How to choose: Private guide vs Small Group vs Go it alone

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Are you the type of traveler that enjoys the expertise of a private guide when you travel or do you prefer a small group tour to keep costs down? How many of you just go it alone on most of your trip? Have you been wondering if you need a guide during your upcoming trip? Is it really worth the extra $$$?

Yes, yes it is! If there’s an option between private, small group, or no guide at all, I usually choose “all of the above”.

In this post, I break down the benefits of each option, including some of my favorite companies to work with and my pro tips when designing itineraries for clients.

There are truly so many benefits to having a private guide!

Having a private guide for your travels provides the most seamless, authentic, and time efficient option which offers access to the most educated and the most experienced guides in the industry.  Private guides around the world are truly at the top of their game. The most sought after guides only work with private clients in the luxury market. Of course these private guides command a higher price, but the experience they offer is truly invaluable.  One of the greatest perks of having a private guide during your travels is that you'll usually have the same private guide throughout your trip or at least in each region/city. This means that if you spend 3-4 days in one city, the same person will be greeting you each morning at your hotel.  This offers a wonderful opportunity to really dig in deep with the history of a destination and to have a more authentic look into their culture. Traveling with the same guide each day ensures that the stories you hear build upon each other day after day because the guide knows in advance if they'll be with you for 2 days or for 7.  

Exploring Venice with our private guide, Susanna.

Exploring Venice with our private guide, Susanna.

Depending upon the destination, traveling with a private guide also includes time in a vehicle where the information sharing doesn't stop. Some of my favorite moments have occurred on a 2-hour drive to the next destination where our conversation shifted from the ancient civilizations and ruins that we just visited to the current economic situation in the country or to hearing more about our guide's family and their everyday life.

Designing your itinerary with a private guide also offers the most flexibility in terms of scheduling. While some days are built around a specific schedule for good reason (visiting the Colosseum & the Roman Forum in the afternoon to avoid the large tourist groups visiting in the morning from tour buses and cruise ships, for example), most days are pretty flexible. This means that if you like to begin your day at 7AM or at 11AM, we can be flexible. Sometimes, this also means that we design your itinerary to start at 9AM, but by the end of your trip, you'd like a morning to sleep in and to start at 10AM instead. Usually it is no big deal at all to make last minute adjustments.

Finally, opting for a private guide offers the opportunity to build a relationship with this person. So many of our guides have become friends that we keep in touch with because we spent 3 or 4 or 7 or 8 consecutive days with them. With many of our past guides, we're friends on Facebook, we follow each other in Instagram, and we remain a part of each other's lives even after we've returned home from our trip.

As more and more travelers are requesting authentic travel experiences, this is truly one of the most important elements that I feel will offer the greatest value for your investment. It can be difficult to find unique experiences and authentic conversations when your time in a new destination is limited. A private guide offers the perfect balance of authenticity in a limited timeframe.

Small Group Touring

Small group touring offers a more cost effective option compared to private touring for two major reasons: one, because you're sharing a knowledgeable guide with other travelers and two, because you'll often meet a guide directly at the starting point of the tour, which means that transportation isn't usually included in the price. This means that your small group tour will begin and end at a point that may or may not be near your hotel.  Finding your own way to and from the small group tour saves money, but also decreases the overall convenience of this option. If transportation is included in a small group experience, this transportation cost is being split between each traveler which helps keep costs low.

Bangkok by Bike with Urban Adventures

Bangkok by Bike with Urban Adventures

When including multiple small group tours in your itinerary, you'll most likely have a new guide for each tour which means that the introduction-small talk-getting to know each other phase starts over with every tour.  It also means that you might hear similar stories and repeated facts from different guides as they must assume that their tour is everyone’s first in that city or region.

Small group tours will have a specific schedule and are not always offered on a daily basis. This can sometimes be a challenge as you're generally only in one region or one city for a few days, so you have to match up the days you're in this city with the tours that you're most interested to include. Sometimes I really want to include a small group experience in an itinerary but it's only offered on days when my clients will already be on their way to the next city.

Small group experiences cater to a much larger audience than private touring.  This means that there can often be an overwhelming number of small group options available, so how do you know which tours will offer quality guides and an authentic experience?


The below listed companies are my go-to small group options

(Bookmark this page for future planning!)

I have unfortunately had more than my fair share of subpar, mediocre, and downright horrible small group experiences. I was often left feeling as if I had wasted both my time and money. In order to avoid this situation as often as possible, here are my top five favorite companies to work with! (Most are small group, some offer private options as well).

Context: Context guides are historians, architects, chefs, and art scholars. They are professionals in a field that is closely related to the tour they lead. These tours are considered “semi-private” because their groups are never larger than 6. I, along with my clients, have always had extremely positive experiences with Context guides. With that said, be ready to absorb some serious knowledge on these tours, most especially those that focus on art, architecture, and ruins. These guides are experts in their field of study and are ready to share their passion with you.

Tours by Locals: This company offers a wonderful option for a private guide if you’re looking to visit a specific site with a private guide but not your entire trip. Each guide that works for Tours by Locals acts as an independent contractor and therefore is an entrepreneur. They design the tours they offer and they set their own pricing. When you inquire into one of their trips, you’ll connect with the guide directly. Whereas Context guides are rarely a full time tour guide by profession (they’re rather professionals in their field of study and guide tours on the side), guides working for Tours by Locals are usually full-time guides. They will all have their own areas of expertise and their own style so it’s important to read customer reviews to ensure you find a good fit.

