If you’re a city traveler then you have certainly heard of free walking tours run by various companies. I took my first one over 7 years ago in Barcelona with a few people I met at a hostel. As a college student and budget traveler, a free walking tour was just the thing I was looking for to get more out of my visit.
And now free walking tours are even more prevalent than they were 7 years ago. They’re available in most major cities in Europe, and the idea is almost as simple as the name implies. You just show up at the prescribed place and time, and enjoy.
After my first tour in Barcelona, I’ve since taken free walking tours in Paris and last weekend enjoyed one in Bratislava.
Since this all sounds too good to be true, what’s the catch? How do these tours work and can they really be free?
I’ll lay out the details and let you decide.
Are The Tours Really Free?
Technically, they are.
Your tour guide works for tips only, so if at the end of the walk you decide not to tip they can’t send the police after you.
At the beginning or end of the tour the guide will say that he/she works for tips only, and maybe suggest that you tip what you think the tour was worth. And since these tours are made specifically with budget travelers in mind, that gives a lot of leeway for what the guide receives.
Personally, I think if you don’t tip that’s kind of a jerk thing to do. Unless the tour was complete crap (which I have never had one that is). The tour I took in Bratislava was over 2 hours long, and our guide was a local Slovakian who gave us a lot of information on Slovakian culture and history in addition to explaining the sights, and was able to answer any questions we had.
Some disagree with marketing these tours as ‘free’ when guides work for tips. And some feel like they were pressured to tip at the end when guides explained how they were poor students, or how they were trying to make extra money for their family, or how they company didn’t pay them at all.
But that’s not the only controversy.
How Does the Company Work on Tips Only?
If you’ve taken a free walking tour before you know that at some point there’s a group photo taken. This picture usually gets posted to social media so you can check it out later, which seems like a normal way the company promotes itself. But there’s another reason for this photo.
Your tour guide must pay the company a certain fee per person on the tour. And the photo is a way to ensure accurate fees are paid out based on the number of people who took part in the tour.
I’m sure the actual amount varies by city and company, but a former guide in Berlin reported the fee was 3€ per person. That means if you take the tour and don’t tip, the guide is paying out of pocket to their employer for your tour.
Which is again, why I think you’re kind of a jerk if you don’t tip.
Who Are the Guides?
Because the guides work for tips only and are not paid by their employers in the traditional sense, they can be classified as volunteers or self-employed freelancers in terms of labor laws.
And depending on the company, they may or may not be licensed tour guides. Which may or may not matter to you, but let me explain the consequences of this.
The licensing process varies across countries and regions, but becoming a licensed guide means that you have put in significant time and effort to become knowledgeable in several aspects of an area’s identity.
Check out the syllabus to become certified with the Institute of Tourist Guiding in England, South Jersey, and Wales. Architecture, law, and sports are on there! And they offer three badges denoting a guide’s level of knowledge and capability for certain tours.
The rise of free walking tours with non-licensed guides has affected the business of licensed tour guides who charge a fee up front. Some argue that free tours may not be giving accurate information, and they’re ruining the industry for licensed tour guides.
You should know that you can find free walking tour companies that use licensed guides. And in reading travel forums, some licensed guides have found the free model works better for them so they have switched to those companies anyway.
Should You Use a Free Walking Tour?
Ultimately the decision is up to you. You need to think about whether you agree with the free walking tour business model ethically, and move from there.
Are there issues with tours labelling themselves as ‘free’ when during the course of the walk they tell tourists that they work for tips only and might pressure you to pay? Maybe.
Are there issues with companies making their ’employees’ pay them per head on the tour, despite the number of tips they make? Maybe.
Are free walking tours ruining the business of licensed guides and pre-paid tours? Maybe.
I encourage you to reach out to those you know in the industry to ask their opinion, as well as do some further research. If you want to read more about the ethics behind free walking tours, check out Rick Steve’s blog post and The Guardian’s article that helped me write this post.
Please note that business models between the free walking tour companies do vary. This post is based on my experiences and research on free walking tours.
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