It has been years since free tours started arising not only in Europe but all over the world. Getting to know the city suddenly came for free. The trend became so popular and massive that eventually, people started questioning it – »From what does a tour guide live? How could something that usually costs be completely for free? What does that mean for other tour operators?« All the questions are on the place, but the reality is that free tours are here, available and the travelers are more than satisfied with them. However, it is good that they keep some awareness about the topic.
But first, how to find free tours
Whenever I was looking for a free tour, I simply used a web search engine (such as Google) and that was more than enough. When reading more about the found results and choosing the one that I like, I checked the ratings and experiences of the previous travelers. When the final decision was made, I checked on the website of the tour whether joining requires booking or whether it is enough showing up at the certain place at the certain hour (usually around 11 AM). A volunteer will greet you and present you the history and present of the place, which usually takes at least two hours.
Is the tour for free?
The answer is YES. No matter what some people say, you are not obliged to pay anything and you can even leave the group earlier, in case you would not be satisfied with the guiding. Those are the conditions under which you join the group.
However, tourist guides accept the tips, most commonly at the end of the tour. Even if formally you have no obligations, you will want to leave something to the guide if (s)he presented you the new place with so much passion and knowledge and if you really enjoyed the tour.
You will find many pages of tours claiming they are for free but giving an information about an average tip (13 euros or similar) – do not buy it! A free tour that is pushing their average tips number to the tourists are half-selling themselves and this is not right. If you want to tip, tip with what you can.
Do free tours bring the same quality as the paid tours?
I took a lot of paid and free tours in different European cities. Free ones were always very interesting, fresh, friendly, and the most important – guides were always in a good mood. By now I have heard about two bad experiences from friends around Europe, but anyway they simply left the group and continued exploring the city alone.
I was explaining the high quality of the free tours to myself as the consequence of the motivation since the tourists will stay in the group until the end and will tip IF the tour will be great. I actually met a man who told me he went from being a paid touring guide to being a free one and felt way more motivated as a free tour guide since he could have a bigger impact on the final financial outcome for himself. But this doesn’t sound very volunteering, right? This is where the discussions started …
What is problematic?
There are many discussions on whether free tours should be allowed and if they are acceptable. It is already hard to find them in some cities. The discussions often go around the following statements:
– Tips are not a registered income but can be very high.
– Free tours are stealing business to the local licensed guides.
– Some free tour guides are not locals and do not speak the local language.
– Promoted as free the tour often ends up being highly tipped which in the result is a profitable activity, but self-claimed as the volunteering one.
– Free tours that are operated by big businesses with the representatives all over Europe are stealing tourists from the small, local free tour operators that started the activities before them.
I do not claim that any of the mentioned is an absolute truth and I possess no statistics to confirm it.
My advice to you
I love free tours. I took them for many times, the last ones in Prague, Porto, Ljubljana and Brussels. I have met many nice people and many nice tour guides. My average tip was around 6 euros (depends on how much I could afford on a certain day, how satisfied I was with a tour and in which country I was – standards are different). I gave it to show my appreciation for the guide’s good work and his willingness to volunteer.
But I believe that such an organisation of free tours will not last forever, because the volunteering in order to promote the city that you love and getting a »thank you« tip started turning into a business with high competition that is hiding behind a different name.
My advice to you is to continue using free tours but search for smaller, local organizations, with local people and tradition, who’s main focus is the city that you visit, rather than searching for major tour operators that are massively widespreaded in many places. Search for groups that see your tip as a nice gesture and not the ones telling you what is their »average tip« after saying their tour is for free. Free tours are great, use them, especially if you can not afford much while traveling, but before making your final choice of which one to take, open the websites and read. Ask people and be conscious.
At the end, you can try »free self-guiding tours«, where you print or upload on the phone the map with the marked points and interesting descriptions of the places. I did it in Salzburg and it was great. I could stop whenever I wanted for a coffee, for making some photos, for visiting the museum or whatever else.