The Pros and Cons of Free Walking Tours

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In old towne square, Prague

This was near where out free walking tour left from in Old Town Square in Prague.

It seems like every city we visit in Europe (and many in the United States) now offer free walking tours of the highlights of their city.  These tours can be a budget friendly way to get a good overview of the city that you are visiting and its people, places and history.

There are big some pluses to these free tours.  They are a great way to get your bearings in a new city and map out the places that you would like to return for a closer look at later.

These tours are of course not entirely free.  Most of the guides for these tours work on a tip only basis and ask that you tip them at the end for what you feel the tour was worth (you should also consider when tipping your guide for these “free” tours that often the guide pays a commission to the tour company for each person on the tour, so not all of what you give will go to them.)  All things considered, these are still a budget friendly option for seeing the sights of a city.

They generally leave from a central gathering point in a city (often a historic square or such) so they are easy to work into your itinerary as you will generally already be in the vicinity doing the “tourist” thing.

There are some important things to consider when figuring out whether one of these free walking tours is a good fit for your group and your itinerary:

The fountain at Place St. Michel, Paris

This beautiful fountain was teh starting point for our walking tour in Paris.

  • They don’t call these walking tours for nothing.  They can be long (and generally go on even in cold or inclement weather, so dress accordingly) so they might not be the best option for those with kids or traveling with someone who is mobility impaired.  The tour guides generally tell you at the beginning of the tour that they are fine with you leaving in the middle if it gets too long of you have somewhere else to be, as long as you let them know so that they aren’t worried about where you went and we have done this on a few occasions.
  • These tours are not small group tours.  Generally, there are 20-40 people on the tour with you.
  • These tours are generally not designed for the avid history enthusiast.  The narrative given by the guide is generally a watered down version of what actually happened with humor thrown in to make it palatable for the general population (though we have taken excellent, history oriented tours, these have generally been operated by official tourist organizations for the place that we were visiting.)
  • These tours cover only the basics, and generally only cover from the outside or from a distance any attractions that require admission to enter, so you will need to plan on going back to these on your own at another time.

Astronomical Clock, Old Town Square, Prague

A tip for your free walking tour…you will get the most out of the walking tour if you stay to the front of the pack near the guide so you are able to ask questions as they come up.  Make sure to ask questions, as this is what the guide is there for and the guides that we have had on these tours have generally had a great wealth of information to share.

The background of your guide can also make a big difference in the quality of your tour.  Most of our guides have been good, and they generally follow a pre-determined routine.

The guides that have been the best have had a background in history or were particular experts in the city that we were in.  They went above and beyond our expectations and had an above average knowledge of the city.  These super guides were generally able to answer most of our questions, and we made sure to tip them accordingly.

If this sounds like something that might be a good fit for your vacation itinerary, do a Google search for “free walking tour” and the name if the city that you are visiting to see if this might be an option for you.  Sandemans New Europe is a walking tour company that is gaining popularity in many European cities, though sometimes individual cities have programs to offer tourists free tours by locals who are proud to show off their cities.

We have had some really excellent tours this way, and some that were a little lack luster, but generally the free walking tours have been a good and educational experience for us and something that we felt was well worth our time.


If you enjoyed these tips to make your trip smoother and more enjoyable, please check out these other pieces of travel related writing:

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About Shanna

Shanna is a travel professional in the airline and hotel industries. She lives in Lonsdale, MN and there enjoys cooking and gardening. Her favorite places to travel are Scotland and France. Shanna writes about travel in the Midwestern part of the United States at her blog A Midwest Travel Companion More About Shanna Google

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20 Responses to The Pros and Cons of Free Walking Tours

  1. eileen ludwig December 22, 2011 at 2:44 am #

    Walking tours are fun especially if you find great guides
    eileen ludwig recently posted..Buy Problogger one or three ebooks Begin, Build, Online MarketingMy Profile

  2. Shanna Schultz December 27, 2011 at 4:27 am #

    Thanks, Eileen! Yes, it is true that the guide often determines whether it is just an ok tour or a great one.

