Two Cents on Taking Free Walking Tours

by farrah on June 4, 2017 · 2 comments

My family and I (as well as on my solo trips) take these tours usually every chance we get. We like to take one as soon as possible so as to get the lay of the land so to speak, of the city center we’re visiting. They’re great for the most part- and I’d highly recommend taking one if you find yourself in a city where you’d like to learn more. Additionally- it’s the best way to get insider tips (who has the best food, how to pay less at a cafe, what not to buy, etc) as soon as you arrive.

I’ve had good luck and bad with free tours. The biggest surprise was a tour in Venice (guide Adam) and the most special one was a recent one in the Jewish Quarter of Krakow  that I took by accident. So sometimes you won’t know until you’re on it if it’s going to be a good one or not- sorry to say. Hopefully breaking it down for you (and offering my advice) will help prepare you for the best experience possible.

My Venice tour guide Adam

So what’s the deal with the ‘free’ walking tours?

For starters, they really are free. You register online with your email, and you show up at your assigned meeting spot usually in the center or a well-known location. You’ll go with a guide who provides your tour in your language and it depends on how long the tour will last. Typically they have an umbrella in the center (color based on tour company) and there are several to pick from. You can choose beforehand and register online (my suggestion) or just walk up and join (we’ve done this too but I like to get the reviews first).

How is it free, you ask? Well- these tour operators work on tips. And when I say tips- I mean livable tips. If you don’t have a fee for the tour upfront, realize that this person is working for whatever you decide their worth is to you. I thought it was helpful that my tour guide in Venice broke down the price of an actual tour (he was right I verified) and we could gauge from there. He did a great job, the tour was several hours long, he made sure we ate something and was very knowledgable and passionate about his job. I paid €40 in the end, and the people I was with did the same. Sure there was a broke gap year student there, who paid €5, but hey- it was cool- he paid something and was upfront when he joined.

I’ve learned that in some cities these free walking tours are despised by the tourist board, and have been known to harass the guides while giving them. Personally, I have never had an experience where someone has yelled at us or whatever, but your guide will tell you all about it and how they are not always the most popular people with the city. Don’t worry though- your guide will take care of any issues.

Aren’t all the big, paid for tours good?

Well, it’s a crapshoot. I was utterly disappointed with my paid tour in Venice on the gondola. I didn’t feel that the description was entirely accurate- and was herded along with a million other people crammed onto a gondola. The reviews were extremely positive on the site- so I was confused if they had taken the same tour that I did. On the other hand I’ve had an awesome tour experience in Normandy with the same company- but for a non-sponsored person that tour would have been easily over €200.

Tips for a free walking tour:

  • Bring cash
  • Ask if there’s a break or a snack.
  • Bring water.
  • Check out the Facebook and or Trip Advisor reviews.
  • Dress accordingly to temperature and local customs.
  • Wear shoes for walking.
  • Is it a good tour with kids?
  • How long does it last?
  • Where do we meet and end?
  • When you get the email asking how it went, give an honest review. It helps other people when looking for a tour.

Common sense:

  • Don’t be ‘that person’ on the tour and monopolize the time of the guide with incessant questions or conversation. This just happened on my last tour but the guide was quite skilled at shutting her down. If you’d like a private tour to ask your questions get one of those instead. Twenty-odd people have questions too.
  • Don’t hold up the group by taking a billion photos. Do that on your own exploration of the city!
  • If you join the tour mid-way or any other point, it would be courteous if you could also tip the guide SOMETHING. I was horrified that a couple joined our Krakow tour about half way because they saw us standing there, asked to join, and then waved and said ‘Thanks, bye’ at the end.

I’ve taken free tours all over Europe and the majority of them have been great. It’s an easy way to get some background info on the city you’re visiting right from the start.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kristin June 5, 2017 at 12:58 pm

This is so helpful! I’ve never taken one of these “free” tours, and unless someone told me, I’m not sure I’d know what or even if to tip. My assumption with these is that the businesses and restaurants subsidize the tour to make it free. I cannot WAIT to take the kids traveling to Europe and Central America!

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2 farrah June 7, 2017 at 9:08 am

You know, I’m not sure how it all works because I was really confused when guides have told me that they tend to get harassed by the city. Why? I’m not sure. I met a guy on my last tour who also takes them wherever he goes and he loves them. It’s a nice opportunity too to meet fellow travelers and hear where they’ve been.

I think you and your family would love them and I want to hear where you’re going!!!!

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