Every year my organization, TripSchool(opens in a new tab) trains hundreds of new tour guides around the world. In our courses we cover every conceivable topic, from storytelling to customer service to handling cultural differences, but there’s one very practical topic that is perhaps most important of all, and on everyone’s mind: how much money does a tour guide earn? After all, beyond our passion for people and travel, guiding is a job. And the answer to this is, of course: it depends. Below I’ll lay out some of the factors that play into how much money you can expect to earn as a tour guide.
Guides are usually freelancers.
If you’re working for a tour operator, you’ll usually be hired as a freelancer(opens in a new tab), or independent contractor, or temporary worker, whatever term is used where you’re from. The exceptions to this rule are usually due to a certain state or country requiring more official employment status. Guides work seasonally, and only work when the tour operator gets bookings. So you’ll rarely be hired on a salary basis. Some guides do work as employees, guiding part of the time, and working in the office or doing operational activities as well.
Your earning potential largely depends on where you live.
Guiding is often seen as a service sector job, and thus is tied to the hourly wage rates in your region or city. Guides are usually paid much better in larger cities where guides are more in demand and wages and costs are higher. I live in New York City, where a guide might easily expect $40-50/hour for a tour. The same guide might be hired for $20/hr in a smaller market, and of course, pay scales change drastically in different countries around the world.
There are different “kinds” of tour guides, and tour companies.
Not all guides are the same, and tour companies can vary wildly, too, in terms of the kind of customer they’re catering to.(opens in a new tab) Some tour guides are simply university students looking for a little side income, or a retiree with a love for history, practically volunteering their services in a small town. Guides are often hired with the expectation that they’re also doing something else — waiting tables, working as an actor, or working on the weekends beyond their full-time job.
Then there’s the, shall we say, professional guide. The professional guide sees this job as a career, and therefore is investing in extra training, and developing marketing strategies including a personal website, offering their own tours, networking with destination organizations like a DMO or a CVB, making relationships with hotel concierges, and working for several tour operators, in addition to offering their own private tours.(opens in a new tab)
These two scenarios outline the extreme differences in tour companies and guides:
- You’re a college student working at night for a ghost tour company that sells $15 tickets, pays you $30 a tour, and expects you to memorize a script.
- You’re a historian by trade, with a graduate degree, and work for a high-end private tour company that sells a 3-hour private tour for $600, and pays the guide $250 for that tour. The high-end clients are wealthier, and regularly tip you $50-$100 on top of that tour.
These are two very extreme situations, but where you fall will depend largely on how much you invest in the networking, skill building, and ambition you have for this path. It’s ok to treat the job as something to pass the time, but believe me, there’s a whole world of earning potential out there for guides who have the goal of making guiding a career – but it means being entrepreneurial, creative, and ambitious!
What you’ll earn might partially come from tips.
The way gratuities work is different for every country, and is based on longstanding cultural practices. In the United States, where I live, guides often get paid a low hourly wage, with the expectation that guests will add to that with gratuities. When this works, it’s wonderful – a guide might make $15/hour from the operator, but an extra $100-$200 in tips, if a group of 30 people each tip $5 for example. However, the situation isn’t always that rosy. Like restaurant workers, you might have a group that undertips drastically, or doesn’t tip at all. You might have a very small group.
The balance between what the operator pays you, and what your guests pay varies greatly. Here are some example models:
- The “free tours” concept:(opens in a new tab) you’ll pay an operator a small fee for each guest you tour (perhaps $2), and then you’ll collect 100% of the tips on top of that.
- Minimum Wage + large group tour gratuities. You might earn $10/hr, but work for a company that books fairly large groups (20+ people) thus ensuring that some or most of them will tip you.
- In some countries, there’s no culture or expectation for gratuities, and therefore your wage will be paid entirely by the operator, and is therefore higher.
Gratuities also depend on the kind of tour client you have. Someone who pays very little for a tour, might not treat your skills with the same monetary care as a wealthy couple on a private tour with you, where they feel like they’ve received something very special and customized.
Specialty skills, like languages, yield a higher wage.
It’s hard to guide in a foreign language, and the more you speak, the more marketable you are to the niches of foreign visitors(opens in a new tab) wanting a native language experience. If you live in Italy and speak Greek fluently, you may be in demand for Greek travelers looking for the comfort of their own language.
Likewise, some tour operators offer architecture tours, or advanced history tours that require a level of expertise far beyond memorizing a script. These tours often fetch a higher price because the guide is compensated more.
Your wages depend on the number of guides and licensing requirements/enforcement in your region.
Some places, like Venice or Florence, have difficult tour guide license exams, and strict policing of guiding activities in the city. This means the number of guides is limited, and if a company is hiring professional guides, then those guides can command a higher wage. On the converse, a guide working in a completely unregulated market can’t demand the same wages if there’s an oversupply of potential guides. Note that many markets technically require guide licenses, but they’re not enforced at all!
One note is that supply and demand constantly fluctuate depending on how the tourism industry is doing. During the covid pandemic, many guides left the profession, and when demand returned to some countries very quickly, operators were left scrambling to hire guides.
So what’s the surest way to good compensation?
Like any job, your employer wants loyalty and quality. Here are some final tips about how to improve your compensation with a tour operator:
- Be good at your job. Take it seriously. Get quality training, always be learning and growing.(opens in a new tab) Getting excellent reviews for the company you work for is pure gold for that operator, and if you’re consistently better than the other guides, you can ask for better compensation as a result. I know many guides who do the same job as their fellow team members, but are compensated better because they’re… better.
- Be diligent and available. Don’t show up late, don’t flake on tours at the last moment, and don’t treat the job lightly.(opens in a new tab) Your employer will in turn see you as serious. Scheduling guides can be very annoying for companies, so the more you’re available and loyal to the company, the more you have the right to negotiate a better rate.
- Get listed on guide platforms (like ToursByLocals, Travel Curious, or Withlocals). If you’re selling tours direct to customers, without the intermediary of a tour operator, then you’ll simply earn more, since those platforms might simply take a commission of 20-25%, rather than paying you a set rate and keeping the rest of the profits.
- Be entrepreneurial. My organization teaches a class that helps guides start their own tour business.(opens in a new tab) Why? Starting a tour business is a lot of hard work, from creating a website to marketing, to developing your own tours and selling them. You might only be interested in showing up and leading tours. But starting your own business means your earning potential is limited only to your own creativity and ambition, and it’s frankly easier than ever, with online tools for selling and marketing your services. In addition, guides should see themselves as creators — leveraging social media channels, e-commerce platforms, and new platforms like self-guided mobile tours, to take their knowledge and creativity and do everything from blogging to selling merchandise to monetizing YouTube videos. The more income channels you have, the more this can turn into a real career, and a real passion.