Honest it's NOT a holiday - tour leaders work very hard (photo: Trekforce)
Article 31 July

Get paid to travel: become a tour leader

Do you have what it takes to become a travel guide? it can take you all over the world, but you'll need buckets of passion, endless knowledge and a big dose of patience too...

Let’s get this straight: it is a ‘proper job’. Sure, you’ll lose your fear of Monday mornings. And yes, your ‘office’ may be a Kenyan national park, a Himalayan valley or a large area of Amazon jungle. Your friends will think you get paid to go on holiday again and again – a kind of Groundhog Holiday, if you will.

But don’t be deceived: tour leading for an adventure travel company is very much a proper job. The hours are long (when have you worked nine months without a day off?), you’re on call 24/7 and, while it may look easy, behind the scenes it’s a huge amount of work.

“I heard the job described as being like a swan on water,” explains Andrew Aitcheson, a leader for Intrepid Travel. “You’re graceful and calm on the surface but your legs are paddling like hell underneath.”

What jobs are there?

Tour leading is not a single job – there are many different kinds of tours, from driving overland trucks from London to Cape Town to leading rambling groups around the vineyards of Tuscany.

As Nick Nikolsky of Exodus explains: “We have leaders for whom leading is a full-time, year-round career, and we have part-time leaders who only work for a few weeks at peak periods – the summer holidays and Christmas. Likewise, our leaders range in age from 25 to 50+.”

So what kind of trip do you want to lead? There are jobs touring the general sights of countries, sailing the Nile in a dhow, guiding safaris, mountain biking, doing European cultural tours, riding horses, carrying out conservation work, driving overland trucks, walking and leading family trips.

Some are more extreme than others – the skills needed for leading a centre-based holiday in the Pyrenees are very different from those required to climb a Himalayan peak or lead a jungle expedition. Matt Leggett, a leader for Trekforce says: “Our trips are expeditions in the truest sense of the word – remote, challenging and extremely intense.”

What’s in it for you?

A lot of travel, of course. And you’ll find that leading gives your travel a new depth – when you are working alongside them, locals see you as an equal, not as a customer. What other job would let you build a deep friendship with a Vietnamese waitress or a Berber muleteer?

But ask most leaders what they most like about the job and the answer won’t have anything to do with travel. “You will learn a lot about yourself and develop your interpersonal and leadership skills in ordinary and extraordinary situations,” says Nick Nikolsky.

This is a job with real autonomy – your boss may be 12,000 miles away. But all these plus points have their down sides. You might repeat the same two-week itinerary ten times, yet you have to be as fresh on the tenth as you were on the first.

And whatever goes wrong, you have to deal with it, whenever it happens. “People are rude, trains and planes are late, buses don’t even turn up, things are stolen and people get ill. Whatever happens it is down to you to sort it out,” says Matt Leggett.

“Life on the road can take its toll: one hotel room to the next and living out of your rucksack,” adds Andrew Aitcheson. “Despite the inflow of people it can be a lonely job – long-term relationships are difficult to maintain.”

A word from a pro... Nick Nikolsky

Nick worked as a full-time tour leader for five years, covering everywhere from the Faroe Islands to Cambodia. These days he recruits new leaders for Exodus, as well as still leading the occasional trip. So how did he do it?

“In my gap year I worked abroad teaching English, then after uni as a diving instructor. I saw an advert for a tour leader in Wanderlust (honest) and applied for the job, expecting to do it for a short while. I ended up doing it full time for five years.

“My first trip was a walking tour in Slovakia. I had been trained in the UK and abroad on an actual walking trip and knew roughly how leading worked, but I was nervous at having to look after 16 people for two weeks all on my own. Needless to say I didn’t let the group know it was my first trip! By the end of the fortnight, I knew this was what I wanted to do as a job.

“You start getting a lot more than just travel experience when you’ve done the job for a year. You build up your people-handling skills, you encounter and solve strange new problems – all of which are great skills for whatever you do in life.”

Top tip: “Be yourself at the interview and if you are enthusiastic about travel and a people person, you should sell yourself without having to try.”

How to get that job

Don’t apply unless you are well travelled. Ideally you’ll have explored some unusual parts of the globe and been on some extended trips, such as a career break. But remember, the most important thing isn’t travel – it’s people.

Stress your people and leadership skills. Anything you can do to prove that you have experience of a service industry, and of leading or teaching people, will be a great benefit.

Get an understanding of what is required. Research the job thoroughly by checking out all the web-links listed, and getting to know the style of the company you are applying to. As Debbie Crawford of Dragoman Overland says: “Visit slide shows, travel exhibitions – prove that you’ve done your research and that you aren’t just acting on a whim. We need to see that people are serious about this job.”

Go on a trip with the company you are applying to. Andrew Aitcheson explains: “This will give you a great insight into what it is like to be part of a group on holiday and see a real-life tour leader in action!” While you’re away, you can ask the tour leader exactly what they are doing on a day-to-day basis.

Make sure you have hard skills, such as a foreign language or a PCV driving licence. While they aren’t essential for all jobs, they are for some, and give you a great advantage. Nick Nikolsky adds: “Knowledge of first aid, or specific country knowledge, is also good.”

Be ready to answer the question: “What would make you a good tour leader?” It’s an obvious question, and if you can’t answer it fluently, you shouldn’t be applying.

Nick Nikolsky sums up what he looks for when interviewing prospective leaders: “People with previous independent travel experience who clearly had fun and are passionate about travel. They need to be people-friendly with a sense of humour and patience, well-organised and able to work alone in stressful circumstances.”


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