It’s July, and you’re in Rome. You can’t wait to see the sights! But it’s hard to appreciate the beauty when you are covered in sweat, standing in queue with a couple hundred of your newest friends. Centuries of history are close enough to touch, only you can’t. Because you are standing in line. And, judging from the pace, your place in that history is not coming any time soon. This could take, I don’t know, forever? You begin to understand why Rome is called the Eternal City.
Over there, however, is a fast moving line with happy tourists. What’s the deal? Those, my friend, are people on tours, replete with peppy, knowledgeable guides, bottles of cold water, and coveted Skip the Line entry.
Many people hear the words “guided tour” and immediately assume a defensive posture, as though it’s a frontal attack on their abilities and acumen. The usual objections are time, money, and the belief that anyone can buy a guidebook and have a great time. Oddly enough, those are exactly the reasons why, in some cases, you SHOULD take a guided tour!
Spend your time in the right place.
Chances are, you’ve spent a sizeable sum getting to your destination. Now, the most valuable part of your trip is your time. You should not spend it standing in line or seeing the wrong sights. No matter what your budget is, you want to make the most of your time, and this is where a guided tour can help the most.
That’s not to say you should always take a tour, but sometimes it is the best investment you can make. When research says to expect long lines, start looking for ways around them. Sometimes, it’s as simple as buying tickets in advance and strolling right up the front gate. (You would be surprised how many times the longest line is just to buy tickets.) Other times, tour groups have the advantage, whether that’s a separate entrance, a different queue, or hours that get you in earlier or later than the general public.
Tours that get you into popular attractions outside of normal hours are especially worthwhile. When visiting the Vatican, for example, skipping the line only gets you past the throngs waiting outside. Once past the gate, your tour group is among a sea of humanity during the busiest times. Instead, look for tours that start before the gates open. Yes, that means your day will start early, but that also means you will be in the Sistine Chapel with a group of just ten or twenty. Later in the day, the room will be stuffed to capacity. That early morning experience alone is worth so much more than the price of the tour.
Spend your money on the right tours.
Be aware that there may be different tour types at popular attractions: some start after you’ve gone through line, some go through the queue as a group, and some skip the line altogether. (In all cases, the cost of tickets is not always included; be sure to ask.) Obviously, the last type is the one you will usually want, but this isn’t to say that skipping the line is the only value in a guided tour.
Some tours have multiple stops, and can be very helpful in getting you in and out of each one, and understanding how they are related. These tours are great for minimizing the legwork. They take care of tickets at different venues, transportation between them, and figuring out the best itinerary. You’re in charge of enjoying the sights. While most of these tours only hit the highlights, they are good for getting to see a lot when you only have a little time.
Go beyond the Guide Books.
A substantial part of what you pay for with a guide is their local knowledge. You could buy a guide book to Barcelona and learn all about Bario Gotico and la Sagrada Familia. In theory, you have a plan. Once you put boots on the ground, though, do you know the best way to get from one to the other? Do you know what to avoid today, or what hidden gem is around the next corner? A local does, and that information can be priceless.
Beyond being a fountain of knowledge, your tour guide is a living, breathing, human-type person. Believe it or not, they want you to talk with them. They want to know what you are interested in. Tour guides know that “cold and impersonal” are great ways to have a short career. Particularly in a country where you don’t speak the language, your tour guide may be one of the few people you’ll have a real and localized conversation with.
Ultimately, the cost of a tour is measured by the quality of the experience. A seasoned guide will make sure you get more than your money’s worth with inside information, anecdotes, and insights that you might not find without tons of research.
- Don’t feel you always have to take a tour, but anywhere the lines are long, there is a lot to see, or you are completely unfamiliar, it’s worth considering.
- Look for tours that match your interests: Art history in Florence, or archaeology in Mayan Mexico, for example.
- Research your options; there are frequently several tour companies to choose from, and some may fit your style better than others.
- Call the tour companies and ask if tour guides are certified, and ensure they meet any special needs you have.
- We have had the best luck with tours booked on Viator and Walks of Italy, and we recommend both.
- We also recommend due diligence: read reviews, check social media, and look for posts in travel blogs to help reach a decision.
What’s your preference? Do you go it alone, join a tour group, or mix and match? We would love to hear about your choices and experiences!