Brands in the News

Why Free Walking Tours Work

31 Oct 2019  

Recently I had the opportunity to teach a course over in Copenhagen. It was a fun few days with an engaged, remarkably sharp group. While I was there, I had a bit of free time so I signed up for a free walking tour. It was terrific.

The Concept

Free walking tours have become very common; you can join one in almost any city. In Copenhagen, I had three different tours to choose from.

The basic idea is simple: you don’t pay anything up-front. If you like the tour and the guide, you give them a tip at the end. It is completely optional. If you are short of funds or didn’t care for the experience, you just walk away.

At the end of my tour in Copenhagen, the guide went around and thanked people, collecting tips as he did, but there was no hard-sell or pressure. I of course gave him a tip but it would have been just as easy to have strolled away.

The Appeal

Free walking tours is an idea that simply works, because it provides benefits for everyone involved.

For travelers, free tours are perfect. There is no commitment, so it is exceptionally flexible. You can sign-up in advance, or just show up. There is no investment because the tours are free. You only tip if you want to.

For guides, free tours are appealing, too, mainly because lots of people show up; there were 20 or so on my tour, and in the summer apparently more than 500 people might appear in a single day. This keeps lots of guides busy.

In addition, people aren’t paying anything so their expectations are low. We all know that price and quality are often linked, so if you join a free tour you can expect a pretty dull, uninformative day. Even a mediocre guide can beat these expectations and end up with the surprised and delighted travelers who think, “Wow, that was a lot better than I expected. It was worth every penny!”

Of course, the experience is often tremendous. One reason is that the system encourages excellence in the guides. Average guides make some money. Great guides make a lot more. Poor guides make little and probably leave the field.

In addition, travelers entertain each other; there is a great sense of camaraderie on the tours. Everyone is getting a great deal, is on vacation, and is in a good mood.


There is a lot to learn from free tours. One is that setting low expectations can lead to customer happiness. Another is that systems that promote quality tend to flourish. And another is that people have a deep sense of fairness and integrity. If you trust that most people will do the right thing, you can create interesting products and services.


2 Responses

  1. emitahill says:

    What fun! And healthy as well.

  2. madelinejh says:

    Interesting points, although I think you missed some key points. First, the opportunity cost of spending valuable vacation time on a free walking tour is huge.

    Also, while the tour is free, there are a lot of other costs associated with it, such as getting to Copenhagen via international flight, and paying for a hotel and food in what is a very expensive city.

    It’s worth noting that free tours aren’t ideal for travelers with specific interests, travelers who want to set their own pace or stop for a rest, or curious travelers who love asking the guide lots of questions. Also, if the tour ends up being large, it can be hard to hear the guide and by then it’s too late to organize anything else.

    So yes — there are lots of positives for the right traveler. There’s nothing wrong with free walking tours for people who have extra time, don’t want any sort of personalization on their tour, and have low expectations. But private tours are one of the lowest costs of an international trip, so it doesn’t seem like a logical place to try to save money.

    There are many excellent and inexpensive private guides online who will tailor a tour to your specific interests and travel pace, meet you at the place and time that you choose, and will offer a very personal relationship.

    As someone who creates these types of experiences for travelers for a living, I would also emphasize that — while it’s important to have a great hotel, smooth logistics, and good food — the experiences that our travelers rave about when they come home are the excellent local guides that we hand picked for them that gave them a true connection to the culture. So why risk it?

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