NEW YORK - I had one night only in Medellin, Colombia. It was Christmas and I was determined to see the city's famous holiday lights. An online search led me to LandVentureTravel.com, which specializes in private Medellin tours. By email, I booked a guide to meet my family at our hotel and take us to see the lights.
I found good reviews for the service on other websites, but felt nervous. What if the guide didn't show? What if his driving was bad? What if the neighborhoods were scary?
But our guide was phenomenal. We not only loved the lights, but we genuinely connected with our guide about everything from the economy to politics. It was my first private tour, and it was a revelation - completely different from group tours with canned scripts and time wasted waiting for others to shop and use bathrooms.
Private tours are no longer the exclusive domain of wealthy travelers and high-end packages. Websites and social media have made it easy for travelers to book a personal guide.
"There is a growing desire for this," said Jamie Wong, founder of Vayable.com, one of the biggest sites connecting tourists with locals, offering 8,500 experiences in 800 cities. "We're leaving the double-decker buses and prefab, packaged tours and entering an era of eclecticism where niche is becoming mainstream."
Prices for personal tours are often but not always lower than group tours, ranging from $15 to hundreds of dollars, depending on location, duration and logistics. Tours4Tips charges nothing for walking tours of Santiago, Chile, participants pay what they wish at the end, with an average $12 tip. Our tour for four in Medellin was $140, $35 per person, or half the price of a Christmas lights bus tour in New York.
Regardless of cost, personal tours are often more meaningful than packaged tours. You not only get a customized itinerary, but you get to meet a local.
Robin Samora of Boston paid $100 each for four-hour tours in Budapest and Prague. "We loved that the tour was personalized, with what we liked to do," she said. "We also had the ability to ask questions about any subject," including what it was like to grow up under communism.
The hardest part is finding the tour of your dreams. Many travelers simply ask friends or use social media.
Others search on blogs, TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet threads. Tours on Vayable and other sites - ToursByLocals, UrbanAdventures, Rent-A-Guide, Nomaders - tend to fall into obvious categories such as food, shopping, major attractions, history, art, architecture and outdoor adventures. But Vayable also lets users request a custom itinerary, which local guides then bid on.
Elisse Goldstein-Clark, who owns the Elkhorn Inn in Eckman, W.Va., "was Googling to find foodie things to do in Rome - there are lots of foodie tours there. But I started reading about truffle-hunting with a guide in Le Marche in rural Italy, and we changed our trip so we could go truffle-hunting." She and her husband spent several hours on a bus getting there, but it ended up being "a foodie once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Jeremy Hanson, a New Yorker who just graduated from law school, often finds guides through local travel agencies in the place he's visiting.
"These types of guides don't have the infrastructure to man the phone and put up a website," he explained.
In Nicaragua, he found a guide for a volcano hike "essentially just by walking up and down the street and speaking to people in my broken Spanish."
The only downside? Sometimes guides are too devoted. "We had one in Malacca, Malaysia, who wanted to show us every little detail," he recalled with a laugh. "We tried to say, 'We have to go to the bathroom, we have to go to eat.' He said, 'I'll give you 15 minutes and then we'll start the second half.' "
Vanessa Giacoppo of Hoboken, N.J., took a private photography tour in Iceland for $400 that included door-to-door transportation, as many private tours do. The guide drove her and her fiance to waterfalls and other hard-to-reach sites, and coached them on taking photos that were so good, she blew one up to a 3-by-7-foot canvas.
"In terms of the price, you do everything when you travel for the experience," she said. "When were we going back to Iceland? We wanted to be able to capture that moment."
Karmina Zafiro of San Francisco booked two private tours in Taiwan, one for food through Vayable and one to see Taroko Gorge, found through TripAdvisor. "After both tours, I felt like I'd made local friends. You made that personal connection. They weren't selling me anything. But they imparted that local flavor."
A display of lights hangs outside a church in Medellin, Colombia, which is famous for its holiday lights. Beth Harpaz and her family saw the lights with a private guide who drove them around the city.×
Vanessa Giacoppo took this 2011 photograph on a private tour of Iceland with a guide, Tony Prower, who takes visitors to waterfalls and other scenic spots where they can shoot beautiful pictures.×