Money for nothing and your chicks for free ! (apologies to Dire Straits !)

The notion that working as a tour leader is one long paid holiday has in fact a proportion of truth in it, but only a relatively small one, comments Bob Cranwell. You do get to go to some fabulous places, many of which you might never have got to under your own steam. You do get an influx of 12-24 people into your life every few weeks – people who by and large, are intent on having a good holiday, seeing and doing new things.

You do have more than your fair share of admirers, some more persistent than others, some more of a headache than you could ever imagine. You do get a lot of free meals and drinks, a few gifts and depending on your principles, a proportion of what your punters may spend on what are, frankly, elective souvenirs like carpets, trinkets etc.

Bob fishing for customers
Bob fishing for customers

For a lot of people, the idea of a tour rather than a stay in one place seems more expensive, less restful, perhaps. Both are true. The higher costs come from smaller volume bookings with agencies, hotels, transport etc from which mass resort tourism gains. Restful ? I recall one avid traveler in their 70’s, whose entire baggage was a single spare of shirts, trousers, underwear and socks. He had a very good fleece which zipped into a good waterproof, stout brogues and a sunhat. He said, “Relax ? You can relax when you get home, right now, I’m on tour and I want to see as much as I can !”


The big thing in these holidays is moving around, but in a novel way;

  • the variety ensures you will have a lot to talk about when you get home
  • a known company and a tourleader accompanying the group give you confidence if you feel a bit nervous about this new sort of holiday
  • you feel nearer to people because you’re in small numbers
  • its easier – especially for women, to travel alone as you’ll be roomed with another person of the same gender, nice to have someone to natter with and share ideas
  • you have lower impact because local transport is often used, buses, trains, rickshaws etc – cash to the local economy
  • you get to really out of the way places, have quite unexpected experiences
  • you get meet people who are the sort who would book the trip you’re on

The unique selling points outlined above of course bring in different customers, some who have just got bored with resorts; maybe just want a wider experience without DIY;  people with ‘goals’ of one sort or another, perhaps on a ‘bucket list’; trainee would-be adventurers – anybody, really, except the knotted handkerchief and San Miguel brigade. . . I’ve enjoyed working for surgeons, wagon drivers, nuclear physicists, teachers, forklift drivers, translators, you name it. The marketing wallahs of course look at things differently as they have a budget to target for best reward. We had a huge surge in young execs in the late 80’s and 90’s; having had an adventurous gap year, or even a couple of adventure trips looked good on a CV.

It appears that females far outweigh males in wanting this sort of experience, but also the types of trip they would book on. As a result, you would find lots of males on trips where there was a ‘badge’ to be earned; Everest Base Camp, Annapurna Circuit, Kilimanjaro, hard walking trips. Women chose the types of trips with more experience than achievement, walking through Hungarian villages, camping in Scandinavia (I once had 18 women and one guy on a trip there, the following trip had exactly the reverse – Eh ? somebody should have spotted this !), visiting the Painted Villages of Shekhavati in Rajasthan. You get the idea.

Although you could never find any statistics to back this up, I think most tourleaders would agree that adventure trips in general tend to attract strong women and weak men. Unfortunately, as many of the women are looking for suitable partners, they may get a dish of dry crackers. Therefore, in my case, male, I found I held an enviable position in the popularity stakes; I was the only person around who took decisions Et seq.

Exactly the same thing happened of course with the women tourleaders. Occasionally you’d get a less pleasant member of the group, an individual who, despite signing up for a paid guided trip, clearly thought they should be running it. Usually, your exceptional knowledge and manipulative abilities will win them over, but sometimes no. I can count on the fingers of one hand the occasions when I had to be properly brutal, in my view, by showing them a copy of the booking form. They had signed it, agreeing blah, blah, to accept the authority of the tourleader in all matters relating to the operation of tour. End of.

It’s also actually very different to the job of the reps which most people encounter on a package holiday. Their main task is to collect people from airports, allocate accommodation and sell excursions, and follow company rules in any encounter with the customer. In many places I have come across reps for large and well known companies who knew surprisingly little. It’s very common to meet reps who cannot speak the language of the place they are working in and rely on hotel reception staff and local agents to translate when there is a problem. Some companies actually do not pay anything, except board and lodging in the hotel where they are based. Their income solely derives a percentage fixed by the company, who also take a cut, from flogging beach piss-ups, excursions to some ruins or viewpoint and lunch, then the blurred experience of shopping.

Rajasthani country bus
Rajasthani country bus. It might look a wreck but is in constant service through remote villages. Note parking brake.

I remember meeting a trio of distraught tourists in Egypt in pre-internet days, outside the money transfer office of a well known travel company, trying to get funds from the U.K. as they had run out of money, they explained to me that their holiday rep in Luxor could give them no idea how to get money transferred from home when someone was robbed, or ran short for other reasons. Another in Tashkent, central Asia, had no idea that there was an old part to the city, let alone how to get there. Many these days are simply there to protect company PR and fulfil their “duty of care” to the finest legal tolerances.

The job of a tour leader, particularly in adventure travel, really revolves around the fact that although the tour is a package, it involves moving from place to place over a few weeks. This means travelling the whole time with a group of up to 24 people (each with their own preconceptions, temperament and experiences to take into account), and making a host of arrangements with local agents, local transport operators, hotels, some of which definitely need expectations managed, sites we may visit whether included in the tour or not, and of course eating and bathroom arrangements of all types.

To further complicate matters, adventure travel often means organising and participating in walks, excursions, as part of the trip, varying from park strolls to serious treks, riding of donkeys, ponies, bikes, camels, using local trains, buses, rickshaws, canoes, rafts, elephants – you name it !


