The Consummate Traveler: Are Personal Guided Tours Right for You?

BY Michele Goncalves TIMEOctober 3, 2013 PRINT

As a young girl in school, history was never my favorite subject. I did not find it interesting at the time to learn about the things of old. However, as an adult I have taken more interest in understanding our past. This is especially the case as I travel around the world. When visiting a new city, I typically do not like to take guided tours, but rather read a brief summary about where I am and that is enough for me. However, on a recent trip to Versailles, I chose to take a very small personal guided tour and I’d like to share my experience with you.

I have always been fascinated with France. I took French in high school and studied abroad in France during college. I was particularly interested in the years of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, thus visiting Versailles has always been on my list of must-see places. I have been to Versailles many years ago but did not have a guide and, therefore, I do not feel I was able to get the most from my visit. So, this time it was my intention to have a more intimate visit with a knowledgeable individual.

I did some research on the Internet, and chose to take a smaller personal tour with a maximum of eight individuals. The itinerary included a pick-up at my hotel, a guided visit of Versailles, the gardens, and the Trianon—Marie Antoinette’s hamlet. This was perfect for what I wanted to do. The price (which was about $230) also included lunch. I was excited and hoped to learn many details about the palace and the royals that I did not already know. However, in retrospect these goals were not exactly fulfilled.

Although we technically did have a guide with us, it was hard to communicate and listen to what she was saying because there were so many people pushing and shoving as we moved room to room in the palace. She had passed around headsets with earphones so we could hear, but they were not working properly. The crowds were so overbearing that it made it hard to actually see everything I wanted to. I also felt a bit rushed because we had a tight itinerary to stick to and needed to stay on track.

Although I did learn a bit more of some history about the palace, I was hoping to get more information about the lives of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. It ended up being the case that another woman on the tour and me knew more about the King and Queen than our guide did. We were also a bit let down that our tour guide was not planning to give us a tour of Marie Antoinette’s hamlet, but rather she would drive us there and drop us off. This was not our understanding based on the brochure. Because of complaints, the tour guide did end up walking with us around the hamlet, but the “mood” was a bit ruined.

If you are going on vacation and wondering if a personal guided tour of a monument or park is right for you, here are some tips to keep in mind to get the best experience:

1. Don’t do it if you are not into details: Some tours go into way too much minutia. If you just want the “executive summary” version and the site you are visiting is not that important for you, then an audio tour is a better option for you. Do your research on the Internet to see if the place you want to visit offers audio tours. This is usually my preferred approach for sightseeing, unless I am especially interested in the subject.

2. Confirm details in the brochure with the company: I found in my experience that the description of the services to be provided in the brochure did not line up perfectly with what actually happened. To minimize disappointment and to be clear what will take place, I suggest giving the company a call and confirm details. It can help you clear up expectations.

3. Convenience is a key factor: To be honest, I partially chose the more expensive personal guided tour option because it included a pick up at my hotel in a minivan. This was appealing to me and I thought it made the overall trip less exhausting and more intimate. This is a great option for those with health issues or difficulties with long exhausting days of walking. You also have your entrance fee and ticket covered, which helps you avoid long lines and waiting to buy tickets on your own.

4. Don’t select a guided tour at the location: In every city of the world, major sightseeing locations have dozens of “personal guides” hanging around the entrance who want to charge you huge amounts of money for a tour. Do your homework before and make arrangements ahead of time. On the spot tour guides may not be worth the exorbitant prices, they charge and you will end up disappointed.

As always, I wish you all the happiest of travels!

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