Posted by Andrea
Sacramento, CA
6030 posts

Thanks for bringing this to my attention Jo. I have taken the "free" walking tours in both Amsterdam and Paris. I was not aware at the time of how they actually operated. We did not experience any pressure to tip well. The tour I did in Paris was on New Year's Eve and at the mid-tour break the guide disappeared for awhile. He returned with a case of wine and plastic cups. The remainder of the tour we walked through the streets of Paris drinking the wine and enjoying ourselves. In retrospect I'm sure the wine was to get us buzzed so we would tip better! I was going to look into these tours for our upcoming trip to new places, but I will rethink that now.

Posted by Kate
590 posts

I have taken a few free tours and never felt pushed to give a tip. Even with a tip it still worked out cheaper than an organized tour. If the tour guide felt that they were getting a raw deal then they should find another job. I am sure that they aren't forced to doing it. Never had the picture taken of the group before hand to see how many people were on it. Sounds bad of me to say, but when I travel I go on the cheap. If that means going on these "free" tours guided by people who are doing it on their own free will, and I get to choose how much tip money to give and save some money along the way (in comparison to expensive guided tours), than sign me up!

Posted by Beatrix
2204 posts

We took a couple of free tours in Rome. They were offered by companies that also do paid tours - thus the free ones were to advertise the paid ones. This was made clear to the tourists from the beginning. In our case, we did this with 2 different tour companies and ended up taking the free tour after we had done their paid tour.

But I also seen situations where an attraction runs free tours, often government-sponsored, but you see advertisements for paid tours from private operaters. I do wonder if the tourists who pay for them know they could have gone in for free.

Posted by Mike
Los Angeles, CA, USA
1448 posts

Thanks for posting this. However I think this is an area where our opinions differ. I don't see an ethical problem here. Essentially the professional guide friend is asking Rick to help enforce what he believes to be the rules even though the local authorities aren't enforcing them! It seems to me that the guide should be making his case about legality somewhere else, not to Rick. Or perhaps as a guide wrote on Ricks blog it isn't actually illegal after all...

There are some legitimate points raised -- how good are the tours? But just as Rick isn't obligated to mention every B&B offering rooms but only those he approves of, same thing applies to tours. If Rick or his researchers have taken the tour and found the presentation acceptable, then by all means recommend it. Sure I'd like guides to have full-time jobs and a good living. But they aren't entitled to it any more than buggy whip manufacturers or anyone else who's job prospects have been reduced or eliminated by changing mores or practices. Maybe the "free" tours have just come up with a better business model that satisfies what tourists want. IMHO the real question isn't whether RS should censor his book and not mention them, but whether tourists want the world that results if they use them. Just as you may buy from Amazon instead of your local bookstore, you may decide to take the "free" tour. This changes the local economy just as Amazon does for booksellers. If people value what the local bookseller or full-time tour guide provides over the alternative, they will survive.

As for "free" being misleading, I think Rick answered this himself. He gives "free" talks in hopes of attracting business, hosts a "free" PBS show that is wonderful advertising for his company, and so on. I don't think anyone is so gullible to think they won't be asked for a tip, any more than I expect to see the "free" Shakespeare in the Park plays and not expect them to ask for donations at the end.

Posted by Frank II
4845 posts

To me it's similar to buying in a store or buying for a street vendor.

The products may look the same, but are you sure the quality is the same.

If you go back the next year, the store will probably be there. The street vendor may not be there next month.

You just don't know.

Posted by Carroll
Pittsburgh, PA, USA
1606 posts

I don't like this guy's way of doing business. I don't like the concept of advertising a tour is free and then strong arming customers into paying. It just feels dishonest to me. Taking the picture at the beginning of the tour suggests this guy does not trust his employees/volunteers, which doesn't impress me either.

Rick is free to recommend these tours or not as he sees fit. However, I can see why tour guides would make their case to him. Rick brags about (and I admire him for) charging a reasonable price for his tours, paying his employees well, and not permitting tipping. You might conclude from that that Rick would not approve of the free tours. It sounds like Rick has wrestled with this issue and decided to be impartial. I wouldn't do it, but Rick can do what he wants.

Posted by JER
Seattle, USA
983 posts

Seems to me that this is another example of the race to the bottom. I prefer to give my business to firms where the employees get a living wage. I feel more comfortable paying a bit more myself, knowing that I am paying the real cost of someone's services. Maybe it's because when I waited tables, many years ago, it bugged me when people wouldn't tip or wouldn't tip much on the grounds that they couldn't afford to or preferred to save money. My feeling then (and now) is that if you can't afford to pay someone a decent fee for the services received, you can't afford the services. These are just my values, but I realize many may differ on this.

Posted by Steve
Richmond, Virginia, USA
342 posts

I read a few months ago that Mike's Bike Tours had filed legal action against the free tour company in Munich. I am not sure what the grounds were. For a while there was a running battle between his company and the free tour company - actually trying to steal customers away from each other.

Posted by Ms. Jo
Frankfurt, Germany
5690 posts

If I have read Ricks question correctly, it seems he is concerned that these "free" tours may be made illegal at some time in some cities, and then he is left standing there, having recommended them in his book. How will that make him look? That is why he is asking about the ethics of it. Should he also be concerned that the "free" tour people are not up front with the fact that their tour guides have to pay a fee for each person on the tour? It isn't on any of their websites and they really try to hide this fact. Did any of you know that before reading Ricks blog?

Posted by Leslie
Spokane, WA
271 posts

I responded on the blog and will do so here. My son and I did the "free" Amsterdam tour last summer. I have always used companies like LondonWalks, ParisWalks, but could not find a walking tour in Amsterdam that you could just show up for. I first heard about these tours on the EuroCheapo Blog so it is not just Rick Steves that has recommended them. It was made very clear at the beginning that it was only free if you chose not to tip. The tour was fun and informational though mostly a young group. It was not on the same caliber as say a London Walk but was a good way to get a feel of the city. We started out with a lot more people than we ended with and I don't think it was because people weren't enjoying the tour. Most people who were still with the tour tipped at the end, not a big deal was made about it and then a group of us went to a bar for a beer with the guide and the man who is in charge of the company in AMS showed up and joined us. He answered everyone's questions about the company and also about Amsterdam in general. Personally, I have no problems with going on the tour and never felt that there was anything illegal about it. If there had been other choices, I probably would have gone with a different one, but not knowing what our schedule would be, the fact that you didn't need to sign up ahead of time was what was important to me.

Posted by Brad
Gainesville, VA
8186 posts

Sounds a lot like delivering pizzas. You use your own car/gas/insurance/maintenance in the hopes of making tips. Fortunately, at least the pizza drivers make minimum wage.

I would hate to do "free" tours for one of the many cultures that aren't accustomed to tipping.