HOW TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PRIVATE TOUR COMPANIES
Since confinement started things have been pretty quiet for tour operators like us. No new bookings, no emails asking about our tours and of course no tours to give. But that doesn’t mean I’ve spent all my time cooking cakes and snuggling with my family (which I have, but not all the time, of course!). You might have noticed I’ve been improving our website pictures and went back to posting every week on the blog.
Another thing I’ve done is checking out who is out there, meaning I did some competition research. And it was a surprise to see the variety of possibilities travellers have to choose from. Pricing can significantly vary depending on the type of service. And the differences from one service to another might not always be as evident.
There are no good and evil choices: there’s a market for everyone. What matters is that your choice matches your needs and expectations. Let me share my findings with you!
Types of private tours and how they are priced:
This is something I identified in Tripadvisor and it surprised me quite a lot. Tripadvisor used to be a review listing site, but these last years it has become what insiders call an OTA (online travel agency). If you go to Tripadvisor to find a tour guide, the first thing you’ll find is a listing of tours, not of companies like it used to be. To find the company listing you have to scroll down and find a little link at the bottom of the left sidebar menu that says “see all tour operators in (area)”. What means that travellers can’t find the tour companies with best reviews because Tripadvisor hides the review listing showing only their tour list first.
To appear in such list, operators need to pay Tripadvisor a 25-30% commission of each sale made through their platform. As a result, some companies will create bait tours, usually short and surprisingly cheap as a marketing strategy. They make almost no profit out of such tours, but it’s a way to get visibility. And once they sell you a first tour, they market you throughout the tour so you purchase a second, more expensive experience. I personally find it a real nuisance: my guide will be more interested in selling than in providing a great experience free of distractions. But for some people it may be only a minor issue.
Private tours by free tours companies
You’ll always see them at the top of the listings. On Google because they have large budgets for SEO (keyword placing) and advertising (did you know the first 2-3 results on Google are ads?). On Tripadvisor their large group free tours provide them with thousands of reviews that make them rank high. But in reality, only a tiny proportion of free tour company reviews come from private tours. And the thing is that free tours and private tours run on completely different dynamics. Free tour guides follow a script (written by someone else) they learn by heart. Instead, private tour guides need to have a broad knowledge of their territory. They have a high capacity to improvise, adapt to their guests interests and keep their itinerary flexible. Free tour companies tend to hire expats looking for a Summer job, with little experience and only a basic general knowledge. And not having lived long enough in the area nor being fluent in the language, they rely on stereotypes. Private tours by free tour companies are often cheaper options, because their guides are amateurs. And free tour companies don’t pay their staff well, therefore they can keep their prices low. But that’s another story.
Private tours by small group tour companies
Small group tours are the intermediate step between large group tours and a true private tour. Small group tours usually work with groups of 7 to 12 people, depending on the company. You get a more personal experience than with a large group tour. But sharing your time with complete strangers has its downsides too. Some might have a different pace or might want to monopolize the guide’s attention with their questions. Small group tours don’t have the flexibility of private tours because they need to stick to the itinerary people has purchased.
Small group tour companies often offer private tours too. The problem is that in most sites and on Tripadvisor it wasn’t clear enough if I was booking a private or a small group tour. and often their pricing “from €XXX” referred to their small group pricing. Figuring out the right price for a private tour was often confusing in most sites. So as a client I would have ended up emailing to check rather than booking directly online. Such lack of clarity is a waste of time.
Non-licensed guides vs licensed guides
The local law says that only licensed tour guides can give explanations inside museums, monuments and tourist sites. Anyone can give tours outside in the streets, though. Companies using licensed guides will be stating they use “licensed” or “official” guides. Non-licensed guides are often advertised as “professional” or “local” guides (misleading marketing tricks!). When not clear enough, it’s always better to ask. You want to know what your tour guide is allowed to do or not.
I find that free tour guides, for instance, are usually sneaky: they often take their groups inside the Roman temple when they are not supposed to. Some sites like the Dali Museum or Park Guell are relatively permissive and might let them in. But a non-licensed guide still risks getting their tour interrupted and being kicked out if someone reports them. And some other sites such as Sagrada Familia are super strict and will never let non-licensed tour guides in. That’s why in many tours the guide explains it from outside and then you get to visit it visit on your own… Skipping lines? Not really. Only licensed guides are allowed to use the priority access. Anyone else has timed tickets and needs to get in the same access line that non-licensed guides can’t skip.
