While channel-surfing the other night, I ran across a movie called “My Life In Ruins.” It’s about a tour guide in Greece (played by Nia Vardalos of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” fame) who spends most of her time trying to make herself heard above the whining of her clients. Despite the predictable plot, I could see how “My Life In Ruins” – like the long-ago classic “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” – could be a red flag to someone contemplating a tour of Europe. Or any other destination, for that matter.

Of course, both movies are parodies. But for all too many people, just hearing the phrase “guided tour” conjures up images of beleaguered guests being herded around like sheep. You know the drill: on the bus, off the bus…up the hill, around the site…down the hill and back on the bus.

All of which, I’m happy to report, is about as far from a Classic Journeys walking tour as you can get. I think you’ll understand what I mean when I say that there are tour guides…and then there are tour guides. With proper training, almost anybody can master the basics of moving a flock of people from Point A to Point B. Our goal, by contrast, is to make our guests feel they’re in the company of well-connected friends… who also happen to be experts at sharing their intimate knowledge of a specific region and its culture.

Rest assured, the 150 hand-picked tour guides who make up our international team know their stuff. The regions where they guide are the regions where they grew up and where they now live and raise their own families. We put them through their paces literally and figuratively well before they go out on tour. As trusted colleagues, they also play a key role in shaping itineraries and fine-tuning daily agendas from the first moment we begin scouting a new trip.

Peru guide

In return, we give them free rein to keep things spontaneous, flexible and fun. Because they’re on hand full-time, our guides are prepared for any contingency, from unexpected glitches like a guest’s sudden toothache in Morocco to a washed-out bridge that threatened to ruin a whole day of river rafting in Costa Rica.

Judging by our ongoing dialogue with guests, many of whom pride themselves on traveling independently, our guides’ enthusiasm is infectious. Take our friend Sergio, for instance. As our head guide in Southern Italy, he clearly loves his native country and relishes introducing the spirit of la dolce vita to our many guests. In fact, he’s the leader of not one of our Italian tours, but five… including three to the Amalfi Coast & Capri, our walking tour of Sicily, and our walking tour of Apulia in the heel of Italy’s boot.

Guest with Sergio

It’s not surprising that our post-trip questionnaires tend to be variations on a theme. Yet we’re always happy to read, “Our guide made us feel like members of the family, introducing us to all of his friends,” or “Our guide gave us an insider’s look that we never could have arranged for ourselves.” As seasoned travelers, our guests recognize this kind of camaraderie for the rarity it is, and in many cases, have booked additional trips with the same guide.

If you’ve ever felt that “click” with a tour guide who made a destination come to life for you, I’d love to hear about it. Drop me a note any time at blog@classicjourneys.com.

PS Celebrated travel writer Peter Jon Lindberg weighed in on the subject just this month, in an article entitled “The Virtues of a Tour Guide” for Travel + Leisure. It instantly resonated with me as the way guests feel about our guides at Classic Journeys:

“Seeing Rome on my own and then with [his guide] was like the difference between scanning a piece of sheet music and hearing a choir sing it aloud. Suddenly the arc of the melody, the grace of the counterpoint, the thrust of the lyric all become clear.”