Trap or Treat? 4 Tour Guide ‘Trickniques’ & Solutions

Avoid common tour guide 'trickniques' and enjoy a real treat instead...

“Hello, my friends. I’m going to take you to ____________ and later to the cheapest place to shop, a great restaurant, etc. And please–no tips–unless you really want to.”

You’re heard it before and so have I.

And if you’re an independent/low-budget traveler, you probably try to avoid taking tours–unless absolutely necessary. Chances are–you get by with your Lonely Planet guide or the rental of the audio guide, depending on where you are. Or you use your smart phone or some other device to read about the place while your visiting it.

To Go–or Not to Go–With a Guide

But at some point, like me, you might opt to use a guide. Maybe it’s too tricky to get to a certain place or you’re out of time and need to cram in a few spots. Or you really want someone knowledgeable to show you the place, especially if there’s history/ architecture involved–or local indigenous who are hard to reach–and you’d like to get the most out of the experience.

Unfortunately, not all tour guides are created equal. Quite a few are terrific–and I’m grateful to have had them. And some are–simply terrible. Here are some of my tips that should help you avoid–or, at least–deal with terrible tour guides and problems they present, as well as the traps they set.

Tour Guide Trickniques & Solutions

1. Premature Trust

If the tour guide is referring to you as “my friend” within a minute of meeting you, I can guarantee he won’t be. In fact, it’s likely that he (or she) is trying to establish some sort of premature intimacy and trust–as a con man/woman would do–in order to take advantage of you later.

Prevention/Solution

Take these terms of endearment with a grain of salt. Let the tour guide’s actions speak louder than his words.

2. Restaurant Rip-off

The tour guide takes you to a restaurant that looks low budget, but has no menu or no prices. If you ask, he gives a vague answer, leaves out drink prices or just says, “Don’t worry–be happy. It’s cheap.” Later–when the bill comes–you find out it was pricey. The drinks were more than the meal. Or the prices simply seem wrong. You then see him and the owner, whom you now realize is his buddy, shaking hands. Uh oh…you’ve been set up!

Prevention/Solution

Ask questions! If the drinks are expensive, drink your bottled water you’re carrying with you and/or something to add to it (eg, Gatorade powder). Most often, no one cares. As for the overpriced restaurant scam, you really need to ask a lot of questions beforehand. I got sloppy with this in Palestine and was unpleasantly surprised when I got slapped with a $15 for a meal that seemed to be worth half that price. How’d I get sucked in? Not asking enough questions due to premature trust.

3. Shopping Scams

This is tricky because sometimes a good tour guide will truly know the best place–outside the city you’re staying in–to take you for bargains. And if you’ve got your eye on something unique (eg, indigenous), you might want to take advantage of it. The problem? How do you know if he’s taking you to the best place? And how do you know if the owner is his friend or not–and if he’s out to trick you?

Tortilla maker/weaver in Chiapas, Mexico

Prevention/Solution

You need to do your homework well in advance. Talk to the locals and other travelers to find out what prices should be–in advance. Research the types of arts and crafts you’re looking to buy and check the city prices before you head out. You should then have an idea as to what an acceptable price is.

And if you catch your guide lying at any point, especially about something like a store being “the only and the cheapest place you can buy this _______,” don’t believe another word out of his mouth.

4. Pseudo Tour Guide

Ever have a guide who knows less than you do? Or what if his English is so poor that you have no clue what he’s talking about?

How about the ones who memorized a few paragraphs from an encyclopedia and speak with an annoying staccato rhythm or whiny intonation? It’s worse than nails on a chalkboard or bamboo under your own nails. If you ask a question that requires them to deviate from the “script,” they can’t answer.

Prevention/Solution

Again, it comes down to doing your homework–not just about the place you’re going to, but about the tour guide or the agency you’re considering.

Talk to fellow travelers, look for recommendations on the Internet and read your Lonely Planet carefully (read between the lines). Also, make sure the tour guide is an official one who’s ideally attended some sort of classes or received a certificate in tourism. It’s no guarantee, but hopefully that will mean he’s not the worst of the worst.

