Are Free Walking Tours Ethical?

I’m new at this whole international travel thing, still green behind the ears.  I’m a student who is currently studying abroad in a country where I’m not allowed to work, so I have no income at this moment.  All of my travels are funded by my savings and credit card points, which means I need to see each city as cheap as possible.

Free walking tours sound like a great option.  They’re obviously free, hence the name, but the tour guides are working for tips.  You look like a jackass if you don’t tip at all, but it is understandable that students can’t tip as much as they would like, and this is counterbalanced by older travelers who tip more.  From the tours I’ve been on, which have only been in Western Europe so far so I can’t speak for other countries, the average tip is 5-10 euros, with the older people tipping anywhere from 10-30 euros.

But there is a “dark side” to free walking tours.  With the big companies, like SANDEMANs New Europe tours, the tour guide has to PAY the company to give the tours, so their tips have to cover what they owe the company before they can pay themselves (I first heard about that from the article linked above, but the tour guide in Lisbon confirmed it).  That group photo you do before every tour?  Companies use it to mark down how many people were on the tour so they know how much to charge the tour guide.  If people dip out before the tour is over or don’t pay anything at all, that already leaves the tour guide in the negative.

This post is actually not about the sketchy business model employed by the big tour companies.  Free walking tours can actually be good for the country’s economy, but only if you choose your tour wisely.

Going with a big tour company that employs international workers can actually hurt small, quality businesses.

For example, aggressive new companies promote “free tours” that start at the same time and place as standard, higher-class tours, and then fight turf wars right there with the professional guides while groups stand by helpless, waiting for their tour to start.

Rick Steves

This is EXACTLY what happened in Lisbon.  Chill Out Lisbon was already established for 5 years before SANDEMANs came in.  SANDEMAN now starts their tours at the same time as Chill Out, 10am, in the same exact area.

Portugal currently has a 10% unemployment rate, with a 26% unemployment rate among young people.   A person with a minimum wage job will only take home an average of 600 euros a month.  That is not enough to live on, since rent in cities like Porto are around 900 euros a month (this information was given to us by our tour guide Daniel, which I then double checked).  Eating at chains like McDonald’s or Starbucks when abroad doesn’t help the economy of that country.  Going on walking tours run by companies like SANDEMANs and given by English and Irish guys doesn’t help the country that you are a guest in.  Taking tours by companies founded and run by locals does.  On my tours in Porto and Lisbon with the local companies, I met the people who actually started the business.  I got to talk to them and hear their stories and they would even talk about the bad sides to their cities.  With the English and Irish guys (because so far it has only been English and Irish), they only go as deep as “I came here on my Erasmus and loved it so much I stayed!!!”.

Here are links to the local companies that I’ve done tours with so far:

Chill Out Lisbon

Porto Walkers (I highly recommend Daniel, who does the 10:45am tour)

Student Tours Scotland

Now, I’m not saying you’re evil for wanting to do a walking tour with a well-known company.  I’m sure I’ll join walking tours put on by big companies on my upcoming trips.  The whole reason I went on walking tours with Porto Walkers and Chill Out Lisbon was because I had less-than-satisfying experiences on the tours run by big companies or international businesses.  I originally went with the non-local company because international companies generally have a bigger internet presence so they are easier to find after a quick Google search. But it is important to take a little more time to look into the option of doing a walking tour with a local company, since they are better for the local economy and, in my experience, have better quality tours.

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