How To Become A Tour Guide: Everything You Need to Know
Have you daydreamed about leaving your day job for awhile to set out into the world and see everything there is on offer? The problem with the world is that it’s a pretty big place and getting around it is not only time-consuming, but it can drain your bank account at an alarming rate.
Yes, you can travel to cheaper areas of the world like Southeast Asia or the Balkans where your dollar goes a long way, but eventually, you’re going to want to see places that will cost more money. The Northern Lights in Iceland, Disneyworld in Orlando, Big Ben in London; if you’re not sitting on an enormous trust fund, chances are you’ll be saving for years to be able to fit it all in.
Why not travel to all of the places above, but instead of seeing a max exodus of money from your savings, you watch as money begins to collect there instead?
That’s the life of an adventure tour guide. Waking up one morning in the shadows of the cliffs of Portugal, and then the next in a chateau in France without spending a dime.
This walk-through pertains to working as a tour guide (or tour manager) for adventure tour companies that cater to young adults aged 18-35.
Before giving you the low-down on the exact process of how to become an adventure tour guide, I feel obligated to share with you some of the details that are involved in the day-to-day life, application, and training that you may not have thought about. Yes, there are some incredible parts of the job that you’ll never be able to find in another field, but there are also a significant number of drawbacks that may tilt the scale for some people that are on the fence about applying for the position.
Do you want to skip the intro and get right to the nitty gritty details on how to get a job as an adventure tour guide? Click here.
First, let’s talk about the positives!
Seeing the world
The best part of tour guiding? People pay you to take them the world’s best vacation spots. Instead of spending all your time in the sun hoping to get a tan before you head back home from vacation, you spend your work days actively avoiding the sun because you spend half of your year on beaches as it is. You can’t even remember the last time your skin wasn’t permanently tanned.
Bucket list items? If you stick around the tour guiding game long enough, you’ll have checked off every item on your list four times over. Bathing with elephants will become your average Tuesday. Canoeing through the Amazon Rainforest will be your favorite monthly workout. Those images that you saw in the National Geographic magazines as a kid will become your everyday life.
All of the sudden you’re posting new pictures on Instagram on a daily basis rather than your once-per-month schedule. How can you not post the shots of those long-tailed macaques that stole your beer?
Instead of hoping to add to your list of countries visited, you start forgetting how many countries you’ve visited. You’ll visit more countries in one month than you did in the first 20 years of your life!
Meeting new people
When you work in the service industry as a server or a bartender you meet dozens, if not hundreds of people on a daily basis. You’ll serve them their coffee, bring up their food, grab a payment with the card reader, maybe ask them about their day as the card is processing, then they’re out the front door never to be seen again.
Not so as a tour guide. You’ll find yourself meeting amazing new people from all walks of life, and depending on your tour length, you could be hanging out with them for weeks or even months! I’m still in contact with some of my old guides years later, and I know a couple of them that have used the contacts they made on tours to transition into a decent job after they finished off with guiding.
Aside from the guests that you show around, you’ll find yourself spending a lot of your time either working or hanging out with other guides from both your company and others that stop at similar spots. Yes, you may be working a job where you’re taken away from your family and friends for long periods of time, but there is a huge community of expats and people that live in much the same way you do. Many guides partner up and get into investing in developing new hostels, dive shops, or other endeavors after their guiding days come to an end.
Need a vacation?
The salary you earn on tour is never going to blow your mind (I talk salary details further down), but because most of your expenses are covered, the majority of that money is going into your bank account untouched. Touring 24/7 for a full year is nearly impossible so, as in any other occupation, you’ll find yourself in the need of a vacation from vacationing.
Thankfully, due to having low seasons and variable demand throughout the year, you can often find yourself with 2-4 months off depending on your seniority and availability.
What do tour guides do on their vacation time?
You’ll want to try to get in some family time, whether that be back at home or meeting your family somewhere around the globe. Homesickness is a real thing, even for the best of us, and going home to see your parents, siblings, pets, and friends can help to alleviate some of the symptoms (until your parents try to impose a curfew on you. I’m an adult, mom!).
The second thing guides love to do in their time off from traveling for a living? More traveling.
You’re going to find yourself being too busy to really explore new areas or participate in activities while working, so you’ll wind up flying to places you haven’t seen enough of, or to countries that your company doesn’t operate in, to round out your world travels. I know one guide who is an avid scuba diver and when his vacation starts, he’s on the first plane to the Red Sea or any other of the world’s famous dive spots, and I’ve met others that just try to see as much of the world as they possibly can.
As many benefits as there are, there is a dark side to working as a tour guide:
Personal time is a myth
Don’t you just love the time you get off from work? Your weekend when you get to sleep in, grab a late brunch, hang out with some friends, maybe head over to Pop Tate’s Chok’lit Shop (Archie, anyone?). Or even your evenings, coming back from a long day at work, sitting down in your favorite chair, watching a little Netflix before bed; whatever it is that you do to relax.
