Private tours come in all shapes and sizes. One can be a scheduled time and date for your group, like a more intimate version of a regularly scheduled public tour. Or it can be an independent adventure based on your interests -- think: a public art tour under the guidance of a street artist, or a Rio favela tour in Rio with a rapper. More to the point, "independent" doesn't need to mean "expensive." Whether it's a result of technology that helps connect travelers and locals, or because there's been a general growth of interest in experiential travel, private tours are now a viable option for any travelers who might want to see their destination in a different way. Here's a guide for finding one for your next trip:
Questions to Ask Yourself
Unfortunately, there isn't a one-stop shop for all the private tours you might find in all corners of the world (at least not yet, entrepreneurs... wink wink). So before you start your search, you'll want to think about exactly what it is that you're after. For example, what types of attractions are you hoping to see? Some guides might be experts who can share lesser-known facts about the big tourist hotspots, while others might specialize in one or two local neighborhoods in particular. Also consider the different styles of tours there are -- a tour could be very informational or it could be activity-based, like a food or pub crawl.
Next, think about who you would enjoy learning from. Guides could be historians or local artisans or simply someone who has lived in the destination you're visiting for a long time. Would you want to go around with a twenty-something acting student who might have an interesting perspective but not a whole lot of formal expertise? Or would you prefer someone who's a certified guide with lots of trivia at their disposal?
Finally, there's safety to think about. Beyond the general conditions of the neighborhoods you plan on visiting, there's the fact that you're putting yourself into the hands of a stranger. And if you're looking to non-traditional tours, how can you tell what's legitimate and what's a waste of money? Obviously, you can carefully peruse review of tour companies on sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp. But if you're using a social app like TravBuddy or BeWelcome, you can also scan the profiles of your host, read the comments from other users, and make sure those commenters are verified guests. Many of these apps connect profiles with social media accounts -- another way to check that your guide is a real person, and one who seems sane.
Ways to Start Your Search
You’ll occasionally hear stories from friends about an “epic tour from this guy we met on the street.” While those make for great experiences, you probably won't want to leave things up to chance encounters. Luckily, in addition to those apps we just mentioned, plenty of websites like Meetup bring travelers and locals together at social gatherings, some of which are event- or attraction-based.
Of course, one of the easiest way to secure an independent tour in advance is through a travel agent or booking platform. But if you want to do your own research, a simple Google search of “private tours” or "independent tours" followed by the city name generally yields thousands of relevant results. Many popular travel forums will also have sections dedicated to tour guide resources.
Other Online Resources
While it's difficult for us to build a comprehensive directory of tour resources, there are a few nationwide or worldwide sites to check out. Vayable is perfect for those looking for unique travel experiences with local experts. Examples include: An underground eating tour in Queens, NY; an alternative tour of Berlin; and a night photography tour of Paris. Within each tour features reviews, the tour guide's profile, and a detailed itinerary of what you'll do. Plus, prices are relatively affordable.
A similar but more customizable alternative is Get Your Guide, which aggregates tours and activities from all over the world on one easily bookable platform. Whether you want to indulge in a Don Draper cocktail hour in Manhattan or book a tapas and bike tour in Barcelona, the site presents more 20,000 activities (with reviews), while quickly unearthing such obscurities like a Gatsby-style champagne brunch in New York Harbor.
Go Ahead Tours offers a more complete package with hotels, airlines, and local experts who will help you understand the history and culture behind some of the world's most eclectic locations. While they offer plenty of pre-selected tours like traditional operators do, you can also get a group together to create a custom itinerary, either by tweaking an existing one or creating your own from scratch. In addition, each tour contains a massive compilation of reviews, so you'll know exactly what to expect.
Note: If you're simply looking for a specially arranged, private session of a publicly offered tour (rather than these specialized offerings we've highlighted above), most operators can make arrangements for small groups.