Nothing is free in life, except maybe oxygen and sunshine. So it is not surprising that the "free" walking tours that are offered by several companies and hostels around the world are not really free at all. They are just marketing them that way to attract young travelers who may not shell out the money otherwise for city tours. Whether or not you have been on one of these types of tours, there are some things you should understand before you take your next one.
First off, who are the tour guides? Most of the guides are expats from countries like the U.S., Australia, and Canada. They are usually relocated young travelers who give tours to support themselves. In some places, they are actually students attending the local university. It is a good job because there is no work visa required. Technically, the guides are not employed by anyone.
This is because the tour guides work for either a company or for a hostel directly. Some companies include Sandeman's New Europe Tours, Discover Walks, and IM Free Tours. As mentioned above, these companies do not actually have employees beyond corporate. The tour guides are technically "volunteers." Volunteers who actually pay the companies to "work," which really negates the whole volunteer concept.
Why do the tour guides pay the companies? Because the companies bring in the cliental. You can not go into a hostel in London, without seeing several different flyers offering a free walking tour. These advertising costs are apparently what is offset by the payment by the guides.
In order for the tour guides to offset the costs that they pay to the company or hostel, they need to collect tips during the tours. To gather tips, they give tip speeches at the beginning and end of the tours so that the guests know what they are in for. Depending on the guide, they can spin it many ways. But, you are essentially guilt tripped into paying for your advertised "free" walking tour.
If you do not pay your guide, they are losing money by your presence on the tour. How does the company know how many people take a tour? According to some investigation by Rick Steves, the tour companies are a bit sneaky with this. Some companies will ask the a group for a photo to put on their Facebook page. With this photo, the tour company knows how many guests take a specific tour. That way they can charge the guide later. Other companies and hostels will charge guides per tour. It all depends on who is running the tours.
There is no doubt that the tour guides are making a good amount of money. Even with a group of 10 and each person giving the guide $5-$15 for a three hour tour, the guide could be walking away with a good sum. Especially since some tour groups, especially in the large cities can be as many as 30-40 people.
This is not to say that you should not take a "free" walking tour. The guides are usually upbeat and will give you a good overview of the city. Yet, you may want to think about the consequences of the walking tours on the local community. Are these guides made to be licenced in their cities? Are they paying taxes on the money they make? What will happen to the local tour companies? Is the information the guides are giving you accurate and who is making sure of that? All these questions are good to think about before you make the choice about whether to take a tour or not.
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