    As a follow up, http://travelllll.com has a post up that is also about free walking tours…check it out here:

    http://travelllll.com/2011/12/22/free-walking-tours-concept-expanding-worldwide
    Shanna Schultz recently posted..Looking Down the Road: Tucson Gem Show, part II (Transportation and Parking)My Profile

  3. Boyko December 27, 2011 at 1:15 pm #

    Here’s a comprehensive list of all the free tours that exist all over the world:

    http://freesofiatour.com/blog/free-walking-tours

  4. O. February 12, 2012 at 10:21 pm #

    Hey there– just FYI, I used to work for that free tour company with the red shirt, and what the guides aren’t allowed to say is that the company charges the guide a fair amount per head per tourist. They count how many people are on the tour at the beginning and then tell the guide how much they owe the company based on that number. So even if you, the tourist, leaves in the middle of the tour, your guide still has to pay the company money for your presence. Thus, please, please PLEASE, TIP YOUR GUIDES WELL! The guide does NOT earn all the money you give them, and they are really sad when they are losing their voice and working in all sorts of weather conditions only to go home with a few euros. This also means that if you leave in the middle of the tour, you still need to tip your guide! The guides aren’t allowed to tell you this or else they could get fired.
    -a former guide who loved her job but hated the “pay”

    • Shanna Schultz February 12, 2012 at 11:02 pm #

      Wow, that makes me think differently next time I calculate my tip on one of these tours! I guess if I had stopped to think about it more, it makes sense. The free tour company is a business, too, and they need to make their money somewhere. I didn’t realize that the guides paid the company for each person (I had thought that perhaps the guides paid a yearly fee or something like that).

      Thanks so much for sharing that.

  5. Laurie June 5, 2012 at 12:31 am #

    I had an amazing free tour in Berlin. They met at the Starbucks by the Brandenburg Gate, but I don’t remember the tour company. I only had one day in Berlin, and this tour made me feel like I’d spent several. I really got to see the city and I learned a lot. I’d highly recommend it!

    • Shanna Schultz June 5, 2012 at 12:41 am #

      We are frequently short on time in the cities that we visit, too, and taking a tour like this does really help give you a background in the city. Even if you have more time to spend, a walking tour can give you an overview of the city, so that you can use your limited sight seeing time more efficiently. I haven’t made it to Berlin yet, but when I do, I will make sure to check out the free walking tour there. What were some of your favorite memories of Berlin?

  6. Nick September 9, 2012 at 5:34 pm #

    “These tours are generally not designed for the avid history enthusiast. The narrative given by the guide is generally a watered down version of what actually happened”
    There are many Free Tour companies in the world and, like all organizations, there are ALL different. The comment applies to some of them (specially the one you refer to) but others are not following this pattern. Please don’t generalise. Shop and find the ones that offer what you are looking for :-)

    • Shanna Schultz September 10, 2012 at 1:27 pm #

      This is why I said “generally”…because I have taken free walking tours like this in many countries around the world, and very few of them have been substantive enough for someone who is really looking for a deep historical background of a place (we did take a really great tour in Edinburgh a number of years ago from a volunteer guide working for a historical society, but unfortunately, these tours are no longer offered and have been replaced with the more generic version that I cite in my post). Don’t get me wrong, waking tours are out there for history buffs, but from what I have seen, these are more specialized tours that usually come with a higher price tag.

      Are there other companies that offer free waling tours (other than Sandemans) that have deeper historical content? Please tell me where and I will make sure to hit them up next time I am in the area.

  7. Juliann April 17, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

    I love walking tours – free or not. They’re usually packed with stories that I wouldn’t hear by just touring the place on my own. If there’s a theme to the tour, even better. In fact, this is usually the way I start planning my trips: by seeing whether the tour guides take tourists.
    Juliann recently posted..The Beaches of ViequesMy Profile

    • Shanna April 20, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

      I find that they are a great way to get a feeling for a new city and to get your bearings…then you can stop back later at the places that really interested you and skip the rest.

  8. Michele August 5, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

    We have tried a variety of free walking tours with various degrees of success the most frustrating thing for me is the huge numbers they let one the tour..one we were on had over 50 people in a noisy city you had no chance to hear what the guide was saying so we left.
    Our theory now is turn up if there are too many people try plan b…wandering by ourselves we miss out on the stories but it is much less stressful.
    Michele recently posted..182 days to go and we start sorting our things……My Profile

    • Shanna August 5, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

      You really do have to make sure to stay towards the front of the pack during these tours, as you are right, there tend to be a LOT of people…

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