Five years after cramming her life into a backpack and leaving Australia to visit all the world’s Olympic sites, Caitlyn O’Dowd divides her life between working as a tour guide and living off season in the Netherlands.
For the past two years any day during the season can see her guiding in one or more of 45 cities in 11 countries in Europe. She has also led festival tours of La Tomatina and spent three weeks guiding Oktoberfest tours in Munich, which nearly destroyed her liver.
What experience or qualifications do you have for this position?
The only thing you needed was travel experience. I had studied history at university which definitely helped, but for once those big gaps on my resume where travel had been now needed to be highlighted, not covered up!
How did you find your job?
I actually found it on ‘Seek’; an Australian jobs website. I was planning on moving to the Netherlands and was trying pretty hard to find a job before I’d left Oz, and then I found tour guide jobs. Both companies held interviews in Melbourne, due to the fact that they’re focused on the Australian market.
How much are you paid?
Not nearly enough! The money you make is the least I’ve made since my university days, but the thing is, you have hardly any costs. Accommodation is provided, even on your days off, and you can usually access quite a bit of free food along the way too.
Are you doing the job for love or money?
Definitely for the love of it, the love of Europe! You don’t get into tour guiding for the money.
Tell us a little about your average day?
There’s never an average day when you’re tour guiding! For example, I guided a tour of southern Spain, Portugal and Morocco this year. One day of that tour had me waking up at 6am in Lagos, and running about trying to drag 45 people on a coach, many of whom had completed their second pub crawl in a row the night before.
The first stop would be just over the Spanish border, and I’d pre-order 45 sets of bacon and eggs in my very best Spanish, plus a mighty big serving for my driver. We’d get to Tarifa, on the most southerly tip of Europe at about lunchtime, and I’d pull my hair out trying to sort out dorms for 45 people, making sure the new romances were kept together, and moving the snorers around. I’d give everyone a walking tour of Tarifa and send them away for free time, whilst I arranged ferry tickets and immigration papers for everyone.
Then it’s onto the ferry, constantly counting everyone, and over to Morocco. We’d ride camels, eat olives and haggle over Moroccan oil, and chow down a four course dinner sitting on pillows. I’m constantly freaked out about leaving someone behind in Africa, lost in the Tangier medina forever so I’m relieved when we’re all back on the ferry. It’s midnight by the time we get back to Spain, but nobody’s ready for bed yet. I arrange haphazard drink specials at a cocktail bar I spy and finally allow myself a drink and sink into a lounge. It’s two in the morning by the time I fall into my bed; three countries isn’t bad for a 20-hour workday!
What are the best bits of your job? And the worst?
The best bits would definitely be introducing people to new, amazing cities. Getting people excited about history and culture isn’t something that can be done easily, but it’s a hell of a lot simpler to explain the Berlin Wall when you’re right beside it than inside a classroom on the other side of the world. Seeing people try pintxos in San Sebastian for the first time, their eyes when they bite into beef cheek or sip a kalimotxo – those are the highlights. The worst would have to be the other side of that; the people that just don’t really care, that see Europe as one mighty big pub crawl.
So, have you ever wanted to throttle anyone in your tour group?
I’ve been pretty lucky, I haven’t had too many shockers. I’ve had people calling me at all hours of the night to sort out issues, from girlfriend troubles to emergency room visits. It’s all part and parcel of the job.
Are you in this job for a while, or planning to move on soon?
I was planning on doing this for a year, but somehow it turned into two and now I’m considering a third year. I didn’t expect to love it so much; I knew visiting the cities constantly was going to be good but I didn’t think I’d fall in love with hearing myself on the microphone!
Any tips for those wanting to be a tour guide?
Don’t get down thinking you don’t speak enough languages or don’t know enough about history. Every tour guide is different, play to your strengths. And if a passenger is getting you down, remember; it’s their holiday and you have the unique ability to influence so many people’s trips for the better.