Looking for a job that will pay you to travel? Consider becoming a tour director! This exciting career is perfect for organized, outgoing people looking for a little adventure. Read on to find out how Emily’s career as a tour director has taken her all over the world and given her the flexibility to do even more traveling during her time off.
Hi everyone, and welcome to our first Travel Career Snapshot here on Full Life, Full Passport. As I mentioned last week, through this series I will be sharing the stories of people who have pursued careers that involve travel in the hope that they intrigue, inspire, and entertain you!
Today, I’m joined by the lovely Emily, who has spent the past decade showing thousands of people some of the world’s most beautiful, interesting, and unique places. She also just happens to be one of my very best friends.
I wanted Emily to be our first subject for a number of reasons. First, as one of my closest friends, I could pressure her the hardest to be my guinea pig 🙂 Second, her job is interesting, unique, and perhaps unfamiliar to many readers. Third, she’s so fun, adventurous, and down-to-earth that I knew she’d be a great interview!
So, with all that, said, let’s dive in!
Hi, Emily! Thanks so much for joining us here on Full Life, Full Passport and sharing your story. Let’s start by learning a little bit about who you are outside of your job.
Thanks for having me! I grew up in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. We didn’t travel much as a family when I was younger, just to see grandparents and to the beach every now and then. I never thought I would go away for college, but I found myself three and a half hours away from home, and I never really thought I would ever travel much farther than that!
I know you love to travel now, though! Where did you get that passion?
My passion really came from working in Alaska. I spent my junior year summer working as a tour director for a cruise line up there, and it rocked my little southern girl world! I met so many amazing people (like Gwen), and their passion for travel and the unknown was contagious! I never realized that the world was open to me until then, but soon I was hooked on the nomadic lifestyle. Since that summer, I have visited thirty-seven countries and have guided tours for a living for almost ten years!
I am still shocked that a southern belle who never liked to spend the night away from home as a kid would be traveling the world! It took a few years of paying off college debt and building up my courage to travel, but I finally took the plunge and dove head-first into the deep end with my first overseas experience… I moved to Tanzania!!
Tanzania! A lot of people start small, with a nice trip to Europe or a resort in the Caribbean. What made you choose to relocate to Africa?
I took a job in Atlanta right after college and loved it for a while, but eventually I was itching to get back into traveling. My cousin was a diplomat in Tanzania, and when he and his wife presented me with the opportunity to come and nanny for them I jumped on it! I quit my job, went back to Alaska for the summer to work and save up money, then set off for the great unknown of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania! It was the greatest and yet most challenging time of my life! I really grew a lot as a person.
I love that! All right, down to business. What is it like being a professional tour director?
As a professional tour director, I am responsible for managing multi-day tours for groups of people all over the world. Not only do I manage the trip itinerary, but I also solve any problems that arise and make sure you, as my guest, have a great experience.
People in my line of work have several titles. I have been called a Tour Director, Tour Manager, or Tour Guide depending on which company I am working for, but really you direct,
We direct the guests to good restaurants, their hotel rooms, local attractions, etc. I have even had to provide directions for my bus driver!
We manage the expectations of our guests as well as their group dynamics, and we also manage relationships with all of the other people working to make your vacation great, like hotel staff, excursion vendors, bus drivers, and local tourist offices.
Finally, we guide by providing narration and commentary about the location you are exploring. Overall, we want our guests to leave knowing something new about the place they are visiting and hopefully have them fall in love with it!
What does your work schedule look like?
I contract with a number of different companies to do tours over the course of the year, and my general schedule can be roughly divided into seasons: student season, family season, and adult season.
Student season is mid-February to about mid-June, when school groups are taking field trips or traveling for band or choral competitions. These tours are usually in Washington D.C., but I also find myself in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Nashville, Memphis, or Atlanta depending on where each company sends me and each school wants to go. These tours are two to five days long and I will usually do three to five per month.
Family season is in the summer, mid-June through August, when families are on vacation together. I spend my summers working with one single company that is a major, higher-end player in the travel space. These tours take me all over the world and are seven to twelve days long, depending on the destination. I usually have three to four tours per month.
Adult season is when the more “senior” folks travel. (The average age is about 70.) A lot of these tours focus on the south (“Dixieland”) or chasing fall foliage in New England, and they are usually longer – about ten to fourteen days.
Overall, I spend about nine months working each year total, and my day-to-day schedule always changes. I get a few days at home here and there, but mostly I’m away!
What made you choose this career, and what steps did you take to get into the biz?
I applied for a job as an Escorted Tour Operator in Alaska with Holland America Cruise Line while I was in college. I needed a summer internship for school as well as an income, so it seemed like a good fit. After working with Holland America for a few summers, I took the full-time job in Atlanta that I mentioned earlier, but I found that I really missed guiding. I missed the people, the problem solving, the travel, the experiences… I missed it all!
It was then that I reached out to some friends who were full-time tour guides and picked their brains about the gig. I will forever be in debt to those who helped me along the way, in particular a guy named Scott Terry. He really took me under his wing and help me become a great tour guide!
My experience in Alaska made it much easier to get my foot in the door since who you know can make a big difference in this business. I met a lot of great and well-connected professional tour directors up there. I am so thankful for those who recognized the caliber of my work and were willing to pass my name along and vouch for me to other tour companies!
What are some of your favorite parts of being a tour director?
The best part of this job is the people you meet. I love getting to interact with so many people from all over the world, both as my guests and also as colleagues. Everyone has a story and I love hearing them!