Urban Adventures: This is the second resource that I consider when looking for a small group experience. Personally, I will only book an Urban Adventures experience when a similar experience is not offered by Context. Tours that I’ve particularly enjoyed with Urban Adventures have less of a focus on deep knowledge and more of a focus on an experience that would be difficult to replicate on my own, a bicycle tour around Bangkok is a perfect example of this. We really loved our full day bicycle tour around neighborhoods of Bangkok that most tourists never see. This would have been impossible for us to do on our own so having a guide was perfect. With that said, this wasn’t a day full of learning, per say, it was more focused on exploring the local culture by bike.

EatWith: This is my absolute favorite option when looking for any type of food related experience (cooking classes, food tours, dinners, etc).  While having dinner at someone’s home with other travelers (er, strangers) might sound a little too unique, I’m all about it. I’ve had clients come home from a 10-day honeymoon and guess what the highlight of their trip was? An EatWith experience in Lisbon. Yep, the highlight of their trip. Why, you might ask? What could possible be so special about a dinner or about a cooking class? These dinners and culinary experiences are hosted by locals and attended by other open-minded travelers like yourself. Not only do you have an opportunity to enjoy local, homemade cuisine (which can often be difficult to find in a restaurant) but you also have an evening of engaging conversation with both fellow travelers and locals. This is quite simply an authentic, unique experience that I’m not sure how you could recreate. (When booking your first EatWith experience, use code 9D65D7DC for $12 off your booking of $105+.)

ShoreTrips: This company was started by travel professionals to serve clients of big ship cruises. But, they have expanded over time and now also serve clients who are staying in hotels. When looking at their map of destinations, you will notice that most destinations center around major cruise stops. ShoreTrips excursions are ideal for a few different scenarios:

  1. You’re on a big ship cruise and want a small group experience in each port.  ShoreTrips offers unique excursions that are not offered by most cruise lines, and if the offering overlaps, the experience with ShoreTrips is sure to be more intimate and of a higher quality.

  2. You’re staying at a resort or at an all inclusive and are looking for something fun to do outside the resort for 1-2 days. Most beach vacation destinations coincide with cruise itineraries are well, so the excursions they offer are also perfect for beach vacations.

  3. You’re in a major city and looking for an excursion that one of the above companies doesn’t offer. While Context is great for art history tours, Urban Adventures offers a fun street food tour, and EatWith is amazing for a unique culinary experience, sometimes you just want a sunset catamaran or to go snorkeling for the afternoon. ShoreTrips is most likely to have out of all of these options to have just what you’re looking for!

Exploring Pisa on our own for the day.

Exploring Pisa on our own for the day.

Independent exploration

For all trips, I recommend allowing some time to explore a new destination on your own no matter where you're traveling. Having a guide everyday can sometimes induce some serious information overload and I'd much rather your return home with some information rather than none at all.

When planning your trip, try to understand which sites and which areas of a city you'll benefit most from having a guide. Consider which areas you're most interested to learn about, to hear stories about, to be able to ask questions, and to be able to converse about. These are the sites you'll want to include with a private guide or a small group tour. Other places may not merit a guide simply because there isn't a big story behind it's construction or maybe there just isn't a lot of information to be shared. Try to make sure that you're not investing in a guide to simply escort you to a place that you'll basically explore on your own. Whether private or in a small group, you want to invest in a guide in places where you don't want to take a single step without knowing what you're looking at, why it's significant, and how it became to be what it is today.

Pro Tips

No trip has to be all one way or another

I personally feel that itineraries with a nice blend of privately guided tours mixed with some small group experiences and enough time to explore a bit on my own are perfection. Traveling with no guidance at all makes me feel that I'm not walking away with as positive of an experience as I could, so I'm therefore wasting my time and money being in a place that I'm learning very little about. While on the other hand, having a private guide all day every day can be exhausting as this often includes a lot of information and a lot of conversation. (Disclaimer: I'm super introverted which is why this exhausts me - I can appreciate that this would of course be wonderful for some travelers.)  

Blending these three experiences also offers an opportunity to balance the budget as a fully private trip can become quite expensive in some countries.

If you're traveling with a family of 4+ people, a private guide will usually be the same cost as a small group tour or just slightly more

Small group tours will charge per person which means that when you pay for 4 people, you're likely paying a similar cost as a private guide. Of course this depends largely upon the destination where you're traveling, but it's good to keep in mind.

Whew! I hope that helps you when planning future trips and deciding on where you’d like to invest your time and money. Until next time…

How to choose: Private guide vs Small Group vs Go it alone
How to choose: Private guide vs Small Group vs Go it alone
How to choose: Private guide vs Small Group vs Go it alone
How to choose: Private guide vs Small Group vs Go it alone
How to choose: Private guide vs Small Group vs Go it alone

Whitney’s love of experiential travel began when she studied abroad in New Zealand. Upon returning home, this seemingly small decision led her on an unpredictable path to do everything in her power to continue exploring the world. Within one year, she headed to Africa for one month to visit a friend who was volunteering with animals in need of rehabilitation support, and upon graduating only 6 months later, she moved to France for no other reason than the study the language and experience the culture firsthand. Fast forward 8 years, 2 languages, and 20 countries later, Whitney has successfully combined her passion for foreign languages and experiential travel with her professional experiences and launched Undiscovered Sunsets, a bespoke, experiential travel agency.