When I started out on this T2T project one of first things I told myself was to avoid guided tours at all costs. I thought there was no way I could submerge myself into a new culture while being herded around like sheep (dressed in tropical shirts and socks with sandals).
The truth is however, tours aren’t all bad. Sometimes they’re the best (or only) way to see a bunch of stuff in a limited time.
Over the past few years I’ve done bus tours in London, bike tours in Mendoza, walking tours in Rome, island hoping tours in Greece and tours South America. Some were better than others but all could’ve been maximized if I’d followed a few simple ideas. Below is a list of 5 things that I laid out after my most recent tour in South America that I think could help make any tour experience great.
5 things to maximize any tour experience and do it like a townie!
1. Ask Opinionated Questions:
Everybody is going to ask “what’s that monument?” or “how old is that sculpture?”, sure that’s what you’re on the tour for in the first place. However, people don’t take the time to actually talk to the tour guide or “tour assistants” about local stuff. If you’re traveling within a region for a short period of time, this might be your only chance to converse with locals.
So ask questions that will give you an understanding of the culture and region. Look beyond the monument or place you’re visiting. Ask about relationships or viewpoints of other countries, ask about movies and music. Ask about different areas within the city. Let’s say you’re moving to London and you’re staying in a hostel, ask about Apartments in London. Ask about meeting women/men. Ask about favorite foods. You can get some great insight if you are open to it. Be careful though, some of these topics could be touchy for certain people so proceed with caution. Especially around foreign relations, politics and religion talk is rarely a good ice breaker.
2. Take Recommendations with a Grain of Salt:
Don’t assume asking your tour guide “where’s a good place to eat for locals?” is a good question. Many tour guides work on commission so they might not always point you in the right direction. However, if you’re on a bus tour or guided transportation tour, I found that the bus driver is often the best person to ask. He or she will usually shoot you straight (as long as the tour guide isn’t within ear shot).
You can also ask other people on the tour, but do so individually so that you don’t get a big tourist rush to the local hidden gem someone else found. Like I mentioned before, your first days in a new city are important because you can get better acquainted with neighborhoods and find a place to stay versus doing it online before you arrive. For example, when in London, the tour guide, bus driver or even other members in your group can advice you on Holiday Apartments London to make your vacation much more of a local experience.
3. Get Involved
The tour is what you make it. That is the most important travel tip I can give you. The tour guide isn’t always going to be a star and you might catch a lame group but you have to battle through it. Take the tour by both hands and shake it up a bit. Okay, so you’re not a natural born hype-man, that’s okay. Spark up conversations with other guests and get as many people involved as possible. Ask the tour guide random, off-beat questions to break silences. Also, don’t fight the flow of the group. When I was in Greece I learned a ton about South Africa because my entire group was from there. I got 2 experiences for the price of one. Well actually, on that tour I got 3 experiences for the price of one because the tour guide and I hit it off real well (highly recommended if you want some killer insight). I almost cancelled my flight back to London… don’t get that involved!
3. Break Away:
Great, you made friends with everyone on the bus, now… get away! At any chance you have, break away from the group and explore for yourself. If it’s a multi-day trip I can understand spending the first night getting good vibes flowing (like the group dinner photo above) but try to be as independent as possible.
A few months ago I was on a bus tour in Cachi (Northern Argentina) and when we stopped for lunch my friend and I opted to find our own food. So we went off exploring and ended up having the best afternoon around town. We meet a bunch of locals without the giant “TOURIST” stamp on our foreheads (just little ones). Also, we paid about a 3rd of the price for lunch then the rest of the group and had a much better meal. There was actually an uproar on the bus among the other tour peeps when we told them what we did, they wished they’d joined us.
Another example is, I was in Santiago, Chile with my father for only 2 days so we took a double-decker bus around the city. While dad opted not to get off the bus to checkout the Mercado Central, I did, and it ended up making the entire trip for me. With those hop-on-hop-off buses you gotta get off and explore. The best way to get a feel for a place (especially a city) is always on foot.
5. Find the Photographer:
The majority of us take pictures when we’re on a tour. And If you just take pictures of the monument, landmark or “thing” you came to see your photos would get real boring real quick. So, you want to get someone to take photos of you (and your friends). This isn’t as easy as it may appear. To maximize the photo and capture the moment best, you should find the best photographer out of the group. I do this every time and it’s amazing what the difference is with the photos. Search criteria: Who is the one with the serious magnum camera? Who is laying down or getting in weird positions to get the shot? that’s your guy!
All-in-all, it really doesn’t matter how you tour as long as you’re out there exploring. The only thing I would say is that you try to maximize every experience!
Recent South America Tour Posts: