Thoughts on Becoming a Tour Guide (And Highlights From Europe)

Nomadic Matt's reader tour through Europe group shotI knew it was going to be hard. I knew it was going to be a lot of work. I just didn’t realize how much work or how stressful it would turn out to be. Earlier this year, I decided to start organizing tours. In May, I put together a tour through Europe and planned to take ten readers on an epic two-week journey through Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Stockholm.

I organized day tours, meals, hostel accommodations, train tickets, walking tours, and nights out on the town.

And when the tour began in Paris last month, all my assumptions about being a tour guide were thrown out the window.

I now have a new appreciation for every tour guide I’ve ever met in the world. You don’t realize it when you’re part of a group, but after being on the other side, I see just how much work goes into being a guide.

You’re constantly checking on everyone, keeping an eye out so no one gets lost, and keeping everyone together and on task. It’s not easy.

Throw in having to deal with messed-up reservations, closed attractions, and lost phones, and you end up dealing with endless stress and fatigue. You’re “on” from morning to night, and it’s incredibly draining. I never imagined I’d be so ready for bed by 9 at night. (To every tour guide who runs trips for months on end, I salute you!)

And it was because of all of that stuff that I loved leading the tour.

I loved every minute of it.

Planning a tour for ten strangers is a lot different than planning a trip with your friends, but in both situations I’m getting people excited about travel and sharing something I’m passionate about with others.

And I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people.

We had a great group of diverse ages (from 19 to 69) that got along fabulously. I suppose we had an advantage: everyone reads this blog, so we all had the same views on traveling.

We hit it off right away, and I believe that everyone on my tour will stay in touch with each other for a long time to come. Some highlights from our trip include:

    1. Karaoke in Denmark! (We rocked out hard that night!)
    2. Our boat cruise in Amsterdam:

Nomadic Matt's reader tour on a boat cruise in Amsterdam

    1. Cooking dinner in our hostel in Stockholm:

Nomadic Matt's reader tour cooking dinner in Stockholm

    1. Our crazy night out in Amsterdam (Too hot to write about online!)
    2. Our Stockholm archipelago tour (Even if it was freezing cold!):
      Nomadic Matt's reader tour group in Sweden
    3. Our food tour in Paris.
    4. All our group dinners (especially the never-ending cheese plate in Paris!).
    5. And, of course, getting to know all these amazing and beautiful people:

Nomadic Matt's tour group in front of the Eiffel Tower
(I’ve already met up with one of the tour participants in Chicago. He took me to a great Japanese market (Tensuke) for sushi.)

But this was my first tour, and like anything done the first time, you learn how to make things better. Mistakes were made, and notes were taken. At the end of the tour, I asked everyone to fill out a survey, and their comments echoed my thoughts. I’ll be making many changes to my future tours, including:

  1. Creating print-outs of local attractions each day along with their cost.
  2. Streamline ticket buying (there’s only so much you can get in advance, though).
  3. Printing maps with highlighted attractions ahead of time for each destination.

Even though this was my first time leading a tour, my group and I were both very happy about how the tour ended. It wasn’t perfect, but I learned how to improve it and make operations smoother in the future.

That’s probably to be expected, and maybe I’m being overly harsh on myself (many people on my tour told me to relax and that things were fine), but I’m a perfectionist and it’s important that your holiday with me is flawless.

Guiding a tour group is exhausting—but fun—work. There’s a lot of pressure—you’re in charge of these people and their holiday. If you mess up, you mess up their holiday. They put their faith into your hands, and while you can only do your best with some things being out of your control, it’s still stressful.

I had imagined a lot more down time. But that never happened (you might have noticed the blog and newsletter were non-existent for a while). The time I’d planned for writing on trains? Nope. Working after everyone went to bed? Way too tired. Being a tour guide is a 24/7 job.

But I enjoyed sharing my love of travel with others (one person on the tour had never traveled as an adult and is now planning adventures all over the world!). It’s challenging but fulfilling work.

My tour guiding days are only just beginning, and I look forward to leading more trips in the future.

  1. Looks like a great time Matt. Yeah, I can imagine the pressure. One question: Did you have to apply for any permits/licenses to work as a tour guide there?
    Frank (bbqboy)

  2. Kudos to you for giving it a go Matt. I have been a sort of informal guide for people who have just arrived to the place I am staying and even that is harder work than it looks. Most tourists probably don’t realise how tough being a tour guide is.

  3. Super impressive that you did all the work AND led the tour on your own. I couldn’t imagine putting all that work in AND maintaining a friendly, open, “tourguide” personality while doing it all. Good for you! Stoked to read about your next go round.

  4. As a former professional tour director, let me welcome you to the exciting, exhausting, and ever changing world of tour directing.

    You did it with 10 people. Want to try it with 45-50 people at a time? And then for up to 6 months straight with only a few days off here and there? :)

  5. It’s great to develop appreciation for another person’s job and I hope it was rewarding, which I’m sure it was. It sounds like you are doing something right and overtime hoping it will help. Looking forward to reading about more of your tour experiences.

  6. I really hope you start doing more tours and it becomes a regular thing. I’d love to take one in the nearby future. Overall, I’m happy to hear that it was a great experience. Do any of the people that were on this tour have travel blogs of their own? I’d love to hear about the trip from their perspective as well.

    Happy travels :)

  7. Susane

    Very much enjoyed your comments about how much work was involved. My friends used to comment on how lucky I was to work for a tour operator because I got to go on all those vacations. Leading agent tour groups involved getting up first and going to bed last while always looking happy to be wherever it was. That part was very easy on some trips, not so much on others. Kudos for doing all the organizing and leading yourself. When you are a small company (you), some personal touches can be added that make a huge difference to the enjoyment factor of the group.

