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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

On how tour guides can sometimes actually hinder a holiday 

When you sign up for a tour, there are a whole set of extra dynamics to take into consideration, some of which may not be in your best interests

Baku, Azerbaijan. Rosemary Behan
Baku, Azerbaijan. Rosemary Behan

I’ve been in Azerbaijan this week and have been reminded of the importance of research and preparation when travelling to new destinations, even when a tour guide is used. One could even say it is even more important in these circumstances.

Where possible, I would advocate spending a bit more time in a place and seeing it by yourself. Nothing beats the satisfaction of buying a guidebook before departure and lining up a list of must-see sights, only to find that once you’re there you’re able to do even more than expected. It might take longer to get to each spot, but you’ll see it on your own terms.

When you sign up for a tour, there are a whole set of extra dynamics to take into consideration, some of which may not be in your best interests. Of course, sometimes, tours can be excellent, but not knowing in advance is one of the chances you take.

With a guide, there’s a certain amount of “buy in” that has to happen for it to take place. They may say they are there to act on your every whim but, in reality, they only have a set amount of time and usually a preordained list of sites to get through.

While some accommodation can usually be made, even minor demands can prove controversial. In my case this week, my pre-booked driver and guide simply failed to turn up one morning, leaving me and the hotel concierge frantically searching through emails and calling many numbers at 9am on a Saturday.

Given that I only had limited time and was here for work, it was even more worrying.

Once finally roused, we set off, me trying to shake off the stress and lost time, and the guide playing catch-up. Fortunately, the guide and driver were competent enough to save the day, but it helped that I knew beforehand exactly what there was to see and what I needed to experience on the inside rather than just view from outside.

Often, people who just “leave it up to the experts” to dictate their programme find out later that key sites have been missed, because the guide simply skipped them. That’s a big loss to the curious traveller who may never visit again.

This is why I try to stay several steps ahead of my guides in order to head off any such short-cuts. I’ll have a mental map of a place in my head and the basics on each site, so that I’m not thrown into the history and architecture of a site blind.

If you do this, you’ll exhaust yourself trying to get your head around whatever form of words your guide is using.

While some guides have admirable knowledge and communication skills, they often have a less than ideal way of presenting information, which can mean you’re left feeling frustrated, rather than enjoying the place in front of you.

Sometimes, guides can be essential, and good ones are a godsend. But more often than not you can’t simply leave your trip in their hands; a toolbox is needed to influence them. If I sense, for example, that they’re getting tired after only six hours, I’ll throw in a mention of how much I’m looking forward to visiting a specific site, and check with them the closing times and how long it will take to get there.

That way they can’t run the clock down and head for home before the job is done.

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Read more from Rosemary:

The curse of the 'demonic plane child'

Why solo travel is the new luxury

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