Tour Guide or Not Tour Guide, That’s the Question

If there’s one quote that you should keep in the back of your mind whenever you travel, it’s this.

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”
G.K. Chesterton

According to Chesterton, a tourist is someone who’s goal is to check items off of a bucket list instead of truly seeing the sights, while a traveler travels in order to experience the world and actually see what’s in front of him (or her).

In my mind over planning plays a big part in being a tourist. On our trip I wanted to do it differently. Aside from the first couple days and our flight home, we didn’t have much planned at all. I wanted to travel, not tour.

Today I want to talk a bit about tours and tour guides. A great tour guide can contribute to an amazing experience, but does hiring a tour guide or taking a tour diminish your ability to truly see the world?

Read, Read, Read, Learn, Learn, Learn

Me and Marla approached Europe in two very different ways. Marla, the queen of scheduling and planning, took a couple months out of the summer and read several travel books about Europe. From Rough Guides to Fodor’s Travel Guides Marla learned all about the places we were going to and, more importantly, what we shouldn’t miss while we were there. Having her knowledge of the destinations helped immensely, although I took a completely different approach.

I didn’t read a single book about Europe, watch a single travel video about it or pretty much plan anything in any way whatsoever. While planning is necessary to an extent on any trip, I wanted to have the raw, unedited experience in Europe. By that I mean I didn’t want to be tainted by anyone else’s opinion of what I was seeing. I guess you can say that I wanted to see the world through fresh eyes.

Now photos don’t do traveling justice. Looking at a photo of the Sistine Chapel doesn’t hold a candle to actually being inside and breathing in the air surrounding Michelangelo’s masterpiece. But while you’re there, what are you seeing? Are you seeing the beauty of the room through your eyes or through the eyes of the travel writer who already described this experience to you?

Do you really think it’s majestic or are those the words already planted in your head because someone else told you that’s what it is? Do you see what I’m saying? Of course people will have overlapping opinions of an experience, but if you’re visiting a tourist destination and basically reciting a script that someone else wrote for you, are you really seeing it at all? If a person standing nearby can determine that you read Guide X based on what you’re saying, then you’re not seeing at all.

Seeing Through Your Own Eyes

Although Marla read a lot before we went, it was several months ahead of time so she didn’t have it fresh in her mind. She basically made a rough outline of things she wanted to see and let the details escape her. This worked well for her and my method, blissful ignorance of what we were going to do, worked for me as well.

In keeping with seeing Europe through our own eyes we only booked 2 tours, one was the great Fat Tire Bike Tour, the other the amazing Beyond the Ropes tour, both during our time in London. Beyond those 2 tours we spent the rest of our time taking it all in. We didn’t worry about missing this tour or getting here for that, we had Marla’s outline of basic places that we wanted to go and we explored.

Don’t want to stand in line for hours to see Michelangelo’s David? We didn’t. We went to see the replica which stands in David’s original location outside. Don’t want to go into another church? We didn’t. We simply moved on to the next location (this meant leaving Florence a day early and an extra day in Rome). Not having set plans gave us the freedom to see what we wanted to see when we wanted to see it, but since Marla was prepared with a rough outline we also knew whether or not we really experienced most of a city.

Time to Rome

On our first evening in Rome we found ourselves in the heart of it all, at the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. We got off the metro just before sunset so with the Colosseum just closing for the evening we did some walking. We walked all around the outside of the Colosseum, down and around the Roman Forum and all through the neighboring streets. While it was cool to see, this was the first time that I felt like something was missing.

Walking through one of the most iconic cities of ancient times, I couldn’t help but feel like I wanted more. I wanted to actually know what I was looking at instead of just seeing rubble and thinking, “huh, that’s neat”. So when we got back to the hotel I turned to my trusty friend Google and asked for help.

I looked for audio guides for Rome and I found, of course, Rick Steves who is the go to person for most any audio guide. But I was ecstatic to also find, who makes an amazing interactive iPhone app for the Vatican along with some audio guides that are free to download. I went ahead and bought the Rick Steves’ Ancient Rome Tour for $2.99, Vatican Museum for $9.99, and downloaded all the free samples from their site.

So for a grand total of about $12.98 we were all stocked up and ready to hit ancient Rome for real the following day.