Tours That Are Treats–not Traps

And so, my friends, if you do your homework, you’ll do better. I promise. And no tips (until the end of the tour–and only if you feel like it). In Mexico, I went on a tour of mysterious and magical Chamula with a guide who spoke English–and the local indigenous language–well. He know the customs, traditions and history and provided us with the best experience possible. This was important because it’s the kind of town where tourists aren’t welcomed with open arms.

Alberto--awesome tour guide in Chiapas, Mexico

I also had a great experience in Berlin–with someone who’d  studied the area you’re in–in-depth; he’d  gotten a degree in German history and philosophy. He showed us Berlin from several perspectives–including an intellectual one–and it was, by far, one of the best tours I’ve ever taken.

How about you?

What sort of tour guide “trickniques” have you encountered while traveling? How do you prevent these situations from occurring and what do you do if you somehow find yourself in one of them? What about treats–ie, great tour  guide experiences? What about tipping after a so so tour?

Photos (c) L Egle, 2010, except the one of the tour guide with the umbrella (credit goes to A.M. Kuchling.

36 Responses to Trap or Treat? 4 Tour Guide ‘Trickniques’ & Solutions
  1. Emma
    October 27, 2010 | 4:39 pm

    Great tips gleaned from experience!
    Emma recently posted..On Justifying Art and MusicMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      October 28, 2010 | 2:44 pm

      Thanks, Emma. Yes–many good and a few not-so-good experiences!

  2. Emily @travelated
    October 27, 2010 | 6:54 pm

    These are really good tips–I’ve never used a guide on my travels, mostly because I’m wary of scams. I think you’re right, and that the best defense is to prepare as much in advance as possible.
    Emily @travelated recently posted..The Quietest Place in Britain: College ValleyMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      October 28, 2010 | 3:10 pm

      Thanks, Emily, and I hear you–I rarely use a guide. Only for day trips and only when it makes life easier. By the way…I appreciate that you published tips in the Travelated Daily…how awesome to see the post featured there! Thanks so much!

  3. Nina
    October 29, 2010 | 12:01 am

    I don’t take many tours but do sometimes. I think this list is a good reminder of what to look out for. I’m going to Guatemala soon and will keep what you said in mind.

    What about when the tour wasn’t bad but wasn’t great? Sometimes there’s peer pressure to leave a tip. I usually leave something, but not much.

    • CB Driver
      October 29, 2010 | 12:16 am

      Thanks, Nina, for your feedback. Re: what to do about tips…I do the same thing as you when a tour was so so. And if it was really bad, I give nothing. I don’t want to reward mediocrity. On the other hand, if it was excellent, I give a lot. Each time it’s different.

  4. Francesca
    October 29, 2010 | 4:24 am

    This content was REALLY helpful! I think I’ve fallen for many of these in the past. I guess we get reticent about pushing people when they give us vague answers – but I can now see, that you just have to do it – or YOU can pay the price.

    Really well written, too. Felt like I was reading a magazine article. Cool.

    • CB Driver
      October 30, 2010 | 1:03 pm

      Thank you, Francesca, for that wonderful compliment. I used to be a reporter at a small weekly newspaper…perhaps that’s shining through! :)

  5. Francesca
    October 29, 2010 | 4:36 am

    Just thought of something similar that happened to me while visiting Old Town Albuquerque. I happened upon this very hunky Native American guy with hair down to his waist while he was working in his father’s art store and asked him if he knew of any place where I could buy an indigenous sheepskin patchwork coat – I really had my heart set one. He said he knew just the place and would take me there in the evening when he got off work. I got the feeling that maybe the coat-makers were his family so I said okay, mainly because he was cute. He picked me up in his pick-up truck after dinner and we drove pretty far, deep into teepee country and finally pulled into the parking lot of a Burlington Coat Factory.

    No lie.

    • CB Driver
      October 30, 2010 | 1:03 pm

      That is hilarious….crazy, actually. What a great little story!!

  6. Backpacking Journalist
    October 29, 2010 | 12:47 pm

    Nice read ChickyBus thanks, and I agree with Emma that it’s nice to read tips from travel experience!

    I’ve just written something from my own experiences too – 5 unusual things you’ll want to take travelling. http://tinyurl.com/2csv86e

    • CB Driver
      October 31, 2010 | 8:41 pm

      Thank you–yes, the experience definitely does help; it is the best teacher. Thanks for your link….from what I remember, you’ve got some great stuff there.

