By Jamie Pearson
Last month my family and I traveled to Costa Rica for spring break. Because we were there for just a week, we were on a pretty tight itinerary. We were just stretching out in our hotel room in Punta Uva after a long day in the car, when there was a knock at our door.
"Come quickly," whispered our guide, Alex Martinez. "Bring your camera." He spoke softly so as not to startle the three-toed sloth that was making its way across the ground twenty feet from our room.
The right private guide can often make a good family vacation even better. If you're traveling with your family to a foreign country, a big city, or an untamed wilderness, here are some reasons to consider hiring someone to show you around.
You'll see more wildlife
No matter where they fall on the food chain, most animals are very good at hiding. That sloth was only one in a series of animals we would never have spotted without Alex. We would also have missed toucans, poison dart frogs, howler monkeys, and a perfectly camouflaged hog-nosed pit viper.
Guides know where the buffalo roam, the grizzly bears feed, and the quetzals nest. They can teach you a lot about the animals you see, and often have great gear too. When we went birding in the Tirimbina Biological Reserve, Alex brought along a spotting scope mounted on a tripod and focused it on birds high overhead in the canopy. This allowed even our 7-year-old (who still hasn't mastered binoculars) to get a good look.
You won't have to drive
When you don't have to navigate, drive, and argue with your spouse, cruising through new territory can actually be a pleasurable experience. With Alex in the driver's seat, we chatted, napped, and soaked in the scenery.
We didn't lose any autonomy either. As the sole paying customers on the tour, we were free to change any part of the itinerary any time we wanted. One afternoon we preferred to relax around the pool, so we scratched a planned walk through the jungle. Another day we couldn't face an early start, so we bumped back our departure time by an hour.
You'll avoid unnecessary stress
Big cities can be better with private guides too. Although I lived in London for two years, last summer I hired Blue Badge guide Tim Hudson to escort me and my 5 and 8-year-old kids around town for the day. As a father of two, an accomplished stage actor, and an enthusiastic student of medieval history, he was the perfect companion.
Could I have consulted a guide book, read a map, and figured out which heritage double-decker buses go from Trafalgar Square to the Tower of London by myself all while keeping the kids from stepping under the wheels of a passing black cab? Probably. Could I have enjoyed myself while doing it? Probably not.
Fees for Blue Badge guides start at £115 for a half-day tour in English. Hiring Tim wasn't cheap, but it was unforgettable. I enjoyed myself immensely instead of worrying, herding the kids, and barking orders all day.
You'll be entertained
Tim also kept us laughing and learning for most of day. He pointed out buildings that were used in the filming of the various Harry Potter movies and centuries-old graffiti in Westminster Abbey. He riveted us with stories of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, the Great Fire of London, and two daring but doomed attempted escapes from the Tower of London.
Since I didn't want my children sleeping in my bed until they were in high school, I asked Tim to gloss over the murders, hauntings, and beheadings that are so common in British history. Tim accommodated this request without missing a beat.
And the fun didn't stop there. When the children's interest in history inevitably flagged, he broke into song. Although he modestly told us that he wasn't particularly celebrated for his singing ability, Tim made it to the final five for the role of Pumba in the West End production of the Lion King. As he belted out a few bars of Hakuna Matata in his rich baritone in Covent Garden, it was easy to see why.
About the Writer
Jamie Pearson is a writer and mother of two. She sees the funny side of family travel, and blogs about it at www.TravelSavvyMom.com.