I know, it sounds like a scheme. Like a “take this totally free class, we just need your credit card number to secure your place”-type of fraud.
It’s not. It’s a job. And it’s bloody hard work.
It’s also pretty much the best thing you will ever do!
I am talking about being a Tour Leader.
What’s that? Well, it means that you work for a group tour operator, leading groups of tourists on a pre-determined tour. You will be a guide, a teacher, an administrator, an accountant, an event organizer, a first responder, a crisis management consultant, a psychologist, and the person who always knows where the toilets are located, and if there’s free wifi anywhere nearby.
It’s not for everyone. And there are other ways to get paid to travel! Have a bus driver’s license? You’re golden! Tour companies will fight over you. Love to cook? There’s companies that train and hire chefs to go along on tours (usually camping tours, so it won’t be a life of luxury, but the cook tent’s where it’s at!).
I will focus on Tour Leading in these blog posts, since that’s where my experience has been, but I will do a later post where I will give some tips if you want to earn money while traveling, but you don’t think tour leading sounds like the right fit for you. There’s no shame there, in these posts I will be brutally honest, describe the good and the bad, so you can make an informed decision about whether or not this is for you. Cause it’s really not for everyone!
If you love history, culture, food and travel, if you enjoy working with people and the challenge that comes with no two days being exactly the same, if you aren’t afraid of responsibility and having people depend on you, if you can handle bone-deep exhaustion and heart-attack-levels of stress, and stay positive in the face of EVERYTHING going wrong, then this is the job for you!
So what do you need to do?
Well, first of all, we need to be a little practical. Tour companies hire leaders for a specific region, and you will “specialize” in that region. Check with the individual tour company, since the regions vary, it can be a specific country, or a whole continent, or part of one (Western Europe, Eastern Europe…). Wherever you want to apply to, you need a valid work permit! There’s no way around it, so don’t even try. Check with the tour company you are applying to what kind of permits they require.
You can still travel, of course, even without a work permit, but making money along the way will be more difficult. There might be tour companies that operate within your own country, who hire local guides, so you might still be able to get paid to travel, just on a smaller scale than you originally imagined.
Second, you need to be aware that different tour companies offer different benefits. While there is a lot of money in tourism, there isn’t a lot of money in tour leading. Believe me, this isn’t a job you do to get rich! There’s often expenses you have to pay before you start generating income, so keep this in mind:
Few companies offer paid training, in fact I don’t know of a single one. The length of training varies, usually between 2-7 weeks, and while the company will likely cover food and lodgings, this is by no means guaranteed. Check with the company beforehand!
Also check if they cover the cost of travel to and from the training. The norm seems to be that you pay the trip yourself, but you can claim the cost of travel back from the company after you have worked for them a certain amount of time, but there’s different arrangements depending on the company.
Find out if you’re guaranteed work after completing the training, and how many days you can expect to work during your first season. Find out how long they estimate it will take from you complete your training until you start working (after all, you won’t get your first paycheck until after your first tour! This could mean that you will be going months without an income).
You will get a pay rise each year you return, but the starting salary is low, and you only get paid for the days you’re on tour. What’s the company policy for the time between tours, will they cover lodgings? And travel between tours?
Then there’s travel insurance, does the company provide it or are you expected to buy your own? Multi-trip insurances lasting longer than 90 days are pricey, especially if it includes theft protection (and you should have it, since you will likely be held responsible for any cash you carry for the company. These days most things are paid by card, but you will still find yourself with a lot of money on you at some stage, I guarantee it. I’ve heard stories of people owing their employer several thousand euro after having their pockets picked, so be careful!). Another IMPORTANT thing to check (I cannot emphasize this enough!!!) is if the insurance is valid even if you don’t have a return ticket booked. Since you probably won’t know when your season ends, you won’t buy a return ticket until late in the season, and I have seen insurance companies refuse to cover massive medical bills because of this little loophole.
As you can tell, there’s a lot to consider before you even apply, but having the answers to these questions can help you determine which company suits you best. Here’s a handy little list to keep in mind when researching tour companies:
- Does the company offer paid training?
- If not, do they guarantee work if you complete the training?
- Do they cover expenses (food and lodgings) during the training?
- How many days can you expect to work during your first season?
- Does the company cover accommodation if there is time off between trips?
- Does the company offer meal allowance on trips?
- Does the company provide you with a travel insurance? What’s included in it?
- Are you as the tour leader legally responsible for any cash you carry on behalf of the company during a trip?
- Are you required to hold a first aid certificate?
- How big are the groups you will be leading?
- What approximate age will your passengers be?
- Are there any language requirements?
- Will you receive Tour Guide certification?
- Does the tour company offer legal assistance if your credentials are questioned (this can happen in some countries, Italy being a prime example, where local authorities want tour companies to use local guides so they sometimes cause difficulties for tour leaders)?
I hope I haven’t frightened you away yet? This might all seem a little overwhelming when you’re just setting out, but soon enough it will be second nature to consider these things. You’ll learn how to memorize 20 new names in a day (unless, like I once did, you end up with a group of all blonde girls whose name was some variation of Amy. I swear, I didn’t learn how to tell them all apart until the very last day of the trip. Amy, Aimee, Emma, Amelia, Emily and Ann-Marie, I love you but I couldn’t pick any of you out of a lineup, so don’t do crime!), how to read group dynamics and how to be a leader.
And you’ll do all this, and more, in some of the most amazing places in the world! While getting PAID to be there!!!
Not gonna lie, it’s pretty sweet.
(As you can see, I started tour leading early. Here I am guiding my little sister and my parents on one of my very first tours. I know it looks like the 50’s, but it was really the late 80’s. I’m old, but not THAT old!)
In the next post in this series, I will tell you more about what to expect from the training and the job itself. I will tell some stories from the road, and I will list some of the top tour companies so you can get started on your own research.
(PS: I have used some pictures in this post that were sent to me from my amazing passengers, but I just haven’t been good about noting who! If you recognize any of the pictures, please do let me know and I will of course give full credit, or take it down if you prefer that I don’t use it here.)