Those days are gone. When you’re on a tour with 40 people, you’re constantly at their beck and call. Does somebody have dirty sheets? You need to go to the front desk to ask for replacements for the guest. Does a guest want to buy a SIM card for their phone? You’re going to have to bring them to the store and show them the process. Is there a deadly Cobra slithering around in a guest’s bathroom? You’d better not be napping because you’re now the designated snake killer (yes, that has happened).
Even without the constant interruptions to your much-needed rest, your job is to make sure the guests have an amazing time, so you’d better be out there socializing until well past the time that the sun goes down.
Speaking of being up until past sunset…
You’re not going to get much rest
Sleep; oh, how you’ll miss it. When you’re responsible for the safety and happiness of a tour group, getting any good nights of rest is a concept that falls by the wayside.
As your tours will most likely involve a substantial amount of drinking, you’re going to have your hands full all nights of the week in taking your tour groups to see the local nightlife. Each tour varies in terms of partying, but you can be assured that there are always at least a couple of people that will want to explore the clubs until the young hours of the morning. If you’re in a city where the clubs are open late, you’ll find that your average bedtime will climb to somewhere between 3 AM and 4 AM. You can’t babysit everybody, but you’ll often be one of the last to go to bed, and then you’re required to be the first one up early the next morning to make sure everything is ready to go for the next day.
Even on nights when you’re in transit, sleep can be difficult to come by. Maybe you’ll find yourself lucky enough to be on a tour that’s traveling on trains with comfy beds, but often you’ll find yourself in the confines of a bus. Believe me when I say that you won’t enjoy any quality sleep on a bus.
Not just a holiday
With all this talk of drinking, being a tour guide sounds like a party, right?
I wouldn’t go so far as saying that.
You’re supposed to be the life of the party to bring up the mood of your guests, but each company has a limit to which they expect their guides to adhere. For most adventure tour companies, you’ll be involved in some drinking, such as taking the occasional body shot in front of the group or competing in a Strawpedo Challenge, but you’re still expected to demonstrate a certain magnitude of professionalism. After all, being responsible for a large group of drunk tourists is much more difficult than your day job which is being responsible for a group of sober tourists.
Even if you can handle getting drunk, you do this for a living. You have a human liver prone to cirrhosis and cancer just like the rest of us. And besides, trying to organize 40 people and activities for the day becomes exceptionally difficult with the addition of a raging hangover.
Away from family and friends
As great as it is waking up under the stars on a yacht in the Southwestern corner of Turkey, you’re going to miss waking up in a bed that you call your own. You’re going to miss going out for Wing Wednesdays and accidentally getting too drunk. You’re going to miss your friends. You’re going to miss your family. And most of all, you’re going to miss your dog.
Not your cat though, you’ll forget all about it within a week.
In all seriousness, homesickness is real. Maybe you’ve taken a month to backpack before and it didn’t bother you, but what about three months? A year? It’s a different mental place not knowing when you’ll be returning to the house where you grew up, or to the safety net of friends and family that gave you comfort. If you’re going into tour guiding, you’re going to have to sacrifice a great many Christmases, birthdays, weddings, and even funerals. You’re going to lose contact with a lot of people that you hold dear to you.
How to Become an Adventure Tour Guide
There are large, world-spanning tour companies, and then there are the smaller start-ups that only operate in a select few countries. Both have different application processes.
Applying to get a job in a large tour company.
For the sake of argument, we’re going to use Contiki as the company that you’re applying for as they’re the golden standard to which tour all application processes are held. Here’s the step-by-step process that you’ll have to follow:
This isn’t the traditional online application. You can’t just send in your resume and a personalized cover letter and hope for a reply. No, you’re required to fill out a fairly large questionnaire giving up some details that let the application reviewer get a better view of you. Here are some of the questions you may get asked:
- Have you ever traveled for a long period of time?
- Do you have any public speaking experience?
- Have you ever been put in a leadership role? How did you cope?
- Have you traveled with Contiki or a similar group tour?
- Do you have a degree or any experience in learning about European history?
- Can you speak another language?
- What separates you from the pack?
Contiki’s online application process opens in August every year whereupon they’re besieged by thousands of qualified applicants, so you need to find a way to make your resume and writing stand out. Find a way to talk about your incredible adventure up to the base of Mount Everest and how it taught you to be more environmentally conscious. Bring up your Bike-For-A-Cure charity drive that raised $10,000 to go to breast cancer research.
If you’re successful, you’ll receive an email inviting you to participate in an online video interview. If you’ve got the chops to impress an interviewer face-to-face then you’ll be sent another email, this time with details to a short speech (the topic of which is assigned to you) that you need to research and an invitation to join in a group interview!
Group interviews are held each year in Australia during the month of October, in both Sydney and Melbourne, and there are another set of interviews held in London, England in November. This is the point where you’ll be giving the speech you researched. You’re put up in the front of the interviewers and an interviewee class of around 20 people, so all eyes are on you.
It’s not uncommon for people to crumble under the pressure. However, if you manage to impress the interviewers, you will be notified before the day is over to return the next day for the individual interview.
