Are free walking tours really free?

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;

  1. A historical society or similar ‘community group’;
  2. Accommodation points, such as a hostel; or
  3. 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.

shambles 768x1024 Are free walking tours really free?

Walking down the Shambles in York with a free walking tour.

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?

60 Responses to Are free walking tours really free?

  1. Ele November 18, 2013 at 11:34 AM #

    I am a tourist guide myself and I feel very bad that “free tours” work illegally and take lion’s share of tourists, just like you described in the article. I will write about it soon myself and spread the news in my native language travel blog-this is such shocking news. I have a “free” tour in Prague booked next month and I think I should cancel.
    Ele recently posted..Anybody can Travel. Yes, You too.My Profile

    • Caitlyn November 18, 2013 at 12:34 PM #

      Hi Ele – looks like you had a similar reaction to me! I can’t believe it’s been hidden so well. Maybe have a look to see if there’s some other tours in Prague? I did a free one in Prague in the past but there’s plenty of other companies. Maybe check out the tourist office website?

    • Anonymous December 6, 2013 at 8:03 PM #

      Do it! Cancel it! For your own good.

  2. Tom @ Waegook Tom November 18, 2013 at 11:36 AM #

    I had no idea about this kind of practice. Eurgh. Why on earth would a guide need to pay the company he or she works for?! It makes absolutely no sense. I’ve only ever done one free walking tour, and that was in Boston, but our tour guide was a volunteer and everyone tipped handsomely at the end, because she was absolutely wonderful.
    Tom @ Waegook Tom recently posted..A Day Trip To Novi Sad, Serbia’s Second CityMy Profile

    • Caitlyn November 18, 2013 at 12:36 PM #

      I suppose they do it because they’re a company and they’re there to make a profit. I used to think they simply profited from side tours (ie pub crawls and specialised tours that had a set price) but apparently not!

      • Brett January 1, 2016 at 2:57 AM #

        Fair enough that the companies make a profit – some at least have sophisticated web sites to promote the tours – but they need a more transparent, equitable way to do it so that the cost falls clearly on the tour participant, not the guide.

    • John O'Sullivan November 18, 2013 at 8:53 PM #

      In Sandeman’s eyes, the “guide” doesn’t pay their “boss.” Guides are independent contractors. All Sandeman’s does is ensure they meet quality standards (by training them). The flat fee is to cover the costs of marketing the tour which, to be honest, they do a damn good job at.

      It’s no different than paying an ad agency to make you an ad or a yacht owner paying a charter agency to find people to book their boats.

      …in Sandeman’s eyes.
      John O’Sullivan recently posted..Dinner atop the revolving restaurant in Berlin’s TV TowerMy Profile

      • Caitlyn November 18, 2013 at 9:23 PM #

        In my eyes, this is very different! It’s about honesty – people know ad agencies make ads, and yacht owners pay charter agencies. That’s all pretty above board. This isn’t.

        … in my eyes.

  3. Jessica of HolaYessica November 18, 2013 at 3:46 PM #

    This is outrageous, and I had no idea! These are all over Barcelona and they’re usually packed with tourists. Those poor guides…

    Recently, I had a company offer me a “free trial” of their already-free tour in exchange for a review it, and I’m really, really glad I didn’t end up working with them after reading this (and not only because they were super sketchy).

    Thanks for getting the word out.
    Jessica of HolaYessica recently posted..La Boquería Market – MyBarcelona Episode #1My Profile

    • Caitlyn November 18, 2013 at 7:33 PM #

      Haha, they offered for you to try something that was marketed as free anyway? Super sketchy! (Loved your recent vlog by the way.)

  4. Adelina November 18, 2013 at 5:55 PM #

    I remember reading about this previously and what the tour guides are paying for apparently, is all of the marketing that the company does (I can’t find the article anymore). Definitely not something I agree with especially since it’s all hidden from the average traveler.
    Adelina recently posted..Home: Coming to Terms with RealityMy Profile

    • Caitlyn November 18, 2013 at 7:34 PM #

      I think I saw something similar when I was researching this. That’s what gets me the most – the fact that the people who use these tours have no idea where their money is going.

