Recently, I went to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. I wanted to watch my budget and not spend too much money exploring the city. As I joined a free walking tour I contemplated about sustainable tourism. I though about the concept of a free walking tour vs paid tour of Prague. On both tours, you can see the same things and get the same information. So why pay for a tour if you can join one for free?
Check the beginner’s guide to Prague to learn why you should visit Prague!
What is a Free Walking Tour?
If you’re not familiar with the concept of free walking tours, I’ll brief you a little on this. In most recent years, in bigger cities, free walking tours of the city are organised by tour companies. Mostly advertised on the internet or via leaflets in hostels, you can join one, follow the red/white/blue/yellow umbrella and get to see a bit of the city.
Some tour companies offer free walking tours and also offer paid tours. I reckon they hope you’ll also book a paid tour if you like their free walking tour. Some companies solely exist of 1 (or several) free walking tours. In bigger cities they run every day, sometimes in different languages but English is the most common language.
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You show up at the set time at the set place (either advertised on the leaflet from your hostel or online) and follow their colourful umbrella. Usually, the tours vary from 1.5 hours to 2 hours max. as you walk with the group around the city centre and a guide informs you about interesting facts, figures and shows you views of the city.
Is there such a thing as “free” in tourism?
So, the free walking tours, are they really free? Yes and no. The free walking tours are based on the concept that tourists will tip the guide what they think the tour is worth. If the tour sucks, you are not obligated to pay anything. If you like the tour, the guide will expect a tip. So if you’re travelling on an absolute budget and do not mind to offend a guide, then you can walk away without paying. But you’ll not make any friends with that and I certainly do not feel comfortable with that.
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But how much should you tip a guide for a free walking tour?
I never tip anywhere. It is not custom here and might be offensive. The prices of coffee and meals are already high and the waiters are paid a normal wage and do not need to rely on tips for their income. So I never know how much to tip. How much do you tip for something that is advertised as free? Depending on the tours duration and how much I liked it, I end up giving anywhere between 7 and 12€ for a free walking tour of the city.
Free walking tour of Prague
I wanted to join a free walking tour in Prague as I wanted to make some new friends. As I walked towards the meeting point at the central square at 2 pm, the place was buzzing with people. It was so crowded, I quickly turned around and settled myself with a beer in the sun. No way was I going to follow an umbrella with 60 other people. Ugh.
After a beer and some people watching, I set out to discover the city on my own, as I stumbled upon a different umbrella. I asked the guy where he would be going and what time he’d leave. Within 5 minutes, we had a diverse group of 10-12 people and we set out in the city. For 2,5 hours we walked around Prague’s old centre and the guide explained a lot about the history and background of the Czech Republic and Prague. I learned a lot about religion, food and drink, music and the life in ancient Prague. We also visited the Jewish quarter and returned to the river where we said our goodbyes. I ended up giving the guide a tip of € 9,50 as this was all the money I had on me at the moment.
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Paid city tours
But for a few euros more, you also can join a paid walking tour of the city. Usually, a 3 hour walking tour with a certified guide costs around 10 to 15€ per person, depending on the itinerary. You usually book via an agency or online. I browse what the tour company has to offer, what is included, what we will see and where we will go.
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On a paid tour, I know what I can expect and if the guide doesn’t live up to the expectations, you can complain or demand a refund. I have joined many paid tours and usually they offered me much insight into the city’s history and the guide shows you some aspects of the city you’d never had discovered on your own.
Paid tour of Prague
After the free walking tour of Prague, I had this idea in my head about free walking tour vs paid tour in Prague, so I also decided to join a normal tour. Because I didn’t want to see or do the exact same things again, I opted for the All in one Tour by Prague Budget. This tour costs €45 and you get picked up at your hotel, visit the castle with a guide and a walk around the historical centre of Prague. We had lunch included at a medieval tavern and a 1-hour boat cruise of the river. After this, we continued in the old centre.
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This tour lasted almost 6 hours and although it had a little overlap I saw many new things of Prague and it was nice to see the castle grounds with a guide. With transport, lunch, a guide and a boat cruise included, this really still falls into the budget category. Especially if you compare it with other paid tours of Prague.
Comparison between a free walking tour vs paid tour
Pro’s free walking tour
- You pay once the tour is over
- You pay what you think the tour is worth
- You can join by just showing up, and you can also leave when you like (but don’t forget to tip the guide).
- The guide will work extra hard to make the tour worth it so you give a bigger tip.
Con’s free walking tour
- You never know how much you should tip
- You do not know if the guide is knowledgeable and if he is not, you waste valuable travel time
- You do not know where you’ll go and what you’ll see
- Until now, I have not had a local guide. They were always people from abroad, working in the city and trying to make some money
- The guide needs to pay his boss a set amount per head of the tour and might end up being underpaid after all.
- You run the risk of visiting entrepreneurs who are affiliated with the free tour company and spend too much time in their shops in the hope you’ll buy the affiliate goods.
Pro’s for a paid tour
- You know what you buy and if the tour doesn’t deliver you can ask for a refund
- You get a reputable guide who studied tourism (as least that should be the case with good tour companies)
- You support a local company
- The guide will receive a fair wage for their time and expertise.
Con’s for a paid tour
- You need to pay upfront and you don’t know if it is worth it
- You need to book ahead of time and are not flexible with your itinerary
- It can be expensive
- The eternal debate continues if you should tip this guide yes or no?
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Free walking tour vs paid tour
As you can see from the above pro’s and con’s list, there is something to say about a free walking tour vs paid tour of the city.
What bothers me the most about free walking tours is the name. Calling something ‘free’ attracts a certain type of traveller. I have witnessed so many times a discussion with the guide about not receiving a (proper) tip from people and endless discussions afterwards. This ruined the fun a bit for me.
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Until now, I have always had a tour guide, who wasn’t a local. Although they were really knowledgeable and offered a good tour, I somehow feel like free walking tours ruin the tourism business for genuine tour offices trying to offer good value to the tourists.
Does this mean I’ll not join free walking tours in the future? No. I will however be more selective with what kind of free walking tour I choose. Is it a local guide or a foreigner trying to fund their own travels? What route will they take and is the tour really advertised as free or do they mention the tour is tip based, to avoid any discussions afterwards?
How to decide which tour to take?
I hope you understand I’m not saying not to take free walking tours anymore. By all means, please join the fun! I simply hope to raise some more awareness about fair wages for tour guides and sustainable tourism. I hope you understand, that in tourism, there is no such thing as FREE tours!
As I am an independent traveller it is important to monitore my budget and my time. I always try to determine if I get value for my money when I join a tour. In my opinion, free walking tours can be cheap and fun if executed properly. But sometimes you get more value for your money with a paid tour.
What kind of tours do you take when you travel around the globe? Do you ever join a free walking tour? What is your experience with them?