There’s no trick to this one. This will be where you show off your glowing personality along with your ability to deal with pressure. You’ll be asked questions pertaining to your future goals just like any other interview, but you’ll also be grilled on your prior jobs and experience along with your skills in handling large groups of people.
If you kill it in the individual interview, you’re almost there!
No wait, I take that back; the hardest part is yet to come.
Here’s where you put your money where your mouth is. To show that you’re serious about your intentions (and to cover some of the costs of interviewing you I assume), you’re required to pay a €300 bond to Contiki. Upon becoming a tour guide, the full amount is refunded to you. If you fail at any of the following steps, or if the company decides not to hire you despite finishing all of your tasks, you will not get a refund.
Complete a Training Assignment
This is no simple task. The assignment you will be given is intended to be difficult and time-consuming. You need to be able to complete tasks in a timely manner and this will push you to the limit. Being one of the most important documents you’ll ever submit, applicants are meant to take months, working a couple of hours per day to fully complete the assignment.
You’ll be forced to write about historical topics and to reference buildings that you’ve never heard of before, but the point is to get you out of your comfort zone and learning about some of the things that you’ll be discussing on your future tours.
Contiki Kindergarten Week
Have you ever heard of the U.S. Navy’s Hell Week? It’s a week of pure grinding, sleepless nights, and mental torture. From what I’ve heard and read about Contiki’s Kindergarten Week, it’s based on a similar concept.
No niceties involved, it’s about breaking guides-to-be down. You’re assigned ‘reconnaissance’ missions to complete in not nearly enough time, and each morning you’re subjected to listing off minute details of various Contiki tours that you’ve been tasked to study in front of your joyless instructor and your similarly-nervous peers. It’s not uncommon for applicants to leave during this stage of the process. Here’s a little write-up from a former Tour Manager, Chloe Du Bois on her experience in Kindergarten Week.
Participate in a 66-Day Europe Training Trip
If you managed to make it through Kindergarten week, you’re on to a 66-day vacation! A vacation where you’ll find yourself
- sleeping for ~4hrs per night
- studying from the moment you wake up until the moment your eyes close
- running around historical cities on recon missions
- being forced to remain awake on long bus trips to take “route notes”.
- barely clinging to the last scraps of your sanity.
- giving full speeches after only 5 minutes of rehearsal
Contiki’s Europe Training Trip takes you to each of their most popular destinations, and you are put out into the field to learn everything there is to know about the history of those places in the span of just over two months. Most of the guides that I’ve talked to list it as the most difficult – yet rewarding – two months of their lives.
Contiki does not mess around with their trainees. Many applicants will not make it through the entire process.
If you’re part of the downsized group that makes it back to London after the training tour, you’re not even guaranteed a position as a tour guide. A small number of the applicants that have gone through the months-long interview are told that they aren’t a good fit for the position and are subsequently let go.
Hopefully you don’t wind up becoming one of those unlucky souls!
At this point, you’ve made it! You’ve accomplished your dream of becoming a tour guide, now let’s just hope it was all worth it.
Looking to get a job without all the hassle?
Apply to get a job in a smaller tour company
Smaller tour companies don’t have the time or resources to put you through any sort of rigorous training regime. They’re often hiring on short notice, due to somebody quitting or an unforeseen wave of new business coming through their doors.
You cannot apply to these companies online. Just as they don’t have the resources to put you through months of training, they don’t have the resources to interview you to make sure you’re a good candidate. There is no way that a resume and video interview can possibly allow them to determine whether or not you’re a good fit for the job. Instead, they tend to hire from a smaller pool of candidates: friends of employees or tour guests that have asked to be considered.
If you’re not friends with employees of a tour company, try booking a tour! At the end of the day, finding a job with a small company comes down to a combination of luck and being a promising candidate.
Small tour companies have less turnover due to having a tight-knit atmosphere, and they’re less consistent when it comes to business on a year-to-year basis. If demand is high, they’ll have positions, but if the inverse is true, they may not need to hire a guide for an entire season. Getting hired is a matter of perfect timing that you couldn’t possibly anticipate.
Travel Tour Guide Salary
Not much to be honest. You don’t get into tour guiding to make rolls of cash. If you worked full-time for 10 months per year, your average starting salary would sit in the 15k-25k range, but that doesn’t take into account the fact that most, if not all of your expenses (flights, hotels, food, drinks) are being covered for the duration of your tours.
Be aware that many tour guides take bribes, which can account for a substantial amount of their income, to bring their guests to certain bars, shops, activities, and restaurants. It’s unscrupulous, I’m absolutely against it as I think it subtracts from the guests’ experience, but it’s an industry-wide phenomenon. In his biography, the founder of Contiki is on record ‘commissions’ are a part of the reason why he got into the tour guiding business in the first place.
Who am I to tell you what to do?
To provide some context, I work for a company called Life Before Work Travel. We operate tours with up to 100 guests in a select number of countries in South America, Europe, and Asia. I’ve also gone on tours with subsidiaries of the Travel Company which owns well-known names such as Contiki and Busabout. Some of the guides and a continental tour operator that I’ve met in my travels have shared some of the information that I’ve used in this article.