Ten Reasons to Use a Guide Rather than a Guidebook

Peter Miller meeting the local kids at a sea gypsy village off the island of Flores in Indonesia

Peter Miller with the local kids at a sea gypsy village off the island of Flores in Indonesia

This is a guest post by Peter Miller, the founder and managing director of No Roads Expeditions.

Like most people, when I travel, I like to understand what I am seeing. I am always asking What is that? Why is that? Who is that? What’s in that? Where is that? The list is endless.

Before guidebooks became fashionable in the 80’s and the internet became ubiquitous in the mid 2000’s, those of us who wanted to understand what they were seeing employed the services of a living, breathing and intelligent human being. That’s right, there are those among us that are passionate about the world we live and work in and we want to share our s encyclopaedic knowledge of places we love. And at the same time organize things for you, introduce you to locals, immerse you in the environment you are traveling in so that at the end of the trip, you understand the place like you could never understand it by reading a book.

Consider the following 10 reasons why a guide is better than a guidebook:

1. A guide can interpret what you are seeing and contextualize it.

Have you ever walked through a city and wondered what it is all about? Walked from one building to the next because that’s what the guidebook suggested? Or through a wilderness and appreciated its beauty but not really understood its significance in the region or the planet?

A local walking guide with a Maasai warrior on a walking safarin in Tanzania

A walking guide with a Maasai warrior on a walking safari in Tanzania.

Being in a place is only half the journey, understanding it is the other. Absorbing it in its entirety makes a place come alive. A guide can help you interpret the place you are in and explain why people do things they way they do.

In cities, a guide will explain why the city is there in the first place and explain its history. Why that building is there, or that memorial and add little known facts at exactly the right time. In the wilderness a guide can help you see things you would otherwise miss. The guide has been there dozens of times before and can see so much more than you, which is so often the case when looking for wildlife camouflaged in their environment. And once you have seen the animals, the guide will give details about what they are and how they adapt to their eco systems. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpKgKwPbbLw&list=PL2Cdfh1LI1irS_SGZ5P3-DpMhOOjyeS0O&feature=share&index=1).

2. A guide can tell a narrative which gives a thematic dramatization of a place making a destination come alive.

That theme will be revisited over and over again so that the places you are seeing make sense, like a common thread throughout a serial show. For example, on the Kokoda Track in PNG, the guide may explain the entire three months battle through the eyes of a soldier who was there, thus personalizing and humanizing it. Or on a tour of Munich, a guide may use beer as the common thread, explaining the significance of beer in the town’s foundation, the Nazi movement or dealing with the cold winters.

3. A guide knows the way.

Local guide Mohammed explains the intricacies of the Karnak tombs in Egypt

Local guide Mohammed explains the intricacies of the Karnak tombs in Egypt

This was the very first reason why people took guides who knew the way through unchartered wilderness areas. Even though you can use GPS mapping these days, a guide knows the terrain, the weather systems, local and current events in the area. A map and GPS do not. As such a guide knows if a trail has been blocked or if a particular cloud formation spells trouble. I have, on too many occasions, called on a local wilderness guide to help us through terrain where a guidebook would be useless. Even in cities, a guide knows the best way to connect all the places of significance.Best of all, however, is that a guide finds the most interesting, least crowded routes so that you can make the most of your adventures. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfnIiEYR36c&feature=share&list=UUEUVbTCqeBXGl0HJw-TGF6w&index=4)

4. A guide can help when trouble arises.

A guide is invaluable if you get into trouble. They know the best way out, who to talk to, what helicopter company to call for evacuation and who to trust. They are invaluable in this situation whereas a guidebook might just give the coordinates of the local hospital, if you are lucky.

5.  A guide gains access to secret places.

There is so much on the internet and in guidebooks that show “secret” and “local” places. So many in fact that when you turn up there are more tourists than locals. Guides have their own connections, their own places that may express the story they are trying to convey. Many guidebooks list the main sites but a guide knows so many other places and can tell you a richer story with more nuanced details.

6. Guide can introduce you to local people.

Guides are usually locals. Even if they are not they know the territory and the people well. So if a guide takes you to a café, they may introduce you to the proprietor who roasts that delicious coffee who may take you out the back and show you how they make it.

Kayaking with local guides along the Tigak Islands in Papua New Guinea

Kayaking with local guides from No Roads Expeditions along the Tigak Islands in Papua New Guinea

Or a guide will introduce you to people who live in remote places….a yak herder, a local farmer or cheese maker. They will introduce you in the right way so that you may hear their story. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpKgKwPbbLw&list=PL2Cdfh1LI1irS_SGZ5P3-DpMhOOjyeS0O&feature=share&index=1). They can literally interpret what the person is saying so you understand.  A guide can help you engage with the locals. A guidebook simply cannot.

7. A guide knows the best places to eat and what to eat.

The advent of Trip Advisor has opened the world to small cafes and restaurants. However, I have been fooled too many times by the reviews and places have let me down.

A guide can ascertain what your particular tastes and foodie interests are and tailor your food adventures accordingly. He or she will know the insider secrets like where to get the best tamales or goat curry. Why? Because they eat there too. And so do the locals.

8. Guides know things that are not in guidebooks.

Places change. Cities grow. So fast in many cases that a guidebook or the internet can’t keep up. In the end it is the people from the area you are traveling through who can give you the latest information. A guide offers a way to connect with these resources. For example, someone may have died in a local village and the

A guide from Walk Japan explains the signage along the Nakasendo Way

A guide from Walk Japan explains the signage along the Nakasendo Way

funeral will be held soon. The guide can explain what happens, why people are dressed a particular way and how they are sent to the after life. A guidebook cannot do this.

9. Guides can answer questions immediately.

This is one of the most obvious benefits of a guide over a guidebook or the internet. A guide has so much information in their head that when you ask them a question they can either give you an answer immediately or ask a local. A guidebook is limited to the number of pages and the internet is limited to a connection.

10. A guide allows you to understand at a deeper level by the mere fact that another person is telling you the information.

And this is the crucial point. History studied in a book often boils down to facts and figures. But when you are in the actual place it happened and someone is explaining what happened it all comes alive. You are able to look around, absorb it all visually and viscerally.  It is the combination of audio, visual and olfactory that makes a guide superior to a guidebook or the Internet.

Please do not misunderstand me. I read guidebooks and look at the internet for information but they are simply references. When I travel most of my information comes from locals.

Peter Miller, founder of No Roads Expeditions at the entrance to Komodo National Park on Rinca Island in Indonesia.

Peter Miller, founder of No Roads Expeditions at the entrance to Komodo National Park on Rinca Island in Indonesia.


Peter Miller is managing director of No Roads Expeditions. He has guided expeditions all over the world from sea kayaking the Komodo Islands, to climbing mountain peaks inTanzania,Indonesia and Nepal to crossing the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guindea over 20 times. He is a staunch believer that guides are an integral part in enriching the travelling experience.




Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.

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