It always puzzles me that such companies claim “you don’t need a guide inside the church”. It’s the most visited monument in the entire country! It’ll be the highlight of your trip. Why endure a monotone audioguide instead of the lively stories of a real person? Especially when you hired a guide for the rest of the city… But again, that can be an acceptable option for some travelers.
Private tours by driver guides
In Spain drivers need a special driving license, an expensive professional permit and a specific insurance to drive passengers around. That’s a lot of money, what explains that most tour guides aren’t legally entitled to drive. So if your itinerary requires private transportation, you have 3 options: get 2 people (a guide to show you around and a dedicated professional driver), get a driver guide that is licensed to drive but has the knowledge of a non-licensed guide (or usually less, because its’ not their job to explain), or get a guide that drives… without the necessary licenses. This last option is the riskiest and the one I’d rule out fast: I want the safety only a professional driver can provide.
At ForeverBarcelona we want to give you our full attention during the rides. And we want the driver to focus on the road with no distractions. So we use two people: a licensed guide and a professional driver. But using a driver without a guide could be an option when explanations aren’t your top priority. Just take into account that you’ll waste some time parking, and often the driver will have to stay in the car while you walk around a particular area such as the Gothic Quarter.
I’ve seen some drivers that pick you up in Barcelona and take you out of town to Girona or the Dali Museum where a local guide joins you. That considerably reduces the tour cost because you only use a guide for a short part of your tour. When the guide rides with you from Barcelona, there’s a bit over an hour to start getting to know you. Your interests, your level of knowledge… That’s enough time to start filling you in with stories that will make your experience richer later. Instead, the guide that meets you there has had no time to interact. She won’t be able to personalize the explanations and you’ll get a more standard tour instead. The difference seems subtle, but it does matter.
Tours priced per person vs tours with a fixed price
Comparing prices to make the right choice is one of the toughest parts of choosing a private tour. And it gets trickier when some companies charge per person, and other have a set price. Set prices are easy: you are paying XXX euros for X number of hours. Sometimes there’s an extra per person to cover entrance fees. This is the model we follow at ForeverBarcelona. Other companies charge you a price per person that includes all entrance fees and extras.
I’ve made the numbers and per-person fees are often good deals for couples. But if your party is 4 people or more they get quickly too expensive. They often don’t do special prices for kids or seniors, like we do for the additional entrance fees. Moreover, some companies will make you pay a minimum number of people to book a private tour. And they sometimes don’t tell you until you start the online booking process or when you email them. I mentioned before I hate wasting my time due to a lack of information?
Are there any other hidden costs you need to take into account?
In Spain, tips are not included but they are not mandatory either. How much you tip, if you decide to tip, is totally up to you. VAT is 21% at the moment and should be already included in the advertised price. Online payments can be easily tracked, so skipping taxes is not an option when you pay online. So when a tour company asks to pay cash on the day of the tour, that’s a red flag. Since cash payments are difficult to track, they might not be paying VAT or other taxes. That’d also explaing their fees being much lower than the average. Shame on them for not contributing to the local economy and social welfare.
Finally, always do a test booking and go all the way to the credit card details page to check the final price. I saw a few companies with booking systems adding a hidden “booking fee” at the moment of paying. The industry standard is a 6%: that’s what top booking platforms such as Fareharbour and Rezdy charge. They actually offer tour operators the option to absorb the cost so there is no booking fee. But some tour operators prefer to pass the cost on to the client. And while 6% isn’t too much when paying a small amount, it can be a LOT of money when booking a few hundreds of euros for a private tour. At ForeverBarcelona we don’t agree with the booking fee model so we went for a monthly fee platform with no hidden booking fees.
This is everything I’ve learned on my market research on Barcelona private tours. I hope this helps you to be more aware of the differences between services and to make an informed decision to take the most out of your hard earned money.
Enjoy your Barcelona private tour!
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