Private tours accessible for anyone

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Beth J. Harpaz

I found good reviews for the service on other websites, but felt nervous. What if the guide didn’t show? What if his driving was bad? What if the neighborhoods were scary?


But our guide was phenomenal. We not only loved the lights, but we genuinely connected with our guide about everything from the economy to politics. It was my first private tour, and it was a revelation — completely different from group tours with canned scripts and time wasted waiting for others to shop and use bathrooms.


Private tours are no longer the exclusive domain of wealthy travelers and high-end packages. Websites and social media have made it easy for travelers to book a personal guide.


“There is a growing desire for this,” said Jamie Wong, founder of, one of the biggest sites connecting tourists with locals, offering 8,500 experiences in 800 cities. “We’re leaving the double-decker buses and prefab, packaged tours and entering an era of eclecticism where niche is becoming mainstream.”


Prices for personal tours are often but not always lower than group tours, ranging from $15 to hundreds of dollars, depending on location, duration and logistics.


Tours4Tips charges nothing for walking tours of Santiago, Chile — participants pay what they wish at the end, with an average $12 tip.


Our tour for four in Medellin was $140 — $35 per person, or half the price of a Christmas lights bus tour in New York.


Regardless of cost, personal tours are often more meaningful than packaged tours. You not only get a customized itinerary, but you get to meet a local.


Robin Samora of Boston paid $100 each for four-hour tours in Budapest and Prague.


“We loved that the tour was personalized, with what we liked to do,” she said. “We also had the ability to ask questions about any subject,” including what it was like to grow up under communism.


The hardest part is finding the tour of your dreams. Many travelers simply ask friends or use social media. Others search on blogs, TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet threads. Tours on Vayable and other sites — ToursByLocals, UrbanAdventures, Rent-A-Guide, Nomaders — tend to fall into obvious categories such as food, shopping, major attractions, history, art, architecture and outdoor adventures. But Vayable also lets users request a custom itinerary, which local guides then bid on.


Elisse Goldstein-Clark, who owns the Elkhorn Inn in Eckman, West Virginia, “was Googling to find foodie things to do in Rome — there are lots of foodie tours there. But I started reading about truffle-hunting with a guide in Le Marche in rural Italy, and we changed our trip so we could go truffle-hunting.” She and her husband spent several hours on a bus getting there, but it ended up being “a foodie once-in-a-lifetime experience.”


Jeremy Hanson, a New Yorker who just graduated from law school, often finds guides through local travel agencies in the place he’s visiting. “These types of guides don’t have the infrastructure to man the phone and put up a website,” he explained. In Nicaragua, he found a guide for a volcano hike “essentially just by walking up and down the street and speaking to people in my broken Spanish.”


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