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Tour Guide Jobs Abroad

A Practical Primer from an Experienced Professional

Annapurna, Nepal mountain walkers led by a tour guide
In spectacular Annapurna, Nepal, mountain trekkers are led by a tour guide.

One of the attractions of working as a tour guide is the lack of routine. No two days will ever be the same: You work in different cities or countries, visit various sights, eat in new restaurants and stay in unfamiliar hotels. You rarely know where you will find yourself from one tour to another. For some, this can be daunting.

The Good

I have been working eighteen-hour days for the last two weeks as a guide on a luxury biking trip around France. Eating in some of France’s best restaurants and staying in 5-star hotels may be fantastic, but I still have little time to enjoy myself.

Tour guide and guest
Tour guide and guest.

Here is how it goes:

It is 4.30 a.m. and not easy to get out of bed, which is made a bit difficult due to the fact that I have to prepare snacks for 25 people before I can even think of having drinking a cup of coffee. Once all the guests have assembled in the lobby, I drive them to a small patch of land close to the Cher river in France’s Loire Valley, where a team of three hot air balloon crews are in the process of preparing our morning flight.

After making sure everyone has a place in one of the balloons, I join the largest group and we rise slowly and silently out of the valley. All that is left for me to do for the next hour is to offer brief descriptions of the history surrounding the mist-covered castles we see below us. Shortly after takeoff a vivid sunrise illuminates the entire landscape — and while I have been a guide in this area of France for several years, I have never seen it from such a unique vantage point, nor in such a tranquil manner. 

Camping near a temple
Camping near a temple.

The Bad

I have been leading tours around New York for several weeks now but as it is a busy day I accept an additional trip as a "transfer agent" — meeting a group at the airport to make sure they get to their hotel safely.

The flight lands at 12:05 and I leave the city a little before 11 a.m., only to discover on arrival at Newark that the flight has been re-routed to JFK, and will be "slightly delayed." A re-routed flight means that I have to reorganize transport to meet us at the other airport. Fortunately I have plenty of time during the two hours transfer to JFK.

The bus is already waiting when I arrive at terminal 8. However my group is not and no one seems to have information on the flight. I talk to every available representative for the next four hours, until I get an estimated arrival time of 9 p.m.

Delayed flights typically mean tired and frustrated passengers and I know that this trip will be no exception.

As if to make the issue worse, only 15 people out of the group of 45 have received their luggage, and another long wait occurs while each person fills in the appropriate forms to report their missing bags. Everyone is understandably frustrated, angry, and tired, and they take their frustrations out on me: the delay, the stress, the lost bags, the long flight, the grandmother’s arthritis; it all falls on my shoulders as we make the journey into Manhattan in the early hours of the morning.

I discover that we will be forced to walk the last few blocks to the hotel because of construction work. The announcement brings a hail of cries and shouts, accompanied by a few flying objects. I want to beg them to understand that "it’s not my fault" and I simply do my best to reassure people and help drag their luggage several hundred meters across the half-finished sidewalk (I guess there is a positive side to lost luggage).

The end is in sight as I approach the reception desk, but instead I am told:

"I'm sorry sir, this reservation has been cancelled. We’re completely full tonight."

It is not the first time this has happened to me and I am well aware of the options available, but in this case, with the guests reaching the limits of their patience, I resign myself to being beaten to death. As I find the courage to convey the news to the group, a huge smile breaks over the clerks face. 

"Sorry, only joking, here are your keys sir."

Legal Rights to Work Abroad as a Guide

Your legal rights and the papers required to work as a guide in another country will vary depending on where you work and for which company (and of course your citizenship).

While some companies will send their guides abroad and provide legal working papers, this is more the exception than the rule — it is typically cheaper and easier to hire local guides. However, in many countries "working" is legal if you are not employed in, or paid by a company based in that country, and many tour companies adopt this approach (i.e.- if you are an American citizen you can work in some Europe countries as long as you are on a U.S. contract and paid in dollars by the office based in the U.S.). Guides can then "work" for a short time on a tourist or business trip/visa — particularly appropriate when traveling on long coach trips though several countries.

Please note: Laws differ and the print is fine and not all companies will respect local conditions. Be sure to do you own research before accepting any position in another country. When your papers are checked (very likely when traveling with a large group) you will be responsible for any errors and/or fines, which could lead to a permanent mark on your passport, making future work and travel very difficult.

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