By Candyce H. Stapen
I knew we were in trouble when our local tour guide drove silently for the first five minutes of our ride from Dubrovnik along Croatia's coast. When I asked him if he would tell us about our destination, Cavtat and the Konavle Valley, he turned around, shrugged his shoulders and said, "I'm from Bulgaria. I don't know anything about the area." And he didn't, even though the company we used listed Dobromir as a "driver-guide."
Day-tripping with a local is popular and big business. At the beginning of 2020 (pre-COVID-19) Tours by Locals, for example, projected a worth of $183 billion. And now private tours are likely to surge in popularity. They add a sense of health and safety as you don't share your outing or car with strangers.
Your leader can customize your trip and remove the burden of figuring out what to see and how to get there, plus lead you to the out-of-the-way shop with the hand-knit throws, the top ice cream stand and other places frequented by locals.
With the pandemic preventing so many of us from traveling, now is an excellent time to dream about and plan a future trip. As taciturn Dobromir taught us, choosing a private outing can be tricky, especially when researching a foreign destination via the Internet. During our 2019 European cruise we discovered that "driver-guide" translates most often to a "driver only."
After Dobromir, I phoned the agency for our upcoming "driver-guide" outing to find out exactly what we had booked. After a chain of calls to the Internet company, the regional agent and then to the subcontracted city company, a taxi business, the dispatcher confirmed that our Taormina, Italy, excursion meant only a driver. So we paid an extra $100 for a guide. Although she knew the history and sites, she repeatedly complained about the job being last-minute and seemed depressed. We ditched her before lunch and had a great afternoon wandering on our own.
Sometimes a driver suffices. Since we had purchased tickets for a small group Uffizi Galleries visit, we just required roundtrip transport from Livorno, the cruise terminal for Florence. Diego, from Nicola Scovenna, chauffeured us to the city center and drove us to attractions and shops, a convenience we appreciated. Along the way, he provided commentary and background, answered our questions about politics, unemployment and eateries, and happily waited for us while we sipped drinks at the Grand Hotel Minerva's rooftop bar with its panoramic view.
Remember to use common sense. Our Montenegro expert, whom I'll dub "Goran," established a rapport with me months before our sailing. He emailed, inquiring about what we wished to see and where we preferred to eat lunch. Then he followed up by asking me to send our passport information — name, date of birth, number — saying it was the custom in his country. Yeah, right. I told him that we would bring our passports, but I was not emailing personal information. Accompanied by a driver, Goran met us in Kotor and never mentioned our passports.
Beware of upcharges. Goran's company priced his guide and separate driver as a van outing for four people. Via email Goran explained that the vehicle for that fee fit three people and a child, not four adults. Did we want to pay more for a bigger van? We fell for it. We paid for a "larger vehicle," which was exactly the same size as the other vans. Despite this, Goran added informative tidbits about Perast and Our Lady of the Rocks church, pointed out the mussel buoys in the fjord and the highlights of the Old Town.
As always, find out whether the fee covers museum and attraction admissions, snacks or lunch. Note the cancellation and payment policies. Half of the companies required us to pay in advance and the other half wanted cash.
Local guides can convey the flavor of a destination, tailor a trip to one's needs and, with a car, add convenience. In Zadar, Croatia, our escort led us to Bistro Pjat, an eatery with award-winning regional fare. On our mural safari in Glasgow we discovered city artists and lore. We look forward to touring with locals again, but next time we'll be smarter about our bookings.
WHEN YOU GO
Popular local tour companies include:
Tours by Locals contracts with 4,700 guides in 177 countries. During this time of limited travel, the company offers 50-plus live virtual tours that include learning Peruvian cooking, discovering the Jewish quarter of Budapest and following along on a bicycling trip in the Netherlands: www.toursbylocals.com
Viatour offers tours in many countries: www.viatour.com.
Nicola Scovenna, operating in Italy, offers chauffeuring services and transfers, picking up at hotels and cruise docks: www.nicolascovenna.com.
Rudy's Private Rome Tours operates in Rome and from several cruise ports, including Livorno for Florence: www.rome-car-tours.com.
Grand Hotel Minerva, Florence, located in Santa Maria Novella Square, has 97 rooms and a rooftop with a bar and outdoor pool: www.grandhotelminerva.com.
Candyce H. Stapen is a freelance writer at www.gfvac.com.
Follow her on Twitter and Facebook @FamilyiTrips, on Instagram @CandyceStapen, and discover www.hennyskids.org, Stapen's non-profit that brings solar-powered computers and training to rural schools in Africa.
To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
The Greek Theater constructed in the third century B.C. is a highlight of a trip to Taormina, Sicily, Italy. Photo courtesy of Candyce H. Stapen.