are scheduled for a long travel day when bathrooms may not be accessible.)

Tour on Bed

Downtime is necessary.

Leading a tour is exhausting. Leading a tour as an introvert, which I indisputably am, is utterly draining. If you don’t take time for yourself to recharge in private, you will lose your mind!

Both times it hit me in Panajachel, one week into the tour. I just had to get away for a few hours. The first time, Leif and I crashed at his apartment down the road from the hotel; the second time, we stayed at the same hotel but I spent a morning not leaving my room. In addition to those days, I gave myself a bit of alone time every day, either reading or surfing Reddit in private.

Downtime is necessary for the group, too. If you’re doing crazy activities every day, you’ll need to balance it with some calmer, lazier days. I think having a leisurely itinerary helped out with that. One of my favorite days in San Pedro was when we literally stayed at the Blue Parrot restaurant all day!

Brittany and Kate Driving Boat

Personalities leading tours have special concerns.

When you are known for being a blogger (or any other kind of personality), you have additional concerns that an unknown tour guide wouldn’t have. People feel like they know you, people have expectations of you before they meet you, and while most people are cool once they meet you, some may have built you or your relationship up to an unrealistic level in their minds.

Some people will assume that because they’re on your tour (or retreat, or seminar, or private online group), you’re automatically going to become their mentor and build them a business so they can travel the world forever. Or you’ll become their new best friend. Or their lover.

A friend I know who runs tours once had to deal with a woman who was convinced she was going to make him her boyfriend. She was hitting on him so often that he took her aside and told her he’d be kicking her off the tour if she didn’t cut it out. She eventually backed off.

Nothing that bad happened with our tours, but there were some incidents that pushed the boundaries.

Jaibalito Dock Atitlan

People need different amounts of attention.

Going along with the last point, people on the tour will have different needs. Most people will stick with the group most of the time, occasionally breaking into pairs or groups when doing different activities.

Some people, however, will be content to drift in and out of the group, spending days largely on their own and waltzing up two minutes before the shuttle leaves. Others, especially those new to backpacking or the developing world, will need more help with finding their way around, going to a restaurant, or buying something at a store.

It’s easy to think that fairness is paying each person an equal amount of attention, but I don’t think that’s entirely accurate; I think it’s best to give people the level of attention that they need.

I did try to have some alone time with every person on our trips, whether it was getting a coffee together, sharing a private meal, having a deep conversation on a walk or in their room, or even sharing a double kayak!

Tour St. Patrick's Day

Don’t let one person’s bad mood take over the group.

I’m the kind of person who automatically takes on the emotions of people around me. I sob my eyes out at funerals for people I didn’t know. I visited a young Somali woman imprisoned in Bangkok’s International Detention Center back in 2010 and I was the one who cried my eyes out over her predicament as she comforted me. How messed up is that?

In short, I’m always hyper-concerned about how other people feel, and if they’re upset or uncomfortable in any way, I’ll feel upset and uncomfortable myself and won’t be able to relax until I can make them feel better. And because I’m one of the guides and I feel this way, that feeling can spread amongst the group and one person can drag everyone down.

I’ve learned that when a member of the group is sick or upset, it’s good to take them aside and help them as much as you can privately as you let the other guide stay with the group. And if isolating a grumpy person isn’t an option, well, all you can do is be extra cheerful.

Tour Salsa Lesson

It’s impossible to please everyone all the time.

While there are lots of things that will be universally enjoyed – Leif’s motorcycling tour to the hot springs on Lake Atitlan got high praise from everyone – there are times when some people won’t enjoy an activity as much as others.

And you know what? There’s nothing you can do about that. So just aim for most people being happy.

Take the accommodation. Some people preferred the communal living of dorms and were upset when we were split into doubles and triples. Others relished every chance for private or semi-private rooms as often as they got.

Another example was the partying. Our first tour was split – most people enjoyed the level of partying but a few people thought it was a bit too much. By contrast, our second group partied to bacchanalian levels and everyone was happily on the same page about that.

Also, when we collected feedback from the first group, several of the tour members said that three nights in the village of Jaibalito was too long. They felt a bit uncomfortable staying overnight in a small village only accessible by boat. Leif and I were shocked to hear this; we both love Jaibalito and it’s home to the luxurious Vulcano Lodge, the best accommodation on the trip.

So for the second tour, we decided to scale Jaibalito back to two nights and do four nights in San Pedro instead. Until we got to Jaibalito on the second trip and our group asked if we could stay there for a third night. They loved it! We reverted back to three nights.

Pizza Booze Cruise Atitlan Tour

We found a great niche with our tours.

I think Leif and I have found something that doesn’t really exist in the market yet – cheap backpacker tours that stay in high-quality budget accommodation and move at a leisurely pace.

Most of the backpacker tours out there emphasize seeing as much as possible in a short time. One night one place, two nights another place, one night somewhere else, a train or bus or day trip or full-day activity every day with maybe one free half day per week.

I’ve done tours like those before, and I found them way too harried for my personal taste. This was so much better. Part of enjoying your travels is not being stressed out, and I get stressed out when I worry that I won’t have enough time to do everything.

It was also a good idea starting with four nights in El Tunco because a few people lost their luggage and had to wait a few days for it to arrive! One bag didn’t even arrive until the day before we left for Guatemala.

If you’ve got two weeks and you want to see as much as humanly possible, this tour probably isn’t for you. But if you come on our tours, you will meet awesome people and have so much fun. And that’s a huge part of why we travel, isn’t it?

Family Tour

It’s all about the people – and the friendships.

I cannot tell you how much I adore the people who came on our tours. They’re brilliant, hilarious, sweet, and incredibly kind.

They’re crazy interesting, too. On our tours we’ve had a girl with psychic abilities, a fashion and costume designer who has met both Presidents Obama and Clinton, one of my favorite travel bloggers, a production designer for concerts across the world, a girl who saw the Notorious B.I.G. live, and not one but two marine biologists!

The first group’s age range was 25-40 and the second’s was 27-36. People came mostly from the United States but we also had an Australian, three Canadians, and two dual Albanian/American citizens.

Another interesting thing was that several of our tour participants told us that they were independent travelers who wouldn’t ordinarily book a tour, but they took this one because it looked fun and cheap and different – and they loved it.

This is really only the first chapter in our friendships. Five of us traveled to Semuc Champey together. Reunion plans are already brewing all over the world. And these friendships are worth far more than any money I’ve earned from leading these trips.

What do you think? Did any of this surprise you?