  5. John O'Sullivan November 18, 2013 at 6:09 PM #

    Thanks for bringing this issue to light, Caitlyn.

    Why not call out the company you’re speaking about? Sandeman’s New Europe Tours needs to be known for their dubious business model, and the only way to make them known is to name drop and link them as I’ve done. That way, this blog post shows up in search results. Hopefully this will make the company take a look and perhaps even respond.

    I’m of two minds about it.

    As a traveler I hate what they’re doing to the municipal travel economies.

    As a businessperson working in the industry, I can appreciate the brilliance of what they’ve done. They’ve removed all the risk from operating a large chain of tour companies. They only need a few good marketers in a central office and one ground ops manager per city. All the risks of hiring staff are eliminated. They don’t have to worry about headaches like payroll, HR managers or staff quality control. And they’re clearly giving the people what they want.

    You and I know that Berlin’s Insider Tours, for example, are far superior than anything Sandeman’s can deliver on, but we’re unique. Most people want a basic, cheap, fun tour and will balk at a €20 or even €10 price tag. Sandeman’s figured a way to deliver that. They’ve even found guides for whom money isn’t enough of an issue to cause them to revolt at the idea of paying their employer a commission.

    We may not like the effect of it, but the market has dictated that we’re in the minority here. Is what they’re doing unethical, or just a bit of cunning?
    John O’Sullivan recently posted..Dinner atop the revolving restaurant in Berlin’s TV TowerMy Profile

    • Caitlyn November 18, 2013 at 7:50 PM #

      John! Lovely to see you here :)

      Well, I’m not a business person and I don’t have a business mind at all. However, before I knew of this dodgy practice, I thought the company had a great thing going on. At that stage I hadn’t contemplated the effect on local guides.

      But the fact that they have essentially duped the public – with guides unable to say where their tips will go, with the public then thinking that they solely go to the guides – makes me look at them as simply cowboys. They make money via their paid tours, advertising and arguably the spot they always take you for lunch halfway through the tour. Taking money (and let’s face it, a lot of money) from the people who are the face of the company is simply greedy IMO.

      And I think the guides do revolt – from a number of sites I found when researching this, apparently the average lifespan of a guide is three months. They always have more would-be guides available though, excited about working for seemingly generous tips. They’re lured into a false sense of reality, however. Then, either they’re not making enough money and they nick off (whether they’re good guides or not) or they go and work for established companies who pay them properly (unfortunately I think the latter is a rarity). The cycle then continues. As both a traveller and a unionist, they just disgust me!

      • John O'Sullivan November 18, 2013 at 8:14 PM #

        I agree with what you’re saying. Their presence makes travel worse for all of us, and it is greedy. The problem is people keep doing it. Guides keep signing up.

        There’s been some amount of backlash on these tours in tourism circles, but not the widespread backlash that would damage their bottom line. (Just look at the rate of their rapid expansion for evidence of this.)

        Responding the way Germany, Italy and Spain have is the wrong tack to effectively quash this practice, as it doesn’t eliminate the effectiveness of the business plan. Sandeman’s can always move to a different country, after all. A good way to start is to make their brand a dirty word to the traveler.

        Is what they’re doing illegal? No. Is it morally wrong? I don’t think so, just icky and obnoxious. Would I rather they stop being so successful so qualified guides can do better? Hell yes. That’s why I’m going to share this post with as many friends as I can.


        P.S. Glad to see you’re seeing me here, but I’m always here, I just don’t usually comment. :)
        John O’Sullivan recently posted..Dinner atop the revolving restaurant in Berlin’s TV TowerMy Profile

        • Caitlyn November 18, 2013 at 9:13 PM #

          Good point. Enacting legislation will just make them go around it. It’s best just to build an awareness of where people’s money is going, and then people can decide for themselves.

