When I originally started this post, it was a glowing endorsement of free walking tours. I was about to hit publish but decided to take a look at what others were saying first. I discovered a lot of information about the ethics of these tours that you should consider before signing up. I’ve made my decision about them. Keep reading to see what it was. In the meantime, here’s a look at the tours I’ve experienced, followed by some of the controversy that others have discussed.

Want to do a walking tour of a city? Should you take one of the popular free walking tours offered in many cities? From Madrid to Copenhagen and Cartagena to Buenos Aires, you’ll find so-called “free” walking tours promoted by places like Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor, and even your hostel. So what’s the deal?

The walking tour

free walking tour cartagena colombia
Our free walking tour guide in Cartagena, Edgar

Your walking tour generally begins with your guide introducing him or herself and what you’re about to see. The tours will last about 2-3 hours and the guide, who is usually very well-informed will tell you many great stories about details of the city you’d likely miss if you were to do the tour on your own. Often, the tour will stop at a cafe or some place that has been pre-arranged so that you can grab a snack or use the facilities. After all, three hours is a long time to stand.

What you’ll see on your free walking tours

I’ve done free walking tours in many cities, including Madrid, Lisbon, Cartagena, Copenhagen, and more. The guides will show you the top historical sites in the city and will usually tell you the story behind them. Especially in older cities, you’ll get a good overview of how the city came into existence and the history between then and now. Most times, your guide will point out little bits of seemingly trivial items that contributed to that history. For instance, in Cartagena today, our guide showed us a variety of door knockers. From fish, to lions, to mermaids, he explained the significance of each and who may have lived in one of those houses a century ago.

Are free walking tours really free?

Well, that’s a good question and probably why you clicked the link to come to this site. The short answer to that question is: Yes! They are actually free. The longer answer is more complicated (but not really that complicated).

Cordoba, Spain

Your guide isn’t a cut-rate tour guide for people who cannot afford to pay $10-20 for the real thing. They’re usually pretty darned good at what they do and are as good as the pros, in my opinion. He or she is also a person with a family who has to eat and survive, just like you and I. They live on the tips they receive from people who think what they saw and heard was worth paying for. Assuming you feel that the tour was great, the tip you leave should depend on the economic conditions of the country you are visiting. If you’re in London , where the cost of living is quite expensive, your tip should reflect that. If you’re in Jakarta, Indonesia, where you can buy a full meal for less than $2 USD, you’d tip much less.

In Cartagena, a place where I could buy a really good meal for about $7 USD, I tipped the guide $10. In London, I would probably do $20. Again, it depends on the quality of the tour and what you feel is a good amount. In any case, you should leave something.

If I have to tip anyway, why not book a “real” tour?

Well, that’s really up to you. I look at it this way: when you pay in advance for a tour from a company, they already have your money. Sure, they’ll get reviews on TripAdvisor, but there’s really no incentive other than that review for them to go above and beyond. They’ll do the tour and that’s it. On the free walking tours, the guide knows that his or her tip is dependent on the quality. I have found that they put a LOT of work into making the tour memorable – not just for what they’re showing you, but for your experience with them, personally.

free walking tour santiago
We found “Waldo” on our Santiago Tour

For me, it’s like the difference between a restaurant dinner in Europe and one in America. Tips aren’t usually expected in most of Europe. But in in America, they are often the biggest part of the server’s income. While I don’t usually have issues with wait staff in Europe, I do notice a very real difference in the level of service you receive when you know your paycheck 100% correlates to the experience you provide.

Ethics: Where is your tip really going?

Well, that’s where it gets tricky. You will need to do a bit of homework, and that extra work might make it worth just going ahead and booking a tour from a company. There have been several stories written about the ethics of these tours – both for the guides themselves and for the local economies. Is the guide required to pay an unseen company a certain amount per guest to be a guide? If that’s the case, what if the guests don’t tip or leave before the tour ends? Are they paying taxes on this income when professional tour guides certainly do?

I admit, I don’t know the answers to all these questions. I just know the tours I’ve personally been on have been great. I’ve never been “guilted” into a tip. And I’ve never personally experienced a hard sell at the end of a tour. Yes, they always mention the tip at the end, but I’ve never felt pressured. Though that might be because I am usually the first one to actually leave a tip.

So you have to decide for yourself. You can just do the tour and not worry too much about it. Or you can do something as simple as sending a note on the web site you used to book the tour and just ask! Or, you can research the specific group on the web. But again, this is only one small part of a larger vacation for most people. The time it takes to research it may not be worth it. If you’re questioning the ethics, or if you’re just uncertain, book with a professional company to ease your conscience.

free walking tour seville
Our fearless guide in Seville

Our decision

We live in a world that is, sadly in my opinion, moving to a “contractor model” of business. People work as independent operators – think Über and AirBnB – who do all of the work while a company charges those operators a hefty price to use their name. The contractor takes on all the risk, while the company makes a ton of money. Über drivers pay for all the vehicle maintenance, fuel, and tire changes. They receive zero benefits like health insurance. I’ve been in Über cars and talked to drivers about how much is taken from them by the company. On short rides especially, they make next to nothing. Über takes most of the fare. Similarly, when a guide at the end of the day has to pay a company $3.00 per head to operate a tour for tips, the company can make more than the guide.

Is that fair? No. But I think that bloggers and others complaining about this model while blogging from an Über on their way to their AirBnB are being a bit hypocritical. In the end, I’ll do free walking tours with a reasonably clear conscience. I tip well and fairly. That’s my part of the equation, just like paying the Über fare (while the driver is giving a good portion of the fare to a “handler”) is yours.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Michael is originally from Canada but now resides in Atlanta, GA with his husband, Halef, who also writes here. He is a Couchsurfing expert and has traveled to over 40 countries to date. Currently saving all his money for a Round the World adventure.

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