top of page

Free vs. Paid Walking Tours

In the travel business, the idea of the “free” walking tour has been around for about 15 years. Similar models are sometimes called “pay-what-you-want/wish”. We here at Wee Walking Tours offer paid tours and thought it might be useful to delve a little deeper into a comparison of the two in order to help travellers better understand their options.

The “Free” Tour Method

The “free” walking tour concept started in Berlin around 2004. Since then, there has been an explosion of “free” walking tours all over Europe and the rest of the world. However, the reality of it is, these tours are not actually “free”; some sort of payment in the form of a tip is expected at the end of the tour. In fact, anyone who has been on a free tour- and I have been on a few and observed many- knows that the tour guides are often compelled to prod and remind their tour participants to tip them at the end of the tour. This makes for a very awkward and uncomfortable touring experience.

To make matters worse, many of the large companies that have these “free” tours often “hire” local university students as their guides. However, they are not hired as regular employees, but are hired as freelancers. They do this so that they can avoid having to pay them proper wages as well as for other dodgy tax purposes.

These freelancers are also required to pay a certain percentage of their tips back to the company. Additionally, they are required to pay a certain amount per person in the tour no matter if they tip or not. This means that they can sometimes end up having to pay more than they make depending on how much they receive in tips each day.

One particularly unscrupulous technique employed by the “free” tour companies is to require their guides to take a picture at the beginning of the tour telling their participants it is for their social media. Now this may seem harmless to most participants, but the reasoning behind it isn’t- the company wants a record of how many people are in each tour so that they can make sure that they are getting their full "cut" at the end of each day.

I want to make it clear that many of the university students who freelance for these companies certainly have good intentions and some do a good job. Unfortunately, many are often not trained in history, culture, or even basic presentation skills (speaking from experience, it is not fun to attend a tour with a guide who does not know how to project their voice to the group).

The bottom line is that the large tour companies know that they can exploit university students who struggle financially while they complete their studies. And this is a situation of which many travellers are unaware and would probably be sad to find out. That is why I am writing this blog post- so that people can make educated and informed travel decisions.

Wee Walking Tours Method

I have heard some people contend that modern travellers understand that these tours aren’t actually free. And while it’s true that many people have travel experience that has brought them into contact with the “free” walking tour model, I would argue that we need to be more inclusive in the way we think about travellers. Not everyone has had the same travel experiences.

Wee Walking Tours tries to encompass a more holistic approach to our walking tours in that we understand the importance of recognising that our tour participants come from many different backgrounds. We try to take into consideration that culture and social factors play an important factor with travellers from around the world and, as a result, we employ the paid walking tour method. This creates honesty and transparency which are important factors that are sometimes absent in the travel industry.

In addition, the money earned on our tours doesn’t get sent out to some company headquarters in Berlin, Madrid or Dublin. Instead, it all stays here in Scotland and gets reinvested into the local economy.

We also believe in the importance of education, training, and ongoing professional development. We are a small family-operated business that has one human tour guide, Sami, and one canine tour guide, Sawyer. And while I can’t attest to Sawyer’s educational credentials other than that he is a proud Hufflepuff alumna, I can reassure you that Sami is a former university history professor as well as an experienced presenter with over 15 years of experience.

I hope this blog post has shed some light on the paid versus “free” walking tour payment models so that you can make informed travel decisions. If you decide you agree with Wee Walking Tours inclusive and upfront methods and are interested in joining us for a walking tour, please click here to book a wee walk that best fits your needs. We’re happy to assist travellers from around the world and would be thrilled to help you explore Edinburgh.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!

*Update: Winter 2024*

Please note that, since this blog post was written, our beloved Sawyer is no longer with us and has crossed over the Rainbow Bridge. However, we continue our tours to keep his legacy alive.

bottom of page