We skipped the cruise ship excursion and went with ToursByLocals — here's what happened
Editor’s note: TPG’s Erica Silverstein accepted a free tour from ToursByLocals to review its services. The opinions expressed below are entirely hers and weren’t subject to review by the company.
I’m standing atop a 13th-century arched stone bridge, looking out over a river rushing photogenically over smooth-hewn stones. I’m on a guided tour in the mountainous interior of the French island of Corsica, yet I’m blissfully alone — with the exception of Yulia, my guide.
“Alone” and “guided tour” are two concepts that tend not to be found together, but I’ve achieved this unusual combo during a cruise port call by booking a tour through a company called ToursByLocals.
ToursByLocals is essentially a matchmaking service for travelers looking for a local perspective and guides looking to show foreigners their homeland. ToursByLocals partners exclusively with top-caliber guides and thoroughly vets them before letting the guides post tours on its website. The guides use their local knowledge to create their own tour itineraries and set prices so they’re fairly paid.
As an avid cruiser, I often find myself on ship-organized tours on a bus with 25 to 40 other people, following a set itinerary and wasting time waiting for my shipmates to buy souvenirs, use the bathroom and meander back to the bus. I often skip the tour and explore on my own, but I don’t always get the full background on what I’m seeing. A private tour offers the best of both worlds – a small-group, customizable itinerary and a knowledgeable guide – but can be expensive.
For cruise news, reviews and tips, sign up for TPG’s cruise newsletter.
I was curious if a ToursByLocals tour would be worth the price, so when I was offered the opportunity to try one on a port stop in Ajaccio, Corsica, I jumped at the chance. I chose the approximately five-hour “Prunelli Gorges Half Day Road Trip,” which costs $586 for up to three people and promised “extraordinary views and discovery of Corsican tastes.”
Here’s how my day went and my thoughts on whether the experience was worth the price.
A slow start
The benefit of a cruise ship tour is convenience. You’re whisked off the ship straight to a tour bus, and you don’t have to worry about meeting points and finding your guide.
I’d been texting my guide Yulia on WhatsApp prior to my ship’s arrival in Ajaccio, Corsica, a port I’d never been to. She promised to be waiting for me just outside the port with the other private guides, holding a sign with my name on it.
But when I got outside, I didn’t see an obvious meetup point for private guides and instead of a woman with a sign, I got a text that Yulia was stuck in traffic and running late. Uncertain where to meet her, I wandered around the terminal building feeling awkward until we finally managed to connect.
Even though guides try to arrive early, no one can predict bad traffic. Make sure you have texting access, either via Wi-Fi or an international cellphone plan, wherever you plan to wait for your guide to arrive.
Related: Ship-sponsored vs. independent shore excursions on cruises: Which should you book?
Avoiding the crowds
Although the planned tour was to explore outside of the city of Ajaccio, Yulia thought it was a good idea to see a few of the town highlights before we set off. She took me through the local market across from the port, where she told me about the region’s sausage and cheese, and I ogled bowls piled high with olives and colorful fruits and vegetables.
Ajaccio is famous for being the birthplace of Napoleon, so she gave me an overview of Napoleon’s family and early years while we walked by the house where he was born and the cathedral where he was baptized.
Yulia provided the context I would have missed by wandering the city streets on my own. I could have gotten the same information on a walking tour of the city booked through the cruise line, but I’d be jostling for views in a large group and strolling at the pace of the slowest walker.
After a coffee break, we headed off on the first leg of the tour, to drive out of the city and up into the hills to visit two small, local businesses: Corsica PaM, an essential oils distillery and laboratory owned by two brothers, and Le Jardin des Abeilles, the shop and tasting room for a family-run honey farm.
Cruise ship tours do go to these places, and I imagine you’d all have to listen to a canned presentation about how things work and then wander about while 25 people browse and make purchases. Instead, Yulia showed me the different essential oils, describing the ones she uses personally and taking me out back to see the fields of rosemary and lemon verbena, which are distilled for their oils.
The proprietors only spoke a little English, so she translated as one of the brothers explained how to extract the oils from the plants. Yulia explained how the unique Corsican scrubland, called maquis, is home to endemic species of plants, such as the “immortelle” plant, which are ideal for the production of organic essential oils – and how what would seem like a modern healthy and beauty trend comes from a long history of using plants for medicinal purposes.
At the honey farm, I had a private honey tasting with one of the owners who explained the differences in his five seasonal honeys and let me taste them – as well as a special small-batch honey he did not sell. He explained how Corsican honey is unique as it’s produced from the island’s black bees and gets its flavor based on its specific climate and native flora. Yulia laughed and took photos as I sampled the most bitter honey, and I felt less alone than I would have as a solo traveler visiting on my own.
