Travel ‘free’ But, as an escort

You’re taking your seat at a London West End theatre with your travel group and suddenly the thought pops into your head: “Hey, I’m paying for this. But if I were a travel escort, I’d be getting paid to be here tonight.”

Could you be a travel escort? With more and more people taking early retirement blessed with energy to burn and time to spare, it’s a question thousands of travellers must be asking themselves. It seems too good to be true – you just make sure the trip goes smoothly, and you get to travel free to all these wonderful places.

And it can be wonderful.

“When I get to the airport (to meet my group), I come alive,” says Barb Muirhead, 61, who is away 16 to 18 weeks a year escorting tours everywhere from Arizona to Egypt. When her husband, Wayne, worked for IBM, they travelled the world – posted to Paris, London and Hong Kong among other places.

When he took early retirement, Muirhead wasn’t ready to settle down. After all, she’d taken art classes at the Louvre, sailed the South China Sea in a junk. She felt she had so much she could show others, and that’s just the way it’s turned out.

“I’m inspired both by people and travel,” she says.

Ted Harwoo 68, retired from real estate, was at loose ends when a friend suggested he’d make a good dancing host aboard ocean cruises. Ted dusted off his tango, applied to the Lauretta Blake agency in Chicago, and was aboard ship, travelling from Alaska to Newfoundland via Panama, within three weeks.

Six hours of quickstep and samba a night can be tiring, but Harwood, a widower, loves the sea, and in the last 18 months he’s been to India, Brazil and other glamour spots around the world. He loves it (even though the cruise lines insist no shipboard romances allowed with the customers).

But here’s the surprise: Talking to escorts and the people who hire them, we found being infected by a travel bug is not the number one qualification.

“When a couple says they love to travel,” says Janice Rowland, of Senior Tours Canada, a Toronto agency, “I am not interested in talking to them any further. Our escorts have to love people. That comes first.”

In fact, according to John Skillicorn, who has been combining acting with escorting for 15 years, the worst reason to become a travel escort is for free trips. Sightseers don’t want to be taken around by other sightseers, he says.

You wouldn’t put Skillicorn in that category. He sings, plays the piano, speaks half a dozen languages, knows enough to be the fulltime guide at many locations and is so famous for his unflagging energy and sense of humour that tours he escorts sell out immediately. The big test of an escort’s ability arises when something goes wrong. Olwyn Fleury, who has been escorting for seven years, recalls a trip when the plane ahead of them crashed in Hong Kong, and their flight was detoured to Manila – which turned out to be less than ideal; Muirhead recalls when five members of her group had belongings stolen from the supposedly secure safes in their rooms.

“I look on each tour as a show – and the show must go on,” says Skillicorn. “I tell fellow travellers, ‘Never mind, it may seem horrible now, but when you get home you’ll dine out on these stories for years!'”

Fleury draws an interesting distinction between male and female travel escorts. Men, she says, view escorting as an interesting job, but women become more emotionally involved with the group and, as a result, burn out sooner. “People tend to lean on women for support,” she says.

Fleury loves the fact that anything can happen – and does – on vacations and “each tour is a new ballgame; but it’s sort of sad that we’re always saying goodbye.”

Like many of the best travel escorts, Barb Muirhead was once a teacher, and the end of every trip for her is like the last day of school. Now she says her formal goodbyes before her group board the plane for home, and usually wraps it all up with a song or a poem she’s written.

“Once people are on the plane, all their thoughts are of getting home,” she says.

Just like a teacher, Muirhead, who travels for another Toronto agency, Golden Escapes, makes a point of studying the group list in advance, learning names before she meets people, and sending them letters a week ahead with travel tips and health advice.

If there’s a grouch on the trip who’s spoiling it for others, she’ll speak to them privately and ask if there’s a problem she can help with. Often, by the end of the trip, the grouch has become one of the most popular people in the group.

One of the big thrills for a travel escort is being able to introduce her “guests” to a unique experience. Muirhead has taken groups to visit friends she made when she lived in Hong Kong and even once descended on her 82-year-old aunt in Scotland for tea and pancakes with 25 in tow.

Her husband, Wayne, accompanied her on a couple of trips, but didn’t really enjoy it. Throughout his travelling past with IBM, she said, he was looked after and everything just fell into place. So he found it hard, for instance, when, in their two-hour break before dinner, inevitably one of the group would phone with a problem.

“You are on duty 24 hours a day,” she says. And that’s the way she obviously likes it: “Deep down I must like to be needed.”

One question everyone wants answered: How much are travel escorts paid? It varies widely. Ted Harwood, as a dance escort isn’t paid at all, in fact, he has to pay the agency $25 a day. But he gets to eat and travel free. He’s recently applied for work as a regular travel escort – easier on the feet.

Some agencies, trading on escorts’ travel cravings, pay only $350 to $500 for a three-week tour (plus tips, of course), while others pay a per diem of $80 to $150 depending on the escort’s experience and ability. That doesn’t paint the whole picture: “All my living expenses are paid for eight months a year,” John Skillicorn says.

And even beyond the pleasure of going to the airport, meeting a brand new set of people, and heading off for another adventure every few weeks, travel escorts admit they still get a thrill from travel.

“There’s this little designer store in Covent Garden called Twilight, and I love it,” says Olwyn Fleury. “I manage to get there twice a year.”

“Think of it,” says Skillicorn, “I’m paid to attend the state opera in Vienna!”