Free walking tours. The concept first popped up about a decade ago, and now we’ve reached the point where they’re commonplace in most large European cities. Even if you haven’t taken a free walking tour, you’re sure to have seen them; the guides swarm around with sandwich boards and placards usually at around 11am outside a main train station or on a central square. They kind of look like they’re off to a rally, but they’re not; they’re getting ready to introduce visitors to the city they’ve decided to get to know.
To say that free walking tours are popular would be an understatement of utmost proportions. One of the most frequent questions I get on the road is the old classic, ‘Are free walking tours really free?’
I always bite my tongue. In short, no.
You want the longer version? At the risk of sounding like the crankiest old lady in the world (particularly after this post a couple of weeks ago), I have had it up to here with ‘free’ walking tours. The label should be banned Europe-wide, as it is nothing more than a scam, where the losers are the ones actually presenting the product; the walking tour guides themselves.
Let’s take a back step here. Sometimes I get a bit ahead of myself and tend to go off on little rants. So forgive me. Essentially, a walking tour which markets itself as free is put on by one of the following three providers;
- A historical society or similar ‘community group’;
- Accommodation points, such as a hostel; or
- A private, independent organisation.
In the first two cases, tours marketed as ‘free’ are often the case. Guides host the tours out of a sheer love of their city, or as part of their broader job description. I once went on a walking tour of York in England which was run by a local volunteer; one of the first things he told us was that he didn’t accept tips. In a similar vein, hostels often provide free walking tours as part of an accommodation package, like a free beer or included sheets. Their guides usually work for the hostel, and may be behind the bar or reception desk on another rostered shift.
I don’t particularly have a problem with either of those two groups (except for the fact that it prices out local guides who do need to charge a fee in order to make a living, but more on that later). It’s in the third category where most of my issues lie. In this case, tours are marketed as ‘free’, and are tips-based. This part is quite simple; the guide makes money through tips. In theory, if they’re great, they’re going to earn more money. The dodgy ones are weeded out.
Until a couple of years ago, I loved this concept. There was one particular company that I liked, and I went along on their free walking tours in Berlin, Munich, Amsterdam and Prague. One guide was brilliant – the one in Berlin – whereas the rest were pretty good. Therefore, I tipped accordingly. I gave the brilliant guide five euro, and the rest three. Mentally I patted myself on the back, proud of myself for not being like the dozen or so that would always disappear come tip-time.
Then I became a tour guide myself. And this is where it gets complicated.
One night in a hostel bar, I got talking to a walking tour guide. He worked for the most well-known walking tour company; indeed it was the same one in which I’d taken all of the aforementioned ‘free’ walking tours. Together we swapped stories about the tour guide life, with him based in one city and me all over the place. He told me about his bosses, and how his company actually made money. What he then told me made my blood run cold.
For every person on his tour – yep, whether they are still there at the end or not – he would have to pay the company three euro. I thought back to the guides I’d tipped a measly three euro. They’d simply broken even, and for the ones who’d nicked off, the guides had actually made a loss.
As I thought about it more, well into the night after I’d said goodbye to my hostel bar friend, my feelings changed from embarrassment to fury. I realised that at the end of the day, I’d done what was asked of me. The tours were marketed as free and no suggestion was made for the appropriate amount to tip. I’d gone on another tour in Berlin where a tip suggestion was made – ten euro – and that was exactly what I’d paid.
Once I essentially gave myself a get-out-of-jail-free card, my attention turned to the company. What kind of corrupt business practices were these? How can it be that employees have to pay their bosses for the privilege of simply working for them? This wasn’t the case of the company taking a percentage of set fees, as other companies do. In that case, guides are still guaranteed a profit. No, this was different. These were tips, where the people offering them were under the impression that the money was going directly to the guide.
I thought back to my free walking tour in Prague. We’d started with about thirty people, and finished with maybe ten. It had started raining halfway through and most people had dropped off. That guide – a native Czech man with perfect English and an encyclopaedic knowledge of his home town – had almost definitely paid for the privilege of walking around his city in the teeming rain for three hours and entertaining foreigners.
Particularly as I’m a tour guide myself, I know how much work goes into constructing talks and being across any extra information that may come up in questions. It’s not just a job you do for pocket money. Some established guides have been around for decades, often with formal qualifications in the history of their respective cities and speaking multiple languages. These are the hardworking people who are losing out now. They’re there on the rainy days, the sweltering ones and the others where you’d just rather stay in bed all day. They may charge ten or twenty euro for their tours – the amount you should tip a free walking tour guide anyway – and have lost ground to others who claim to be doing the same thing gratis.
Googling ‘free walking tours’ will bring up pages and pages on this debate and how numerous governments are cracking down on their activities. (Thank you, Italy and Spain.) Even Rick Steeves has debated whether or not to mention them in his guidebooks. But that information isn’t getting through to the people on the ground; the tourists who are taking these tours. I was one of them, of course.
So please, spread the word. If you do choose to go on a free walking tour – I promise I won’t rap you over the knuckles – please tip accordingly; ten euros is expected. But better yet, research local tour providers that have been in the caper for years and have set fees for tours. I myself can recommend a few – Romeing Tours in Rome, Insider Tours in Berlin and Vienna Explorer in Vienna are all brilliant and pitched towards a young audience. Bike tours are also a great way to see a city – Fat Tire (in Berlin, Barcelona, Paris and London) and Mike’s Bikes (in Amsterdam and Munich) are two of the best.
I am one of those people who hates spending money when I can find something similar for free. But in this case, it’s not worth it. I’ll never go on a free walking tour again. What do you think?