Big 5 Guide: Hiring a Travel Guide

Hiring a Travel Guide

When is the Right time to Hire a Travel Guide?

I will be the first person to tell how valuable our money is when we’re traveling. Kari and I pay very close attention to our funds and track every penny spent in an old school ledger. We love partaking in activities that are free or cost very little. We like spend our money on the big ticket items, bungee jumping, river rafting, sky diving, scuba….these things are rarely ever cheap. So, when it comes time to consider if we should hire a travel guide, it’s always a debate.

For us to hire a travel guide, there needs to be a reason. We’ve hired guides in many countries for many different kinds of activities. While we love saving money, making sure our trip is great is probably more valuable than money. That’s the way we look at it. When we hire a guide, it almost always ends up being a good choice. It’s because we pick and choose our spots to hire them.

So, we’re going to share 5 scenarios where we think hiring a guide is of value. Here’s our Big 5 Guide to Hiring a Travel Guide.

1. Hiring a Travel Guide When You’re Short on Time

You are not always going to have time to absorb the culture and activities of every place you travel to. Some places you’ll spend more time than others. We often try to squeeze in destinations, or activities that are only worth a day or two on our travel schedule. So, when you’re short on time, a guide can really help you see the destination in an efficient, succinct manner. A guide is going to help you see the things that a place is famous for.

An example when we were short on time was when we were road tripping in South Africa. We really wanted to visit Lesotho via the famous Sani Pass. Were at the end of 14 months of travel, had our tickets home booked and in a time crunch. We had spent the last few days drinking craft beer, watching South Africa in the Rugby World Cup and hiking around Clarens. We didn’t have much time to research how to get to Lesotho or over the Sani Pass. But, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go up the winding Sani Pass, drinking at the Highest Pub in Africa and get a taste of Lesotho culture.

Hiring a Travel Guide at Sani Pass
Sani Pass Winding up the Drankensberg Mountains into Lesotho
Finding a guide for Sani Pass and Lesotho

We contacted the Sani Lodge Backpackers. All their guides were booked but they found us another local tour guide name Tembieso. We met Tembieso en route to the backpackers and agreed on a price for a tour.

This worked out perfectly. The morning of our tour the weather was very wet and and the pass was shrouded in fog. Our rental car, a Chevy Aveo, would have been no match for the steep, windy and muddy conditions on Sani Pass that day. But our guide, Tembieso, arrived to pick us up in his 4 wheel drive vehicle. We didn’t miss a beat. Tembieso took us up the Sani Pass with no problem. All the while explaining the area’s history and stopping at various view points (which were not so spectacular in the fog) and into Lesotho.

Tembieso introduced us to the local sheep herders of the high mountain nation. He explained the importance of sheep herding and production of wool for the Basotho people. Tembeiso organized lodging for us and we stayed in a beautifully remodeled farm house high in the mountains. The next morning, we drank local beer made from sorghum in the hut of the brewer (I bought an amazing mohair beanie hat for 30 ZAR about $2.35 USD) . And later that day, we enjoyed more beers at the Highest Pub in Africa atop Sani Pass amidst clear skies and 360 degree views.

We had done zero research, but because of Tembieso, we were able to have an wonderful experience. Hiring a travel guide when you’re short on time can deliver a great experience even if you don’t have a ton of time.

Hiring a Travel Guide to Get to the Hightest Pub In Africa
Drinking some Maluti Beers at the Highest Pub in Africa atop the Sani Pass. Notice Rob sporting his new mohair beanie!

2. Hiring a Travel Guide When You’re Traveling with a Group

I’m surprised that Kari and I haven’t lost more friends after they come to visit us. We’re pretty intense travelers. We like to get the most out each and everyday. We pack our days with activities, meals, excursions and it’s not for the faint of heart. Traveling in that manner isn’t for everyone and frankly we really like and want to try and keep our friends that come from around the world to visit us. When friends come to connect with us on the road is a perfect time for us to splurge and hire a guide.

Hiring a Guide with a Group Make Life Easy

We’ve done this a couple of times during our travels. Way back before we were full time travelers, a group of 7 of us were in Peru. Kari and her friends had been traveling for weeks. Me and a couple other of the boyfriends had recently flown down for the States to experience Peru with the girls. In groups of 6-7, you’re bound to have very different travel styles and pace. To make the most of our time in Peru and to help accommodate all travel styles within the group, we opted to hire guides for a couple of tours. We saw the Sacred Valley around Cusco and Machu Picchu and the countryside around Arequipa with a guide. Hiring travel guides gave everyone sort of a “day off”. It was easy for everyone to kick back, relax and enjoy the amazing culture and landscape of Peru and the Andes Mountains.


Hiring a Travel Guide with our group in South America was a great move.