        • simone November 18, 2013 at 10:51 PM #

          John! How are you!? Greetings from Berlin! 😉


        • Snagglepuss November 22, 2013 at 6:51 PM #

          I don’t think the free tours hurt paid tours as much as you think. They attract a different demographic, and many who go on a free tour just would not go on a paid tour. Walking tours had a bad reputation with the young 20s crowd for a long time.

          And people who really want to be assured of a “high quality” tour are still unlikely to head to a free tour. They are savvy enough to know what’s up.

          I’m wondering what you think of private/exclusive guides? There are people out there who are charging 50 euro and up per hour for tours that are pretty much the same quality as a 10 – 15 euro tour.

          A tour is a tour is a tour. Good or bad just depends on the luck of the draw, and what guide you wind up with on that day, and what mood they are in, and the weather, etc etc etc. And some people *want* to only pay a tiny bit, and some people *want* to pay a lot. It’s a matter of perceived value.

          I just think there is room for it all. From the deep academic tours, to the tours for “kids” who really just want to have a “not-heavy”, fun couple of hours.

          • Caitlyn November 24, 2013 at 1:13 PM #

            Wow, thanks heaps for your comment (and the previous one too). Really interesting, hearing how the tours started out and how they didn’t work out financially in the original model. I have no idea in terms of the timing of all of this but I took a free tour in Berlin in 2007 and liked it so much I also took one of the paid tours as well – I think it was called ‘Red Berlin’ or something similar. The guide was brilliant and obviously knew his stuff, but was much less of an entertainer than the free guide. I get it how you say that these were the guides who were missing out.

            Your explanation of it all has really made me think, but at the end of the day my problem with it all is the deception. I don’t like how the company (and there are others that have a similar model, it’s not just the one company we’re talking about) does not make it clear to its customers that their employees are potentially missing out. There IS a tour fee, and it’s three euro. Just because the customer may not pay that, doesn’t mean the employee (or ‘volunteer’, whatever they like to call them to suit what they’re doing) should have to pay this instead. It’s dirty and I personally don’t want anything to do with it now that I know more.

            With regards to your question about private/exclusive guides, on face value, yes these fees seem extremely steep. But that’s throwing them all in the one basket – these generally aren’t free tours which are usually scripted and very much a broad introduction to a city. Most are usually hired for group tours, corporate day trips, etc and can be tailored for the group. On a smaller, individual scale, private guides are just that – private – and are suited to people who are going to ask for a certain route and specific histories/culture they’re interested in. They haven’t got 20 other people holding up a tour, asking what they believe to be unnecessary questions and going to places they’ve got no interest in. Therefore, they’re paying for the potential places of those other 20 or so people, like booking an 8-bed dorm for a couple. That luxury of course isn’t available or attractive for everyone.

          • John O'Sullivan November 24, 2013 at 3:34 PM #

            I don’t have much more to add this this discussion, I just wanted to thank you for your reasoned explanation and insight into the history of Sandeman’s.

            My opinions aren’t changed — I still think the company is making Europe worse off for tourists — but I can appreciate the business savvy the company has showed and respect it.

            You’re right, lots of licensed guides are crap, but some are truly great. I’d prefer to live in a world where the great, charismatic guides are also bastions of knowledge that aren’t basing their knowledge on a script they were given by their employer. Is it too much to ask for both — fun, charismatic guides that appeal to 20-somethings AND a deep, intimate knowledge of the history of the city?
            John O’Sullivan recently posted..Dinner atop the revolving restaurant in Berlin’s TV TowerMy Profile

          • Snagglepuss November 24, 2013 at 9:04 PM #

            Ha. I’m nobody’s PR man, and I wouldn’t agree with everything that has happened. But I think it’s at least fair to say to everybody who says “It’s a crappy system .. guides should be able to keep all their tips on the Free Tour” .. that *was* Chris’ original idea. But nobody could figure out a way to make that model work.

