A Guide to “Free” Walking Tours: Value, Tipping, and Quality
Most cities in Europe that draw any sort of tourism will have “Free Walking Tours” available in multiple languages. Smaller cities might have one or two companies while larger metropolitan areas have several. The same structure goes for languages offered. Smaller places normally only offer a few languages including the country’s national language(s) while larger cities can have ten or more. Luckily, English has become a universal language for business and tourism. So, if you’re reading this post, you’re good to go! The country’s location often determines which other languages are available. For example, cities in Bavaria have tours in Italian because of the number of Italian tourists.
How Do They Work?
You can usually find companies online with a simple google search, but many hostels have affiliations with certain business. Sandemans, for example, is a huge operator in Europe with endless affiliates. They leave maps and brochures in many places for tourists to take for free. You can book ahead if you’d like, but it is perfectly acceptable to just show up. In larger cities where there are multiple tour guides waiting at the same time, you may be required to take a number which is how they divide the groups. Don’t worry about this as the guides will make sure you get one! We’ve been on tours with 6 people and also on tours with 30 people, but have never been rejected. If you find a tour while walking or are late and want to attend, you can often join on the spot! The guide will explain how far into the tour they are and often encourage you to stay (mainly because there is no evidence of your attendance😈 More on that below).
The brochures relay how long the tours last, usually 2-3 hours, when/where they start, and what monuments will be shown en route. If you can’t find any information on local companies, it’s always a safe bet to wander to the city’s old town or market square just before 10am and look for umbrellas with “FREE TOUR” plastered on them. Sometimes you can find multiple free tours staggered throughout the day so if you sleep through one, you have another chance. Often tours have themes i.e City, Jewish Quarter, Castle, Church, etc. We normally start with the City Tours because they help us see more of the area and decide what we want to do later.
The great thing about walking tours is that everything is within walking distance. If you see something you want to go back to, you can usually find it without too much strife. Guides regularly encourage people to go inside free monuments, like churches, and give groups time to take pictures. We have been on tours where guides allot time for bathroom or tea breaks which is nice to an extent. 10-15 minutes is great, a 30-40 minutes is a waste of time. Be prepared for both and a third option: no break. 2.5 hours of walking on a small bladder is tough, so save your water for later!
Are they worth it?
YES. As with anything, you’ll have guides who are much better than others or people who you vibe with more, but, regardless of the guide, rest assured that you’ll learn a lot about the city’s culture and history while experiencing things you wouldn’t have found by yourself. Speaking of worth, you don’t pay in advance. That means if you really hate it, you can walk away at any time with no monetary loss.
To extend, since these guides work for tips, they’re usually on their best game. Most of them do tours for a living and, subsequently, are passionate about history and travel. Often expats work in these industries so if you’re a native speaker of the tour’s language, communication is seamless.
What are they worth?
Most companies are obsessed with Trip Advisor: a standard-setting travel network god that we often forget exists. When travelling, however, the weird little owl on business’ doors gives us comfort; the travel god’s subliminal messages and seals of approval work indefinitely. Most, if not all, of our guides pointed out that good reviews on the TA website with their name give them more assignments and appraisal from their superiors. As for the structure of the tours, the guide usually pays their boss per head. This can be anywhere between 1-4 euros depending on the nature of the tour and country. Some companies require a group photo before starting to not only help promote themselves on social media, but to record the number of participants on each tour. Serious, right?
It’s been informally decided that €10 is a standard tip for a good “Free” Walking Tour. This scale slides a few dollars up or down depending on quality. If you’re on a very tight budget but feel like your guide deserves more, leave them a nice review on Trip Advisor to make up for the lower dollar amount. Guides we’ve talked to are aware every work day’s salary is a risk, but they often love what they do and balance what they make in peak season to get through off season. In our opinion, if you can’t afford to go on a tour, prepared to leave €10 for good service, you shouldn’t go. Of course, if the tour is terrible, you can leave less or nothing. However, if you find any value whatsoever, you should AT LEAST cover your head for being there so the guide isn’t paying for your attendance. We’ve seen people leave small pocket change explaining that they’re “broke” and sorry. Searching the web, reading, and walking around by yourself is free, and while no one should be unable to travel due to a lack of financial stability, having a local worker pay for you is unacceptable.
Free Walking Tours are great a great way to meet fellow travellers, learn historical facts, scope out the area, and get prime local food/drink recommendations. Not only that, but doing a tour in the first day or two will give you a better sense of local customs as guides often tell participants about an area’s idiosyncrasies. Can’t decide which tour to take? Head over to Trip Advisor and check out which in the area are best! 😂 Honestly, we have never been on a bad “Free” tour. Some have been better than others, but all have been fairly good. Hostel affiliations are usually a solid start and if you’re interested in other tours, companies will often offer discounts if you book through your guide. We’ve taken several €10-€15 tours after our “Free” experiences and they were awesome!
We wish you luck, fellow Sailors! Keep working hard ⛵