Five years ago, I applied to become a tour guide for an Australian owned company that runs group tours for 18 – 39 year olds. Working as a travel agent at the time, I knew the brand pretty well, loved their tours and thought tour guiding (or ‘trip leading’ according to the brand lingo) looked pretty awesome. I wanted to explore the world, spread my wings from isolated island life in Australia and figured working while travelling was a ‘sensible’ way to do so. Turns out I was right, but man, I had NO IDEA what I was getting myself into.
You see, tour guiding seems glamorous and fun to the travellers — on paper it’s a perfect job. How hard can it be to lead 49 people around a Continent with a bit of partying and sightseeing thrown in? Answer: If it looks easy then your guide is doing an INCREDIBLE JOB.
The ‘trainee season’ for new trip leaders, tour managers and guides for the European summer season is about to begin, so I thought I’d share some of my hard-earned advice for budding tour guides looking to land the ‘job of a lifetime’.
#1. Realise you are not alone in wanting this job. Literally thousands of people apply to become a *brand name redacted* tour guide every year, so half-assing your efforts won’t cut it. Of those thousands of applicants, only 20-30 are hired. You need to have dedication, a passion for learning, a sense of fun and a positive mindset.
#2 You better work, bitch. To even score a place on the difficult training trips that might one-day-maybe lead to you getting the gig, you need to study study study. Assignments need to be submitted to even earn your place on the training trip and these will cover essential elements like history, culture, art and much much more. You need to know what the hell you’re talking about before you even step foot near Europe. Travelling previously will also help. If you don’t enjoy studying now, you’re going to like it even less when you’re sleep deprived, huddled in a freezing tent desperately trying to keep the Habsburg family history & incest straight while subsisting on rice crackers and Red Bull. Get used to working hard. These studying habits stay with you even after years of guiding.
#3 Sleep Now. You are not going to get a decent night’s sleep for a long, long time. Enjoy it while you can. Once you’re in training, it’s a rarefied gift, then if you land the job, 6 hours of sleep is considered extraordinary.
#4 Brace Yourself. Not to terrify you – but the training you go through will be one of the most intense experiences you can imagine. Not necessarily in a bad way (as it all depends on your attitude) but very rarely in life do you spend six weeks in close proximity to 40-odd people with little sleep while essentially being on one long, 24/7 job interview. Brace yourself for minimal privacy and maximum immersion into another world. Bonus at the end though – the group of people who survive the training trip alongside you become some of your best friends for life.
#5 Say Goodbye. While on your training trip and even once you land the job keeping ‘in touch’ with friends and family back home is hard. You are not on holiday, you are working. You can’t post selfies and Skype mum if you are a little bit tired and don’t want to lead that walking tour today. The job is not your regular 9 to 5, it’s a lifestyle and it’s immersive – meaning if you are organised you can call home occasionally. It can be difficult for loved ones back home when you drop off the face of the earth initially. Give them a heads up in advance, tell them you love them and they will probably hear from you in 6 to 12 months (and they will probably hate you for calling them from Italy/Mykonos/Amsterdam!)
#6 It’s not for everyone. Maybe you’ve dreamed of being a tour guide your whole life. You might be the life and soul of the party, a fountain of knowledge and choc-full of quick jokes. Even so, you could find the reality of tour guiding to be something entirely different from what you expect. It requires a lot of patience, understanding, organisation and behind the scenes work. It’s not very well paid, the hours are hellish and often the hard work you put in goes unnoticed or without thanks. Like most service industries, the traveller is the one who matters most on a tour, not you, so get used to not putting your needs first, second, third or even seventy-fifth on the priority list. These kinds of sacrifices aren’t for everyone and that’s okay! If you get half way through the training and realise its just not for you, that’s ok too. For me, these sacrifices were completely worth it to be able to show people the Eiffel Tower for the first time, or share their very first experience of Europe and travelling as a whole. But that may not be the case for everyone – know your own limits.
#7 Know what you want. From our batch of wannabe tour guides that hit the road way back in 2011, it became clear pretty quickly who was there because they knew what they wanted and would do anything to get there, and who was doing it for a laugh. I’d landed a place on the training trip, booked a one way flight to London, saved roughly $1,500AUD and had absolutely no back up plan if I didn’t get the job. I had my backpack and that was it. So from the very beginning I knew I simply had to land the job, or risk being unemployed, homeless and broke on the other side of the world. It drove my determination and persistence. I knew what I wanted and I went for it – failing wasn’t an option. That’s not a humblebrag, it’s a genuine tip, if you don’t believe in yourself then getting through is hard. So you need to back yourself from the beginning by knowing what you want.
#8 Be Yourself. The most overused phrase in any advice column I know, but honestly? You cannot be fake it in this job – it’s too hard to maintain a faux personality for 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 6 months at a time. You will be deliriously tired, over-excited by the sights you are seeing, occasionally drunk, quite often lost, sometimes besotted by a cute foreigner and many times overwhelmed. Maintaining a fake personality facade amongst all that is just too hard. Plus, your colleagues and bosses will see straight through that shit. Be yourself from the very beginning.
#9 You will lose years of your life. From when I started training until I moved to Vienna, (roughly 2.5 years) is pretty much a black hole in terms of photographs and records of what I was doing. You’re so busy organising other people’s holidays and fun that you forget to take your own photos and tell people where you are/what is happening in your life (see #5). I had some of the most incredible experiences of my life but no time or facilities to do them justice – I saw Prince live in concert at the Sziget Festival in Budapest, watched the Olympic torch go by in England for the 2012 Olympic Games and countless other unforgettable moments that I have absolutely no record of because all I owned was a Nokia phone and a clipboard. It was blissful.
#10 Relish every minute. Being a tour guide in Europe is going to push you to your limits, drive you crazy and completely turn your world upside down, but I wouldn’t trade the time I spent training and working as a trip leader for anything. You get to meet incredible people, call the famous sights of Europe your ‘office’ and learn more about yourself and the world than any other job can come close to offering. Enjoy it – these are your golden days. Good luck!
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