You’ve only got a few days, or hours, in a town and want to maximize your experience.  Choosing a tour can be an excellent choice but like with all choices in life it best to know yourself first and decide accordingly.

In an effort of full disclosure, I fell into being a tour guide by accident, not design.  Like many, I just assumed it would be a fun, volunteer, retirement hobby and it is.  But I’ve also traveled the world, often with three children in tow, so I have a long history of being a tour guest also.  A graduate degree in Adult Learning has helped some also.

You’ve nailed where you want to visit, so put the effort into nailing how you want to experience your adventure.  Generally tours fall into certain categories….

  • Getting Around Town– These are the tours geared towards getting you physically around your new environs.  Sure, there may be a bit of information on what you are physically looking at, but that information is normally also on the building’s plaque.  This is the most popular tour type and great for the intimidated about being in a new place.  For those comfortable with map and reading plaques on their own it is also the most dull.  We’ve a group in my town that have doing these type of tours for years comfortable with the knowledge 95 to 100% of their clients leave the tour in progress since they paid up front.
  • Activity Based– These are the tours that take you kayaking, hiking, horseback riding or whatever in a new local.  If you enjoy the activity itself, you’ll have fun and enjoy the change of scenery.
  • Ghost Stories– These are the spooky tours in your vacation spot.  As not to offend most anyone, ghost story tours are normally PG-rated and rather lame/tame.  Also, if you’ve read the same book on ghosts of the area as your guide based the tour on you’ll be bored silly.
  • Location Specific– These are tours that take you through a prison, cemetery, garden, former home of an eccentric captain of industry and such.  If you like the subject area you’ll have great fun.  For me, one was the home of Maxwell House Coffee’s founder obsessed with hearing waterfalls in landlocked Nashville.  Another was the cemetery caretaker’s tour of his workplace that blew my brothers and I away with his knowledge of our hometown’s history.
  • Food Based– These tours are enjoying great popularity as many folks plan their vacation entirely around food.  Food based tours can be costly so be sure to focus on your particular culinary interests.
  • Mobility– A new tour trend is sitting on a bench to learn about the area for those with mobility issues.  My tours are story heavy, with the actual walking from start to finish being maybe 5 minutes.  If you can’t walk for five minutes how did you ever make it to your airport gate?  Also, this type of tour requires a Broadway-level actor/guide to hold your interest.  Possible, but unlikely and you’ll probably be happier seated at a lecture hall with a PowerPoint presentation instead.

What to keep your eyes open for….

  • Paying Up Front– if you pay before the tour you’re about to have a fast food tour.  Perhaps filling in the moment but the tour is designed to get your money up front and get you on your way as soon as possible.  If you pay at the end of the tour/meal you’ve had a fine dining experience and will pay and tip accordingly.
  • Rotating Guides– If you don’t know who your guide actually is, that’s never a good sign.  Sure, you many luck out and get an invigorating lad.  Chances are you’ll get a lass who can’t speak about a baby doll whisper.  Guide-specific tours are always better quality.
  • Public Credentials–  Does the guide have great reviews?  Have they written books on the tours’ subject areas?  Are they known as a paid lecturer in their field?  Be wary of the guide whose track record is only supported by themselves and, perhaps, a handful of pals.  Folks that do good work with the public have public credentials across TripAdvisor, FaceBook, newspapers and magazines.
  • Special Events– These aren’t really tours, but theatrical productions offered only once a year.  For example, touring a cemetery where local history teachers bounce out from behind tombstones to provide a mini-biography of the occupant’s life and loves (lying in wait for you behind other nearby tombs) is great fun.  I say that, yet it can backfire.  Once I took a date to a Charleston, SC cemetery expecting this experience.  Instead I witnessed a radical (and racist) retelling of the Civil War leaving me so confused I actually I bought a book (pre-internet days) on way back to the hotel since that night the South won in Gettysburg.
  • Shopping Tours– Rarely described as such these are the tours where you get a five minute introduction to rug weaving, pottery, jade, whatever the store is selling.  Then you are stuck for an hour in a gift shop.  Now I can smell this a mile off and use the time to gambol about the village assuming it may be the only day in my life I’ll be there.  These tours can go really astray if you are visiting a place booze is made and your guide enjoys a bit of a buzz while at work.  One day I led a custom tour to a remote village where an ex-pat ran an ill-located art gallery.  Thinking she’d be excited to have a van full of visitors for 15 minutes, I was instead informed she couldn’t open her doors unless guaranteed two hours of “viewing time”.  Many guides play along for a percentage of the sales, or a bottle of booze, but as a guest, do your research and avoid these scams at all costs.
  • Web Site– Does it work?  Is it professional?  Are there hundreds of reviews?  A variety of tour options?  Does it have actual content or is the site simply itching to get your credit card number?
  • No Human Contact– If it’s not possible to contact an actual person, or, worse yet, they don’t respond to your message, you’ll want to seriously lower your standards before signing up for that tour!
  • No Flexibility– If the tour you’re drawn to is only on this day or that time, think twice.  Good guides know when local events, or weather, trump their ability to give a good tour and have inherent flexibility.  If not, you can’t expect someone quick on their feet to be leading the tour either.

I remember my aunt adored giving a tour of a Civil War battlefield where Stonewall Jackson’s arm was buried (the rest of him died and was buried much later and elsewhere).  The tomb fascinated her and if it does you, then that’s your tour!

Plan your tours like you did your vacation, around your interests and with a bit of on-line research so you’re bound to have more fun!