The free-walking-tour business is exploding in popularity
In 2004 Sandemans New Europe Tours launched its new “free walking tour” concept in Berlin, and they've been so successful that they've continued to expand ever since, now on the verge of adding their 13th and 14th cities across Europe and Israel. When something works there will be others ready to copy the concept in their own market, and by late 2011 it turns out that similar free walking tours are available in about 50 cities around the world.
On a long research trip to Europe in 2008 I had the pleasure of going on 5 different New Europe walking tours, in Berlin, London, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, and Paris, and I can honestly say they were all excellent so this seems like an exciting new trend that is good news for everybody but the high-price walking tour outfits that are probably struggling a bit.
How ‘free' walking tours work
A flyer or notice in a hostel or hotel will tell you the time and place to meet, usually 7 days a week rain or shine, and participants merely show up with no need to make reservations. The walking tours are generally between 90 minutes and 3 hours. Near the beginning the tour guide will point out that they make money only on tips and that motivates them to give such a good tour that visitors feel generous enough to pay them enough so it's worthwhile for everyone.
The tour guides tend to be enthusiastic young university students who are trying to make supplementary income, so even on a slow day they can do well enough. There will usually be a semi-scripted talk in each of perhaps a dozen closely-bunched locations, with an easy walk of well under 10 minutes in between. It's quite amazing how much ground you can cover in 3 hours this way, even in a spread-out city like London.
The free walking tour business model
So the tour guides get to keep most or all of their tips, which can add up nicely with a group of 20 people averaging €5 each, or a bit less if there are many backpacker-types on tighter budgets. The companies also sell more detailed and specialized walking tours as well as pub crawls and other group activities. Those on the free tour will get a brief pitch or two of the additional paid tours, and those have the potential of being nicely profitable even with a smaller group.
Best of all, the tour companies operate on a mostly virtual basis so expenses are low and they can still remain afloat during slow seasons. Most other tour companies have to rent expensive office space or own vans and buses, so they can only survive on a business model that depends on high prices, aggressive advertising, and a bit of luck.
List of free walking tours
Our friends at the Free Sofia Tour have compiled a fantastic list of every free walking tour that they are aware of and they were pleased to let us post the list on our site as well. Hopefully we'll be able to keep it updated with new tours as well.
We'll try to keep the list linked just above updated with all new free walking tours that launch so please add or subtract any in the comments on that post if you have any additional information. We expect this trend to expand into most larger urban tourist markets in the coming years.