How to get Paid to Backpack around Europe

By Caitlyn O’Dowd

So there you are, newly returned from your epic backpacking trip around Europe. You’ve got two fingers on the ‘alt’ and ‘tab’ buttons, quick to minimize evidence to your boss that you’re not actually working, you’re traipsing the web reminiscing about the best time of your life. All you want to do is go back and do it all again, but saving for that initial trip was hard enough.

I’m here to let you in on a little secret. I’m going to tell you how to get paid to backpack around Europe.

Becoming a tour guide

For the past year, my job description has read ‘tour guide’. I remember writing that for the first time, on my outbound immigration form, bound for Europe. I get paid to lead groups of (mainly) young people around thirty-seven cities in Europe, with my frequent days off finding me in places as diverse as Valencia and Bratislava. As my euros have built up in my bank account, I’ve danced on tables during Oktoberfest, gone wine-tasting in Tuscany, been pelted with tomatoes at La Tomatina and paraglided over the Swiss Alps.

I’ve got your attention I see. So, how do you go about it? Firstly, take a look at yourself. Not everyone’s cut out to be a tour guide. Most importantly, you need to like people. Sounds silly, but most sane people will hate humanity when they’re forced to slap on a smile at 7.30am when your workday begins, whilst still fighting a hangover brought on by copious amounts of sangria the night (or even just hours) before.

You need a certain degree of patience, a knack for speaking in front of large groups and an ability not to laugh when someone asks you what language the Germans speak. You will be their mother, their Lonely Planet and their drinking buddy, sometimes all at once.

A love of travel also helps. You don’t necessarily need to have travelled widely, or even in Europe, but at the very least an awareness and appreciation of different cultures is a must. History and language knowledge are also advantages, but at least a thirst for learning new things will also do.

Don’t get yourself down by thinking you’re not enough of a party animal or don’t know anything about the Cold War – all tour guides are different and companies are looking for a range of different qualities in their guides. Know a startling amount about music festivals? Awesome. Can you identify how old a church is just by looking at it? Fantastic. Do you pride yourself on never getting a hangover, no matter how much you drink? What a skill.


Where are you going to have to present these sought-after qualities? Why, through the application process, of course. Although there’s a host of different tour companies out there, the most established and well-known for young English-speakers are Contiki, Busabout and Topdeck. All three are different, and a bit of research will help you find out which suits you best.

All three have point-to-point, regular tours as well as festival tours, whilst Busabout also has a hop-on hop-off service which tends to attract more independent travelers. All three have an application process which kicks off in around September, with training trips starting in March.

Once you have completed the application process (read: a website application, a second written application and CV, a group interview where you have to put together a speech on a selected topic, and finally a one-on-one interview) you won’t even be given the job. Instead, you’ll be offered a position on a training trip, which will take you to all of the selected destinations in a trip which can last 6-10 weeks.

Sound like fun? Sure, parts of the training trip can be fun, and you will make friends for life, but it can be extremely stressful and will wear you out big time. Expect to last on about four or five hours sleep a night, recount population figures and museum opening hours at a moment’s notice and be challenged by tasks such as ‘experiencing’ an Amsterdam pub crawl (where you’re watched for how you handle your drink, and what time you go home – not too early, not too late) and then having to show up for a bike tour in the early hours of the morning.

Once you graduate from the training trip, the hardest part of your job is behind you.

Best job in the world

Because, in your first week of being a tour guide you suddenly realise that you really do have the best job in the world. Sure, you do get the odd nightmare passenger, but their fellow travelers are almost always on your side. Concentrate on them, and your job will be a breeze.

You get out of your job what you put in; some guides spend their days off doing ‘research’ (otherwise known as eating themselves silly), others traipse the web and tourist brochures for quirky anecdotes and facts to share, and plenty use the time they’re off duty to hang out with the people who are essentially customers. Because it’s their holiday, and you are in the unique position of being able to influence, hopefully for the better, possibly the best time they’ll have in their life.

So what do we tour guides do in the off-season, where the wind and cold scares everyone away to Southeast Asia? We’re probably there, too. You don’t make much as a tour guide, and most of us spend it all on yet more travel. And then we come back the next year to do it all again.

And, as you stare out your office window and contemplate giving it a shot, I’ll leave you with this. I can honestly assure you that my view –ranging from the Swiss Alps to the French Riviera in a single day – is surely a teensy bit better.

Author bio: Caitlyn first set her sights on Europe back in 2007, with her love of sport giving her an aim of visiting all the world’s Olympic sites. Needless to say, she became a bit distracted along the way. She tossed in her sensible job eighteen months ago and now finances her addiction to travel by guiding visitors through 37 European cities. Read her site Olympic Wanderings, or find her on Facebook and Twitter @olym_wanderings

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