      PS: I have something set up here called “Comment Luv,” which will show your latest post (just remember to put in the http:// before your URL. I think you can even choose which of your posts to highlight.

      • Chloe Johnson
        November 5, 2010 | 10:04 pm

        Thanks for that .. I have been coming across CommentLuv a lot lately and have been trying to figure it it. Hope I can get on board!

  7. Zablon Mukuba
    October 30, 2010 | 7:11 am

    you have quite some experience with travel guides. the best thing to do is use your guide book while at the same time ask as many questions as you can dont take things at face value

    • CB Driver
      October 31, 2010 | 8:42 pm

      Yes, I do, Zablon! :) Even though I’m a very independent traveler and try not to use a guide, sometimes it’s necessary. I agree that using your guide book plus asking questions is very important. Thanks!

  8. Uli
    October 31, 2010 | 7:32 pm

    Hi Lisa,

    that reminds me of a trip to Kairouan in Tunisia. This guy picked us up (quite involuntarily) telling us that he knew a house with a little rooftop on it from where you’d have a wonderful view on the mosque, etc. Well, having a nice view hardly seemed to pose a big trap, so we followed him (passing a huge dead turtle on the stairs) and climbed up. Indeed we had a nice view, but then our guide said we could follow him into the living room to have some tea and it turned out that the house was a shop where they sold carpets (of course!!) – it was sooooo hard to leave without buying a carpet!! What I learnt from it? That hardly anyone has anything to give for free if they just pick you up on the streets… sometimes it’s healthy to distrust…

    • CB Driver
      October 31, 2010 | 8:47 pm

      Hi, Uli. Oh boy….a carpet scammer in disguise. So he began with the promise of a view, huh? Hmmm. The dead turtle is sort of creepy (did you get a photo? lol). Unreal, though, that it was all about carpets. Sounds like something that would happen in Turkey.

      Good point re: free not meaning free and it being healthy to distrust. While there are some great guides who don’t pull these stunts, quite a few do.

      (To anyone reading this, Uli and I met in Mexico in a small train depot. We were about to take the Chihuahua Pacifica train and ended up befriending each other and sharing a room in Creel. We almost went to Turkey together….long story, perhaps for another time. Ended up in Czech Republic!)

  9. journeyingjames
    November 1, 2010 | 1:06 am

    nice post and solutions to the ‘traps.’ still ‘ask the locals’ is the best guide unless others want to be ‘misguided’ by the guides.. hahaha

  10. Neal
    November 1, 2010 | 3:32 am

    This one has happened to me more than once. You buy a bus ticket for a bus that’s “just leaving” and end up watching one bus after another leaving for the same place except yours and cursing the guy who sold you the ticket.
    Fortunately I stopped grabbing people around the throat when this happens. Either I’m mellowing or I’m just chalking it up to “cultural misunderstandings.”

    • CB Driver
      November 3, 2010 | 2:53 pm

      Hi and thanks for joining us here on the bus. Speaking of buses….the “bus is leaving soon” scam you shared is a good one. I’ve been taken by the “bait and switch” scam. The brochure shows a nice one (and you pay extra) and then the real bus is….a chicken bus.

      Glad you’ve stopping the throat grabbing–lol. Maybe you are mellowing! :)

  11. Ivan
    November 2, 2010 | 11:33 pm

    great post..valuable tips..I have experienced them all…now I first try and use my network of global friends…i would rather have a friend show me around his or her city…or have him/her introduce me to a friend or cousin who would not mind meeting someone new and showing them around or pointing them in the right direction….be well my friend :)
    Ivan recently posted..Finding Focus in a Unfocused World- Interview With Leo BabautaMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      November 3, 2010 | 2:55 pm

      Welcome to the bus, Ivan, and thanks for the positive feedback–I really appreciate it!

      Yes, a network of global friends is the best way to avoid the tour guide scams, etc. What’s nice is that even if your friends don’t have time, their friends usually do. People around the world tend to be super friendly and helpful, which is fortunate and wonderful.

