Free walking tours/tours for tips are awesome

May 16, 2015

As a backpacker, nothing catches your eye like the word “free.” It could be “free toast dropped on the floor butter-side up” and you´d be all over it. So, when we encountered free walking tours for the first time we were excited and skeptical (another byproduct of traveling) all at the same time. Well, let me say for the record that I freaking love free walking tours, and here´s why.

Our walking tour in Montevideo setting off to see the sights.

FREE! They really are free! I mean they are for tips but you don´t pay a single peso, dime, baht, rupee, pence, or whatever your native currency unless you enjoy the tour. Sure you feel somewhat obligated to tip but let´s face it, if someone shows you around a city for a few hours then you owe them something… unless they got you mugged or poisoned you or something. Almost all of the free tours we have been on start something like this…

“Hi my name is (insert name) and I will be your guide today on this tour for tips. We`ll be walking for a few hours so hopefully you have proper footwear and attire. We´ll make many stops along the way where I´ll explain the significance of the stop and provide you with a brief history of it. Now, before we get going, please allow me to give you a little history about these free walking tours. An American guy was traveling in Europe one day and decided to hire a guide for the day to show him around and tell him things about the city and current events that his guidebook didn´t cover. The guide showed around to a few places but didn´t really know much about them that wasn´t already in the book. At the end of the tour, he felt like he was ripped off and overpaid. That´s when he came up with the idea that you should pay for a tour after it is completed so you can pay what you think it is worth. And so the idea of tours for tips was born. If you like my tour and feel it was worth some money then please tip me what you think it was worth. If you didn´t like it then you don´t need to pay a thing.” 

Our guide in Cusco who gave us one of the
best tours we've ever taken. Here, he took us
to a guitar maker who played and sang for us
which is just one example of something you
get on these tours that you can't get on your

They are comprehensive. I´m always amazed by how much information you get on these tours. Many of the guides are younger adults who are studying history or some other subject that relates to the tour (art, archeology, etc.) and have a wealth of knowledge about the places they take you. On one tour we took recently in Santiago, the tour guide sat everyone down and described the Military Coup that happened in Chile in 1973. She went into an amazing amount of detail and gave us her own perspective on the events. I always like that the most. When someone is telling you about some prolyphic time in their country and then shares with you what they experienced, you always have a better understanding of the events. On another tour, we were hearing about the economic problems of a particular country and the guide explained why and how they came to be but then went into personal details about how it affected her and her family. I don´t know, to me that´s a powerful way to learn about a place.

Typically the guides are locals so you get the inside scoop. Now this isn´t always the case but 99% of the time it is. One of the biggest benefits of having a local as your tour guide is that they can tell you what you should be paying for things, where to go, where to avoid, and what they would see if they were touring the area. I can´t tell you how many times a guide has saved me money by simply explaining how some of the vendors, taxi drivers, or other tour operators might try to scam you out of a few extra bucks or charge you a little more because you´re not a local. The guides usually tell you how to get around those issues and what to do or say if they come up. It´s pretty handy info to have and it´s not always easy to get. If you find yourself on a walking tour like this, ask those kinds of questions and see what they say. You never know, maybe you´re being charged more by the taxi driver because he´s using the peak hours meter rate on you because you don`t know that there`s off-peak vs. peak rates.

Our guide in Montevideo. She was passionate
funny and above all, knowledgeable. 

They are worth every penny! I always tip on these tours but in the spirit of the business model I do so according to what I got out of it. I´ve tipped $3 per person for a tour and I´ve tipped $10 per person, it mostly depends on how much I liked it and what I can afford that day. That being said, I have never been on a tour where I felt pressured into tipping for the sake of paying the guide nor have I ever been on a tour that I didn´t think warranted a decent tip. So there you have it. Tours for tips are worth whatever you think they are and most of the time you I´m being a little frugal.

I think I speak for the whole crew when I say that tours for tips are maybe our favorite thing to do. Sometimes they are long (between one and three hours) but you get a whole lot for the time you spend. Sure you might be able to run around to all the sights on your own but you won´t get the whole story and you probably won´t get to hear what the locals thing of that story. So, in summation, free walking tours = awesome.

Category: Activities

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