A small group of travellers. (Dreamstime)
Advice Words : Wanderlust team | 31 July 2018

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...

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. Your job could be described as being like a swan on water - graceful and calm on the surface, with your legs frantically paddling underneath.

 

 

What jobs are there?

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

What's in it for you?

A lot of travel, of course. You’ll find that leading gives your travel a new depth – when you're working alongside locals, they'll 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? Ask most leaders what they most like about the job and the answer won’t have anything to do with travel. You'll learn a lot about yourself, developing your interpersonal and leadership skills in ordinary and extraordinary situations. It's also a job with real autonomy – your boss may be 12,000 miles away!

What are the downsides?

All of 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. Whatever goes wrong, you have to deal with it, whenever it happens. Your clients might be rude, your transport connections could be late, or not turn up at all. Yours and your clients' personal belongings can be stolen, or worse, your clients could get ill - and that's all your responsibility to deal with. As well as all of those negatives, it can also be lonely work - having to spend long periods away from your close friends and family.

How to get a job as a travel guide

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Visit travel shows and exhibitions. Prove that you’ve done your research and that you aren’t just acting on a whim. Companies will need to see that people are serious about the job.

  5. Go on a trip with the company you are applying to. It'll give you a great insight into what it's like to be part of a group on holiday and see a real-life tour leader in action. While you're there, ask the tour leader exactly what they're doing on a day-to-day basis.

  6. Make sure you have specialised 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. Knowledge of first aid, or specific country knowledge, is also good.

  7. 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.

 

A word from a pro: Nick Nikolsky

Nick worked as a full-time tour leader over many years, covering everywhere from the Faroe Islands to Cambodia. 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.”

 

With thanks to Nick Nikolsky, Andrew Aitcheson, Matt Leggett and Debbie Crawford for their help with this guide.

Check out Wanderlust's job site for job opportunities in the travel industry.