How to become a tour leader and get paid to travel the world
Updated on November 15th, 2019
Do you dream of being paid to travel the world long-term? Unless you’re one of the few lucky ones, you’ll more than likely need a job to earn money on the go, volunteer or housesit to make your travels last the distance. While there are so many ways to make money while travelling one of these is working as a tour leader. Louise from Wandering Welsh Girl is here to tell you all about her life overlanding and how to become a tour leader.
Louise and I met while working at a ski resort in Lake Tahoe and have both ventured into other jobs all around the world. Other jobs I have personally done are working as a stewardess on a superyacht and working at a resort on an island on the Great Barrier Reef. You could also teach English online, at a school in person or work remotely.
In this guide Louise will tell you what overlanding is, the difference between being a tour guide and a tour leader, why this is the perfect job for travellers and how you can become a tour leader.
Disclaimer: Some links in this article are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase through them, I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. For more information on my disclaimer click here.
Hi Louise, tell everyone about yourself.
Hi, I’m originally from Wales but have been living a nomadic lifestyle for the last 10 years. I’m a tour leader and driver for worldwide overland adventure tours and the lady behind Wandering Welsh Girl – a travel blog specialising in off the beaten path locations. Apart from travel, my biggest passions are photography, hiking and snowboarding. When I’m not running tours you can find me doing one or all of these! Find me on Instagram here.
How did you first hear about tour leader jobs?
I did a group tour around the Western USA in 2011. That’s when I first realised that tour guiding could be the answer to finding a regular Summer job, but as a non-American, I couldn’t get a job as a guide in the States (where I was based at the time). The following year a friend told me about overlanding and specifically, Dragoman Overland. I did some research and discovered that I could work as a guide for this company all over the world and promptly sent in my application form.
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So, what is the difference between being a tour guide and a tour leader? I had always assumed they were the same thing.
We call ourselves tour leaders rather than guides. I define a guide as someone who is an expert in a particular place or topic, so, for example, we have guides for visiting Machu Pichuu or Terracotta warriors. As leaders, we are more facilitators and organisers and since we work all over the world, we have a little bit of knowledge about a lot of places but are not experts in any one place.
Tell us about your life before tour leading; what made you want to do this?
I originally went to University to study Sports Science and after getting my degree worked for several years in fitness. However in 2006, following a relationship split, I decided to have a break and do some travelling. I explored Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia and came home after 6 months when my money ran out.
I picked up my fitness work and saved for 2 years before I decided to head off again, this time to Canada to learn to become a snowboard instructor. For 5 years I worked the winters but never really had a summer job I was happy with bouncing from one thing to the next. When I discovered tour leading I realised I could get paid to travel the world. It sounded like the dream job!
What is your experience working as a tour leader all around the world?
Working as a tour leader I’ve been fortunate enough to travel all over North, South and Central America, North and East Africa and most parts of Asia. I’ve been able to try all sorts of activities like ice climbing in Patagonia, white water rafting on the Nile and hiking the Great Wall of China.
I’ve also been able to experience different cultures from around the world and try lots of yummy local food! It’s not easy though, in fact, it’s easily the toughest job I’ve ever had. Whilst you are running trips you are on call 24/7 and trips can last up to 6 months. However, that’s the compromise you make.
Can you tell us more about overlanding?
By definition, overlanding is travelling to off the beaten path destinations where the journey is just as important as the destination itself. On the group tours I lead, the trips are run on a completely self-sustainable custom built overland expedition vehicles (we call them trucks!). We have tents and a full kitchen set up so we can camp and cook anywhere we like. We also stay in hotels, homestays, hostels and yurts.
Working as a tour leader has allowed you to travel all over the world. Do you know how many countries it has taken you to?
I think I’m up to about 70 countries now, most of them working as a tour leader. In the scheme of fellow travellers, it’s not that many countries but we do spend lots of time in each country and visit each place multiple times.
Working as a tour leader sounds like the dream job for a traveller. How did you work toward your goal of getting this job?