            Also.. I remember there was a “gradated flat fee” attempted where if you had up to 10 people you paid “x”, and then 11-20 people you paid “2x”, etc. But imagine… you have 20 people ready to tour, and then some poor guy shows up and joins your tour, and pushes you to the next category. And now HE was the one that just cost you an extra 40 euro by him just being there, the bastard, and you are looking at him going “I soooo bet you are not going to tip much”. There was always jockeying to find the “sweet spot”, and people would try to *not* get an extra person or two or three if it was going to mean a higher payment.

            It was just more complicated than people think.

      • Snagglepuss November 22, 2013 at 5:49 PM #

        I’d just like to say .. this isn’t as black and white as you paint it to be.

        I was with the company in question at the beginning. And the original business model *was* that the guides would keep all of their tips. The Free Tours were supposed to be quick, 3 hr, “taste tests” that would let people see how great a guide was and then that would entice them into returning the next day to do a “specialty tour” with them.. or to join the supercool partyguides on a pub crawl. These tours are where the company was supposed to make their money. The guides would be able to keep any tips that they made on the free tour, and then the specialty ttours would be run traditionally.. tickets and a wage.

        Unfortunately, (or fortunately) … the Free Tours ended up being so successful (and, it must be said, this was due to round the clock promotion, marketing, and schmoozing on the part of Chris), that the Free Tours were running at full capacity every day. 30 .. 40 .. 50 people. Sometimes 70! We just couldn’t keep up! And at the end of it you would walk away with 200 or 300 euro, *which would definitely be declared as taxable income*, for about 3 and a half hours work.

        Meanwhile.. everybody just wasn’t so interested in spending their next day on a tour to hear more about Nazis or Deathstrips. We tried and tried to get the special tour numbers up, but it was just the way it was. So pretty soon we were bringing in more guides to cover the Free Tour numbers, but the paid tours were still straggling. And the smart, good guides were starting to get pissed off. Here were these “whippersnapper” guides coming in to cover the jackpot Free Tours, and meanwhile the knowledgeable experienced guides were chained in to the low-reward paid tours.

        And here was Chris, trying to get all the bills paid, watching some 21 year-old who looks good and tells the right jokes, walking away from each day with hundreds of euros that the company was seeing nothing of!

        I mean.. it was obvious that there was a solid business there with the potential of lots of money .. but how would you as an owner feel to see so little reward and basically hand away the profits to people who are working about one tenth as hard as you?

        So something needed to change. Somehow the Free Guides needed to give some of that money back to the company. Now.. the fairest thing would maybe be to pay a percentage of total tips, or to pay a set amount for each person who finishes the tour .. but that would require some kind of control person to intercept each tour as it ended. And that person would need to be paid enough to make it worth their while to do that. Or .. a flat fee per tour could be charged, which would basically be the same issue: the guides aren’t keeping all the money. Or.. the guides could tell the people the whole system, which basically would mean the tours could not be advertised as a free tour and the business model would not be viable. Tips must be completely voluntary and not pressured or they are not tips.

        So it was decided that a per person fee would be charged for each who went on the tour. And remember .. the guides could always pick up people along the way who would not be charged for. So .. some days it might work against you .. some days it might work for you.

        In the end, a non-German speaker who had watched a few documentaries and lived in the city for less than a year, could still make a higher hourly wage as a city guide than some native Germans in traditional jobs requiring credentials. Let’s not forget that.

        So that’s how the whole thing evolved. There is obviously more to the story, and much of it I am not aware of. But I think it’s fair to say the way you “wish it would be” is the way it *originally was*.

        But that way didn’t work.

    • simone November 18, 2013 at 10:52 PM #

      Thank you!!!!

