Let’s be honest: one can do without a private guide, same as one can get fit without the benefit of a gym or learn a language without a language teacher.
But let’s face it: few people get fit by exercising in their living room or learn a language through a book and some CDs.
It takes time and effort (not to mention a good memory) to thoroughly study a place you’ve never been before and even if you do, the experience on the ground can be quite baffling and unlike the best illustrations in your guide book. On top of that, unfamiliar concepts are rarely comprehended unless interpreted by someone with first-hand knowledge of them.
What does a guide do?
In short, a private guide is a “cheat”, a shortcut. He (or she, but allow me to use just the first) will save you time and effort. He will know all the facts to be found in the best guide book, plus countless others no book can contain. He will have answers for you just when you ask them, without taking time to leaf through 500 pages to look something up. He will know the best route, plus a few shortcuts the book doesn’t mention. He’ll be updated, and will know all about changes in opening hours, timetables, and so on. He will know about the strikes and other events that may upset your schedule. He can help in case of something unexpected, such as illness, flight cancellation, strike, etc. He can advise you on how to avoid being ripped off. He can offer tips on where and what to eat, what to enjoy and what to avoid. He can tailor a tour to your needs and tastes. He can adapt, delivering a playful tour to a family with children and a fact-filled one to a group of history buffs.
Above all, your guide, if local, will be a window to the culture and mentality of the country you visit. He’s your instant fact finder to ask about anything that sparks your curiosity. He’ll tell you about the customs, habits, mores and morals of his people, and explain all the curious things that make his country different from yours.
So why licensed?
Tourist guides of Greece are a distinct bunch, among the best educated in Europe. By law, they have to study 2,5 years in a University-level school to get a license to guide. Many are university graduates also, usually historians or archaeologists, like myself. They all have to pass very strict exams during which they are tested on their knowledge of the entire Greek history, archaeology, geography, natural history and more. They also have to prove their proficiency in both Greek and at least one other language, the one they will be licensed to guide in. All in all, one could say they’re walking and talking encyclopedias of things Greek.
Are there non-licensed guides?
Legally, one can be a tourist guide only if they have proved that they know what they are talking about. If they have not successfully graduated from Guides’ school, then they get no license to guide and if they get caught doing so, they may get arrested or fined. Licensed guides can be recognised by the badge they have to wear when on duty (like the one on the left).
There are several individuals (usually taxi drivers, but others too) who also offer tours without being qualified or having a badge. Strictly speaking, these are illegal, but the police will usually look the other way, as long as they limit themselves to tours of the city, and do not enter a site or museum (which most are careful to avoid).
Local friends – if you’re lucky to have one – make great guides, because you get to spend time with them and their family, experiencing local life and habits first hand. A guide’s job is essentially that: playing the part of the friend you wish you had overseas, plus answering all your questions at the same time. Or, if you prefer, talking about history and art on one hand and explaining why on earth Greeks have dinner after 10pm on the other.
Summing it up
Sure, a guide may not be necessary, but it is worth hiring one, especially if you don’t have local friends waiting for you at the airport. A private guide will enhance your experience of the country in a way no book or audio guide can. Having spent a few thousand for a trip to Greece, spending a few extra euros on a guide is not a splurge, it’s an investment.
Having said all that, I perfectly understand that not everyone wants a guide. You may want to go exploring on your own, or skip the sites altogether and simply spend a few days in the sun.
Whatever you do, have a wonderful holiday!
PS. If you’re still interested in hiring a guide, you may want to see my reviews.