Microtours, walks, & activities
How to get expert guides and speciality tours while still having a D.I.Y. vacation
Even if you're a die-hard solo traveler and scoff at the folks being herded from one sight to another in the big tourist clots of a tour group, you can get a lot of mileage out of sightseeing guides once you're in a town or city.
Bus tours of the city, escorted day trips to outlying sights and nearby towns, walking tours around town, guided sight tours through museums or cathedrals, private guides—these are all what I call microtours (as opposed to the macrotours of fully escorted trips).
Local guides who concentrate only on one city or sight are usually experts, not tour bus escorts who’ve merely memorized a canned spiel for each town, stop, and sight along the way.
By combining do-it-yourself planning and travel with microtours, you can get the best of both worlds. The best microtours are packed with more information (history, background, anecdotes, details, and explanations) than any guidebook has room to print.
A tip: On any tour, be a head-of-the-class nerd and stick next to the guide. Walking from stop to stop on the tour, you’ll be able to chat on your own with her and ask questions, and you’ll also get to hear her answers and explanations to everyone else’s questions.
Activities, walks, & excursions
- Viator.com - Best one-stop shopping site for all sorts of activities, walking tours, bus tours, escorted day trips, and other excursions. It is actually a clearinghouse for many local tour companies and outfitters, and since it gets a bulk-rate deal on pricing (and takes only a token fee for itself), you can actually sometimes book an activity through Viator for less than it would cost to buy the same exact tour from the tour company itself. (I once booked a Dublin pub crawl via Viator and later discovered that I saved about $1.50; also, the tour turned out to be sold-out, and they were turning away the folks in front of me in line, but since I had a pre-booked voucher I got in.)Partner
- Londonwalks.com - Since the 1970s, the gold standard in city walking tours and museum tours—and cheap, to boot. Just meet your guide at the appointed time and place (usually a Tube stop), pay your £10 (students or over 65s are £8; under 15 free), and prepare for a good two hours of amazing cultural insight and historic anecdotes. If you plan on taking three or more walks, buy a "Frequent London Walker" card for £2 from your first guide, then each subsequent walk costs £8. They also run popular excursions outside London for £18. Note that the fee just covers the guided tour; you pay for any admissions (or, for excursions, travel expenses) yourself.
- Contexttravel.com - This bespoke walking tour company doesn't even call its 200 tour leaders "guides." It calls them "docents"—perhaps because most guides are academics and specialists in their fields: history professors, archeologists, PhDs, art historians, artists, etc. Groups are miniscule (often six people maximum), and most docents can be booked for private guiding sessions as well. They aren't always the cheapest tours, but they are invariably the best. People rave about Context.Partner
- City-discovery.com - Chief rival to Viator (though with a less spiffy interface and often sub-par text descriptions), representing many of the same tours (at the same prices). However, it also seems to cover more destinations, especially secondary ones. When it comes down to it, City-Discovery and Viator have maybe 70% the same inventory, but then 30% will be completely different (some Viator has City-Discovery does not, other vice-versa) so it pays to check through the offerings from both.Partner