“Free Walking Tours” Explained and Reviewed
If you’ve traveled recently to major cities and you’re a walker, you’ve likely come across the ubiquitous “Free Walking Tour.” Although these tours are not necessarily all run by the same company, the business model is basically the same.
How “Free Walking Tours” Work
You can find information about them probably through a google search. You’ll possibly sign up or just show up, and a guide will meet you and about 20-30 other walking travelers. After sorting folks by language; English is usually available; the guide then leads you through town. You’ll learn some history and possibly stop at some local vendors. The tours last about 2-3 hours. At the end you’ll tip the guide based on your own judgment of the value of the tour. I usually tip $8-15 per person. Local economies will vary.
Two major brands seem to be popping up consistently throughout major cites; Strawberry Tours and Sandeman. Others are attempting to break into the market. Whether you take a tour with one of the brands or not probably depends on the time/location/topic that fits your schedule.
I recommend that you do a Free Walking Tour as soon as you arrive to a city. It will give you a nice layout of the best things to do in a city, and it will set you up for the rest of the time you’re visiting.
Free Walking Tour Review
Here’s my Free Walking Tour Review, focusing on Cusco, Quito, Moscow, and Iceland.
Free Doesn’t Mean ‘No Value’
I love the idea of “free” walking tours, and I hate the word, “free.” I adore that there are wonderful locals who want to share their towns with travelers by way of walking.
There is simply no better way to connect with an area than by walking, especially when a local joins you.
The problem with “free” is that it implies there in no value to the information that the guide compiles. Frankly, the guided info is probably the most valuable information I get when I travel. There’s nothing like getting the inside scoop from someone who walks a community.
“Free” also can make for awkward situations with the guide and the walkers. The business model thrives because the guide asks the walkers to tip based on the value the walkers find in the walk. I simply can’t imagine not tipping a guide, but I’m sure it happens. Also, walkers can feel a bit awkward about putting a value on the walk.
It’s not so much that the walkers don’t find value, but they don’t know how to put a value on the guide’s time in relation to the local wages and currency value.
Whereas a guided walk in Denver might be worth $30 a tour for one walker, for example, but what is the same value in Cusco or Reykjavik when there’s a family of 3? I honestly must say that when the guide offers up a suggested amount, I’m somewhat relieved–and a bit shocked that others walk away without tipping or tipping at a much lower value than the suggestion. I generally tip $8-$15 per person.
Ranges of Quality
Finally, at the free walking tours I’ve enjoyed, the guides rotate and the information can range from incredible to mediocre.
Fortunately the system of tipping allows for the range.
When taking a free walking tour, be sure to read as many reviews as you can and try to glean the names of the guides who excel. I want to say I’ve never had a bad free walking tour experience, but I have certainly seen how the quality of the information can vary. In light of that, and if you’re a stickler for documented and accurate information, you might be better taking a tour with a licensed guide or one who can cite references and quotes from primary sources.
4 Walking Tour Reviews
My family and I feel as if we’ve hit the jackpot on our free walking tours. You can read about our walking tour adventures in the posts below. I want to give a special shout out to Vera in Moscow. Her tour was personalized just for us, where she picked us up at our AirBnb and guided us through the complicated Moscow subway and the neighborhoods surrounding Red Square.
Her individualization was way above and beyond any expectation I would ever have for a free walking tour and she certainly went outside of the scope of the “normal” free walking tour.
Putting Vera’s exceptional tour aside, I would definitely recommend all of the tours below. Please tell them I sent you!
Moscow Free Walking Tour
Reykjavik Free Walking Tour
Cusco Free Walking Tour
Quito Free Walking Tour
And that’s my Free Walking Tour review. If I were to give a grade to the overall experience of the various free walking tours, I’d certainly give the experience an A. There’s simply nothing to lose but some time, and I’ve never felt any of the tours were wasteful. What free walking tours have you been on? What you recommend them? Why, why not? Post pics!