Get Paid to Travel! – Part 3

This post is pretty traumatic to write. Because the training to become a tour leader? It was HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARD! It wasn’t the hardest thing I have ever done in my life (I’m fast approaching my late thirties, and have done a lot of living in that time), but it was seriously an explosion of shitfuckery, and it lasted almost 7 weeks straight.

Do you know how long that is?? Take a breath and calmly count to 60. Took longer than you’d think, right? And that’s just one minute. Now do that 70560 times in a row, and that’s how long we’re talking here!!!

Before the training even started, there was SOOO much homework. Did I mention I’m in my 30’s? Do you know how long it’s been since I did HOMEWORK???

Now, obviously the training varies depending on the company you’ll be working for. The one I first attended was for a low-cost youth travel company, and I would be certified to lead tours all over Europe, so the training was divided into classroom training for a week, then 6 weeks on-road training, where the training groups would travel to most of the destinations we might visit throughout a season, and we would all take turns spieling (that means talking about, at length, while keeping things engaging and interesting) and leading walking tours (and the occasional bus tour).

BUT, before the training even started I received a list of topics I was expected to study, I had to prepare notes and send in assignments, so there were several months worth of pre-training work. It was so intense, I quit my job three months before the training began since combining the studying with a full time job just didn’t work for me (granted, there was other stuff going on at the time too, up to and including helping my parents pack up my childhood home and helping them move to another part of the country. Stressful? Naaaaaaaw!).

Just to give you an idea of how much studying was required, the document listing the topics (just the topics, no other information! Just a list of topics I had to study!), was over 70 pages long!

We had to create in-depth introductions to all countries and major cities in Europe, then a 1-page abbreviated version (since standing in front of your group with a pile of notes doesn’t give the most professional impression) , and then spiel-cards (I didn’t even know what this was when I applied, they didn’t sell them in Norway so I had to make my own. Hundreds of them!) on every topic under the sun, and then some.

I have a confession to make. Though I rarely have to resort to spiel cards nowadays, I still have all the cards I used my first couple of season. They’re laminated and kept in a special box, sorted by country and color coded. I’m getting help, honest.

Back to the studying though, we weren’t given any sources or much info, we were just told to make sure we used more than one source (copying Wikipedia was not approved of for some reason) and to structure the information in a way that made sense (you can’t just list places and dates, you have to be able to convey this information in a way that catches the attention and imagination of the listener – and remember that I was going to work for a youth-travel company. My listener would most likely be a hung-over 20-year old! Going into details about the socio-political ramifications of the Franco-Prussian war would probably not be the way to go!).

Almost half the people who were offered a spot on the training tour dropped out before the tour even started…

Then the training started. There will be horror stories out there about some of the training regimes out there, and the truth is that yes, they are tough. In my opinion, they are made tougher than they need to be, but there is a reasoning behind it. This is a very stressful job at times, the responsibility is HUGE and you will have to deal with a lot of criticism, negative feedback and even aggressively unhappy passengers (I’ve never been punched, but I know a few people who have…). The companies know how hard the job is, so they make the training harder. They want leaders who won’t crumble under the pressure, who can handle whatever is thrown at them.

There is also a myth that once you complete the training, the other trainees become like your family, because you went through this incredible experience and overcame it together…that’s a nice idea and in a way it’s true, cause family=drama!

I was the oldest and fattest trainee in my group, and I felt downright bullied by several people in the training group, and I know I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Luckily I’m old enough to have grown a pretty thick skin. That’s not to say that I didn’t make friends, there are SO MANY I will always treasure, and MANY that I really do view as family (distant cousins in some cases, but still family).

And, most importantly, I know without a doubt that even the ones who didn’t deign to speak to me for 7 weeks straight would still drop everything to help me out if I needed it during a trip.

This is because of a thing that will be drilled into you again and again and again and again: Crew Mentality!

When you’re out there as a tour leader, other road crew (tour leaders, even leaders for other tour companies, drivers and chefs), are your colleagues and your safety-net. When things go wrong (when, not if!) they are the ones you turn to. Your manager and bosses may want to help, but they’re back at base, they’re far away and with the best will in the world they probably won’t be able to offer you what you need, when you need it.

Because of this, you always check in with other crew, you always offer to help. You don’t wait to be asked, you just step up! Because at some point it WILL be your turn!

Also, side-bar, the training is a GREAT diet! I lost almost 10 kilos, no joke! I gained it all back once I started touring, cause you eat a lot of crap – service stations are evil! – but for a short window there I could fit into clothes I haven’t been able to wear for years!

That’s what happens when you, on average, walk 30km per day!

Yes, the stepcounter doesn’t lie. You spend a lot of time practicing walking tours, and there’s some long ones out there. And we didn’t have to do it just once, we had to do them over and over again, because the next time we came through a location, we would have a group of passengers in tow who would expect us to, ya know, not get lost!

No, you can’t just use google maps. Cause, unprofessional much?

Sidebar, there is one place where I to this day still use google maps, and I warn my passengers about it before we enter the area, that’s the Jewish quarter in Prague! That place is haunted, I swear it! I mean, I have a very good sense of direction, I can find my way in bloody Venice with no trouble, but the Jewish quarter in Prague (which is a small area!!!), it does something to my head. As soon as I enter it, I lose all sense of direction. I don’t even really believe in ghosts, but I swear there is SOMETHING going on in that place!

