A seasoned tour guide's guide to tour etiquette

By Anna Hartley

Always be a team player when on a group tour. Photo / iStock
Always be a team player when on a group tour. Photo / iStock

The kind of tourist you are determines the kind of tour you get, but unfortunately, I have learned, sometimes good people are bad tourists.

In my 21/2 years leading bicycle tours of Paris, I've met them all: the social-media addict who takes selfies in the middle of traffic, the whiny cyclist who complains about the hills, the happy-go-lucky adventurer who takes off on her own and immediately gets lost.

Here are a few simple tips about how to avoid common mistakes on group tours and be the kind of tourist that tour guides love.

Be prepared

Sometimes there truly is nowhere to buy water, a sweater or gloves once the tour has begun. Come prepared, dress appropriately and don't expect your guide to "Mary Poppins" extra supplies out of thin air. If you don't know what to wear or bring, ask - before the day of the tour. Should you find yourself woefully underprepared, try to bear it graciously.

Paris guide Ellen Quinn-Banville sees plenty of underprepared tourists in her job. "I know you want to wear your best outfit because it's Paris, but, like, you will be freezing - and can you walk in those shoes?"

One person in a T-shirt complaining about being cold when the season calls for a parka puts unfair pressure on the guide and spoils the mood for everybody else.

Use your noggin

Don't distract your guide when she is doing something tricky, such as negotiating a busy traffic intersection on a bicycle tour or setting up safety lines during a rappelling excursion. Your safety may depend on her concentration.

Engage with your guide

Unlike at the theater, there is no fourth wall in tour guiding, and guides will watch you just as attentively as you watch them. Guides who sense that their group is uninterested will quickly go into autopilot, downgrading the experience for everybody. So get involved. Answer their questions, laugh at their corny jokes and stand close so they don't have to strain their voices.

"A tour is a dialogue between you and the guide. An interactive tour is a fun tour," says Stephanie Paul, a tour guide and specialist on Franco-Jewish history. "Put your phone away. . . . Look, listen and enjoy interaction with a real human being."

Be a team player

Majority rules when it comes to group tours, so be prepared to make compromises. If you can't play nice with others or have legitimate special restrictions or needs, book a private tour. A guide giving a private tour will generally bend over backward to suit your needs and has the ability to make major changes to the tour according to your liking. Bicycle tour guide Mark Daly puts it bluntly: "You want a private tour that caters to your special requests and desires? Pay for it."

Simply being on time is the first thing you can do for your team. April Pett, owner of Paris for You Luxury Tours, explains: "Being on time for a tour is not only important from a guide's view but also for the others in the group. . . . If everyone arrives on time, everyone will be happy, and people won't feel like they are missing out on any of the action or having to rush through parts of the tour."

Continue to be a parent

This should go without saying, but a guide is not a free nanny. No matter how well the guide seems to get along with kids, she already has a job. Your children are your responsibility, and you must be quick to pull them into line if their enthusiasm or bad behavior is dominating the guide and the rest of the group.

Randa Akhras, an American tour guide and owner of walking-tour company Paris Uncovered, says: "Please, parents, step in if the kids are monopolizing the guide's attention with nonstop questions. I love kids being engaged, but know when to tell them to save questions till the end so it doesn't affect the tour for the entire group."

Be discreet

Your guide almost certainly knows a bunch of great little restaurants, speak-easies and local joints that you would love. But he won't share them if he thinks they might end up on a tourism-review website (TripAdvisor, Yelp, etc.) and subsequently become overrun. If you want a truly local experience, gain the trust of your guide by quietly asking for off-the-record advice, and tell him you'll keep it a secret.

Let your guide eat

If you are on a tour that includes a meal break, try not to pepper your guide with questions. It's fun to chat, but it's also impossible to eat at the same time.

Sarah Braun, a specialist in sustainable heritage tourism, explains: "Usually it comes easy to stay enthusiastic about my work, but people run the risk of getting a sub-par tour because my brain is still back at the restaurant thinking about the other half of my sandwich."

Your hardworking guide needs the energy and may want to use the quiet time to plan his next move or muse over that historical question somebody asked earlier.

Don't take it personally

Understand if your guide doesn't talk about herself too much or gently deflects personal questions. It is natural to want to get to know your guide, but even a rookie will have been asked, "Why did you move here? How long will you stay? Do you have a boyfriend?" thousands of times. If you feel a need to keep a conversation going, chat about yourself. Tell the guide about your vacation, your experiences, your opinions on the local sites. She'll appreciate your views and insights.

Review right

If you had a great tour, try to remember the guide's name and write it at the beginning of your glowing online review. Managers read these attentively, and some agencies even award bonuses or incentives based on good reviews. Guides also love seeing feedback and knowing what people liked or didn't. But resist writing a blow-by-blow of the tour or transcribing any great jokes or facts they shared (see "Be discreet"). Let future tourists be surprised and delighted, too.

Be respectful

Understand that being a guide is difficult. If your day went smoothly, it's because your guide worked hard. Quinn-Banville can attest to that: "I wish people would stop asking if I'm a student. . . . That's the most familiar reason for a young person to be living abroad, but I'm not a student. I'm an adult, and this is my job." If you're having a great time, let your guide know. Above all, don't ever ask a guide, "So, what's your real job?"

Anna Hartley is a tour guide and writer. She writes travel, sports and lifestyle articles from her adopted home in Paris. Her website is annahartleywrites.com.

- Washington Post

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