Monday, August 9, 2010

Review: Iconic Guides

Most travellers are familiar with the idea of hiring a knowledgeable guide or renting an audio tour for castles, museums and historic sites. While guides vary in quality and language skills but can answer questions, audio tours are typically well spoken and cost around US$10 for headsets and the recording.

Dr Benedict Davies, an Egyptologist, approached me for a review of his new business, Iconic Guides, an online organisation that offers specialist detailed audio tours of historic sites around the world. Dr Davies hit upon the idea after a frustrating tour of China unable to find good guides for some of the major Chinese sights.

Guides for various significant locations can be purchased for £2.99 (around US$4.75) each via Paypal and downloaded to the traveller’s personal iPod or MP3 player.

At present, selections are available for Egypt, Greece and Japan with plans for an expanded Greece, Italy, Turkey, Mexico and China as knowledgeable specialists for these countries produce suitable guides.

Having travelled to Egypt a couple of years ago, Iconic Guides offered me two sample audio tours (that normally cost £2.99 each) of locations I am familiar with – the 4500 year old Step Pyramid near Cairo and the Temple of Hatshepsut or Deir el-Bahari (temple to the first great female Egyptian ruler) in Luxor.

With a link (active for 72 hours) obtained on payment through the Paypal system after registration with Iconic Guides, each guide is downloaded (several MB in size) as a zip file containing a simple one page printable PDF map of the site with numbered locations corresponding to a recorded segment detailing between one and five minutes of information about the specific location. The guides start with more general information placing the site in context with the relevant history of the time.

The audio guides are spoken by a professional, high-quality, well spoken female UK English voiceover artist making the descriptions easy to absorb and easy to listen to and understand. The information is reasonably detailed covering cultural, artistic and architectural heritage without veering into areas beyond the interest levels of most informed visitors. A sample of the audio content is available on the website’s home page. The Step Pyramid commentary runs to around 19 minutes in eight parts while the larger and more complex Temple of Hatshepsut guide is around 26 minutes in 16 parts.

The audio guides are factual, detailed and informational in style but lack the flair that good on-site human guides can offer, interspersing factual details with entertaining anecdotes to keep a lighter more entertaining feel.

As travellers typically visit several sites in one major location, several packages of audio guides are available. Examples include the temples of Kyoto (seven guides) for £13.99 (around US$22) and the temples of Luxor (five guides) for £11.99 (around US$19).

In my view, Iconic Guides are best suited to those organised and informed independent travellers who typically hire the handheld recordings or hire guides for a more in-depth experience and understanding of a site. Spoken in clear easy-to-understand English, there are also no battles with accents or the frustration of limited or poorly written English signage. It will also suit those travelling in groups on a pre-defined itinerary that may wish to escape the tour group at a specific location or hear more about a location than the accompanying tour leader may be able to offer.

While presently limited in locations, Iconic Guides will become more prevalent as further guides are added.

At little more than the cost of a coffee, the price of an individual recording compares more than favourably with the price of renting an audio guide on location. Related bundles reduce the cost of individual guides but start to mount for countries with wide numbers of historic sites (such as Egypt). One attractive bundling option that Iconic Guides could consider for countries like Egypt and Japan is a “highlights” bundle that groups the temples and sights more typically visited by travellers on touring a country, accompanied with a general quick overview of the ancient history of the country.

Photo Credit: Girl


Sherry Ott said...

Shoot - why is it that when I get excited about trying something it's never in the location I need it to be! Would've loved to try it for Paris. I'll keep my eye on it though!

Would have been great for Egypt temples where I offered wandered without any explanation.

Donna Hull said...

I would definitely try these guides. Good to remember for when I finally visit Egypt.

Mark H said...

@sherry: I wish I'd had them for my Egyptian travels as well.

@I'd be interested to hear your experience using them in real life.

Wandering Educators said...

i love these guides - always interested in hearing in depth about a topic. and ben is so knowledgeable - it's like having your OWN guide. thanks for the great review!

Mark H said...

@wandering educators: Ben's Egyptian knowledge is very impressive indeed.

Wandering Educators said...

thanks, mark - we reviewed one for our site, too:

VERY impressive guides!

Anonymous said...

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