As for Jewish history in Europe, you can’t get around WWII.

Does your tour company visit any of the concentration camps in Europe? If so, then your training trip will most likely involve visits there. That was the toughest week of my training. In one week we visited three camps, Dachau, Mauthausen and Auschwitz. We not only had to study the holocaust, and spiel about it, but we had to talk about the individual camps and the things that went on there. We had to listen to each other talk about it, and then we had to actually visit them.

We weren’t allowed to sit out the visits. The justification was that we should be aware of what our passengers would be seeing, and the reactions they might experience.

I cried for a week straight. I had a panic attack in Auschwitz and had to be escorted out of a building because I couldn’t breathe. I’ve been back many times since that first time, but I no longer go inside. My first visit made a lasting impression on me, and it should! I never want to reach a stage where visiting a concentration camp is just another day, just another museum, so I don’t let myself become jaded.

There is a lot of debate about “morbid” tourism and the ethics behind keeping these places open to tourists, but believe me, it does something to you to see it. It shouldn’t be sensationalized, but it SHOULD be remembered.

But this post is supposed to be about the training you can expect to receive before you become a tour leader.

Several people dropped out during our training trip, some were asked to leave and some just decided that it wasn’t for them. The ones who were asked to leave were mostly those who didn’t follow the rules and didn’t show any desire or ability to improve.

Rules, you ask?

Well, remember that the training trip is just that, training. You haven’t actually gotten the job yet! That means that the training trip is really the last part of your interview. And THAT means that getting so drunk that you mistake a suitcase for a toilet and pee all over someone else’s clothes and notes is probably not the best idea (yes, that happened. No, the person did not get hired).

One notorious part of the training trip is the shut-in. Since socializing is such an important part of the job, and since this particular company catered to young travelers, the tour leader was expected to take the group out and party with them. So, we were heralded into a bar and locked in. We weren’t allowed to leave until laaaaaaaate, and we were watched and evaluated even then. This one night, we were allowed to drink (but not required to. I had virgin cocktails all night, cause I didn’t want to do anything stupid), and we were expected to dance and keep the energy level high.

You have to understand that at this stage, sleep had become a distant memory. Every minute of every day was scheduled, we were expected to stay up and study until late every night, and every morning was an early start. If anyone showed late for breakfast (there was check in every morning), then they moved the start time 15 minutes earlier for the entire group (towards the end the breakfast time started with the number 4…). We spend a lot of time on the coach (not a bus, a coach. Important distinction), but weren’t allowed to sleep on it (cause as a tour leader you are expected to be awake and aware at all times). The trainers would patrol and wake you up if they saw you nod off. If you fell asleep too many times you risked being sent home. I was so tired that by the time we reached Vienna, I hallucinated bugs on my notebook. I fell asleep mid-sentence while writing, I still have the notebook where I wrote “Maria Theresa of Austria, the mother of Marie Antoinette, was the first female circle the coaches in case of an attack…”

I fell asleep while walking! I didn’t think that was even possible, but I did! And I was so tired that once I woke up crying. I had started crying in my sleep because I dreamed about waking up, and when I woke up I just kept going. Only a fellow trainee physically dragging me out of bed and shouting at me until I pulled myself together got me through that particular day, I’ll always be grateful to you, C!

So, being locked into a bar and “forced” to party may sound fun, but we were so exhausted that we just wanted to get through it. We actually set up a schedule in the girl’s toilet where you could sneak in for a ten minute power-nap while a few others kept an eye on the trainers and raised the alarm if one of them drew close.

It was tough, guys!

It was also INCREDIBLY educational! I feel as if I crammed a master’s degree in European history into my brain in the course of those weeks. I KNOW that I am better able to learn now, as a result of that experience, I can absorb large amounts of information in a short amount of time, and it’s all because I didn’t have any other choice.

However, not all trainings are like the one I have described here. I attended one for another company, this one focusing on small group travel with no age restrictions, and it was just 2 weeks of combined classroom training and tour leading skills (like spieling, leading a walking tour and similar).

Both trainings were followed by a shadow-trip, though. This means that you come on a trip with an experienced tour leader, you will watch and learn, and may take point and lead the group every once in a while. This is a vital part of the training, as it is your first time testing your newly learned skills on actual passengers.

This is becoming a very long post, so I will wrap it up here. If you have questions or there is anything you don’t feel I have covered here, please leave a comment and I will be happy to answer.

A few last minute tips? Well, okay.

  • Don’t go ANYWHERE without a notebook and pen during the training!
  • Greet and introduce yourself to EVERYONE while on the training trip. Be it fellow leaders (future colleagues) or partners (like hotel employees or people in charge of passenger activities), make sure you write down names and functions, it might come in handy later on.
  • Study the tour catalogue of your company before the training starts. Know what their top tours are, what destinations do they go to and what included activities are there and what’s the tour code (there will definitely be one!)?
  • Don’t quit! It’s the best job in the world, nobody said getting it would be easy. The job itself isn’t easy, but it IS worth it!


Happy trails!

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