For many people the climax of a trip to India, Taj Mahal, Agra


To do this effectively you really have to quickly learn as many key phrases in the language of the country as you can, and you carry on learning in each country you work in. At one time I reckoned I could get by in 7 languages – at the least would be words to do with greetings, numbers, hotels (double room, double bed, ground floor, water, showers, toilets etc), and restaurant info, (types of food, meat/veg etc), finding the way, (where is / is this the path /road to *** ?), giving directions to drivers, or getting info from locals on impending weather, good places to eat, problems en route, getting tickets etc.

In addition, the company I mainly worked for expected tour leaders to give talks on aspects of the country they may have some specialist knowledge, or to gain that knowledge, or be bloody good at blagging their way through (see the piece “wing and a prayer” on Syria). This could be anything from individual tree species, culture, traditions, flora, clothing, fauna, religion, climate, making and maintaining roads in subarctic or desert environments (an oddity which I liked amongst many), history, literature, food, wine – there’s no end to the variety of subjects which you may well be asked about. You have to be good at bluffing, too.

As a result, if you work in a number of countries or over several years, you can become like a few volumes of a walking compendium. On the other hand, if you spend a huge amount of time working in only one country – Egypt’s “season” lasts all year round – you can accumulate a vast amount of knowledge that is almost useless anywhere else. However, you would definitely have the expertise – the mechanics of running a tour is the same in Blackpool as it is in Burundi.

If you work in a number of different areas, for example I worked in Alaska, Portugal, Scandinavia, Algeria, Ethiopia, France, India to name a few, and each place has it’s own database in your head, plants, language, culture, interests, and your head, thankfully manages to compartmentalise this knowledge. Most of the time that is. I have had a few weird moments when switching to another country within a week, sometimes, where I might answer a question in the wrong language, or be completely stumped by a common flower in Europe, because I still had the India database running in my head !

Out of the blue, and very soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I was asked to lead some walking tours in Hungary. As I flew into Budapest on the Malev flight for a five day recce of the route and accommodation I realised that despite being ok with a number of languages, I couldn’t decipher a single word of the Hungarian newspaper I had asked for. The prospect of getting around the country in a hire car was a pleasant thought, balanced by the fact that I had to introduce myself in various out of the way places, checkout places to eat, drink, visit, assess the terrain we would over on foot and get an idea of places we might start or end a day’s walk.

Village house Zemplen mountains
Village house Zemplen mountains

However, within the 5 days I had been allotted to travel around the route and gain some country knowledge prior to the first tour arriving, I managed to glean enough Hungarian to know what we were ordering in restaurants and to ask the way to places. I really had no choice, as a group of 16 people would be relying on me for even basic needs. Incidentally, although most people who came on tour with me in Hungary (as an example), had bought a guide or phrase book costing a few quid, very few bothered to open them. If you cannot stand red wine surely it is important to you to know that red wine in Hungarian is “voros bor” and white wine is “feher bor”, but you’d be surprised that some people still rely on you to order their wine even after being in the country two weeks. Lazy bastards.

In addition to this tour leaders might well have to act as local guide, although a number of countries these days require that only local people do this, even if they can hardly speak the right language for their visitors, or indeed may have less knowledge of the area than the tour leader. I found it quite common that I had been in areas of most countries that their own nationals had not been to or even heard of sometimes.

It’s actually pretty hard work being civil to everyone, no matter the time of day, how trivial the complaint, or how rude the customer, and for them, you had to be right. All the time. It was normal for people to ask things like “so, Bob, on day 11 when do you think we’ll arrive in wherever, and will the museum still be open ?” And they ask this as you’re coming down for your first cup of coffee in the morning. I’m afraid my sense of self preservation led me to mention in my initial briefings to customers that I really do need to have had two cups of coffee before I start work !

So it might come as a bit of a surprise to find that for most of the time I worked in tourism, early 80’s to 2000, tour leaders were unusual if they were paid more than £20 a day, and many get half that, and as I mentioned above, some resort reps get nothing. It’s not much to pay for the experience and skills you can rightly expect of us.

Below I have appended a copy of an interview with Chris Bradley, a widely travelled man, tour leader, guidebook writer published in the Sunday Times, it gives something of a flavour of the life as perceived and lived.

Sunday Times interview with Chris Bradley, a colleague
Sunday Times interview with Chris Bradley, a colleague

In addition I have put a very short précis of a day’s ‘stuff to remember’ from a wildlife trip in India. Not much to look at, until you consider everything that lies behind every single word:

Had alarm and coffee and fag @ 4.30 so I can get into National Park lodge restaurant for 5, (this is all basically nice-ish shacks in the woods, tigers pass through often ! Yikes, no late night piss-ups there !). Pax (short for passengers) got tea, coffee @ 5 then quickly out for dep in jeeps @ 5.30, arriving at Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve gates as they are opened at 6m. Look around, drive stop x 20-30 times over 3 hrs, tracks, sounds, alarm calls, overviews. Leave at 9, back to lodge for eggs, tea/coffee toast, butter, jam (that’s what’s costed in. Have a chat about what’s gone, going, possible; (privately) any problems. Push off for a kip and diaries, birdwatching, whatever they want. Meet again at 2.30. rpt till 6, eat about 7.30 (most of the kitchen staff live off site, cycling home in the dark cos batteries are expensive through tiger woodland FFS and you think I’m brave ! Bloody brilliant stuff though !

Catch yer later

Bob Cranwell, Amateur Emigrant

  • reply Karl Anders ,

    Great post, Bob! I would have loved to have been on one of those tours with you. The stories and laughs would likely have seemed endless and continued into the wee hours. But I think I wouldn’t challenge you to a drinking competition. Know that’s one I’d certainly not win.

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