A few years ago, Ruth Sadur and her boyfriend were supposed to travel together to Bali, Indonesia. When he had to cancel at the last minute, Sadur wanted help navigating the trip. Her hotel connected her with De Yudha Herdyana, a local guide, who thought her itinerary was too generic. Instead, he ferried her to tourist-free rice paddies, uncrowded beaches, and restaurants with menus in Balinese that he translated.
“It was one of my best travel days,” says the Melbourne, Australia, childcare worker. “He felt like my friend by the end of it.”
Herdyana is a citizen guide, a savvy resident whose small group tours can give travelers a fresh, often inexpensive introduction to a new place. Tourists have long connected with private guides, but internet-driven companies such as ToursByLocals and Airbnb Experiences are introducing younger travelers to more personalized, locally connected experiences by creating platforms where citizen guides can offer their services.
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Some experiences are unconventional, to say the least: A kayak trip down the Nile to see Cairo, Egypt; a hike with a herd of goats in Death Valley, California. Some tours are more conventional, of course. You can always see Pompeii, Italy, with an archaeologist or Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown with a historian.
“But these guides can take you to more places in less time than when you are alone with your Lonely Planet book and a brochure from the tourist information office,” says Núria Galí Espelt, who studies tourism as an art history professor at the University of Girona.
Here’s why citizen guides have become more common, what kind of experiences and insider information they offer, and how to hire one during your next trip.
A personalized approach to tours
As tourism became a major economic driver in the 20th and 21st centuries, mass options were created to cater to crowds. Flat bottom boats (bateaux mouches) with prerecorded spiels launched in Paris in the mid 20th-century; hop-on, hop-off tour buses cruised the streets nearly everywhere by the 1980s; and jumbo cruise ship excursions now herd hordes around historic sites from Venice to Mexico. Somewhere along the way, guided tours earned a rep for being stodgy, sites-by-the-numbers itineraries.
Private guides had long been available to the wealthy or connected. But as travel information moved increasingly online in the early 21st century, suddenly anyone could turn up details on foodie walks around Porto, Portugal, or Google Shop Hop BA, which leads one-on-one visits to the crafts ateliers and vintage shops of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Multiple surveys find that people, especially Millennials and Generation Zers, enjoy paying for experiences more than spending money on material items.
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These specialty tours or private guides can have deeper connections and knowledge about the places where they operate, resulting in more bespoke trips for small groups or single travelers.
“Guides bring the spirit of the destination to life in a unique way,” says Nikki Hellyer, of ToursbyLocals. “In some cases, they’ve got generations of family there, plus unique stories and access to different things.”
A guide can act as a hired friend-for-a-day, helping you see a place better and doling out mundane-but-useful information—how to navigate the New York City subway, where to buy groceries in Berlin.
The experience often transcends a simple work-for-hire arrangement: The artist who shows you the many street murals of Lima, Peru, might invite you to a gallery opening after your tour; that bike trip leader in Copenhagen can fill you in on the city’s cycle lane rules and tell you where to grab a post-ride beer.
How to get your guide
The old-school way to find a local guide is to ask your hotel, and it’s still valid. But you can also search for guides and experiences via ToursbyLocals; the pay-what-you-want Free Tours by Foot; or Airbnb Experiences, which launched in 2016 as a companion to the lodging listings company. The last offers some 40,000 options in 1,000 cities, ranging from walking tours of downtown Sydney, Australia, to surfing lessons in Los Angeles to exploring an abandoned missile silo in Kansas.
Citizens-on-the-street also headline with walking tour companies in major cities including the long-running, English-guided Paris Walks and Washington, D.C.’s history-focused Washington Walks.
If you have very specific interests (pottery in Spain, Shakespeare in London), check with your destination’s official visitors bureau. Or try a Google search using your interest, destination, and the word “tour” to turn up specialized experiences such as Tokyo Ramen Tours or New York City Jewish history tours.
Just because a tour is private does not mean it costs more. Prices vary from place to place, but especially for family or friends traveling together, a private trip can be cheaper than joining a big bus or giant group walking tour.
What it takes to be a guide
In some countries or cities, tour guides must receive special training and get certified; in other places and cases, guides are professional historians, passionate foodies, or just residents who are deeply plugged into their hometowns.
What makes a standout one is their ability to interact with strangers and impart their knowledge in memorable ways. Deirdre Harman, a ToursByLocals guide in Dingle, Ireland, sometimes sings or speaks in Gaelic when showing people churches and other spiritual sites. “You can read all about a place, but good guides can grow peoples’ imaginations,” she says. “We draw them into the experience.”
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For travelers, a guide can be both make a trip more meaningful and reveal what it’s really like to live in a given place. Take Jorteh Senah, a New York-based tech worker who visited Cairo, Egypt, recently. Short on time, he hired an Airbnb Experiences guide, Bakr Ghoniem.
Ghoniem picked him up from the airport and whisked him to see—and photograph—the pyramids and the Sphinx far from the crowds. “Bakr was very social media savvy,” says Senah. “He knew how to capture the angles.”
Over tea, Ghoniem told Senah about what his life was like in Cairo beyond the ancient monuments and souvenir hawkers. “It turned into a real conversation,” says Senah. “It was a cultural experience on so many levels.”
HOW TO FIND CITIZEN GUIDES
Free Tours by Foot: Find out how to join walking tours with a tips-for-service model, in dozens of European and North American cities. Private tours are also available for a fee.
GetYourGuide: Thousands of tours in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North America can be scheduled via this service, which has a particularly helpful smartphone app.
ToursByLocals: More than 4,000 guides in 189 Countries offer small-group tours by foot or car.
Withlocals: Find general and special-interest tours (food, farm experiences, art history) with the global listing service.