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Skip the Tour Bus, Hire a Personal Guide

Instead of getting lost in the crowd when exploring new cities, try a personalized tour.

Guided tour or a cattle drive -- on most big-city tours, it's impossible to tell the difference.

There you are, shoehorned into a bus with dozens of total strangers, whizzing by local landmarks as cameras click, babies scream and a tour guide drones on like an android auctioneer. The only thing missing is the theme from Rawhide.

Want to break free of the herd?

Hire a personal tour guide, and you'll be able to see the sites you want at your own speed, without having to traipse after someone waving an umbrella in the air.

New York Behind the Scenes

"People take a private tour because it's dedicated to them," says Linda Sarrel, who heads up

Rent a New Yorker, a tour service based in the city that never sleeps. "You go where you want, when you want, and you do what you want. With a large group of people, it's a set itinerary and you don't have the same level of input."

A native New Yorker, Sarrel, who charges $50 an hour for a private tour, definitely knows her hometown. Whether it's Little Italy, Chinatown or Coney Island, Sarrel uses her street smarts to get tourists to the very core of the Big Apple.

If a client wants to go to the Statue of Liberty, for instance, Sarrel might warn about the extremely long wait and suggest an alternative. "You can just as easily see it on the Staten Island Ferry," she says. "There's no waiting on line, no security. You can do something New Yorkers really do."

Want more? Check out TV video.Rob Lenihan absorbs the beachside sights and sounds of Brooklyn's famous Coney Island.

Hungry for some local cuisine? Whether it's kosher goodies on the Lower East Side or Russian delicacies in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, Sarrel takes your taste buds out on the town.

"I know food, baby," she says. "I've spent many, many years researching food in New York."

London Like a Local

Across the pond in London, Robina Brown, owner of

Driver Guide Tours, gives her clients a ride as well as the facts as she takes them around.

"You'll get an awful lot more out of London if you actually see it with a Londoner," she says. "There are no set rules. I will suggest an itinerary, but it's purely a suggestion."

Brown's services are so personalized that she recently completed a 10-day Harry Potter themed tour around Britain with a woman and her two granddaughters, who were big-time fans of the boy wizard.

"The hook to get them interested in the trip was Harry Potter," she says of the two girls.

Want to see the Tower of London? If you go with Brown you won't have to wait in line, as she can take clients to the special group-tickets desk. She also knows the tour bus routes and will go in a different direction, thus avoiding the worst of the crowds.

Some of Brown's favorite sites include the Palace of Westminster, which is only open during August and September when the members of parliament are away. She likes to take children to Greenwich, the home of Greenwich Mean Time, so kids can straddle the world, with one foot on the western hemisphere and one foot on the eastern hemisphere.

"I live in an amazing country," she says. "It's got 2,000 years of history, but then look at the modern architecture going up in London."

As a registered Blue Badge guide, Brown had to undergo rigorous training and a battery of exams to prove she knows her way around. Brown likes to tell the stories behind the names and dates and during the off-season, she looks around for new tales to tell.

Brown charges 160 pounds, or about $325, for a half day without her car and 230 pounds, roughly $470, for a full day without the wheels. Prices vary for tours with the car, depending on the length of the day and the distance travelled.

Kathy Jannuzzi was impressed with Brown's skills. The Farmington, Conn., resident recently hired Brown to take Jannuzzi and her two sons around London.

"It was well worth the money," Jannuzzi says. "She's very charming; she has a great sense of humor. My kids thought she was hysterical and they're not an easy audience."

Tech and Trivia in San Francisco

Perhaps you left your heart in San Francisco. In that case, Jesse Warr, owner of

A Friend in Town, can take you for a personalized spin around the city by the bay and its environs. If there are six or fewer people in the group, Warr will take clients in a 2006 Honda Odyssey luxury van.

Warr prides himself on providing his clients with what he calls "the wow experience."

"Every 90 minutes or so I want to hear someone exclaim 'wow!'" he says. "If I don't hear 'I didn't know this was here!' I feel I failed as a tour guide."

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If you're a film fan, you may enjoy Warr's


tour, which visits sites in and around San Francisco where Alfred Hitchcock's 1957 movie was shoot. There's also a


tour for those who prefer Hitchcock's classic about what happens when our fine feathered friends stop being friendly.

Warr offers a highly personalized tour of wine country as well as Silicon Valley, including visits to the


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"People like to see where all that starts," he says. "With all my tours I want someone to have the experience that 'I'm really here ... I'm not watching through the window.'"

Some of Warr's other favorite sites include Fort Funston, where hang gliders soar off spectacular cliffs; San Juan Bautista, an "Old California" town featured in


that has been barely touched by tourism; and the Lyon Street Steps, the towering staircase in Pacific Heights that overlooks the Marina neighborhood and the Bay.

Warr charges about $60 an hour for his services. He says that while professional or guild accreditation helps, it is not a guarantee of great service.


Tour guides are not required in San Francisco to be trained, tested or certified," Warr explains. "More reliable sources are personal referrals and/or credible testimonials found on the company's Web site, or similar sites."

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