      • Ele November 19, 2013 at 7:06 AM #

        I’d like to know more facts that this is the Sandeman tour doing this practice because we actually booked them for Prague and I was going to book them for Israel. I want to know more facts before I cancel.
        Ele recently posted..Anybody can Travel. Yes, You too.My Profile

        • Caitlyn November 19, 2013 at 11:13 AM #

          Hi Ele. It seems the problem is that there aren’t many hard facts around – this company has been very secretive about their practices. We’ve had to rely on disgruntled employees speaking out. You can take the information from this site and other sites that I and other commenters have linked to as fact, or, if you need more proof, maybe question the company directly. Can’t hurt!

  6. Travis November 18, 2013 at 9:54 PM #

    Great post. We love a good walking tour, and when possible (and ethical) try to catch a “free” one; However, we had read about the terrible business practices of some companies beforehand, and we always make sure to do some research into the organizations before deciding to use them.

    I think there are some really good “free” tours out there, but you definitely have to do your research before you use them. We try to talk to other travelers before we go to a city, and then talk to the guides (so we can tell other travelers).

    I agree with John and other people that have suggested naming good and bad organizations – maybe also warning signs like other “guides” counting the exact number of people on the tour, etc. The only way to stop people from doing this is to get the word out there.

    Thanks for sharing this information! It is such an important issue!
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    • Caitlyn November 18, 2013 at 11:28 PM #

      Thanks Travis! I agree with you, there are good ones out there that are definitely worth checking out. I’m just concerned about a downward spiral when it comes to having free walking tours present in any city – it prices out others who charge a fee. Tips are great – they reward the better guides – but I’ve never agreed with any job where employees are solely paid in tips. It’s just not fair on the worker, I reckon. Good work though, looks like you guys are more on the ball than me and most others when it comes to researching your destinations!

    • Caitlyn November 18, 2013 at 11:25 PM #

      Hey Simone, long time no see! I didn’t get to run into you when I was in Berlin this year (only a couple of times unfortunately). Very interesting links, it only gets more and more intriguing!

    • John O'Sullivan November 19, 2013 at 11:03 AM #

      Hi Simone!

      The info isn’t hidden in Germany, but this seems to be the only place where the issue has captured the public consciousness and caused people to speak out against them. Look at the reactions when I posted this to Reddit, a site more popular with Americans:

      Popular opinion with these guys outside Germany is still very positive.
      John O’Sullivan recently posted..Dinner atop the revolving restaurant in Berlin’s TV TowerMy Profile

      • Caitlyn November 19, 2013 at 11:17 AM #

        Wow, interesting! I think that on face value, it doesn’t look like a problem – especially if you come from a country where it is perfectly normal to work solely for tips. I do see that opinions are influenced by whether or not a person has taken such a tour, however.

  7. Amy November 19, 2013 at 11:13 AM #

    Thank you for making my blood boil. Nothing to do with you of course, but what you’re saying makes me so mad to think that innocent tourists who are trying to see Europe on a budget – and quite fairly too! – are actually taking money from passionate your guides like yourself. And they don’t even know it! I hope the word gets out, because enough is enough.

    • Caitlyn November 19, 2013 at 11:18 AM #

      Yep, it’s not the tourists who are at fault, they’re completely in the dark about all of this! Spread the word :)

  8. Ele November 19, 2013 at 3:45 PM #

    I did some research and found this: and they say “Average tip is 13 EUR”. Does that make tipping obligatory, do you think? It’s not nice to be told how much to tip and now it seems that you cannot NOT tip. Duh.
    Ele recently posted..Anybody can Travel. Yes, You too.My Profile

    • Caitlyn November 19, 2013 at 11:32 PM #

      No, it’s not obligatory Ele, if it’s advertised as free. That’s my reading of it. I quite like it when they give you an idea of how much to tip, cuts the whole guessing game out of it. I was told on a tour in Berlin how much to tip, and I was taken aback at first but this ended up being the first time I tipped properly!

