I talk a lot about taking free walking tours when I travel, and believe it or not, it’s not all about the cost! In this post, I’ll share my experiences with taking free walking tours, what you can expect, and why you should consider them.
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Why I Love Free Walking Tours
I always recommend starting a city visit with a walking tour when you can. And, a free walking tour is even better. This isn’t what I used to do when I first started traveling. However, I have learned my lesson over the years.
I wasted a lot of time visiting places I saw in guidebooks that sounded interesting. Then, I was disappointed when I got there. Had I gone on a tour with a local guide, I might have known to skip it. Or other times, I missed something that was amazing because I didn’t know about it.
Now I know better. I don’t always do it, but when I do, I haven’t regretted it.
The Best Reasons to Go on a Free Walking Tour
There are quite a few great reasons to consider a free walking tour, and here are my top few:
- Get your bearings: If you want to quickly get acclimated to a new city and get an orientation, a walking tour is a great way to do that. You usually spend between 2 and 4 hours, so not a huge time investment, and you see the most popular sites the city offers.
- Learn the culture and history of the area: The tour guides really know their stuff about the place you are touring. They come armed with lots of interesting history and local perspectives. You can learn so much about where you are visiting in a short amount of time that you may not read in guidebooks.
- Receive amazing recommendations from a local: Guides generally provide great recommendations about where to go and where not to go. This includes restaurants, sites, and neighborhoods. They really have no advantage to recommend certain places so they provide their experience. A good guide will recommend things that may not be in their interest (“I don’t love museums, however, this one is very popular). And they will give you some great local insights into places that are not in guidebooks and also what “tourist traps” to avoid.
- Your guide is super motivated to show you a great time: They don’t get paid upfront, so if you have a crappy time and your tour guide isn’t friendly or knowledgeable, they may get nothing for their time. So, it’s in their best interest to make sure you have a great time.
The Down-side of Free Walking Tours
I have been on some free walking tours that I have enjoyed more than others. And one that I went on wasn’t great. Though, that was mostly due to the huge size of the group and my challenges with understanding him. Generally speaking, I have really enjoyed the walking tours I have joined. As you can clearly see from this article, I’m a big fan of walking tours.
Probably the biggest downside of a free walking tour is that the group size can get quite large. Some companies handle this more effectively than others. I have found if the group is more than 20 or 25 people, it can be a bit unwieldy. You end up waiting for people to catch up and it can be difficult hearing the guide.
However, when the company does a good job with having enough guides available, they are usually great. I always love when they require I sign up in advance because they are more likely to have a system in place to keep group sizes down.
Keep in mind that walking tours do not provide food, they generally cover a small area, and they do require walking and standing around. So, if you’re not up for any of these, walking tours in general may not be right for you.
Solo Traveler Benefits
Free walking tours are amazing to do for solo travelers. What better way is there to get the lay of the land and meet new people than on a walking tour? At a minimum, if you’re a little nervous traveling solo or just craving a little companionship, you have a ready group of people to spend some time with. At best, you may actually make a new friend or two.
When I visited Porto in Portugal, I got really lucky. I went on a free walking tour and met two really amazing people. One invited me to dinner after the tour ended and we had a great time and still keep in touch. And the other ended up meeting me for a port-wine tasting and Fado (Portuguese music). It was such an amazing tour!
I have had similar experiences on other tours as well when I was traveling solo and I highly recommend it.
Are Free Walking Tours Really Free?
Free walking tours really are free in that there is no upfront cost for them. Some may require a reservation and that’s for two reasons. First, to manage the number of people in the group and possibly to limit them if they have a limited number of guide. And second, to determine the number of tour guides they need. But, if the tour is a free walking tour, there is no upfront cost. You are not expected to put any money down and you are not required to pay.
However, not paying for a service provided, especially when it’s a great experience—well, it really isn’t a nice thing to do. The tour guides, even on free walking tours, and providing a service. If you enjoy the service, be sure to tip.
It’s very similar to a server at a restaurant. Unless the service is truly awful, you just don’t not tip. However, the amount of your tip will be adjusted based on the service you get, and rightfully so. The same goes with a walking tour. You don’t have to pay a huge tip if you weren’t impressed. But, if the guide made a true effort, it’s worth being kind. This is how they are making their income, after all.
