Welcome to Earning Abroad! In this series I’ll introduce you to some inspiring and ambitious friends I’ve met on the road — friends who have found viable work away from their home countries.
Anders Møller Vestergård is no stranger to long-time readers. In fact, I’ve pretty much live blogged our entire relationship — from our meeting in Indonesia to our reunion in New York to our epic Latin American adventures! And even now that he’s jetting off to Malta for a new dive instructing gig, he’s still popping up around Alex in Wanderland.
Anders is the perfect Earning Abroad interviewee — he’s been on the road from his native Denmark for almost four years working as a ski guide, a dive instructor, and, most recently, a professional blogger’s bodyguard. While I could have interviewed Anders about any number of positions, he chose to dish about what he refers to as the best and loneliest job in the world — running a high-end skiing tour in Canada. Over to Anders!
AB: Walk us through a typical day on the job.
AMV: The tour I was running in Canada was called Ski Around the Rockies, run by a Swedish travel agency. I was doing the winter season, and I took my guests to five different ski resorts over ten days. So I didn’t really have a typical day, but I had a typical ten days. I would start the tour getting my customers at Calgary airport. Then we would drive directly to Fernie Alpine Resort, a four hour drive. Here we would spend two days and two nights skiing before driving to the Red Mountain Resort at Rossland, a five hours drive. Again, after two days of skiing, we would make the short hour-long drive to Nelson and ski Whitewater ski resort for one day. Next stop, Revelstoke mountain resort. Another four hours of driving and two days of skiing. Finally, the last stop was Golden and the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, only a two hour drive and two days more of skiing. And then it all ended where it started at Calgary airport. This was the basic itinerary. To brush it up a little bit, I would put stops in at hot springs and add in a day of Catskiing with the Valhalla Powdercats and heliskiing with Selkirk Heliskiing, depending how much my guests were willing to pay.
So for a typical day on the job, then let’s look at the third day of the trip. I would wake up at around 7 o’clock, meet my group at the breakfast, chat a bit about the day’s skiing, make a lunch reservation, get the trailer packed with skies and baggage and then drive everyone up to the skiresort, which in this case was Fernie Alpine Resort. I tried to get my guests there half an hour before opening as we had to catch the fresh snow! And then the best part, I would show my guests the best skiing I could find. After lunch, we had a five to six hour drive ahead, so if I felt for it I would stay skiing, but mostly I would go back to the car and get a couple of hours sleep after lunch to prepare for the drive. When the ski area then closed, I was waiting with the car at the exit for my customers so we would start driving to Rossland. On the road we would have a couple of stops at Walmart for snacks and one at A&W or Subway for dinner. Otherwise we would just keep going until we reach our destination. In this case a motel with a hot tub, which made a nice ending on a long day.
How long did you have this position?
I was in Canada for a total of 3.5 months. I did a total of five ten-day tours and in between every tour I had four days off where I was based in Fernie. The first month was just about getting to know the area, and doing a run of the tour without customers to become familiar with the route and meet with the hotels and restaurants. I had one colleague who would also be running the same tour just a few days ahead of me all season, for example he would be in Revelstoke when I got my new group in Calgary.
How did you come to be a tour guide? What inspired you to find this job?
I have actually always wanted to be a guide. I couldn’t concentrate on secondary school because I just wanted to get out on a big adventure. My cousin had been in the guide industry for many years, so I got my inspiration from him. He told me about a Scandinavian tour guide school in Spain, and that is where it all started for me.
I was shy in front of a group of people and guide school helped me challenge that. The course was a total of a month and after graduation I applied for five jobs and got two interviews, and one job offer. I accepted a job as a ski guide for a Swedish travel agency. My first season was in Val Thorens, France, where after only a couple of weeks I heard about Ski Around the Rockies. I knew from the first minute that I had to get that job. I liked the idea of having a small group and not 100 + new guests coming in every week, and of course heliskiing and catskiing the legendary Canadian snow! And the next winter I was in Canada.
How did your family and friends react to your initial departure?
They knew for a long time that this was what I wanted to do, so they were defiantly not surprised. But I’m the youngest in my family so therefore also the last to fly away from the nest and that was big change for my family. That 3.5 years later I’m still living in other countries, that I don’t think they had imagined.
But they have gotten used to the idea and supported me all the way, and have visited me whenever they could. My dad and my oldest brother joined one of my Ski Around the Rockies groups in Canada!
How much money did you make? Was it enough to live on?
Working as a tour guide is not known to be the best payed job in the world. But I will not complain. Ski Around the Rockies was my third season working with the same Swedish travel agency, and it was the best payed. I got around $1,400US a month plus free accommodation. As well, my other expenses like flights to and from Canada and skipasses at all resorts were included. I did have to pay taxes of my salary — a Danish contract, so yes, high Danish taxes.
One of the best things of being a tour guide is that you have a group. And with a group of people you can get a lot for free. For example, at pretty much all restaurants we went to I ate and drank for free. And as well I did catskiing three times and tried heliskiing once, all for free!
What kind of legal hoops do you have to jump through?
It was actually pretty easy as the company fixed it all. I got a one year work and holiday visa for Canada, so I could have stayed much longer than I did. I only had one problem. Because I was driving a van with ten “paying” customers I needed to get a commercial driver license. Not a big issue as my employer payed for me to get it. But we couldn’t get an appointment for my driving test before my first tour started. So I pretty much had to tell the police (if we got pulled over, and luckily we didn’t), that it was just 21-year old me and ten of my 40-50 year old pals on a little trip around Canada.
What skills did you need for this job?
Of course first of all I had to be a good skier as the goal of the trip was to find the best powder. The trip was quiet expensive, so pretty much all my guests were very dedicated skiers to make that investment. So it wouldn’t have looked so nice if the group had to wait on their guide all the time.
Second of all, I had to be very responsible. As said it was an expensive tour so the guests would understandably have a lot of expectations. I was the only representative from the tour company with the group so I had to be on my toes so everything would go smoothly. My job was basically to fix everything. When the ten guests arrived it was just me and them. I was the driver and the ski guide and the travel agent, and organized reservations of restaurants, hotels, ski-passes, hotsprings, catskiing, heliskiing etc.
And third of all I had to just love what I was doing. If I was not happy I had no chance making my guests happy. So you have to like meeting and spending a lot of time with new people.
What were the best and worst things about being a tour guide?
The best and worst part is pretty much the same – meeting new people all the time. It can be pretty hard to start over and over again meeting a new group and trying to make sure that everyone is having a good time and getting along, no one was left out, everything was running smoothly. But one thing I had was that everyone shared the same passion, and it was mine too, skiing. So if there were new fallen snow and the sun were shining everyone couldn’t be more happy.
Also, I had some very unique experiences. For example on one of my tours a Finnish journalist joined us and featured the trip in a Finnish ski magazine. So being famous – that was the best part!
I was actually offered to do the same job again the season after. While it was the best day to day job I have ever had, I turned it down. I was never in Fernie long enough to feel settled there, and every time I was on the road I was with a new group of people that would soon again leave. I found the lifestyle too lonely.
What would your advice be to someone seeking to do the same?
Being a tour guide sounds amazing, after all, aren’t you on “holiday” all the time? But the fact is that it is a job, and it’s not a normal 8-5 job, its more like a 24 hours job. As a tour guide there is no time that you can consider as “off” time, because you always have to be available. But at the same time there is no really hard “on” time, because after all you are on holiday with your customers.
I always tried to be in the mindset of a customer. If I was thinking as myself I would drive straight through a four hour drive because I was tired and wanted to get to the hotel and watch a movie. But if I was thinking as a customer on holiday I would rather stop at the hot spring halfway and enjoy myself – even though I had to pay the $20 entrance out of my pocket.
My advice is try as much as possible to be part of the group, but always have in the back head that you are the one getting paid and not paying. And as I said earlier as long as I am happy, I can more easily make my customers happy, so enjoy and have as fun as much as possible while remaining professional.
What do you know about Canada that you wouldn’t have learned as a tourist? How did working in Canada change your experience there?
I like to be in a country for a longer time and work there. I think you get a much better idea of the culture, the mindset, and how it is to live in the country. The biggest difference between Denmark and Canada is how friendly people are. For example in Denmark we pretty much don’t say “hey” to strangers, but in Canada I would find myself chatting to new people every time I was buying groceries or sitting in a chairlift at a ski resort. I’m not saying Danish people are bad, but we are defiantly much harder to talk to.
Otherwise, the country in itself is just stunning. The nature is amazing, and with the great people I meet, I could easily see myself working in Canada again someday.
Was it difficult to transition home and re-enter the mainstream work force?
After leaving Canada I worked a summer in Denmark for the mail office delivering packages out. I really loved the job, it was good money and very easy. But I missed the adventures so after that summer I moved to Southeast Asia to become a dive instructor, and am still on the road the day today. So I haven’t really re-entered the mainstream work force yet.
One thing that is difficult to go home to is the weather. The Danish weather involves maybe a month per year with snow, and a month with warm sun. The rest of the time is rain and clouds. When you get used to working as a ski guide in a lot of snow and a dive instructor in a lot of tropical heat it can be quite hard to get into the grey again.
Have you had other experience working abroad?
I worked as a tour guide in France for a year, doing a season as a ski guide in Val Thorens and a season as a hiking guide in Corsica. Also, I have worked as a Divemaster in Vietnam and Thailand and a Dive Instructor in Indonesia. All fantastic adventures that I wouldn’t change with anything.
What are you doing now? What are your plans for the future?
As I am writing this I am traveling with Alex in Wanderland through Central America 😉
But as you are reading it I am probably on Malta, where I have accepted a summer job as a dive instructor. But even more exciting is that in the fall, after four years of working and traveling around the world, I am starting my biggest adventure – finally going back to Denmark to get my degree in Leisure Management.
Many thanks to Anders for sharing! I’m missing my travel buddy big time — let’s leave him some love in the comments. Who would you like me to interview next?