Vicky Baker, The Guardian, June 12, 2013
When is a free tour not a free tour? When it is, more accurately speaking, a pay-what-you-want tour. The concept of a city tour where there is no set charge and tourists show their appreciation by leaving a tip is becoming increasingly popular across Europe and beyond. An increase in budget-conscious travel, a growth of savvy operators, and the ease of word-of-mouth internet marketing is helping drive the trend.
For the tourist, the approach is simple: you check the tour's website to find the daily meeting place; take the tour alongside anyone else who happens to turn up; and then leave a tip at the end (knowing full well that "free" is loosely employed as a marketing tactic and you are expected to part company with more than a handshake). For the operator, it can be surprisingly lucrative on a good day and favourable reviews are pushing the best ones up the ranks on peer-to-peer review sites. (On Tripadvisor, Bowl of Chalk's pay-what-you-like tours of London are currently rated number 15 out of the 431 activities listed in the capital.)
Europe is firmly at the centre of this growing trend, with research by Bulgaria's 365 Association (which runs free tours in Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna) showing that there are now 67 "free" tours across the continent, with the largest number in recession-hit Spain.
The tours are akin to Berlin's long-established "honesty" bars and restaurants, where patrons pay what they think the meal is worth. Many of the new tours are set up by lone entrepreneurs, but a handful have found success as multi-city businesses. Sandemans New Europe tours, which pioneered the idea back in 2004, now runs its "famous free tours" in 18 cities – although it has come under scrutiny for its approach, which requires self-employed guides to pay a set fee per tourist, regardless of how much, or little, people tip.
The nature of the tour brings no hard and fast rules; some operators are more up front than others. Some avoid the word "free" or state that tips are not obligatory; some are run by certified guides as a business; others are just a weekend hobby. Jonnie Fielding from Bowl of Chalk, who offers three different tours of London (dates on his website), says he set up his tours as a more honest alternative to another "free tour" he took, which ended with "a sob story, guilt-tripping people into handing over cash".
Fielding, who initially advertised the tours by putting posters up around east London, says the model has worked well from him. "If people have paid up front for something, they tend to complain about stuff: the weather (one woman demanded her money back because it rained), the fact they thought it was a bus tour, it was not quite what was billed on the website, if others in the group are slow etc."
For tourists, the other advantage is that it allows for more spontaneous travel: if you oversleep or the weather is bad, you just try again next time.
Jonathan Evans – a British expat who runs the similarly principled Buenos Aires Local Tours and who, like Fielding, took to outdoor guiding to escape an office job – says he doesn't suggest how much his tourists should tip. "I would feel very uncomfortable suggesting how much people tip, because I advertise it as free. If I get to the end and tell you how much to give, then it's not free. A handful of times people have gone without leaving anything, but it's all part of the game."
Evans also says attempts to deviate from this approach or lay down rules can backfire: "I went on a free tour in another city and I had an amount in my head that I was going to leave, but at the end he gave us a suggested amount, which was actually half the tip I was going to give."
The UK-based Guild of Registered Tour Guides says they do not support the model. "Being a tour guide is a professional job," says spokesperson Maggie Barnes. "All our members have trained and passed extensive exams to earn their qualification: the Blue Badge. Guides should be paid a fair rate for the job, not obliged to work for goodwill or gratuities."
It seems that free tour is to guiding what Airbnb.com is to the hotel industry – impossible to regulate, looked on sceptically by traditional operators, and yet a big hit with a growing fan base.
Pay-what-you-want tours around the world
Typically led by a Bulgarian student or graduate, the English-language Free Sofia Tour gives a two-hour hit of the city's main attractions. The tour is Sofia's number-one activity on Tripadvisor and has the backing of the city municipality. On the back of its success, its founder has co-created the United Free Europe network, which also features similar tours in nine other European cities, including Lisbon, Prague and Berlin.
Founded by a Spanish-Irish couple in 2010, Runner Bean tours has expanded to a team of six enthusiastic guides. Gaudí and the old city are the themes of their two free tours. Other (paid) walking tours include a kids and family tour, with plenty of games along the way, and a spooky night tour, which regales legends and historical fact.
Free Walking Tours Budapest offers a general city tour, alongside other free tours themed on the Jewish quarter or communism. With three tours a day, seven days a week, it is one of Europe's most established operators. The policy is "no fixed price, pay what you can afford". If you prefer to pay upfront, its other themed tours (street art, sweet foods, flea markets) cost €15-20.
Buenos Aires Local Tours takes in some of the Argentinian capitals big sites (Plaza de Mayo, the pink government house) and some less visited sights, such as the painted houses in the Abasto neighbourhood and the former home of tango legend, Carlos Gardel. The tour takes public transport – buses and the Subte (metro) – so city newcomers also learn how to get around town.
Nola Tour Guy is David G Hedges, a licensed tour guide who felt frustrated with the traditional "cookie-cutter" approach to tourism in his adopted city and so decided to set up alone. With a historical leaning and plenty of humour, he offers three tours: the French Quarter, Cemetery and Garden District. Tours require a reservation.
Bowl of Chalk (Cockney rhyming slang for walks) runs tours almost every weekend (check the site for details). Saturdays bring a morning option from Trafalgar Square to St Paul's, and an afternoon route from St Paul's to the Monument. On Sunday, tours stick to the guide's own stomping ground: east London.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk