Whenever someone asks me what highlights I recommend, or even the best way to see a new place, I point them straight to the Free Walking Tours that have started popping up everywhere. The first one I did was in Bratislava, Slovakia, when I was there for a day in May 2013.
It sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? FREE walking tours… With most paid tours costing 12-15 Euros per person, these free tours are heaven-sent for us frugal travelers. In 5 weeks in Europe I did over 15 of these tours. Okay, let me count…
1 in Munich, 3 in Berlin, 2.5 in Prague (the 0.5 is because one of them was SO terrible I had to leave halfway), 3 in Krakow, 4 in Budapest, 1 in Ljubljana and 1 in Split (which wasn’t technically free, I had to pay 1Croatian Kuna- which is about 13 Euro Cents, or 17 USD Cents).
What’s the advantage of taking a tour? Why not just walk around by myself?
Because when you’re taking a tour, you really get to see and hear things you never otherwise would have. The guides are usually very vibrant, engaging, fun and, of course, informative. Also, for solo travelers, it’s a great place to meet others.
But are they really free?
They can be if you want. These tours work on a tip-only basis. The good side is you choose how much you want to pay (a sack of gold if you want, or absolutely nothing if you don’t think it was worth it) and since they know that the happier you are the more you will shell out… All of them are QUITE good (except one that I had the misfortune of attending… It was the longest 2 hours of my life and I had to leave halfway. Without a tip. That bad).
So what’s the problem?
The problem arises when the guides sort of subtly push you to give more than a certain amount. I always gave as much as I could afford, though I admit it was never THAT much. There were some guides who were quite aggressive about it and ended the tour with this emotionally-blackmailing monologue that made me feel terrible, while there were some who were excellent and just kept a little purse in the corner while they chatted with us in the end, so there was absolutely no pressure and no judgmental looks. For similar standards I experienced from different tours, I always gave better tips to the latter.
I met a man in Berlin who said he conducts these free tours in Prague and London. So when he said he dislikes it when he has a group full of students because he makes a really insignificant amount of money for his time, it hit me straight in the heart (GUILTY!!). I totally understand the guides put a lot of time and energy into this, and I understand they may get frustrated sometimes. In my opinion though, if you’re calling it a ‘free’ walking tour, let it actually be free. If you’re unhappy with the tips (or lack of them), then DON’T run these free tours. Simple as that! There are plenty guides who seemed to be doing this for the sheer joy of sharing info about their beloved city with guests. Maybe that’s why I ended up giving them bigger tips… Simply because that feeling came through, rather than the ‘I’m doing this for the money’ vibe I got from some.
I want to make a mention of my favourite tours here…
(1) The BEST one was Keith Hopkins’ Castle tour in Prague. I tipped him higher than any other tour guide. He’s also the only guide I took a picture with. I liked Keith. He doesn’t advertise on the internet because he’s a one-man setup. But if you ever go to Prague and see a man in a green Tshirt holding up a green umbrella… That’s your man!!
Keith visited Prague several years ago (if I remember right, it was 9) and met a Czech lady. After 2 years of flying back and forth, he finally decided to move to Prague, because she refused to move to America. The entire group ‘Awww’-ed 🙂 And now they have 2 kids… Cue to go ‘Awwww’ again 🙂
(2) The Ljubljana free tour was wonderful as well! The guide, Tine, had an awesome sense of humour that kept the entire crowd in splits throughout. He’s trying to establish himself as a stand-up comedian. Good job, man! (Reviews)
And the others…
I did the Communist Tour with Free Walking Tours, Budapest as well. It was more talking than walking, and what was really interesting about this walk was the way Anita (I’m 99% sure that was her name) told us both sides of the story, in a seemingly unbiased way. I could never guess if she was pro communist era or not. Very interesting, and very fascinating for people who have never lived that way. She was about 7 years old when Communism ended, so she could tell us a bunch of anecdotes from her own childhood, along with more she had heard of, to help us relate better. Another great tour!!
Look how engrossed I am.
Budapest By Locals– I did a basic city tour with them. This was a good one too, but not among my favourites. The standard of all the walks is so high, this one is closer to the bottom inspite of being really nice as well. Orsi was a local, but she had grown up in the US, so her English was rather American-ized. It was a good combination… A local’s passion with the fluency of a native English speaker. They have other walks, but I preferred to do some more with the other company instead. (Reviews)
Sandeman’s tours in Munich (by Jon), Berlin (by Leo) and Prague (by Karel)- all excellent, though I found Karel the best about the tips, just saying. All their guides are native English speakers, so it’s really easy to understand them. It’s a pro and a con, though. I usually prefer local guides.
That’s a picture of our tour group in Prague (I’m the one in the shiny sunglasses).
Alternative Berlin Tour by Trish- It’s a very different kind of tour. The walk takes you through the alternative districts of Berlin and you get to explore the underground art scene in Berlin. 3 different, completely unrelated, people recommended this one to me. It’s really worth your time!! (Reviews)
Free Walking Tour in Krakow- I did three of their walks- the Jewish district tour (by Alicja), the Macabre walk (by Jacek) and the Old Town walk (by Navia). Alicja was superlative! Jacek was great, but he looked so happy and friendly, I didn’t really get a ‘macabre’ feeling out of the walk 😛 Navia was very good, but she was quite nervous. She told us later she was still in training. By now she must be fabulous as well. All the guides here are local Polish licensed guides. They spoke fluent English. And the tipping part was wonderful. (Reviews)
One Penny Walking Tour, Split- This is the one tour I really don’t understand… As in how on earth do they make any money out of this? For just 1 Croatian Kuna (which is less than 20 Cents- Euro, as well as USD), our guide (I don’t know her name 😦 I joined a few minutes late) took us through a solid 60 minute walk through Diocletian’s Palace. Anyway, no complaints, because it was excellent. She was an absolute local, born and brought up in Split. Evidently very proud of her homeland, she was very passionate about telling us all about the Palace. (Reviews)
And, of course…
Now that I’ve written about all the rest… I may as well mention the most awful walk I’ve been on. I’m sorry if I’m being extremely rude, but it was such a colossal waste of time and money. The guide (I won’t name her… That would be too cruel) seemed really nice and everything, but she is JUST not cut out to be a tour guide. There was no flow in what she was saying, I could barely make sense of what she was trying to say inspite of having attended two other city tours in Prague. It wasn’t a problem with her English. She was just boring, and her speech was full of ‘umm’s and ‘aaah’s and unnatural pauses. I have NO idea why they (and even she in particular) have such great reviews on Tripadvisor!!
Prague has another company doing these free tours as well- Discover Prague tours (they have great reviews, and most of the hostels recommend them), which I unfortunately passed up in favour of the ‘Extravaganza’ What a pity.
So that’s my extensive post about these blessings in disguise, and, in my opinion, the best way to get the first ‘feel’ of any city. What do you think? Am I right? Or is there a better way to explore a new city? Have you been on any such tours? Let me know in the comments!