Free Isn’t Always Good – Why You Should Pay for a Tour Guide

Marseilles, France

Last year I wrote about my belief that a good tour guide can transform a travel experience into something remarkable. In this case I’m talking about tour guides you can hire for a day or half a day to lead you around a new place and teach you more about it than any guide book could ever hope to impart. I personally have been on a lot of these lately and almost all were truly excellent, except for one. Ironically enough, it was one of the most anticipated guide experiences that turned out to be the worst.

I’m not sure how it is here in the U.S., but in most countries around the world tour guides aren’t just some interested people who decide to lead groups. Instead they are well-trained professionals who have made the art of teaching new comers about their cities and regions their career. They have to be specially trained and advanced coursework and certification is required in most locales.

The result is (hopefully) an interesting tour with lots of information and answers to any question you could possibly pose. The tour, especially if it’s a walking tour, is also well thought out, efficient and makes sense. At no time does the travel guide seem lost or out of their element.

Marseille, France

Having participated in a number of these I forgot just how well trained these professionals are, until I met one who wasn’t.

There’s a new-ish trend in tours lately called . On the face of it, the concept seems like a great idea. The tours are free because they are led by locals who “love their city so much they volunteer to show their city to visitors.” Sounds kind of cool, right? The web site goes on to make clear that these individuals are not tour guides, but “new friends.” I know now why they make that distinction, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that most tourists use these volunteers as de facto tour guides and are attracted by the price: free. As my mom always said though, you get what you pay for.

I didn’t have much time in Marseilles, France, just a morning to try to see and do as much as possible. I was there in cooperation with Provence tourism and so was in their hands as to how best experience this massive city. Its size was a shock to me after having spent a week in quiet villages of rural France, but it was good to be in a city again. I was excited for the three hour tour as I waited with fellow participants at the allotted hour. And waited. And waited. The fact the guide was late wasn’t a good start to the day.

In spite of her tardiness, the tour began on a promising note. Three hours isn’t a lot of time but she had her instructions to provide us with a good overview of the city and so we started at the most logical place, high above the city at the basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde. However to get there we would have to take a public bus, a fact none of us knew. Luckily I had some cash otherwise it would have been an awkward moment.

After spending half an hour getting to the basilica, I saw that the expense of time and effort was indeed worth it. The views of the city and Mediterranean were stunning and I was looking forward to learning more about the church itself. Sadly, the guide really didn’t know anything about the structure. I asked about the history only to be met with a blank stare. (She later found a brochure in English for me to read) After spending a week being led around by true experts in their cities, the total lack of knowledge came as a shock.

But, as the web site says, the volunteers aren’t guides and instead the goal is to show me a side of the city I might not otherwise see. Unfortunately that never happened. We left the church and arrived back at the Old Harbor with barely an hour in our three hour tour remaining. There didn’t seem to be a plan and instead of finding out of the way neighborhoods or quirky sites, we walked around the waterfront for an hour before being deposited back at the tourist office. I could have led the group better with a copy of Frommer’s and a map.

By the end of the tour I had made fast friends with the other participants, we were all joking about how bad the experience was. Not exactly what you want tourists to say after experiencing a tour recommended by the tourism office. Instead of learning more about Marseille culture and history, I learned only how bad free tour guides can be. I also learned about how much work real tour guides have to complete in order to become experts in their field and how important they are in framing a positive travel experiences for visitors to their cities.

I’m sure that some free guides, somewhere are good and perhaps even excellent. But that wasn’t my experience and I for one will always opt to spend a few bucks in order to get the most out of my travel experience.

Have you used free guides before? What was your experience?

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By: Mike

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Also follow Matt on , and

26 Responses

  1. Holly

    I’ve had really good luck with Sandeman’s New Europe Tours. It’s the same idea, a free, three-hour tour, but their guides are trained and run very informative and extensive tours. I’ve been on their tours in London, Edinburgh, Dublin, and Prague and would recommend all of them. They’re only in select cities, but I always look for them!

    Reply
  2. Anuj

    Had a similar experience with .
    Every place the guide suggested we go to was either too “touristy” or some place we’d already seen (so if you are going to use one of these guides, make it one of the first things you do). The guide was simply not prepared for someone who had done research on the destination which lead to an extremely poor experience that absolutely did not correlate with how it was being marketed.

    On the side, the guide had free day passes to travel on Chicago’s public transport for anyone who reserved a greeter, which was (unadvertised and a) very cool gesture.

    But on the whole i agree with you completely.

