If you are at all similar to me and my travel habits, you sprint the opposite direction when the word “free” is placed in front of anything. We all know about the “free” timeshare presentation, or the “free” historical walking tour, or the “free” meal in exchange for your undivided attention for 90 minutes, right?
Well, I have done several free walking tours over the years, in places like Berlin, Dublin, Hanoi, Tokyo, Boston, Bucharest, Mexico City, Addis Ababa, and perhaps others that I cannot recall. The results are somewhat mixed, depending primarily on the quality of the guide, the subject matter being studied, the weather, and the size of the group.
Now, it turns out some of the big travel companies are doing the same. They carefully screen applicants, putting them through a rigorous qualification process. The successful guide, a so-called “guide partner” is one of just 2% of all applicants who pass written history tests, and face to face interviews. Obviously, story telling is a key ingredient. The guides are independent contractors who pay a per head “marketing” fee to the company.
One such company, Sandemans New Europe Tours has about 600 guides in 17 different countries. In 2018, they guided over TWO million guests. And most obviously, they are working for tips. If guests lose interest, and leave, the tip will not materialize. They say the optimum size for the walking tour is 23 to 27 people. If more show up, a second guide arrives, and the group is divided.
Why opt for a free tour? Perhaps the number one reason is no risk is involved. If a guest finds something else to do, is not feeling well, or does not like the weather, they can cancel without any cost. Or, like me, if the guide is not very interesting, simply walk away. I had to do this in Boston on Halloween, and Sydney.
Likewise, when I pay a decent fee for a paid guide, or even more expensive, a private guide, I am stuck. I must pay, I must try to listen, and finally, I must tip!! I had such an expensive, private guide in Moscow. Though she was very knowledgeable, the amount of detail in her lessons on Russian history were just too much for me. Some history and background is good. But what interests me most is getting a real understanding of the culture. For instance, why all female Russians, regardless of age, must strike a real pose before each snapshot? BTW, I never got a real answer there.
But my private guide in St. Petersburg was a delight. I laid out the ground rules first, and she was more than happy to do it my way. I wanted some real insights into Russian culture, so we spent more time talking, lounging at sidewalk cafes, than taking in the sights. I am more than capable of doing the tourist sites without a guide by my side. For instance, we shared an interest in Dostoyevsky, so we visited his home. I wanted to know how the wealthier Russians shopped and indulged themselves, so we went to the high end places I would never find on my own.
One common thread that runs through all guides is the need to provide historical background. And while some history is necessary, too much is enough to drive me away. I also find that the only way to ask questions at the time I think of them, is to commandeer and ask the guide as we move between venues. And of course, the bad ones get thrown off their spiel if guests ask too many questions in the middle of a venue.
My free tour in Berlin was very interesting, for several reasons. My guide provided a good balance of artifacts (The Berlin Wall), history (mostly Nazi), and current events (fun stuff to do and where to eat). This is quite rare since most guides focus only on history.
These free walking tours originated with the backpacker crowd, with a focus on pub tours. Now, the majority of tours are for families, seniors, and independent travelers. I still like the pub tours, however. Lately, I have focused on foodie type tours, since they provide a huge glimpse into both daily life and culture of the city and country. Specifically, I really enjoyed the foodie tours in Hanoi (on the back of a moto), Mexico City, Dublin, and Tokyo.
One very undeniable fact: if you have a good contact in the city you are visiting, they provide the best experience. But these free or paid tours can be almost as good. So, do your research, and find the right tour for your interests.