Wherever we went, there he was, watching, waiting.
Riding vertically and stern, he tracked us with an air of patriotic duty. His antique bicycle with cruiser handlebars, the pressed khaki uniform, the baton hanging from his belt loop, it seemed from an earlier era, I thought, before we ducked into a shrine to reevaluate our attack. With incense spiraling upward and a bronze dragon grinning cartoonishly atop a pedestal, my guide Mr. Nakamuro confessed that he was a marked man.
“Trevor-san, the security guard know me since I sneak many tourist into market before official opening. We go this way, then you go alone.” I nodded, only half understanding the mission at hand.
From the very non-confrontational Japanese distance of half a block, the guard again dutifully shadowed our every movement, then hesitated when Mr. Nakamuro stepped left and I stepped right into a narrow alleyway, quickening my pace to disappear around a corner and into the crowd of fishermen icing their morning catch.
At 4:25am, I was the only foreigner in the world’s largest and most prestigious fish market, Tsukiji.
Pre-Mr. Nakamuro if you’d have asked me if tour guides were necessary I’d have responded in typical budget traveler fashion: save your money, go it alone. Post-Nakamuro: tip generously, make friends. No matter how much you read or think you know about a destination, a local will always know more, especially when you don’t speak the language.
Fifty dollars bought access not only to an otherwise inaccessible experience but also a greater understanding of Japanese culture as Mr. Nakamuro explained the market’s history, the shrine’s significance, different fishes’ names and preparation styles, and even where to eat million dollar bluefin sashimi (which melted in my mouth).
I’m now a big fan of tour guides…but still stubbornly budget-minded during my travels.
Below I’ve outlined how to find free tour guides anywhere in the world. This technique is based upon a mutually-beneficial relationship in which you offer value in exchange for a guide’s knowledge. If you’re uninterested in cultural exchanges, then there are easier ways to find guides. Try instead my friend Aaron’s GuideHop or Google local tour agencies.
If you seek unconventional and unpredictable experiences, read on….
HOW TO FIND A FREE TOUR GUIDE
1. Search Online Hangouts
- Enter activity and destination in search bars (e.g. rock climbing + Barcelona)
- If no groups result, search in local language (e.g. alpinismo + Barcelona)
- If necessary, use Word Reference to translate phrases
2. Be Someone You’d Want to Meet
This is good life advice. Remember: you’re not contacting official tour guides but locals who have joined a common interest group. Since you’re not paying them to hang out, your initial contact must peak their interest. Who are you? Why are you contacting them? Why should they spend time with you? Address these doubts in a direct, preferably funny and personable way. Link to social media as evidence that you’re a decent human specimen.
- Write individual members or post a group message
- Be specific with dates, times, and locations
- Directly describe what you’re seeking and why
- Ask members to forward messages to others
3. Offer Compelling Value
Your ace in the hole: English. Many non-native English speakers pay good money for language lessons and want to practice their skills. They practice English, you get guided. Mutually-beneficial. If the guide is a native English speaker offer to cover expenses. For example, if you’re interested in a city food tour, offer to pay for the guide’s meals. Again, mutually-beneficial.
- Emphasize the ‘practice English’ opportunity
- If multilingual, offer to practice other languages
- Offer to cover expenses (e.g. entrance fees, meals, etc.)
4. Have Fun…and Don’t Get Caught
Congratulations, you’re now rock climbing secret overhangs outside Barcelona (without paying for rental gear) or eating at a locals-only restaurant in downtown Shanghai (with a full explanation of the Chinese menu). Take advantage of your guide’s knowledge, ask questions, use them as an interpreter to compliment the chef and joke with other patrons. And if illegally sneaking into Japanese fish markets, have them explain how to avoid arrest.
In case you were wondering if this technique actually works, this month I organized a city food tour in Singapore via Facebook and another food tour in Osaka via Couchsurfing.
Have funny tour guide stories? Do share.