    Reply
  3. Jenn @therebelchick

    I’ve never had a free tour, and after reading this, I probably won’t. It drives me insane when I want to learn about something and the professional in charge can’t answer my questions! I recently stayed in an old B&B in Denver and the owners explained that the fire place had dolphins on it…but they were obviously Koi fish…stuff like that drives me nuts. I want to know EVERYTHING about a place I am visiting!

    Reply
  4. Kelly

    Thats such a shame! We went on a free walking tour of Budapest and I guess it’s a little differently run because in the end it turned out to be pretty much a full blown organization that ran on tips but it was so great! And the locals who ran it were so friendly and knowledgable. We are also going on one today in Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria haha hope it’s not similar to your experience! At least you know what a good tour should be though 🙂

    Reply
  5. Emily in Chile

    I really enjoyed a free tour I took in Buenos Aires offered by , although it’s a bit different because Jonathan is a professional tour guide, he just chooses to work for tips rather than for a set rate. I don’t really understand why someone would take the time to run a 3-hour tour without being passionate and informed about the city. What a shame!

    Reply
  6. Dave @travel_version

    So far I’ve had good experiences with the Sandeman’s New Europe Tours (done the free tours in Amsterdam, Munich & Berlin) but at the end of the day, the major difference I see with the free tours is that they have less of a structure and vary pretty drastically depending on the group, weather & more importantly the guide. Some of them just like/know history more than others and it shows. I think that’s the main difference between a free tour and an actual arranged tour that is designed a certain way and expected to be the same no matter who leads it.

    It’s a little sad to choose to be a tour guide if you can’t back it up with some actual knowledge behind the basic information you give out. Free doesn’t mean the quality of the tour should be any different; at the end of the day, the city you visit has the same history even if you’re on a free tour and you should be able to get similar info as well.

    Hopefully you give the free Sandeman’s tours a try next time you’re in Europe (if you haven’t tried them already!), I think they’d make up for that unfortunate experience in Marseilles!

    Reply
    • Mindy

      Marta is absolutely right. I’m reading in disbelief how many are complaining about their “free” tours not being good enough. If it’s free you’re lucky the guide did anything at all. I’m a professional tour guide in NYC with over 200 great reviews. May I ask some of you if free pays your rent, insurance, food, phone, etc

      Reply
      • Mindy

        Dave
        How can you say “free shouldn’t make the quality of the tour any different”? Was that supposed to be sarcasm or a joke????

  7. Ashley at No Onions Extra Pickles

    A friend of mine recently took a free walking tour in San Francisco, and she was equally disappointed! Their guide was friendly, but he was unfocused and didn’t really take command of the tour.

    I haven’t taken a free tour myself, but was planning to take a few in SF this summer to see how they are.

    Reply
  8. Julie McNamee

    We’ve been on a few free tours – Budapest and Prague included, and we found them to be just as good as the paid tours we’ve been on. Of course these ones aren’t free in practice as you’re encouraged to tip, therefore we normally end up paying what we would have done on a paid tour. Haven’t tried the ‘greeter’ type tour yet, though.

    Reply
  9. Don Nadeau

    Have had incredibly good experiences with London Walks, both with its London guided walks and with its combination walks/train trips/coach tours into the countryside. Its guides have been super prepared in their fields, including one Cambridge history grad who did a most “fair and balanced” job of taking us through Oxford!

    I especially look for its periodic walks, the special ones not offered all the time.

    Reply
  10. Leslie (Downtown Triper)

    I guess being a “local” doesn’t always qualify someone as an expert! The citizen tour guide sounds like a good idea, as long as you have time enough to explore the parts of the city you missed after the tour. Doesn’t seem like a good idea if you only have a few hours in the city.

    Reply
    • Mike

      Well in the program’s defense I think it *could* be great if you have the right guide. We didn’t. LOL

      Reply
  11. Vinny R

    Matt –

    Kristi and I were your fellow participants on this tour. I have to say, odd as it is, we got what we expected out of it – a completely unique experience 😉

    Hope you enjoyed the rest of your whirlwind trip! Marseilles ended up being mostly downtime for us, but that has its own benefits on a long vacation. This bit of it helped us appreciate the rest of our guides that much more.

    Pleasure meeting you, and happy travels! See you on the next adventure …

    -Vinny & Kristi

    Reply
    • Mike

      Ha! What a small world. Thanks for checking out the site, I appreciate it. Yeah, I didn’t quite know what to expect, the tour had been arranged for me and I expected something MUCH different. Oh well, live and learn. I hope you all keep checking back the site, lots of new stuff every day. 🙂

      Reply
  12. Ele

    I was satisfied with Free Walking Tour of Warsaw but it’s not exactly free, it runs on tips and the guide has a certificate.