Tour Guide vs Audio Guide

While listening to an audio guide presents much the same experience as following a tour guide or reading a travel book for insight, I have to say that those audio guides were the best $12.98 I spent on the entire trip. Not only was it a great feeling to walk through the Colosseum, but having Rick Steves paint a mental picture of exactly what would have been happening almost 2000 years ago when Romans stood on that very ground was spectacular. Just seeing the Colosseum can’t do it justice, having the audio guide, with the sound of swords swishing and animals growling made for a completely immersive experience that no book or tour guide could ever provide.

And this was all for less than $3.

After we experienced the Colosseum, the first of many great audio experiences in Rome, I was already wishing that I had considered this sooner. In Milan and in Florence we may have more fully appreciated the architecture had we had audio guides although most other places were well suited for exploration alone.

Full Circle

But now this brought me full circle. First I didn’t want to taint my experience by having a travel book or tour guide place his or her perceptions of the world in my mind. Then we had 2 excellent tours in London which I wholeheartedly endorse as must see tours if you’re there. Then we spent time traveling around completely on our own where we had a great time exploring. Then finally we purchased audio guides, saw the sights at our own pace, but were able to learn all about what we were seeing for full appreciation.

So what do I think? All three options have their benefits, but here’s how I see them.

Tour guides are great, when they’re great. Our guide at Stonehenge was the Stonehenge guide. He was part of the excavation team and he lives and breathes those rocks. He knows every last detail about every last pebble in that circle along with the miles of land surrounding it. He’s the tour guide that I want if I’m booking a tour.

While I’d like to say that he’s the rule, from all the masses of people who we saw push their way through the Colosseum, the Vatican and every other tourist destination, I have to say that he was the exception. Tour guides can be a bit hit or miss so if you have glowing recommendations about someone then by all means go for it, but you won’t find me randomly picking a tour guide any time soon. I’d rather explore other options.

Plus the obvious expense of tour guides is something that you can’t overlook. Hiring a tour, whether private or as a part of a group is expensive. After experiencing Rome with the help of my iPhone my preference between the two is definitely audio guides. At just a few dollars a pop (or even free) audio guides are the best deal around for seeing iconic landmarks when you’re going in fresh or just want to add an extra kick to the experience.

While your impression can be somewhat tainted by the guide’s thoughts, I found that opinion seemed to be far outweighed by fact. Instead of describing the beauty of something through the author’s eyes they described what was happening back in the time, leaving us to paint our own mental picture around what we were actually seeing.

While the audio guides proved to be an excellent investment, it’s tough to argue with simply travelling around on your own, guide-less. While my method for going in absolutely cold may not have been the best possible choice, I think something between know it all and know a bit is definitely a benefit.

On our next adventure I won’t choose to read guide after guide about our destinations, but I do plan on looking into the history of some of the more iconic sights. Ahead of time I don’t care much about what I’m going to see, I don’t want someone else to describe in vivid detail what it looks like or feels like to be in a location, but I do want to understand what it means to be there. I think knowing the significance of a tourist destination is of great value, more so before or during your visit than afterwards so prepping myself with knowledge or prepping my iPhone with a few audio guides is definitely my preferred course of action.

Getting Off the Beaten Path

This post is geared very much at the sightseeing traveler so I just want to clarify one thing. Guides are great when you’re seeing sights like the Colosseum or the Vatican, but simply getting off the beaten path and seeing the world will time and time again prove to be the most valuable. Next time, instead of planning a trip filled with tourist attractions, try leaving time for local experiences.

In France? After visiting the Eiffel Tower try immersing yourself for a few days in a predominantly French speaking village. Try to get around, buy a sandwich and meet new people.

In Jamaica? Against your better judgement follow a lady into an abandoned courtyard filled with actual locals selling hand carved wooden statues.

The point is to get out and see the world, not just the polished up tourist only representation of it.

At the time, checking a box on a bucket list can feel rewarding, but finishing that list sooner rather than later will simply leave you unfulfilled with a void where that list used to be. I suggest challenging yourself to let the bucket list work itself out while you focus on spending your time living. Goals are great, but it’s the journey to achieving those goals that’s truly the best part.

When you’re sightseeing are you normally fully prepared like Marla, a blank slate like me, or somewhere in the middle? Let us know in the comments.