A quick Google search will turn up the major tour companies operating in a city — or the ones paying for ads and searching juice — but you’re looking for the right guide to transform your understanding of a new place and avoid tourist traps.
This has become even more challenging as third-party companies and unauthorized guides have proliferated in tourism hot spots, scooping up tickets and driving up prices. Travel is already complicated; a guide should make it easier.
I’ve found plenty of reliable tour guides through social media and Airbnb Experiences. Before a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, I went down rabbit holes on Instagram, looking at local food influencers and tour companies. Along the way I ended up on the account of Lily Palma, a guide who founded Zapotec Travel by Lily. We coordinated a custom experience over WhatsApp, I sent a deposit in advance and paid for the rest in person, and had a magical time with one of her guides.
Using Airbnb Experiences required far less trawling. For food tours on a trip to Southeast Asia, I looked for local guides and strong reviews in Phuket, Thailand, and Vietnam and was delighted with the outcomes. In Bangkok, I took a risk on a new tour that looked unique but had no reviews; it paid off, and I had a spectacular time learning to cook with Prawit “Wit” Chankasem and his mom Maew at their coconut farm.
To get you started on your hunt, I took a spin through the Casablanca Airbnb Experiences options and thought this history and food tour sounded like a solid pick. In the many detailed reviews, customers described the Moroccan guide as flexible and adaptable, informative and in-depth. You could go on one of his small group tours for $60 per person or book a private one for $300. Another guide had similarly strong reviews, so strong that his tour is described by customers as a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.
I was curious what other travel professionals do, so I reached out to some hotel concierges, travel planners and tour guides for their advice. Multiple industry insiders warned against using mass market sites like Viator or Tripadvisor — which aren’t tour operators themselves but search aggregators.
“The challenge with some those big-box operators is that it is hard for them to vet every experience provider and so there’s a lack of consistency,” said Annie Sim, founder and CEO (chief eating officer) of the Table Less Traveled.
“We recently had a guest of who booked through a big website,” said Sue Yoon, VIP concierge supervisor at the Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel in Vancouver, Canada. “They prepaid and everything and the driver never showed up.”
Yoon says her hotel always opts for local guides they’ve personally vetted and recommends travelers always ask their hotel for input — even if the traveler has already booked something. Many will be happy to double-check your pick. In your case, you could ask your cruise concierge.
Katie Parla, a tour guide in Rome and cookbook author, says to seek out locals who specialize in a field that interests you. If you’re more into food than museums, search for a food historian or a food writer in town who may do tours on the side. Look for expert titles in your guide searches. “Certified guide” doesn’t tell you as much as “art historian” or “former chef.”
Aaron Millar, a British travel writer and host of the “Armchair Explorer” podcast, said some of his best experiences were with people who were experts in their field, including a biologist in Costa Rica and a paleontologist in Utah.
“You’ll get next-level insight, but also passion,” Millar said in an email.
You can also skip the search yourself and turn to a well-established travel adviser or planner to help coordinate a custom trip with one of their preferred guides. Such companies tend to have decades-long relationships with independent guides and can vouch for their services, says Haisley Smith, vice president of product development at Internova Travel. They’ll be able to handpick the right guide for your travel style, “for example, one who specializes in food or architecture or history or maybe that is good with families,” Smith added in an email, recommending you try Abercrombie & Kent’s Morocco office.
It usually won’t cost you more to go through a professional. However, Clio Morichini, head of travel and events for Italy Segreta, a magazine and travel planning company, says you can usually expect a higher price point with a locally based or boutique operation versus ones you might find on Viator. But you get what you pay for, Morichini says, as they’re more likely to have vetted their guides several times before — not only to be qualified, but entertaining.