Free guided tours? FREE? You bet! It seems too good to be true, but not only do they exist, you have a choice of companies and programs that offer unusual ways to see cities around the world.
For travelers on a budget, or for people who enjoy seeing a place in a different way, free guided tours offer something for everyone. I first heard about them from Pauline Frommer, co-president of Frommer’s Travel Guides. Her father, Arthur Frommer–now 89, the other co-president–started the concept of budget travel with his famous Europe on $5 a Day, published in 1957.
Pauline speaks every year at the Travel & Adventure Shows, always about budget travel. She recommends finding a “starving student” to show you a city. She had taken a walking tour of Chicago the previous day; the grad student was a history major who shared information that she’d never heard before. While not all the guides are starving, check out Free Chicago Walking Tours. NOTE: While the tour is free, guides do rely on tips, but the cost is still less than a fancy tour company.
I’ll be honest: I had never considered taking a free tour. But if Pauline was a fan–and she’s been everywhere!–it was time to learn more…
Free Guided Tours Around the World
Global Greeter Network: “Greeters are volunteers who love their city or region…” The tours are free, with a goal of simply bringing people together. Sounds good, doesn’t it? A greeter will happily serve a group from 1-6 people, showing them around for 2-3 hours. GGN started in 1992 in New York City, as “Big Apple Greeters,” with the concept of participatory tourism: a multicultural exchange that benefits both visitors and guides. Now there are 150 places all over the world. Bonus: Global Greeter Network supports sustainable tourism in every environment.
Free Tours By Foot: While technically free, FTBF is the original pay-what-you-like organization. It’s a way for local licensed guides to show off their city, and earn a little money while they’re at it. Tours are offered in the US and Europe; each city has a variety of categories. (Example: London Tours) They last about 2 hours, covering less than 2 miles. Food tours are interesting: visitors choose what to eat at each stop and only pay for that. Try them all or not. At the end of the tour, you determine the value of the tour and pay accordingly. Depending on the city, groups of 4-6 are required to prepay.
FREETOUR.com: Download the app and find a free or low-cost tour in 121 countries…250 cities. Wow! FREETOUR is based in Dublin, part of HostelCulture Group, an online travel company. Again, guides are local freelancers who know they must deliver an over-the-top tour in exchange for tips.
SANDEMANs New Europe: Created in 2003 by Yale grad Chris Sandeman, the mission of SANDEMANs is to ensure that “everyone, regardless of their budget, is able to experience a world-class tour.” Over 400 freelance guides work in New York City and 19 cities in Europe and the Middle East. It’s a gratuity-based model, so tipping is expected and appreciated; about €10 Euros seems average. Walks are about 2.5 hours. I do like their slogan: “Connecting smart travelers with great guides.” This must be true: over 18,000 Barcelona visitors and 10,000 Paris tourists gave the five stars to SANDEMANs.
For a county-by-country list of free guided tours, I refer you to The Traveling Pinoys, who have put together a comprehensive blog post of walking tours.
Why should you take free guided tours?
- Tours are both a great introduction to a place and a way to dig deeper into a topic that interests you.
- You receive a high-quality tour for much, much less than a tour company charges.
- Freelance guides aren’t constrained by “scripts,” so you get more authenticity from a local’s perspective.
- Each guide has an individual specialty; you’ll learn interesting facts and tips about your city that will never be in a book.
- Local guides love their home, and want you to love it, too. They put passion and personality into their tours.
More budget and tour information: