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"Free" walking tours

There are "free" walking tours in every major city of the world. I have taken them in three cities so far, and every one was terrific. The guides were typically well educated and knowledgeable locals with other professional day jobs (professors, lawyers, musicians, etc.). Most tours were conducted daily, without any need to book or register. Just show up on time at a chosen location. Their tours were about pride in their history, culture, and cuisine. And they were not shy about sharing their opinions, on politics, economy, sports, scams, etc. They would not take you to places where they would get commissions, like some professional guides would. When asked about places to visit/shop/dine, they would offer their own favorites, not those found in the tourist guidebooks. They were like welcoming friends. Not being paid by their employers, their earning came from tips by the tour takers. A very generous tip was only a fraction of what I would have to pay for a "professional" guide.

To find them, simply Google "[City] free tour". Then go to TA for their reviews.

Posted by
17895 posts

There is no such thing as a "free" tour. You are expected to tip the guide as much as a non-free tour would cost. The guides are actually charged for each person on the tour and expected to pay it from the tips. If you don't tip them enough, you're "stiffing" them.

Posted by
7389 posts

Well that link certainly blows the lid off these "free" tours, just as Lee said. Knowing how hard real professional, licensed guides study and work, I wouldn't find these scripted tours too satisfying. In Italy, all the guides must be certified and wear their badges when working.

Posted by
376 posts

I did post this topic before, but it was removed for some reason.

By no means did I suggest that these tours are free. That's why I put quotes around "free", and I ended the paragraph by stating that I tipped the guides generously.

I do not believe that the relationship between the guides and their companies are all the same. Some guides I came across were volunteers.

Posted by
1399 posts

I'm not sure it's as black and white as some are suggesting.

If a street performer plays in a public square and has a hat out to collect tips, is it free? What if they have to pay the city for a license?

If a server in a restaurant is paid a sub-minimum wage with the expectation of being tipped, is tipping required? In the USA, servers have to pay income tax on expected tips whether they earn them or not. Fair?

I'm not saying these situations are all exactly the same, but in each case, there is an expectation of collecting tips that is understood by the person consuming the service. No one is required to tip, but if no one tipped, the buskers would go away, the free tours would go away, and the price of restaurant meals would go up to pay a living wage to the servers.

As Rick points out, he often gives free talks and regularly holds free classes given by him and his staff. I've been to a few. It costs him money to rent the space and pay the employees. He expects to make it back (and then some) through book sales and through sales in his retail store and through sales of his tours. (For that matter, all the value we get from this web site is free, but how many of us have spent money buying things from Rick Steves? If we didn't, do you think this web site would still exist?)

Offering things for free with the hope of actually getting paid (either by tips or by future purchases) includes a broad spectrum of activities, some of which may seem shadier than others, I guess, but none of these is clearly unethical as long as the consumer understands how it works and the employees are not being unfairly exploited. I don't know, perhaps they are in the case of some of these free tours. But that's not something I automatically assume.

I also know that some free tours are truly subsidized by the local tourism bureau, so not all free tours use the same economic model.

Posted by
1068 posts

Good info in the blog. Looks like I won't be looking for free tours.

Posted by
16 posts

I just got back from a 3-week trip to Spain, and used a free guide in Seville that is available though most hotels. The guide was excellent. While I'm sure there is a canned part to the talk and walk, she is a history major and could answer any question posted to her, and was quite interesting and animated in her discussion. While I am open to booking a tour guide, this free option was wonderful. (and yes, after almost 4 hours of touring, we gave her a 20 euro tip -- about 10 euro less than what it would have cost of a booked guide recommended by Rick. Maybe next time for a more personalized tour, but his was a great introduction for us.)

Posted by
8061 posts

I'll add that the paid walking tour company I have the most experience with is London Walks. Their tours are 10£ or 8£ if you are over 65. I'm over 65 and usually just hand them a 10£ note. In almost every instance they have almost insistently handed me back change. Most of these guides ARE professionals, in fact, at least one (Tom) is not only a Blue Badge guide but also a Rick Steves guide. I had him for Best of England last fall and he was awesome.

I've also done a few walking tours thru various Tourist Information bureaus which were inexpensive and well worth it. In Bath there is a free tour put on by the Mayor's office which is actually free but I have also taken paid walking tours there which were also in the 10£ range.

I guess I'm not sure what others think a normal price for a walking tour would be if it were not in this range, which is what the free tours charge as well. To me $150 is not a usual price for a couple of hour walking tour....well I'll say not usual for me because no, I would not be interested in this.

Posted by
7389 posts

We've paid for TI led tours--10 euros. Private companies in Florence, 40 eurosfor licensed guides, one a PhD in art history. Paris Walks is pretty cheap, as are tours (in French) by licensed "conférenciers", usually 10-20 euros for a couple hours.

Posted by
16832 posts

The company discussed in the blog is not just in one location but operated in at least 12 cities of Europe as of 2009. I heard from guides this January that "Tom" is still going strong. This is not the same as well-known volunteer programs like Paris Greeters. 10-20 euros per person is the common price range for other walking tours that Rick recommends in his books. The personal service of a licensed private guide has quite a different price range.

Posted by
17895 posts

"a server in a restaurant is paid a sub-minimum wage with the expectation of being tipped"

Few Americans seem to understand that according to Federal law, the server MUST get the minimum wage ($7.25/hr). If the server doesn't get enough in tips to make up the difference between the sub-minimum wage ($2.13/hr) and minimum wage, the employer must make up the difference. So what this essentially means is that the employer gets the first $5.12 in tips.

Posted by
14241 posts

Based on experiences in the past 3-4 years, I would be as inclined to take a "free" tour as a paid-up-front walking tour. Sometimes the guides on the paid tours are sub-standard, while the "free" tour guides try harder because they depend on the tips. I was told by a TI guide in Spain that it's a matter of luck. Some of the TI guides are employees and like all government employees, can't be fired, some are very good, others . . . . Some of the guides are hired on a free-lance basis, so the are excellent. My limited experience - I took 2 TI walking tours in Valencia this year, one guide was one of the best I've ever had, the other was absolutely the worst. Last year I had a mediocre TI guide in Madrid. I've only taken 2 free tours, one in Spain, one in France, both were purely by happenstance and both were excellent.

I've only used "greeters" once, in Chicago, but my experience was extremely positive. Different cities have different rules, but many forbid the greeters from accepting any payment, though you can offer to buy them a drink/snack.