By hiring a guide in a group scenario, it allows the guide to set the itinerary and the pace of the day. This relieves the “organizers” of the group from having to do a lot of work planning and coordinating the days activities. A guide does that for you. This also relieves stress from those in a group who might feel insecure about keeping up or feel not as well traveled. Traveling as group for 2 weeks in a developing country can have some serious stresses. It was important to maintain great balance and chemistry over the course of the trip.

Hiring a guide with a group is a great way to get everyone and same page and relieve pressure amongst the different personalities and roles within a group. You should definitely consider hiring a guides at certain points if you traveling with a group for a few weeks or more.

3. Hiring a Tavel Guide When the Culture is Extremely Foreign.

I’ve seen and experienced a lot. I like to think I know some shit. But, there are times when you think you’re understanding things and really…you aren’t. There are somethings you can’t learn skimming over the guide books and perusing blogs. Sometimes to fully understand an aspect of a country or culture you need the insight of a local.

A great example of this for us was when we traveled to Morocco. We had only traveled in two Muslim countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, prior to touching down in Morocco. The influence of Islam is different between these parts of the world. Islam has shaped Moroccan culture for millennia. So, for a couple of Americans to arrive and think we’d have a clear understanding of everything was a bit ambitious.

When we arrived in Marrakech, we knew we wanted to see the world famous bizarre that is the Unesco Heritage listed Marrakech Medina. On our first day in the city we strolled through the streets, inspecting the wares, dodging hawkers, fending off snake charmers, ditching punk kids giving us bunk directions, and drinking fresh orange juice at 75 cents a glass.

We saw the sites that were on the map, avoided the scams and saw the sunset over Jemaa el Fna.  We considered the Marrakech Medina conquered and we headed for Rabat.

Hiring a Travel Guide in Morocco
Moroccan Media’s are whole new world with guide.

Our trip changed course. Instead of 3 weeks using public transport through Morocco, some friends offered us their 4×4 to road trip around Morocco. This change of plans brought us back to Marrakech a few weeks later when our brakes were making a horrible noise. We didn’t know who to talk to or where to take the car. I had reached out and made some connections with tour agencies on our first pass through Marrakech. So, I called Laura and Noureddine at Moroccan Guides. They went above and beyond to helped us find a mechanic to get our friend’s truck fixed. While the car was being worked on, we opted to take a medina tour offered by their company.

Hiring a guide around the medina is a great choice.
Meat is hangs in a particular way to show customers it’s quality and freshness. Only a person versed in the the secret codes of the Moroccan medina can read the signs

Our guide, Mustafa, opened up a hidden medina that our foreign eyes could have never seen. He explained to us that reasoning for the shape of this medina and all other medinas we’d encounter in Morocco. He explained how the merchants were organized and how best to navigate the incredible and ancient maze.  Mustafa helped us get samples of food items we would not have been offered as foreigners simply strolling through. He explained to us how to find the best meat and how to decipher other secret codes of the medina. It was unbelievable how much there was to know and how much Islam influenced the structure of this massive maze market. We would have missed all of it had we not gone back through the medina with a guide.

Although our car had to be fixed, I was glad it forced us to take the medina tour with Mustafa from Moroccan Guides. It gave us a much better understanding of Morocco, their culture, the Islamic religion and of course…medinas.

4. Hiring a Tavel Guide In Potentially Dangerous Situations

Sometimes you’re not match for nature. Sometimes it’s too costly or cumbersome to have all of the gear and supplies necessary for a certain expedition. This is a great time to hire a travel guide.

A great example of this also comes from our time in Morocco. We wanted to get out and spend a night in the Sahara desert. While we had our own wheels in Morocco, we thought it probably wasn’t the best or safest idea to venture out into the desert on our own. Those sands can cause you lose your way very quickly. It was a perfect opportunity to hook up with a guide who would know their way through the desert. We connected with Morocco Excursions who would guide us out into the Sahara outside of Merzouga, across the sands known as Erg Chebbi. To boot, we’d be riding camels out to the Berber camp where we would spend the night with Berbers under a vast sky of stars.

Hiring a Travel Guide in the Sahara Desert
One of our Berber guides out of Merzouga

The tour was great. We rode camels, watched the sunset from the top of massive sand dune, ate authentic Berber cuisine, and danced to traditional Berber music. After a great night, we awoke to watch the sun rise over the Sahara and nearby Algerian border. Hassan and his crew at Morocco Excursions made sure everyone was comfortable and having a great time and remained safe in the desert environment.

