How would you like to travel around the world, visit exotic locales, stay in luxury hotels, meet interesting people, and get paid a good wage for the trouble? Tour directors do just that and gain valuable public relations and work skills at the same time. Also called tour escorts, these positions offer the ultimate in travel-intensive work.
The benefits received from a tour director career are only partially measured in money, though it can be substantial itself.
Tour guides or escorts lead tours all over the United States and abroad. Many of the stories heard from tour guide veterans leave the listener thinking that these jobs are almost too good to be true. This is how one veteran bus tour guide described her job:
"The travel was really incredible. In just three years I visited forty-eight of fifty states and eight of ten provinces, as well as several European countries. It was a lot of hard work, but I doubt any other job could have provided that kind of experience."
Traveling while juggling lodging arrangements, finding lost luggage, and keeping customers happy can be a challenge. But imagine doing those things while visiting some of the most exciting regions of the world, perhaps Costa Rica, Belize, Italy, Hawaii, India, Thailand, Nepal. The list goes on and on.
Tour guides all agree that although the travel is great, you can’t cut it as a tour guide if you don’t really like people. Traveling with customers is what the job is all about. As one escort put it:
"Let’s face it. You go to a destination once and you’re nervous and excited, twice and you love it, but three times and you’re already getting bored. That’s why it’s important to really get along well with the passengers and enjoy their company."
Keep in mind that with many companies, the majority of passengers are retired senior citizens. An experienced escort describes her clientele:
"Most tour companies cater to retired people, since they have money and the time to travel. Some people were exceptionally interesting, really wonderful, and have had really fascinating experiences . . . . The majority of our customers were fun, and one good couple would make up for a coach load of complainers."
As you might imagine, earnings for tour guides vary depending on the type of tour (over-the-road, student, or adventure), its length (6 days or 18 days, for example), and the number of guests (40 over the road or 15 adventure). The longer the tour and the more guests, the greater the predictable income from daily wages, and the larger the tips from a larger pool of tippers.
Tour guides generally earn from $50 – $150 per day in base pay. In addition, most guides receive passenger tips, which can increase earnings substantially. Between wages and tips, a TD can average $250 – $350 per day of the tour. Non-tour days spent preparing paperwork and commentary are uncompensated, though the quality manner in which TDs perform those tasks can have a great impact on the amount of tips received.
A guide for a large tour company describes her company’s rather typical tip policies:
"Our company runs two types of tours when it comes to tipping. First is the ‘all inclusive’ tour, where the company tips the guide and the guests aren’t expected to tip, since it’s included in the price of the tour. The company tips a minimum of $20 per day, but you’re salaried and get benefits.
On the other tours we get paid by the day, and the tour members tip you at the end of the tour. Customers almost always tip, and it can be a real incentive to keep them happy. On my last tour, I worked only five days and was tipped over $350."
On deluxe and all-inconclusive tours, guests do not tip at the end of the tour; they already did that in paying the tour fee. The tour operator pays the TD a higher wage to include tips, or disburses them separately at the end of the tour.
Some TDs receive commissions on sales, which has the potential to encourage TDs to take guests shopping at locations which benefit the TD more than the guests. Many tour operators do not allow TDs to accept commissions. Others require TDs to report commissions and share them with the tour operator. It’s a touchy subject in the industry, and it is worth some discrete investigation to see what the guidelines are for a particular tour operator.
Another area of possible income is the sale of optional tours and activities to guests. Many companies, especially those that run economy tours, offer guests additional activities on the tour, at additional expense. Some TOs pay TDs commission on sale of these tours, others simply expect the sales to be part of the job requirements for TDs. Again, asking a few questions of prospective employers will clarify that particular issue.
Local tour guides and step-on guides usually earn $8 – $12 per hour, more in particular locations, perhaps more as they become more experienced. Tips are in addition to this. Tour guides who provide local services in a language other than English can expect to be paid more. And tour guides with a license, in New York, Washington DC, and New Orleans, typically earn $50 or more per hour.
Even though wages and salaries can seem low when the position may require working up to 12-14 hours a day, keep in mind that guides’ out-of-pocket expenses are minimal. An escort’s lodging and meals are nearly always provided free of charge, and a guide can often work an entire season without any large personal expenses.