  8. Jennifer

    Hard to believe it’s not all fun and games, huh? :) I’m going on my third year of tour directing and, no matter how familiar I am with a city, it is absolutely exhausting! Still the best job in the world, though!

    Welcome and good luck! It’s awesome to see one of my favorite travel bloggers delving into TD. Let me know if you ever need some help!

  9. Sassy Princess

    Wow Matt, it would be so cool to be amongst your tour members some day, whether you travel to Europe, Asia, Thailand or anywhere else. I hope one day I’ll be able to make it!

    Thanks for this site anyway!

  10. Usually things worth doing are hard work. I’m glad to hear that you loved it, so more people can continue to grow as a result of your future tours. It sounds like the diversity and the chaos made for great stories. Someday in the future, that group will be proud to say they were on your first tour!

  11. Wow, Matt! It sounds like a cross between producing a movie and being a mom. And so great to hear that you actually enjoyed the stress! I’m sure it was an invaluable experience to have you as a guide. When is the next tour and how can we sign up?

  12. good for you for giving tour guiding a go! I know of folks who have done it and I have always thought, NO WAY, not me! Too much work, too much babysitting, too much being “on” but I imagine their can be some amazing aspects to being a guide.

    Depends on the group but I know I can handle a lot of things that a newbie traveler may have a tough time dealing with…
    Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s near impossible to have travel be flawless but I know how it is, I’m a “recovering perfectionist”

    Good luck on your next tours!

  13. Congrats, Matt! Doing it for 2 weeks sounds intense. Being responsible and 24/7 on call for 2 weeks? Braver man than I.

    Fine work. Not an easy thing to do.

    However, inspired by your good example, I’m putting together a tour of the north of England. It’ll be a month long: first week is small-arms training and basic survival skills, second week consists of everyone having to survive in the woods while wearing a blindfold (because of the weather, there’s no light in England north of Birmingham, and nowhere to recharge electrical gadgets, so you have to rely on sound), and the other 2 weeks will be the tour itself.

    I’m confident of no more than 50% fatalities before journey’s end. Pass the word around. Thanks.

  14. Have been thinking of doing day trips ending in my home cooked meals its still in my mind but reading about your experience makes me really want to do it. The only thing I am not sure about is should I be charging people for walking around with them and feeding them. I know it is going to be work but seriously with me looking out for free deals and friendly locals I just want to send some goodness around.
    If you get round to my comment do send across your thoughts on my dilemma and if you come to India finally maybe I’ll take you around.

  15. Lauren

    This is so awesome Matt, good job! It sounds like you not only provided a great time for your guests, but also enjoyed a learning experience yourself (the best part of traveling, right?).

    I know being a perfectionist makes it difficult to let the little things go, but try not to be so hard on yourself! I bet most of the things you worried so much about then don’t even matter now :-)

  16. Congrats on that Matt, I am so excited for you to be taking tours now an nailing it! I am sure every participant was enthralled with the travel knowledge of an expertise. This is just creating another ripple effect on inspiring more people to travel through the stories these people will now share, so hats off to you

  17. Jean

    As someone who worked as a tour guide/ courier/resort representative in the 60’s you have seen nothing! Try having 10 hotels over 10 miles for daily visits on a bike in a uniform with tight skirt in searing heat….arriving at hotels in the middle of the night after a 24 hour transfer to find that your company had overbooked all of them in high season and it was YOUR job to get them a bed for the night, or having a coach breakdown in the middle of France and having to transfer 40 old people and luggage on to (moving) trains to get to their destination. I could go on! You youngsters need to think what life was like before mobile phones, internet access etc…..and we pioneers had to think on our feel all the time. We had no training and no support. However, I would not have missed a second as I was young and it was all exciting at the time. (Plus, I met my future husband who was also a courier!!!)

  18. Arthur

    Thx for sharing. Really enjoyed your post. I too looking into becoming a private tour guide.
    Currently looking for all possible resources regarding the job. May be there is a forum or some sort of network where tour guides hangout and share experiences?

  19. Thank you so much for this splendid article. Here, in New York, tour guides have long been the red-headed stepchildren of the travel industry. We are portrayed in print as rogues and charlatans who only take people to shops that give us kickbacks, no-nothings who constantly shout false information, and stumblebums who get groups more lost than they would have been without us.

    When a tour guide does something brilliant or heroic (like when 1,800 tour guides in Egypts linked arms to protect the Cairo Museum from the rioters who had stated their plans to destroy it during Arab Spring), the media is strangely quiet. You sell more newspapers making fun of guides than you do extolling our virtues.

    So I am very grateful to see an article like this. Keep up the good work.

    Matthew Baker
    Guides Association of New York City

  20. Kimberley

    As a Tour Guide, I loved this post because everything you said is so true. Saw you in La Jolla at the book store and heard you speak. Best of luck to you in your new adventure. I’ve decided, for so many reasons, that I’ll be pulling out of guiding and moving on to other things. I might create tours and hire out the Tour Director / Guide portion. You’re right though, it can be absolutely exhausting, with rewarding moments.

  21. Hi Matt!

    This was a great read! Since I was 15, I’ve been on the path towards starting my own art center/gallery but recently realized that what I’m most passionate about is travel!! I just made a bold mental switch from being on the gallery path to being on the tour guide path! I want to start very unique and culturally-immersive tours abroad. I’m looking for jobs in the travel industry to get started but not finding anything yet (or not looking in the right places?). It’s great to hear about your account of jumping in and leading your own tour!
    Do you have any advice for how I can get started? I currently work in a gallery in NYC and want to change jobs ASAP! I’d really appreciate any input/advice you have!
    Thanks so much!

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