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To travel with or without a guide?

Posted by Out & About Africa on Tue May 16, 2023 in Travel Advice.

Traveling to a foreign or strange destination can be exciting and nerve wrecking at the same time, especially if you are not travel-savvy nor when you are not used to traveling. Getting a local Tour Guide can be useful to ensure that you can make the most of your tour without being stressed out about directions, guidance, language barriers,etc.

Let's take a closer look at when to hire a guide and when you can travel without one


When to travel with a Tour Guide:

Having little time

When stopping for a quick excursion at a ‘hot spot’ or interesting place, it makes sense to arrange a knowledgeable guide to condense the trip for you.

When revisiting a place.

If you are visiting a location you have visited countless times before— hire a guide who can give you an offbeat look at a familiar place. A talented guide with a heap of local knowledge will have something to offer even those who think they’re sick of a particular place.

When visiting dangerous or chaotic urban locations.

If your destination has a reputation for dangerous or unpredictable street life — hiring a good tour guide can not only save you time, but also keep you safe and out of tight spots.

When visiting extremely popular locations.

A good tour guide will always know the best hours to visit attractions, when prices are best, which places you can skip, how to avoid rush hour, what is closed or under construction, and any number of tricks and tactics that will help you get the most out of a heavily visited location. You can also inquire if the guide has special access or rates. He will also know which times to visit when not busy, or to take a private tour.

On long stays

When you are staying for more than a few days in the same location — let’s say you have a two-week vacation rental in Cape Town — consider hiring a tour guide for the first few days to help you get your bearings early in your trip … or perhaps merely to get all the touristy stuff out of the way. Alternately, you can hire a guide late in your stay when you have exhausted the obvious attractions and want to seek out a deeper, more informed or more intimate knowledge of a place.

When visiting historic destinations.

In places that are exceptionally rich in historical or cultural significance, an expert tour guide can offer a depth of experience and knowledge that goes beyond guidebook snippets or plaque-reading. A good guide can explain the stories behind the complex carvings or drawings on a rock face or cave.

On an adventure trip.

Safaris, mountain climbing, scuba diving, deep-sea fishing, white-water rafting … unless you are an absolute expert at your chosen adventure, hiring a guide may be a matter of life and death. White-water rafting on the Zambezi or Orange rivers, piloting a fishing boat back to port in a storm, diving off Aliwal Shoal with sharks,…these are not are not like hiring a rowboat on Knysna Lagoon, and no one should treat it as such. Even if you are an old hand at the particular skill in question, it’s still a good idea to hire a guide who knows the local area and can help you navigate an unfamiliar place.

When language barriers are high.

When visiting a place where you do not speak the language and the locals are extremely unlikely to speak yours — a local tour guide who does speak your language can be invaluable in countless ways. When choosing a guide, try to chat with the guide by phone in advance to determine how strong his or her command of your language really is.

To hand off the logistics of travel.

The hassles of obtaining tickets, making reservations, checking operating hours, figuring out options when you have problems — all of this is easy stuff for a good tour guide. If you are on vacation and don’t want to have these mundane tasks on your plate while traveling, hire a guide to take them on for you.

When you don’t want to drive.

There are any number of reasons not to want to drive while traveling — you don’t want to spend your vacation getting lost, you can’t read the road signs, you’re not confident driving on the opposite side of the road, your spouse is a terrible co-pilot and you just want to have fun instead of arguing. Hiring a tour guide to do the driving for you can save you a lot of headaches and unwanted distractions. Especially places like Namibia where the distances are vast and the road conditions require your full attention.

On hikes or nature excursions.

Doing hiking trails like the Oystercatcher Trail, where traversing private Reserves, dangerous cliffs, tidal pools etc…having a guide is a non-brainer.

The intertidal zones of any coastal walk in Southern Africa will surprise everyone with the teeming life and eco-systems.

Experiencing any place in Nature that looks ‘normal’ to everyone else – will come alive once you have Local guide to point out all the special animals and plants. Case in point being the Namib dunes, that seem devoid of life but contain mini eco-communities that sustain an abundance of species.

Walking in the African bush

Probably one of the most stimulating acts out there…but not to be attempted without qualified Trail Guides(yes, at least 2 of them). Having close encounters with not only the Big 5, but any animal, insect, serpent or Arachnid out there, is probably one of the most life enhancing and fulfilling experiences.


When You Shouldn’t, or don’t need to hire a Tour Guide:

When you’re traveling loose with no real agenda

When you are traveling in an open-ended and open-minded way, hiring a tour guide can remove opportunities for spontaneity and luck (both good and bad, of course). If you want to hang loose, do it — you don’t need to hire anyone to help you.

When revisiting after having already used a guide.

When you return to ground you have already covered with a guide, it may be time to venture and find your own hidden treasures, rather than having someone show you a map.

When traveling solo.

Traveling alone gives you plenty of opportunities to interact with locals and allows you to improvise in a way that hiring a guide might hinder. (That said, in places where security is an issue, a guide can offer solo travelers some degree of protection.)

When you have a lot of activities planned.

If you’re already heavily scheduled, avoid adding to your sightseeing obligation by hiring someone to help you pack in even more stuff.

When you do not want to be on a schedule.

Sometimes travel isn’t about sightseeing or investigating history — sometimes it is purely a time to unwind. If this is the case, having a guide who will rouse you from the balcony of your hotel room and force you to get dressed and go “experience” things is simply counterproductive.

When in a very small place.

Let’s face it, you don’t need a guide to take you around a place like Whidbey Island in Washington; you need a bike.

When you want quiet time to yourself.

More than just pointing the way around a place, a good tour guide engages his or her clients on many levels — with conversation, storytelling and humor. If you are feeling antisocial or just want to be left alone for a few days, hiring an enthusiastic tour guide is probably not your best option.

When you want to practice a language

If you want to challenge your language skills with complete immersion, hiring a guide who speaks English can create a buffer that will undermine any attempt to see if you make the grade in a foreign language. If immersion is your goal, force yourself to operate and communicate without the safety net of a (paid) native speaker at your side. (One caveat here: Practicing a language one-on-one with a dedicated tour guide who is willing to speak to you entirely in his or her native language may be better — and more affordable — than a language school.)