To work for Dragoman you need to have some experience of personal travel and experience in dealing with people. As overland crew for Dragoman, you are also expected to drive the expedition vehicles. This means you must have the correct driving license. Once I passed the interview and a 1-week trial for Dragoman I then had to get a PCV license (UK coach license). That was the biggest hurdle to overcome. I did a 1-week intensive driving course and thankfully passed the first time 🙂
Is the work part-time, full-time or seasonal?
The work tends to be seasonal, for example, the Silk Road tours only operate during the Northern Hemisphere Spring, Summer and Autumn. However, as crew, you can decide if you’d like to work continuously or not. As there are always trips running in some part of the world!
What are your favourite parts of being a tour leader?
The biggest benefit is being able to explore new destinations and meeting some awesome people along the way.
Are there any negatives?
It very tough and tiring work. It’s not really a paid holiday as some of my friends and family tend to think! As crew, you work in pairs. Between you, you have to look after the group and the vehicle. If there are any mechanical problems, you are expected to fix it. If the group has any issues, you are expected to solve them. It gets quite tiring after a few months. It can also be a very lonely job at times.
You’re lucky enough to be working with your partner now, previously how did you deal with loneliness and making friends while abroad?
Sometimes you get lucky and get some awesome people in the group. Since you spend a lot of time in close proximity to each other you can build close bonds very quickly and so many great friendships result.
Loneliness is a challenge on the road but thankfully with the internet now widely available friends and family are an easy call away.
I must be honest though, it’s much better when you have your partner there with you to share the good times and help you through the bad.
Do you have a favourite place to take tour groups to?
For me, great places for overlanding are Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and Patagonia. I love mountains, nature and remote places so those places are perfect for that. I love Georgia too, the birthplace of wine!
What skills or qualifications are required to be a tour leader?
Patience. Lot’s of it! Whether it’s patience dealing with officials at border crossings or hotel staff because they somehow lost your booking. Sometimes with members of your group for not turning up on time. Having patience will definitely be your biggest asset as an overland tour leader.
The list of skills you use whilst doing the job seems to be vast and varied. Ranging from cooking for 20 people in the middle of the Masai Mara to digging the truck out of knee deep mud after getting stuck. However, from a practical point a view the only qualification I actually needed was a bus driving license.
How can someone start the process to become an overland tour leader?
Just send in an application! If you’re lacking experience in one area the office team will reply and let you know. So, if you’re serious about making it as an overland tour leader, you can work on that area and then apply again.
Were there any mistakes you made along the way? How can others avoid these?
I’m sure I have made lots of mistakes on the road but often these are the experiences you learn the most from. Sometimes they even turn out to be the best adventures! For example, one time we had to cross a river in Mongolia with the truck. We are taught to always walk across the river first to ensure it’s ok for the truck to follow. However, on this particular trip, we had gotten stuck multiple times the day before and were feeling a little lethargic and figured it would just be ok. It most definitely wasn’t! We ended up getting the truck stuck in the river for a whole day before we found someone to tow us out! Was it a pain? At the time yes, but it’s the kind of experience that your group will never forget.
Top tip – always walk a river before you attempt to drive across with a truck 😀
Is there anything you wished you knew before starting out which would have made your job much easier?
My first contract was in South America so I wish I had learnt more Spanish before I went. It would’ve made my life a lot easier in the beginning. Conversely, if you’re going to Central Asia learn some Russian as again it will make your life a lot easier.
What advice do you have for anyone looking to be a tour leader?
Do some research about the company before you attend the interview. It might sound obvious but some people don’t do this basic research. If you can, do a trip beforehand as a passenger to see if you like this style of travel. As I might have mentioned already, be prepared to work hard. If you’re looking for an easy ticket this isn’t the job for you.
Would you recommend tour leading and overlanding for someone who loves travelling?
Finally, you work for Dragoman, do you know of other overlanding companies that could hire non-UK citizens?
Yes, I’ve also worked for Oasis Overland. They are UK based but employ non-UK citizens. Another UK company is G Adventures but they tend to hire guides from the country where they run trips. Then there are lots of African based overland companies who hire non-UK citizens but obviously, their tours are based in Africa. The biggest of these is probably ATC and Acacia.