Many experienced travellers may scoff at the idea of using a tour guide when visiting a country for the first time – myself included. It conjures up images of giant, air-conditioned buses, fanny packs, sensible shoes and video cameras.

Instead, I’d brush up on a new country before leaving home by scanning a few travel guidebooks or websites, learning a bit of the local language or plumbing my social networks for tips and advice.

But on a recent, first-time whirlwind business trip to India, I decided to soak up as much of the local history, cuisine and culture as I could with the help of tour guides. The intimate knowledge of local customs that I picked up on these tours impressed my hosts, helped me make smarter business decisions and dramatically improved the quality of my trip. 

Are you headed to a new country for the first time? Here are five other reasons to consider taking a tour: 

In India and elsewhere in the world, the bus-style tour still exists, but its popularity is declining in favour of a more bespoke experience involving one-on-one guides and transportation via car, van or on foot. “We realize that time-pressed business travellers need to see as much as possible in a short period of time,” said Carole Cambata, president of Greaves Tours. “You need to take advantage of local expertise to make the most of your time.” At the outset of each one-on-one tour Greaves arranged for me, the guide always asked what I wanted to see — there was no pre-set or packaged agenda, which meant we didn’t waste time seeing sites that weren’t important to me.  For example, in Hyderabad, I was more interested in seeing the booming new “HITEC City”, which is frequented by business travellers, than the more touristy spots such as markets or museums. Similarly, in Mumbai, my guide went out of her way to be sure I saw the Bombay Stock Exchange.

While it’s always a good idea to memorize a few key words and phrases in the local tongue, in many cases, only a local guide can help you get around the language barrier during a short business trip. This is especially true in a country like India where there are hundreds of languages and local dialects that only a native fully understands.

A local guide helps visitors avoid touristy schlock and can help determine a fair price to pay for quality goods or souvenirs — a skill a business traveller may not be able to learn in his or her limited free time.  

Directions and driving
In the midst of a noisy Delhi traffic jam, my guide shared the local joke that every car (or tuk-tuk or motorcycle) needs three things: 1) a loud horn, 2) a good brake and 3) a lot of luck.  I’ve always thought that getting lost in a city (and finding your way out) is one of the best ways to learn more about its soul. But a time-pressed business traveller rarely has the time for that sort of luxury. A tour guide knows the shortcuts, the areas to avoid and the traffic patterns that make the most efficient use of limited time.

Local culture and history
Local tour guides help provide history and context to foreign surroundings. “There is nothing better than sharing stories and experiences with someone who knows the area like the back of their hand,” Cambata said.  

You can find good local guides through hotel concierges or travel agencies that specialize in the country or region where you are headed. Prices vary based on the duration of the tour, the mode of transportation, entry fees to museums or other sites, as well as the exchange rate, since you’ll pay for the tour (and your guide’s gratuity) in the local currency. 

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Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC Travel