I also love that I get to make people’s bucket list dreams come true, and when I can show someone a whole new world that they’ve never experienced. On my student tours, I have had kids who have never been out of their hometown before, and I love being able to open their eyes and maybe change their lives like Alaska changed mine.
I even love handling the challenges that arise and the problem-solving that goes into making every tour seem smooth and effortless. I feel like those unforeseen circumstances keep me sharp. And of
Are there any downsides?
As much as I love traveling, it can be very hard to be away from home for long stretches of time. I sometimes feel like I’m missing out on a lot of things, such as family events, weddings, or even just a night out with friends. I do crave some normalcy in my life, which you don’t exactly get when you live out of a suitcase and are staying in a new hotel every night. I can feel jealous when I see my friends having a routine, going to a workout class a few times a week, enjoying dinner with friends, and attending church on Sundays. Even though I love my life and love to travel, I do miss those things a lot sometimes.
I also hate eating out as much as I do, especially since I don’t always get a say in where a tour stops for dinner. It gets really old eating at the Hard Rock Café for the 100th time!
What makes you successful in this line of work?
I believe having an enormous amount of patience is a must for anyone to do this job well. Plans can change, unforeseen circumstances pop up, emergencies happen, you have to work with people whom you don’t necessarily like… dealing with all of it takes a lot of patience.
Another good quality is being flexible. Even though the itinerary has been set, things happen and you have to be able to go with the flow and still create a great experience for your guests! Being able to think on your feet is key as well, as circumstances can pop up that require your immediate attention, so being able to be a quick thinker and problem solver comes in handy.
You also need to really like people. You cannot do this job well if you have difficulty being around people all day, every day!
What are one or two things someone should know before committing to your career?
This job can be exhausting! You should know that you will be working for about twelve to fourteen hours every day, sometimes for five to fourteen or more days in a row. Tours don’t stop just because it’s a weekend!
You also need to take care of yourself mentally because the mental exhaustion of always being “on” will get to you before the physical exhaustion of working a lot of days in a row. Being upbeat, personable, and energetic can be draining even for someone who is a bighearted extrovert like me.
I would also tell people that it is very hard to have a “normal life” with this job, especially if tour directing is your main source of income. When you’re always on the road, you might miss out on events or other happenings back home. Also, because most companies will only pay you for the days that you are on tour, you won’t make money unless you are working. This leads to some tough choices between doing things you want to do and earning a living. Because you’re technically self-employed, you also have to carry your own health insurance, so be aware of that, too.
That sounds pretty doom-and-gloom, but I wouldn’t be a tour director if there weren’t some great things about the job, too! The amount of free time I have is wonderful. I work whenever I want to and have the freedom to set my own schedule of how many tours I take and when. I am usually done working the minute a tour ends, so there’s no take-home stress between jobs. In between tours, I am totally flexible and can take as much vacation time as I want (or my wallet allows). To me, that is priceless. I love that I can see friends and family or do my own personal traveling whenever I want instead of being limited to the amount of time off my job gives me.
Is there an exciting, provocative, or funny story from your work that you’d like to share?
Hmmmm, nothing personal that I can share on a public blog! 😉 I will share a rather legendary story of a former colleague who accidentally left a pair of guests behind when leaving town for the next leg of a tour. When he realized his mistake (he hadn’t counted heads before telling the driver to take off), he told his other guests that he had arranged for a special, unscheduled stop at a local museum. After dropping off the unsuspecting – and very grateful – group, he and his driver returned to pick up the missing couple and he somehow managed to convince them that it was their fault they’d been left behind because they hadn’t been there on time! They were actually apologizing to him, and he saved his own butt by assuring them that it would be their little secret and the rest of the group didn’t need to know. Oh, the charm of a young, handsome tour director!
What is your favorite or most trusted piece of travel advice?
Be kind to your bus driver, airline staff, tour guide, or excursion vendor! The people you encounter on your vacation can be your biggest champions or your biggest enemies and can make all the difference in the quality of your vacation.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you, your career, or any of the places you’ve been?
I love my job! There are so many wonderful things about it. It truly is rewarding to show people around our beautiful world. I get to make people’s bucket lists come true, and I get to show a middle schooler what it’s like outside of his hometown. I love seeing that moment when a whole new world is opened up for someone! My parents used to tell me, “Do what you love, and you will never work a day in your life!” If that is the case, I haven’t worked for ten years.
I would also like to assure people that even though it is not a traditional nine-to-five, I do have a “real job.” I am doing something I love and getting paid to travel the world in the meantime!
It’s a big world, go explore it! I will leave you with my favorite quote, which comes from a song from a band called NEEDTOBREATHE, “If you never leave home, if you never let go, you will never make it to the great unknown.”
Thanks so much, Emily! Never stop being your incredible, loving, adventurous self!
**Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity. All photos were provided by Emily. If you want to follow Emily on her adventures, check her out on Instagram!
So there you have it, folks – the first of our Travel Career Snapshots. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little glimpse into the life and work of a tour director.
I would also love to hear your thoughts on this interview and the series itself to help shape future Snapshots! What worked for you? What didn’t? What sort of careers would you like to see us feature? Please let me know in the comments!
Thanks again for reading, and happy travels!
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Interested in working in Alaska like Emily did? Check out available positions here!
This Travel Career Snapshot was originally posted on May 10, 2018, and last updated on May 15, 2021.
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