  9. Amanda November 19, 2013 at 4:16 PM #

    I HAVE heard of this practice before – and it certainly does seem a little unfair, especially when you figure that the guides probably aren’t supposed to mention this bit to the tourists. I would wager that, if they let slip that the average tip was a certain amount, most people would offer up that much. (I’ve had other guides on “free walking tours” be very upfront about their costs and what a “good” tip would be, and then I was happy to give them that amount).

    But yeah… more people definitely need to know about this!
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    • Caitlyn November 19, 2013 at 11:34 PM #

      I agree, Amanda! The only time I’ve been told of the average amount to tip, I made sure I did so. Took the guessing game out of it, and tipping time then didn’t feel awkward!

  10. Agness November 20, 2013 at 1:53 AM #

    You should visit South-East Asian countries. The scams are happening there every day. Free tours are never free and they might be pretty unsafe sometimes.
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    • Caitlyn November 24, 2013 at 1:18 PM #

      Absolutely. The scams are quite different there and usually it’s the customer that suffers rather than the employee. I’ve written this specific to Europe, but yes there’s plenty to write about for SE Asia as well :(

  11. Ele November 20, 2013 at 9:57 AM #

    Did I mention that I never tip? :-) It’s a free tour, right? :-)
    Ele recently posted..Anybody can Travel. Yes, You too.My Profile

  12. Lindsay November 21, 2013 at 12:29 AM #

    Interesting article! I’ve taken a handful of free tours in Europe and hadn’t really considered this. I assumed that the tour company would take a fraction of the tips (I mean, it costs money to operate and advertise a tour company), but I didn’t know exactly how much went to the company. I’ve always tipped 5 to 10 euro depending on the quality/how tight of a budget I’m on. I now feel quite bad for the time my friend and I lost our free tour group in Munich.. the poor guide must have lost money from us! (however, it was crowded, he was moving too fast and I wanted to stop and take photos!)
    Lindsay recently posted..“It’s a funny thing about coming home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You’ll…”My Profile

    • Caitlyn November 24, 2013 at 1:16 PM #

      Sounds like we’ve had a similar reaction! I personally wanted to lose my guide in Munich but she’d lost so many people already so I was just racked with Catholic guilt and stayed put!

  13. Jess November 25, 2013 at 7:14 AM #

    Wow! I’ve taken ‘free’ tours in the US, and I always thought the guides worked for tips – I didn’t realize in some organizations they might have to be turning over a chunk of their money. It makes those tours seem a lot less attractive.
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    • Caitlyn November 27, 2013 at 6:57 PM #

      Yep, it certainly is a good idea to do some research beforehand. At least in the US there’s a good tipping culture and people hopefully are a bit more generous on similar tours, unlike in Europe :)

  14. carlotta March 2, 2014 at 1:27 PM #

    Hello everyone!
    I am writing my bachelor thesis about free guided city tours.
    If you ever participated in a free guided city tour in BERLIN or ROME please help me and my bachelor thesis and fill out my anonymous survey! Thanks a lot!

    • Caitlyn March 2, 2014 at 10:05 PM #

      Good luck on your thesis Carlotta!

  15. yara Coelho April 13, 2014 at 1:53 PM #

    What a great post! Thank you for sharing this info!

    Here in Lisbon, there was a very small local company offering free tours. They were the original ones bringing the concept here and they were quite nice, just a group of friend with a great love for their city and a lot of knowledge to share. Out of the blue, Sandman arrived to Portugal and booked their meeting point for their tours at the same place, same time than the original chill-out free tours.

    Sandman came with banners and umbrellas and stole basically all “clients” from Chill-out. The Sandman guides are not local, know very little about the city, can’t speak Portuguese and their practices and ethics are horrible.

    I was about to take my first free tour, when I saw Sandman arriving and taking over at the same spot and same time. I found out later, they exploit their guides and came over to destroy local small business like the chill out tours. I will never take a tour with them.

