Take a Tour in Tours? Or Not.

I got a question the other day about tours … specifically, when it comes to foreign travel, whether to join a tour group with a guide or do the sightseeing on your own.
For years, I spurned the guided tours and did my own sightseeing. Sometimes it worked out all right, but often it didn’t … and I found myself leaving a place with the vague feeling that I had never really seen it.
Assuming for the sake of this discussion that money is not a factor, the best possible way to see and begin to understand a city or an area is to hire your own personal guide. I did that in St. Petersburg and again in Shanghai, and I’m convinced that’s the way to go. You can find guides on the internet—at TripAdvisor, for example—and there will be lots of reviews to help you make a choice. Just be sure you pick a guide who is licensed and has bonafide credentials.
In planning my visit to St. Petersburg, I communicated by email weeks in advance with Natasha—yes, that was really her name—and told her that I was very interested in learning more about the 1000-day siege of the city—then known as Leningrad—by the Germans during World War II. She organized our two days accordingly and it was exactly what I wanted.
Note, too, that having your own private guide can pay off if you’re having to deal with big crowds. There were several hundred people waiting to get into Peter the Great’s magnificent summer palace, but Natasha pushed through the crowd, showed her credentials to the guard, who immediately waved us both in ahead of the mob.
A guided tour with a small group is a good alternative, and a lot less expensive, too. Last year I had an excellent tour of the Normandy beaches in a van with four other people, plus the guide. That, too, was well worth doing.
Last on my list would be touring with a bus-load of people. I’ve done it a few times, but it feels like I’m just one of 45 gawkers who’ve come to stare rudely at these foreigners. Still, I think it’s better than trying to do it on your own. However you do it, the main thing is to make sure you’ll come away from an interesting place with at least a superficial understanding of what made it worth stopping there in the first place.