  12. Michael Hodson
    November 6, 2010 | 2:20 pm

    Very funny — I had really good tour guides in BOTH of the places you mentioned also. Berlin and Chamula. How odd.
    Michael Hodson recently posted..Interview with Gary Arndt of Everything-Everywhere- Lucky 13 QuestionsMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      November 6, 2010 | 8:55 pm

      Did you? That’s…trippy and I’m glad to hear it!

  13. Steve
    November 8, 2010 | 5:11 pm

    I’ve really only had one tour guide do something bad. He took my friend and I on a tour with a group of other people. My friend and I were the last ones to be dropped off at the end. In downtown Bangkok in the middle of packed traffic he turns around and points a gun at us. However, both my friend and I suspected something was up so we started laughing a little. He laughed too and showed us that it was a replica and not real. To this day, I don’t know if it was a bad joke or if he was trying to pull something on us.
    Steve recently posted..How to Be a Lucky BastardMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      November 8, 2010 | 7:03 pm

      That’s quite a story, Steve. Hmmm…. Not sure how I feel about that. I’m glad, though, that it wasn’t anything beyond what it was. Phew! Thanks for your visit and comment.

  14. Sprite
    November 10, 2010 | 2:18 pm

    Lisa, thanks for the tips, they will help me, lol, even in the U.S., as I have been taken enough times(and I know I should know better!)

    • CB Driver
      November 29, 2010 | 3:21 pm

      You’re welcome. Sorry to hear that you’ve been scammed before. Next time, you won’t be!

  15. Lindsay aka @_thetraveller_
    December 2, 2010 | 7:09 pm

    Gah! Touche Chicky Bus!
    I did a tour in Bolivia where I was supposed to get an ‘English speaking tour guide’. The dude could NOT speak English and knew NOTHING about the salt flats. It was visually amazing, but I learned nothing in the 3 days on the tour. Except for when I slipped into other tours to sneakily listen to their English speaking guide.
    Lindsay aka @_thetraveller_ recently posted..Travel Horror Story- Vodka Haze- Nha TrangMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      December 2, 2010 | 7:33 pm

      Hi….and yeah, I hear you! Three days of it? Yikes. He was definitely a trickster who was using a “tourguide tricknique” (or whoever set it up did.) :) Sorry you didn’t learn much about the place….but at least, it was a visually wonderful experience. Glad you were able to sneak over to another tour and listen in. Thanks for sharing!

  16. Jace Cheal
    December 15, 2010 | 8:57 pm

    Loads of good advice there. For me, a big lesson learnt has been not to make a commitment to anything as soon as you arrive at a new destination, especially not at an airport or bus station, or when you are tired, or hungry or in some other state where your defenses are low. When you are in these states, you may want to just let someone take care of you, and you make yourself vulnerable.

    For bad tour experiences, ours still wins I think!
    Jace Cheal recently posted..CarthageMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      December 16, 2010 | 8:12 pm

      Thanks, Jace. Glad you think it’s useful information.

      Good point re: not committing too soon–and especially at those locations. I totally agree. As for bad tours…yes, your experience definitely takes the cake. What a scam and the way it was handled, once exposed, was simply wrong. Great that you wrote about it, of course!

  17. Charles McCool
    March 9, 2011 | 5:46 pm

    Nice tips. A recently read that when hiring a tour guide mention that you are not interested in shopping, only in historical information. You might pay a little extra but the thought of commissions and sketchy shops are no longer something to think about. I will try this strategy some time.
    Charles McCool recently posted..McCool Travel Tips- 5 Minutes With Sandi McKenna and Rick Griffin- Midlife Road TripMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      March 10, 2011 | 11:07 am

      Thanks, Charles. That’s a great idea. I never thought of doing that. Definitely something to consider!

  18. jade
    April 21, 2011 | 5:35 pm

    Just stumbling across this post and I love it! Really great tips and a choice that every traveler is faced with.

    • CB Driver
      April 22, 2011 | 10:11 pm

      Thanks, Jade! Glad you like it and yes, we all face these choices and situations at some point during our travels. Hopefully, someone will benefit from these tips. PS: I may be posting soon re: a tour guide from hell. A crazy story that will hopefully make folks laugh (and think)…

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