Related: Tips for booking the best cruise shore excursion for your money
Yulia, who also guides for cruise ship and other large group tours, told me that the typical itinerary offered by ships is to get on the bus, visit the oil and honey farms, then return to town. But that was only the beginning of my private tour.
From the honey farm, we drove farther into Corsica’s interior, past some small mountain towns to the Prunelli Gorges. We could have stopped in one of the villages if I were hungry and wanted to try local charcuterie or wine, but as the tour was customizable and I was still full from my cruise ship breakfast, we happily carried on.
The gorges are an area of steep, craggy mountains, dotted with rivers and lakes, and full of hiking trails and via ferrata routes that I’d love to explore on a longer stay. The government no longer allows tour buses to traverse the narrow, curving roads, so you’re not going to get to the gorges with a group.
Yulia was determined to show me some unique spots, despite a rain shower that plagued most of our drive through the gorges. She took her little Kia down an unpaved road so I could see Tolla Lake and its dam set amid the craggy peaks. We slowed down to follow a herd of goats being shepherded by a dog, no goat-herding human in sight, as we pulled up to a scenic overlook to take in the vista and see where some of the black bee hives are kept.
Yulia parked by the side of the road and took photos of me on a bridge over a rushing river. And then, with the weather clearing, we pulled over again to hike down to the old Genoese-era arched bridge to cross the well-worn stones and appreciate more river views. We barely saw another human on the entire road trip.
Making it personal
I’m an introvert and Yulia’s English was fluent but not perfect, so at first conversation didn’t come easy. How am I going to make it through a half day alone with this stranger, I wondered. Had I been traveling with my family or a friend, it would have taken the pressure off, but as I was solo, it was up to me to make conversation.
But as the hours passed, we became more comfortable with each other, and Yulia opened up about how she came to Corsica, her family life, her hobbies (including gardening and flower arranging) and even how essential oils helped her during a difficult time in her life. Throughout the tour, she volunteered to take my photo as I was alone and as she put it, photos are always better with people in them. The experience was like traveling with a new, extremely knowledgeable friend.
Traveling with Yulia also gave me a glimpse into what it’s like to live in Corsica, from French bureaucracy and political corruption to the housing situation and local commutes.
She also shared her honest feelings about why smaller tours are much better than large-group tours. In her opinion, some of the more manufactured tours from Ajaccio (such as a little train that takes tourists up the mountain to a specially built center to try some local Corsican foods) are low-quality and inauthentic.
So many travelers come here and they don’t know what they’re looking to get out of a visit, she said. I admit, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to get from my day in Corsica, other than to get out of the city and get a glimpse of the island’s beauty. I got all that and more.
Should you book with ToursByLocals?
A private tour is always better than a group tour, in my opinion. You get to customize the itinerary, you don’t have to wait for large numbers of people to use the bathroom or buy coffee, and you can ask questions or get more personal with your guide.
However, $586 is a lot for one person to spend on a driving tour with a handful of stops, even with ToursByLocals’ policy of tips not being necessary. (Guides set their prices so are paid fairly; ToursByLocals takes a cut of the fee.) For a couple, $293 per person for a half-day tour is possibly double or triple what you’d pay for a cruise ship tour, but the quality and intimacy make it worth it if you have the budget.
If you're looking for the best value, you will want to shop around and compare prices and tour inclusions with other independent guides or guide-providing services. You'll need to read the tour descriptions carefully; for example, ToursByLocals excursions are priced per tour, but the maximum number of people for that price varies from guide to guide, and you may or may not be able to pay extra for a larger group.
What I liked most about ToursByLocals is the ease of searching out a guide. Instead of scouring the internet or online chat groups for recommendations, you put in your destination and up pops a list of tour offerings. You can read reviews of the guides, see the full tour itinerary and type of transport, and even get a feel for what items are not included and how much cash you might want to bring. You can even message a guide to ask questions before you commit, and pay by credit card online rather than worrying about paying day of in cash.
I don’t have the budget to book a private local guide in every city I visit, but for special occasions or in a destination I wanted to explore to the fullest, I would definitely consider using ToursByLocals for a private tour.
Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:
- The 5 most desirable cabin locations on any cruise ship
- A beginners guide to picking a cruise line
- The 8 worst cabin locations on any cruise ship
- The ultimate guide to what to pack for a cruise
- A quick guide to the most popular cruise lines
- 21 tips and tricks that will make your cruise go smoothly
- 15 ways cruisers waste money
- The ultimate guide to choosing a cruise ship cabin