Pros + Cons: Travel Guide Services

Consider integrating a travel guide into your next trip, or try a fully guided tour to help you ease into international travel.

This summer, I took a guided educational tour of Australia and New Zealand with my brother, mother and a group of almost forty travelers from our hometown in Tennessee. The group was a combination of high school students and adults with almost a one-to-one ratio. On the trip I held a koala (what a dream!), snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef, toured the Sydney Opera House, visited Hobbiton, luged down a small mountain, learned first-hand about Djabuki and Maori cultures, surfed for the first time and ate some of the best food I've ever had. Luke, our amazing tour guide, was there all along the way to point us to the best food and attractions, answer our crazy American questions and teach us about Australian Rules football.

The trip was undoubtedly worth the price, and I know it could have been years before I would have planned and executed it on my own, especially as a beginner international traveler. Is a tour service the best way to experience Australia? Doesn't matter. It's the way that got us there. Of course, a fully planned and guided tour shouldn't always be your go-to for travel. Independent travel has so many virtues and benefits that can't be overlooked, but there are ways to incorporate guides without sacrificing these. Whatever your reason for traveling, there's likely some kind of guide service that can add to your experience.

Local Guides

So you're a budget independent traveler who scoffs at big tour groups and actively runs the other direction. I get it; you want to escape the tourist traps and really get to know a place. There are tours for you, too. Think small and local. Often found with a simple call to a tourism department, small operations offer day guiding and walking tours that cover significant historical sites. These guided tours can usually be booked day-of or at least the day before, offering flexibility and spontaneity to planning-averse travelers.

Waiting for the geyser to spout during a local tour of Whakarewarewa Thermal Village in Rotorua, New Zealand.

Whakarewarewa Thermal Village

Waiting for the geyser to spout during a local tour of Whakarewarewa Thermal Village in Rotorua, New Zealand.

Photo by: Carol Shannon

Carol Shannon

Waiting for the geyser to spout during a local tour of Whakarewarewa Thermal Village in Rotorua, New Zealand.

Local and personal guides are usually passionate about their towns and very well versed in local knowledge. Not only can they teach you about local history, culture and lore but also provide excellent advice on restaurants, bars and off-the-beaten-path experiences.

Adventure Guiding + Active Tours

Backpacking in the Andes, mountaineering in the Alps, rafting the Grand Canyon, cycling the West Coast, climbing in Patagonia — I go could on with the list of adventures I would love to have but am not experienced enough to undertake on my own. Adventure guiding services offered by REI, Adventure Unbound and thousands of local outdoor guiding services are integral to anyone who wants a unique and challenging outdoor experience but can't devote time to tackle it on their own.

Enjoying Hobbiton on a semi-guided tour.


Enjoying Hobbiton on a semi-guided tour.

Photo by: Carol Shannon

Carol Shannon

Enjoying Hobbiton on a semi-guided tour.

Too many people exclude themselves from incredible experiences like summiting a difficult 14'er or rafting treacherous rivers or camping in a desert because they lack experience. A proper guiding service will make up for inexperience and help you achieve your goal with the least possible risk. They can be hired for any level of adventure and budget from one of the 7 Summits to an overnight hike in an unknown part of the world.

Clay Britt, a friend who has traveled internationally on a budget over the last few years, prefers to rely on himself and knowledge picked up from locals on his adventures, but he makes a few exceptions for guiding services.

Clay says, "I used a guide on a five-day hike on the Salkantay Trek in Peru and on a camping trip in the Sahara Desert [in] Morocco. There is a certain sense of accomplishment when you complete something without help. However, for me there are certain cases where a guide is more beneficial in the long run. When trails are not easily navigable, and the knowledge of a local guide can provide you with more time enjoying the journey, I think a guide service is the best option."

On the other side of the coin, too many inexperienced people attempt ambitious and dangerous feats without guides and face severe consequences. Guided trips are the smartest way for most of us to check big adventures off the list.

Photography Workshops + Tours

Offered in hundreds of locations by as many professional photographers, these workshops satiate both the travel and photography bugs. Hobbyist and amateur photographers (pretty much anyone who knows how to use their camera) can spend 5-10 days developing their skills while exploring a new region or country with an experienced landscape or street photographer.

Admiring the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Sydney Opera House

Admiring the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Photo by: Carol Shannon

Carol Shannon

Admiring the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Leading photographers have often been to the destination multiple times and scouted for the most beautiful landscapes and the best street photography areas. You'll be on location every morning for sunrise, and you'll set up every evening to capture sunsets, but between those key timeslots, some trips allow you to enjoy the city, town or park you're visiting. Think of the time in-between shooting as your personal exploration time. A few major travel destinations for photography workshops include Iceland, Cuba, the Pacific Northwest and China.

Student Tours

Parents of students, pay attention. Student tours offered by companies like Education First and Brightspark can ignite a passion for travel and cultural education in many young people before they're old enough to travel independently. These tours often cover everything you would need to worry about: flights, transportation, lodging, most meals and great activities.

Watching waves roll in on Franklin Islands National Park after snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef.

Franklin Islands National Park

Watching waves roll in on Franklin Islands National Park after snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef.

Photo by: Clint Shannon

Clint Shannon

Watching waves roll in on Franklin Islands National Park after snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef.

Kayla Kitts, managing editor at Discovery who has traveled in 13 countries on both independent and guided trips, first travelled internationally as a student ambassador to France, Italy and Malta.

"This trip ultimately fed my passion for traveling and inspired me to take even more international trips," Kayla says.

After a few guided and independent trips, Kayla was able to pinpoint her preferred style of unplanned and laid-back travel.

While the benefits of international tours and travel for students are numerous, a few stand out. They will learn how to adapt when surrounded by different cultures, better understand diverse cultures, expand their perspectives of the world and develop meaningful connections with friends and fellow travelers.

Yes, these tours can be pricey, but the value can't be beat. Tour groups often host fundraisers and recommend grants and scholarships to ease the burden of cost. When possible, these tours are great opportunities for parents to join and share a potentially life-changing experience with their children.

Educational + Cultural Tours for Adults

Although some people can book their first flight ever, head across the world, plunge into an unknown culture and thrive, most of us have to work up to independent travel, especially international travel. Fully guided tours are perfect for anyone wanting to break into the travel world but nervous about their first trip. While great for first-time travelers of all ages, middle-aged to elderly adults who are finally finding themselves with time to travel may especially benefit from these.

Sun lights a restored prisoners' sleeping quarters in the Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney.

Hyde Park Barracks

Sun lights a restored prisoners' sleeping quarters in the Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney.

Photo by: Clint Shannon

Clint Shannon

Sun lights a restored prisoners' sleeping quarters in the Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney.

Road Scholar, Go Ahead Tours (a subgroup of Education First) and Artisans of Leisure are three notable companies offering guided tours to adults. Major museums like The MET and Smithsonian also offer tours to unique places. Like educational tours for students, these can come with a hefty price tag, but again, consider the value. Were you to spend weeks planning and booking the same trip with all the same experiences, opportunities and amenities, you will likely be paying the same, if not more.

These tours reduce your planning time to none, save you the hassle of figuring out transportation, solve language barrier issues, provide an opportunity to make great friends with fellow travelers and maximize the amount of experiences you'll have in a short period of time.

However, there are potential downsides to consider. If you prefer spontaneous and flexible travel, most of these trips aren't for you, but day guides and local tours can still offer so much.


Travel guides can and should be used by everyone to enhance an experience, even highly independent and spontaneous travelers. From education to adventure to culture, different levels of guiding and the right guide will help new travelers find their way and add value for experienced travelers.

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