Advice for a solo on a custom guided tour

This item appears on page 39 of the July 2018 issue.


Mazel Pernell of Rockville, Maryland, wrote, “I’ve enjoyed international travel with group tours. In planning my sixth trip to Africa for the fall of 2018, I didn’t find a set tour that I liked, so I’m working directly with a Ghana-based company to customize a 3-week guided tour that includes Ghana, Benin and Togo. I will be going solo.”

“I would appreciate hearing from any traveler who has been on an extended solo tour. Specifically, did you eat all or some meals with the chaperone/driver/guide? Did you pay for his or her meals? What would be a reasonable amount to tip the chaperone for a tour of nearly three weeks? (If a percentage of the total tour cost, what percentage? If a set amount per day of touring, how much? Another option?) What else do I need to consider?”

We printed a couple of subscribers’ responses last month. Here are a few more.

In my opinion, custom travel requires more responsibility and specificity on your part. You have to be totally honest up front about your interests and the things you want nothing to do with, and you must be realistic and forthcoming about your physical abilities and limitations, including foot problems, your tiny bladder and food preferences and allergies.

The guide is your employee, not your mother, not your doctor, not your confessor. The guide wants to show you a good time and keep you safe and keep you on schedule so that you get to enjoy everything on the itinerary.

On a solo guided tour, the tour is for you, and you are in charge. If a market holds your interest and you decide you want to shop for three hours, then you will, and the guide will have to “reroute,” like a GPS, but that’s what you’re paying for. And if you have a tendency to nap, it’s up to you to say “Wake me” or “Let me sleep.”

However, don’t make the guide’s job any harder than it has to be by taking a huge suitcase, getting drunk or high, being constantly late or purposely separating yourself from the guide or going somewhere other than where you’ve agreed upon.

I would invite the guide to eat with me if I wanted company, and I would tell him or her it would be my pleasure to treat him. (Sometimes a guide’s meal is free if he takes you to an establishment where he’s known.) IfI didn’t want company, I’d ask what time we should meet and where.

All this I would say is worth a minimum tip of $20 to $25 per day, even if you’re the least-demanding customer ever. It will have been well earned. (Clients of set tours are advised to tip the guide within a certain amount. That advice is often absent for private clients. Tip anyway.)

All that being said, I have toured with various companies for 20 years, both with friends and, as a widow, solo with just a driver or guide, and I’d opt for a group tour every time for a trip including overnight stays.

Although all my private guides and drivers were pleasant and interesting, it would make me uncomfortable to travel alone with anyone for three weeks unless that person were a friend, relative or mate.

Bobbi Benson
Burlingame, CA


I traveled to Huangshan, China, in June 2005 after a trip to Tibet. I had never hired a guide and car before, but because I cannot read or speak Mandarin, I felt, to get the most out of my trip, I would need to have personalized guide service.

I hired a young college student who spoke fairly good English and a driver who spoke no English. Flying from Beijing to Huangshan, I was the only Westerner and congratulated myself on this decision.

All went well until our stop for lunch on the first day. We pulled up to a very fancy building and, upon entering, I could see that it was an arranged food stop for tourists. Inside, there was only one other small group ofpeople. I sat by myself at a large table, and my driver and guide sat at another table after ordering for me. I did not care for the Americanized Chinese food.

After the meal, I told my guide, “Do not take me to another place like this to eat!” (Dinner and breakfast were served at each hotel I stayed in, where there were almost no Westerners and meals were geared to the locals, so no problems with those.)

The next day, we pulled up to another place exactly like the one the day before. I refused to get out of the car to eat there and insisted that we go someplace where the guide and driver would eat. The poor student had to call his office and try to explain what the problem was.

He told me his manager said that food was “not safe” to eat except at the scheduled stops. I told him to tell his manager that I was crazy and didn’t care and that I would not eat at another tourist restaurant.

From that day on we went to local eateries, where I had the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten in my life! These places had no menus. The guide knew what I liked and — the standard practice at these places — would go into the kitchen, which often was open-air, and order the food.

We all ate at the same table, and I paid for all the food. I felt obligated to do this, since I probably had gotten the guide and driver in some sort of trouble.

Also, even though I had told the guide I would NOT buy anything, I did appease him (trying not to get him in trouble again) by going into the tourist shops, making a quick walk-through and returning to the car, but I found having to visit these shops very annoying.

Upon returning to the US, I did contact the guide company and apologize for any trouble I might have caused the guide. But I also stated that I had PAID to have the trip that I wanted, which didn’t include eating lousyAmericanized Chinese food. (I also mentioned that telling visitors that the food is unsafe does a disservice to his country.)

So this is my biggest piece of advice: tell them in advance if you do/don’t want to eat like the locals.

(Eating the local food is one of the great pleasures of foreign travel for me, and, since most of my travels are self-guided, I hadn’t given it a thought prior to leaving, but now I certainly will make sure an agent knows my feelings to avoid dining at tourist stops. Other travelers might not care or might want to eat “American.”)

As far as tipping goes, you should be able to get an idea of what would be appropriate based on the local cost of living and, of course, the service that was provided.

In China, I tipped set amounts, $10 per day for the guide and $5 per day for the driver, which, after I got home, friends told me was too much. Yes, I was buying lunch and dinner for both also, but the guide did so much translating for me that I felt the tips had been earned.

Joyce Renee Lewis
Camano Island, WA


I have taken four private solo custom tours, the last in January 2018 (and more than 40 group tours).

I have never considered my guide on a solo tour to be my “chaperone.” What is important to me is that the guide is knowledgeable, helpful (particularly with my luggage) and highly personable and speaks English.

On each of the four trips, my meals were included in the price, and I always ate with the guide. The guide’s meals were not paid directly by me.

Tipping is important. If the guide is not the owner of the tour company, he will, in my experience, rely on receiving a generous tip (assuming he performs well).

I don’t think that there is any way to make a blanket statement as to the amount. I would ask the tour company prior to the trip for their suggestion. They may well respond that it is entirely up to you. You might then say that you would nonetheless appreciate a suggestion as to an appropriate range.

For me, the thing that is wonderful about a solo custom guided tour is that you can make whatever adjustments you desire, within reason.

If you want to sit in the front seat with the guide/driver (which I do), then you can. If you want to linger longer at some spot, take an afternoon off, go visit a small village you noticed or stop at a market, you can do that. Your guide should accommodate you gracefully.

In closing, I would say that traveling solo on a custom guided tour can be a wonderful experience, allowing you to explore and interact with locals in just the way that works for you.

Edna R.S. Alvarez
Los Angeles, CA