A guide will teach you how to safari

A great time to hire a guide based on conditions and nature is taking a safari. We went on nearly two weeks of safari while in Africa. Some days with guides, and some we did were self drive. The days when we were with a guide were far more informative and rich than if we had done them without a guide. During our safari in the Serengeti, we opted for one of the lower cost 6 day safaris we could find. Luckily, our guide was worth every penny. George, was so knowledgeable and willing to share information as well as answer all our questions.

Without George we wouldn’t have been able to do self drive days later in parks where self drive safari is allowed. He taught us so much about the environment and animal behavior. He made many of our sighting happen including an up close encounter with the allusive leopard!

George really earned his money was when en route to view a pride of lions a few hundred yards away, our Land Cruiser popped a tire. We needed to get out of the car and fix it ASAP. However, probably best to do so carefully as not attract a hungry bunch of lions. George expertly positioned the vehicle out of their line of sight. He instructed & guided us how to change the tire while he kept look out for the lions. I’m not sure that if that happened without a guide that we wouldn’t have been lion food. I’ve changed tires on the side of 5 lane freeways and this was, by far, a much more exhilarating experience.

Hiring a Travel Guide on Safari
Me and our buddy Alex trying to laugh off the nerves of changing the tire with lions on the horizon. Our Guide, George, instructs.
Guides are a great choice when the nature and wildlife of the region or foreign and perhaps too challenging to take on. They’ll also teach so much more in a short period of time than you could ever hope to glean on your own.

5. Hiring a Travel Guide to Go a Bit Further and Discover More

Face it. No matter how intrepid you of a traveler you are, there are some parts of a culture that you just can’t turn up and penetrate. Sure you can book a homestay or kick around a place for a few days. You’ll struggle with broken English conversations between you and your host. Eventually you will get a taste of the culture and the way a group of people live. However, why not spend your time wisely? Hire a guide who can take you a bit further into the culture or the place. In addition, often times guides can take you further than you could ever hope to go yourself. They often have a network of locals or businesses they’ve built to give their customers authentic and unique experiences.

A great example from our travels was when we went trekking in Sapa, Vietnam. We knew that you could do some self guided trekking in the Sapa area. A bit short on time, we still craved a unique experience. There are some very well traveled trekking routes around Sapa. We didn’t want to get caught up with the crowds. More than likely, on a self guided route we would have ended up in what we later discovered, was a bit of a tourist trap. 

Our local friend, TT, encouraged us to take one of the lesser traveled routes to a village called Taphin. TT hooked us up with his Sapa guide Quyin (Qu-in). This was an amazing stroke of luck. 

Hiring a Travel Guide in Sapa
Amazing landscapes in Sapa, Vietnam
Quyin had arranged for us to stay in the home of a Red Dzao Family. The Red Dzao are one of the smaller ethnic groups that live in and around Sapa. While homestays aren’t hard to come by around Sapa, there aren’t many in Red Dzao homes or Taphin village. We always encourage people to consider homestay accommodation. Homestays are probably the best way to get snapshot of how villagers live their lives. It’s interesting to compare and contrast from how we live in the west.  Getting to share traditional foods prepared in traditional ways by the family is an honor for them. It’s also an absolute treat for the guests. It’s a great symbiotic relationship.
Hiring a travel guide will provide you awesome experience.
Our red Dzao host prepares our evening meal of the fire.
Guides Can Hook You Up With Amazing Experiences

Quyin had told us that this homestay would special. Here’s why; Red Dzao women create a homeopathic mixture from 27 herbs and plants from the surrounding jungle. They combine these herbs into a secret brew. The brew is brought to a very hot temperature and then used to fill large barrels to create a bath. We had the pleasure of soaking for 30 minutes in our own secret Red Dzao bath brews. It was incredible. Aches, pains, stiffness, soreness were all washed away by this magic brew. It also had an amazing relaxing effect and we slept very well that night.

Soaking in those barrels was like a jungle spa day and something totally unique. We would have never known about this amazing bath brew. Without the help of our guide Quyin, we never would have had this opportunity. That experience made his services worth every penny and something we’ll never forget. Hiring a travel guide is not something that’s always on the list for us. Most of the time it isn’t. However, there are times, places, and situations where a guide can ensure you visit will an awesome one. Hiring a travel guide can worth every penny if they provide an experience that you wouldn’t be able to curate on your own.

Hiring a Guide for a Red Dzao Homestay
While the picture quality is low, the experience of the Red Dzao bath was in credibly high…thanks to our guide.

Guides really can add a lot of value to your travels. Perhaps the most important thing is knowing when to hire a guide. So, next time your short on time, in a group, facing a dangerous environment or just seeking to learn or experience a little more…consider hiring a local travel guide.

Do you have a story or a travel experience where hiring a travel guide took your trip to the next level? We’d love to hear about it. Share in the comments below.

For more Big 5 Guides about a myriad of travel topics, check out all of our Big 5 Guides!

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