What to Expect on a Free Walking Tour
When you go on a free walking tour, they will tell you where to meet and what to look for. Usually it’s to look for a person with a white shirt and a sign that says the name of the tour. Or it might be that they will have a colored umbrella. They will have something that will make them stand out.
The gathering spots are often the same for many of the tours, free and otherwise. So, if you’re told to look for someone with a red umbrella and you see someone with a white one, it’s not your tour. The guides will generally approach you when you walk up and will ask. Don’t feel pressured to go on the tour you walk up to if it’s not yours, though they may try.
On the Tour
Once people gather, you’ll head off. The guide will usually introduce themselves to the group, will talk about the company, and what you will see and do. You will be asked to try to stay fairly close together. The guide wants to share their talk once with the group and doesn’t want to have to run through it multiple times.
You are welcome to ask questions on the tour and will be encouraged to do so. But, keep in mind there are others present and be respectful of the guide and everyone’s time and don’t constantly pepper them with questions. If you want to know a lot of information about the area, you may want to consider a private tour.
You won’t usually go inside places you visit. Instead, you’ll generally stop outside and the guide will give you an overview of what you are looking at. Unless the tour specifically says you will enter places, you usually won’t. So, definitely plan for some time to go back to explore the places you are interested in.
Some tours will have a short 15-minute break to grab a drink, snack, or to go to the bathroom. It depends how long the tour runs and the times it goes from.
After the Tour
Once the tour is done, many of the guides will stay for a little while to answer any additional questions. The better guides will offer to share recommendations at the end, and this is when you can ask about great places to go and good restaurants. I have had guides that wrote out a sheet of recommendations so you could take a picture of it, which is great.
You can also ask a question or two if you want to of something you didn’t get to ask on the tour. As I mentioned before, please don’t slink away before the end of the tour or even at the end without paying. In my opinion, if you can’t pay, you should consider saying something upfront. If you’re honest about it, the guide isn’t likely to turn you away.
What Do You Tip?
The answer to what your tip should really depend on the area you are in. You won’t pay as much in Cartagena as you will in Berlin. Take a look at paid tours to see what they charge, and that’s a good ballpark to consider. Keep in mind that for paid tours, you’re generally expected to tip the guide, as well as much of the payment, go to the tour company and not to the guide.
You definitely have latitude, though. You can tip what you feel comfortable with based on the location of the tour, what comparable tours cost, and how much you enjoyed the tour. Now, if you go on a free walking tour of the historical part of a city and hate history and architecture, I wouldn’t ding the tour guide for that. But, if the guide isn’t very knowledgeable or personable, and clearly doesn’t make an effort, these are reasons you might give a little less if you’re inclined.
If you have to leave the tour before it is done, please still give your guide a tip. I have seen people slink off near the end of a free walking tour to avoid paying for it. And well, that’s just crappy. So, please don’t do it.
How to Choose?
There are a lot of ways to choose the tours you want to go on and they generally come down to doing some research. You may get to know some tour companies. I have had great luck with Sandemans New Europe tours, so when I’m in Europe, I tend to go with them if they are available.
Check out their itinerary and compare them. They are generally similar, but sometimes they cover different neighborhoods or some slightly different places that may make a difference to you.
Check out reviews. Do a Google search or go online to TripAdvisor or other sites like that. Or, you might find tour companies mentioned on blog posts or articles you read when you’re researching your trip. Generally speaking, crappy tour guides don’t last very long so you’ll typically have a good experience.
Also, make sure you’re interested in the places you will see on the route and the slant of the tour. Some have a slant towards history, culture, food, or architecture so if you’re not interested, it’s a good idea to find another.
What Should You Bring?
Here is what you should bring on any walking tour:
- Water and snacks if you’ll need food along the way.
- Comfortable shoes are a must!
- The right attire—check the weather report to make sure you have what you need.
- Your camera or phone.
- A notepad if you want to take any notes of what you have seen to share with others. Also, you can use this to write down recommendations the guide shares.
- Cash for tipping your guide and for any snacks, food, or drinks you pick up on the tour.
That’s Why I Recommend Free Walking Tours
I love free walking tours and think they are a great way to get oriented to a new city and to get great recommendations. They are a great low-risk investment as there is no upfront cost and generally they are really great as the guide is motivated. So, give it a shot! What have you got to lose?
Have you gone on free walking tours? I’d love to see what you thought in the comments.
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