    There are small, local free tours, that don’t belong to Sandman which are nice and honest :)
    yara Coelho recently posted..I’m going to TBEX Greece 2014! It’s official!My Profile

    • Caitlyn April 14, 2014 at 8:52 PM #

      Wow what an interesting story Yara. I really want more people to be aware of these sort of practices.

  16. yara Coelho April 13, 2014 at 1:56 PM #

    Why do these guides work for this company is something I can’t understand..
    yara Coelho recently posted..I’m going to TBEX Greece 2014! It’s official!My Profile

  17. Ann April 17, 2014 at 8:53 PM #

    Very interesting. I’ve always assumed that the money I was paying as a tip was going to go back to the company somehow – I’m American and I think it’s the nature of tipping being common there, maybe? I’ve done 2 free tours with Sandeman and 1 paid tour with Sandeman. I’ve always tipped generously. Generally about 2x what their site charges for the paid tours. (And with the paid tour, I tipped 100%). It’s sad that their initial plan of using these tours to promote other tours hasn’t worked so nicely. I expected that’s where they made most of their money.

    The last free tour I went on the guy stressed to just pay what you can afford and feel it’s worth. I heard someone go up to the guide later who wanted to do a paid tour, but couldn’t pay for it. He seemed to be willing to work something out with that person. I actually think he may have told the person to meet up with them a few minutes after the tour started.

    I’m definitely going to look more into this before I do another free tour. Or any tour since there can be issues even with paid guides.

    • Caitlyn April 18, 2014 at 8:02 AM #

      Hi Ann, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’ve noticed a real divide in the people who have shared their thoughts with me on this – it seems most Americans figure that part of the tips would go to the company, but hardly anyone else. I for one never thought that was the case. I think that if more people were aware of this people would tip more generously (which Americans tend to do anyway). I really feel that the secrecy is the real problem here.

  18. Dizzy June 24, 2014 at 11:57 AM #

    Ohh I feel awful. I lost sight of my group half way through the tour in Ireland and decided to walk about on my own. Paying the company a flat fee or percentage is understandable. But having to pay them irrespective of the amount earned is just unethical.

    • Caitlyn June 27, 2014 at 10:50 PM #

      I have done the same Dizzy, in Munich. It wasn’t the guide’s fault at all, and I really hope she didn’t lose out from me and my friend!

  19. Chanel | Cultural Xplorer June 28, 2014 at 4:44 AM #

    Wow! I had no idea that some of these tours operated that way and I have an idea of the company of whom you speak. I will make sure to do higher tipping on my future ‘free’ tours and it is a shame when guides have to pay a company for work that they have done.
    Chanel | Cultural Xplorer recently posted..Where To Sleep: Long Island CityMy Profile

    • Caitlyn July 7, 2014 at 10:09 PM #

      Neither did I Chanel! We need to spread the word.

  20. TrekScott July 26, 2015 at 12:21 PM #

    Hi Caitlyn,

    I think that you are taking it all the wrong way. Firstly, remember that not all companies are the same (read yara Coelho’s answer, for instance). I am not very fond of that big multinational either and always prefer to use local tours (free or not) but think of this: would anyone be so stupid to work at a loss? Maybe you should ask your guide next time and see if they are happy with their job or not. The “exploitation of guides” that the sensationalist press and some tour guides are trying to show might not be that accurate. After all some of these guides have been working in this system for years. If there was something better for them, they would have switched long time ago.

    Just a thought :-)

  21. Ali November 25, 2015 at 3:34 PM #

    Great post. I will soon meet a friend who has suggested we do a Free Walking Tour. I knew they expect tips and I just wish they’d tell me upfront what they expect (as tipping always leaves me feeling awkward), so I started trying to work out what might be appropriate: which got me thinking about whether they paid the advertising company, pay taxes, any other fees. Thanks for answering a few of these questions.


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