If you have traveled (a lot or a little) lately, you sure have seen a leaflet of a “free tour” and wondered if it was worth joining or not. In the last few years (or the last 10 or 12 years) they have appeared everywhere and if you only could join one at major touristic spots and in English, you will find them now at much smaller locations (and in different languages)…
But, have you joined them? Many travelers already know what a free tour is and join whenever they see one. For others, the “free” part sounds like a scam. For others it is. And official travel guides don’t like to see all those colourful umbrellas with a “free” sign popping out at the most touristic places. But, who’s right?
Nice question. I will try to clarify if it’s worth to join a free tour or now below:
First things first, what is a free tour?
A free tour is a guided visit that, in theory, is free of charge and if you like what you’ve seen and heard, at the end of the tour, you pay what you think it was worth, directly to the tour guide. Most of the time, you don’t need to book in advance, it is enough to be there at the starting time and you don’t have to stay for all the tour.
At least, that is the big picture of what you will find all around the world. But that’s not all of it, there is more to it than pricing. Keep reading to find out if this is an activity worth including on your next trip.
But, are free tours for free? or not?
Well… not. Even if they seem to be free, the truth is that they are a “pay what you want” service where you can value the guided tour at 0€ and have it free, but almost everyone pays for it.
But, if you can pay 0€, why do they do them? Good question! They do them because even when they are called “free” and you can join or leave at your free will, most people pays 10€ per person (average) and nobody asks for change (so all they pay is round bills.)
And here is where the key friction point with traditional tour guides: if the tour can be free, how can you compete with that? There is a higher chance that you will join a free tour than a traditional tour where you need to pay when you book, without knowing how the visit will be. And, since you pay at the end, like a tip, a high percentage of these don’t pay taxes and they are managed “in black” (I remember the Zagreb tour guide printing 10 random tickets to 10 of us before starting the tour just in case the Croatian tax authorities “visited” during the tour… gives you some food for thought, doesn’t it?)
On the other side, free tours are an incredible advertising channel. All “free” tours are in truth a platform to sell something else. From the typical commissions from sending travelers to restaurants and shops (yes, they still do this, although they don’t get you inside the shop during the visit, they recommend certain spots at the end), to promote specialty tours (drinking ones, food tours, ghost tours, etc.) from the same tour company that offers the free guided visit. And yes, they have great results. If they didn’t, they would stop offering them (free and not free.)
So, is it worth joining a free tour? Are they quality?
Those that like free tours will tell you that they are as good (or even better) as the paid ones, those against will tell you that they are run by people with less experience or knowledge. And the truth is that you will find both good, great and truly bad ones.
My first free tour was in Iceland, with such a great guide that if I had time enough, I would have join a few more (pay) tours. But it is true too that in Zagreb the guide said (literally) that “in Spain you go naked in the streets” which is NOT true and there was no point on saying that.
In Spain, for example, the law is quite restrictive and they can get fined, so it is hard to find a tour guide that is not an official tour guide. So they should both (pay and free) have the same training and, in theory, the same quality. In the rest of the world, what I have found are Historians, Architects, etc and sometimes students (usually of a Master’s degree.)
On the other side, being a basic tour of the city centre with a group of up to 25 people, there will be things that won’t be covered as good as on a specialized or private tour. Unless they cover such a specialty niche (as at the free graffiti tours) that traditional guides hardly can cover the same subject.
So, is it bad to do a free tour?
A few months ago, Mar de MiRuta.es wondered if you can be a sustainable traveler and join a “free tour”. And, although her point of view and mine are different, she made me think a lot about this, should I recommend free tours? not? would it be responsible? is it good or bad joining a free tour?
There are more things to take into account than price, but this is not a blog about taxation or economy. So I’ve decided to flip this and take the pragmatic way: can you turn a free tour into a sustainable travel experience? I believe we can, here’s how:
1.- Always pay for free tours
Although you can give what you want, that person is doing a job and all jobs should be paid fairly (you like to get paid, don’t you?) And, how much? An average 10€ if the tour was fairly good should be a great starting point.
Or join one of the specialty tours they offer and always ask for a receipt. This way you will make sure that the guides are paid and the local tax authorities get their share.
2.- If you are traveling during low season, book in advance and be there
Even though in many cases you don’t need to book in advance, during low season there are many days where they only have one or two travelers (if any). So, if you have chosen to do the free tour (because the timing or length is better or if you couldn’t find any other available for your trip…), try to book so they know someone will be there.
And, if you can book via Civitatis or any similar platform, the better. Yes, they will charge them for the bookings (Civitatis charges free tours 1€ for each reservation) but it is another great way to make sure there is a track of what they make (they will declare whatever income they feel like, but if the tax authorities want to check, they can.)
BTW, if you don’t find a free tour there, many have their own booking system, you will find them searching for “free tour” + the city you are visiting. Booking is always free (except for Viator, which I don’t recommend for this).
3.- Don’t leave halfway (and don’t join if you can’t stay)
Being that you don’t have to stay all the way through (they usually last between one hour and a half and two hours), many join and they are tired half way through, or the kids are bored, or they are late for something else… Don’t be one of them.
First, because it is disrespectful with the guide (and everybody else) and, second, because since you can only pay at the end, you will not pay and this is not responsible nor sustainable.
Plus, don’t think that you will be able to do it, sometimes the group only has a few people and it is hard to leave a group with only other 7 (and you will meet your tour mates at restaurants, hotels, activities… )
4.- Make questions
Here they say that curiosity killed the cat, but in terms of tour guides, the story is different. The only way to find out if the person guiding you knows what he/she is talking about, is to make them questions. Questions about history, their city, the surroundings, local culture and activities…
On one side, you will force them to keep updated on what’s going on and, on the other side, it will be easier to evaluate their knowledge and tell your friends how good (or bad) was the guide. Note: this is applicable to free and pay tour guides (at home they always remind me of one trip to Greece in which I shot a thousand questions to our tour guide and, whenever she didn’t know the answer to a question, she would repeat the whole speech again, and again, and again…)
5.- Join only if it is the best option available
It might be obvious, but they have become so widely available that some travelers have stopped researching and rely only in free tours, without thinking that there might be a lot more options, focused on what you want to see, less crowded, with a better timing and even cheaper!
Yes, I’ve said cheaper because on our last trip to Bath we found out that there are some free guided tours (but truly free, tips are forbidden) that start about the same time as the “free” ones and many travelers don’t even notice. They are only in English, but it’s one of the best guided visits we’ve done lately (and I’ve done a lot, lately.)
And in Ljubljana (nice free tour, basic but good) the official tourism office was the same price (compared to the average 10€ almost everyone “pays”) and included getting inside museums and fewer people. I didn’t join that one because the were sold out for my travel dates, which was a shame.
6.- If you are a group, don’t bother
If you are a group, there is a high chance that you can book a guided visit only for you where you can see what you want and at your own pace, for little more than what you would have to pay for the tour. And, if you are a big group there is also a high chance that the guide will try to divide you so you don’t bother others or monopolize the visit.
Plus, I don’t know about your friends, but in my group there is always someone who gets distracted or bored, and you end up missing half of it.
7.- Share your experience in a responsible way
Whatever you do, keep a critic’s eye on the tour and be transparent with the experience. If the tour is bad and you only say that it is “free” you will be helping others to get a bad view of the destination, have more travelers repeating an experience you know it’s not worthy and stopping the service to improve. And if the tour is good, recommend, but please don’t highlight that it is free, but the quality and what you found out there.