    I myself am going to monetize on my experience in Vilnius, I have passed my guide’s licence for ahefty fee and I think free is only cheese in mousetraps.

    Reply
  13. Janine Duffy

    Thankyou Matt! As a wiidife tour guide who works, for pay, I find that our industry is undervalued as it is. Having free guides offering their services for the fun of it makes it even harder. A great guide can make a place or an experience live in your memory forever. That’s worth a few bucks, I reckon! In addition, we are responsible to our business, our reputation, our future and to outside agencies like National Parks, so we have good reason to do the right thing by the environment, the local culture and the wildlife on tour. A free guide is not governed by these rules. Support great guides by paying them. You’ll usually get more than you pay for.

    Reply
    • Mindy

      Absolutely Jeanine!

      Reply
  14. Katie

    I don’t write off all free tours, but I am very selective about which ones I’ll spend my time on. The ones have found to be the best (like the free my Reykjavik tour in Iceland) are offered free – or for tips, rather – by companies that also run tours for a fee. The free ones tend to be more overviews of the city and then the ones for a cost are more specialized. Obviously they give you the free one to try to show you how great they are and entice you to buy another tour later, but I haven’t found them to be pushy in that regard and it’s certainly more incentive for them to make sure the free tour is really good.

    Reply
    • Mike

      Well those are all good points, and I remember a free tour in Jerusalem that was quite good. Perhaps I should have drawn a more distinct line between professionals and non-professionals leading the tours, because that was the real problem in Marseille.

      Reply
  15. Marta @foreverbarcelona

    Hi Matt, thank you for this post!
    As a professional tourguide myself, I am very proud of my job and I totally believe quality work deserves a quality pay.

    For those who believe that working for tips is “professional”, I’d ask them how do they think these people pay their rents? Definitely not out of tips, they are either doing this as a side job (therefore, they are not professionals but amateurs), or they are doing it fulltime but they are working under the table (which is unfair for all the professional guides that do pay lots of taxes to be freelancers).

    By the way, as far as I know, the people who work for the Sandeman’s free tours don’t have a contract and must pay the company a commission (around 3 euro/person in their group) – no matter how much money they make that day. If they don’t get enough tips, the guide might even lose money that day. From my point of view, this is abusive and labor exploitation, and I wouldn’t want to support such a system by attending their tours. And as @Julie McNamee mentions, if you give a decent tip, you end up paying as much as you would have paid for a professional tax-paying tourguide… Support the legal guys, instead!

    Unfortunately, in Barcelona we have an invasion of such free tours, and it makes me very sad to hear their tourguides:

    1. A high percentage of them are foreigners who don’t even speak the local tongue (and it’s through the local language that you get to understand the local reality in depth).
    2. Their speech is a memorized text that I’ve seen several of them repeating with the same exact words and intonation. No ability to go outside of their script, no interaction with the clients nor capacity to adapt to their public.
    3. Excessive use of sense humor to cover up for their lack of knowledge, and a tendency to use smart-alecks jokes that show no respect for the local traditions and history (however they do create rapport with the client and a feeling of trust, which gets them higher tips)
    4. Inaccurate facts or plainly wrong information (that however a visitor that hasn’t done research beforehand wouldn’t be able to detect, but that mortify me when I hear them…)

    I agree with @Janine Duffy, being a tourguide is much more than just showing people around: we are responsible for how you’ll be remembering your stay in our city forever, and as professionals we strive to make it memorable. Hiring a tourguide is an investment that can be the highlight of your trip and totally your change experience in a city. And that alone, deserves a quality economical reward.

    Reply
    • Sven Jaeger

      Marta: Your overreach is odious. Bottom line – To each their own. If someone wants to work on commission or for free, on consensual agreement, who are you to dictate your arbitrary social rule against it? Who made you Queen (or Nazi) of social mores?

      Reply
      • Mindy

        Janine and Marta are absolutely right. May I ask you if free pays your rent, insurance, food, phone, etc.
        Many here are complaining that the “free” tour guides weren’t good enough. You’re lucky they did anything at all. I’m a professional NYC tour guide with over 200 great reviews. As the old saying goes: You get what you pay for!!

  16. Alex

    That’s quite curious. Actually, I would do the opposite conclusion. Free tours are probably the best way to meet your guide. If you are not happy – just leave after you discovered that. If everything works well – leave tips and maybe join this guide on paid tour.

    But if you had paid for a guide and discovered that he or she is not professional enough – you lose both your money and time.

    Reply
    • Mike

      there’s a much better chance at having a professional experience though with a professional guide than just some volunteer. That’s also why you should use tried and trusted walking tour companies who maintain certain quality.

      Reply
      • Mindy

        Absolutely right Matt!!

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