should you take a guided tour?

our guide for the Hill of Witches (c) 2019 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

Is going on a guided tour worth it? Now that we're back from our Windstar cruise around the Baltic Sea, I wanted to reflect on this question. Whether you're on a cruise — or touring a new destination by land — you always have the choice of exploring independently, joining a group tour, or hiring a private guide. Here are my thoughts about making that choice.

Independent exploration is typically the most cost-effective option open to you. Some tourists do extensive research in advance of their trip. It's always a good idea to consult a guide book or to google "ten best things to see in ..." Select the attractions that most interest you, map them on a google map, save the map to your iPhone, even copy notes to your map — or simply tear the relevant pages out of your guide book and bring them along.

But don't discount the value offered by a great group tour or private tour.

(1) Benefit from expert local knowledge. Do you know to avoid the Vatican Museum in the mornings (when the groups from the cruises are all there)? Do you know that the Louvre is closed every Tuesday? Do you know the attractions that are truly engaging and not just tourist traps?

(2) Bypass long lines. Catherine's Palace outside St. Petersburg, Russia is a phenomenal place to visit. So is the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. But both have LONG lines. You can easily waste three hours waiting on queue when visiting Catherine's Palace. With our private guide, we skipped the lines and got right in to the palace, ahead of all these people.

three hour wait to get into Catherine's Palace (c) 2019 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

(3) Get in before the thundering herds.
We arrived at the Hermitage a bit before 10 a.m. There were already long lines of tourists waiting for the doors to open at 10:30 a.m. Our guide got us in at 10 a.m., thirty minutes before the general public, thirty minutes before the hallways were choked with hoards of people. We saw this grand staircase shortly after we entered. 30 minutes later, these stairs would be full of people. (Pro tip: if you've purchased early admission, make the most of it by visiting the WC in advance!)

(4) Wander purposefully. Think about the last time you visited a famous museum. Did you know how to map out an ideal visit? Or did you find yourself wandering aimlessly, glancing at some of the paintings, but not really knowing what to look at or why it was significant? A great guide can transform a museum visit. I still remember our visit to the Prado Museum in 2009. In one efficient hour, our private guide (an art historian) gave us a comprehensive lesson on Goya and Velasquez and took us to all of their works (which happened to be scattered throughout the Prado in various galleries). Not a step wasted!

(5) Hear and enjoy the whole story. Look again at the picture at the very top of this article. This was taken during our group tour of the Hill of Witches near Klaipeda, Lithuania. Now, it's totally possible to go there on your own, take the round-trip path up and down the hill, and look at the elaborate carvings. And the visit would be free (except for the cost of a taxi or rental car to get there).

But we had the most incredible tour guide. She was such a gifted storyteller. The dozens of carved statues portrayed traditional stories from Lithuanian folklore. Our guide grew up hearing and loving those stories. She told those very stories every night to her own young daughter. She exuded so much delight when she told them to us, and her voice conveyed an authentic sense of drama. Our guide was utterly captivating and treated us to an unforgettable introduction to Lithuanian culture.

The expertise of the guide makes all the difference. Of the nine guides we had over the course of our cruise, this guide in Klaipeda was superlative. We had seven very good guides, one mediocre guide, and one guide (in Tallinn) who was totally crappy — bored with his job, boring to listen to, and lazy. He gave the group "free time" several times — totaling 75 minutes of a four hour tour. He called it "time to shop," but we could have done that on our own time, not his. It would have been better to explore Tallinn on our own than walking around with a crappy guide.

So how can you avoid guides who are crappy and get the best? Use a Virtuoso onsite who knows the best guides in their areas of expertise. And book early — the best guides are the first to be reserved!

copyright (c) 2019 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.

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