The Type Of Tour In Europe Rick Steves Warns Tourists To Avoid

Rick Steves is one of America's most widely-traveled people. When it comes to globetrotting, his advice is worth following. So when he says you should avoid something, you might want to listen up.

In a post on his blog on, Steves writes about his "foibles, frustrations, and favorite finds" in Portugal. One thing that fell under the foibles and frustrations category was supposedly-free tours. Or, as Steves calls them: "Not-So-Free Tours." Free tours are, in fact, tip-based tours, and they're not unique to Portugal — they're offered in many major tourist cities around the world. If you haven't been on a free tour, they work like this: You turn up, follow a guided tour usually for around two hours, and then at the end, give the guide a tip.

So what's Steves' problem with these tours? Besides that they're dishonest misnomers, his main issue is that the quality of the guides is highly variable. He writes that sometimes, these guides "have simply memorized a script — so they're more entertainers than historians." He equates these tours with "the general dumbing down of our world lately." Steves advises that if there's one thing you should splurge on when on vacation, it's a local guide, so it's worth paying upfront and hiring a true local expert.

The negative side of free walking tours

From Amsterdam to Zagreb, free tours are everywhere. And for travelers on a budget, anything free is attractive. However, many people who take these tours walk away disappointed, not only by the content of the tour but by the amount they were actually expected to pay.

In Reddit's r/TravelNoPics forum, several users write about having bad experiences on free walking tours. One complaint that came up many times was how large the group was, meaning the experience wasn't personalized. Another issue was that the guides didn't have any personal knowledge of the city, with cs_legend_93 writing in Reddit's r/travel forum that their guide in Rome sounded "like they were reading from a textbook." Then there's the problem of pushy guides. CryptoDevOps, a poster in Reddit's r/belgium forum, wrote that their guide asked for a tip of 20 euros (more than $20). Several commenters replied that the guide straight-up telling them how much to tip would be off-putting for them.

Finally, there's the questionable business model of free tours. Guides often work for larger companies that charge the guide a fee based on how many people participate in the tour. The guide has to pay that fee regardless of the tips they receive. Thus, if people take the tour and don't tip or tip very little, the guide can be left out of pocket. Taking a free walking tour contributes to this business model.

How to find a great city tour

We're not saying that all free walking tours are terrible. Many Redditors who've taken these tours have been satisfied with their guides. Even Rick Steves says free tours "are not bad in themselves." The overall feeling is that free tours can be good, surface-level introductions to a place, but the quality is hit-or-miss, and you won't get an in-depth look at the city's history.

To get that, you'll need to follow Steves' advice and book a licensed guide. We recommend waiting to book tours until after you arrive at your destination to give you flexibility in your schedule and find smaller, local agencies that may not have an online presence. You can usually find local guides by visiting a tourist information center or asking your hotel. Check out our advice on how to avoid getting scammed by a fake tour guide, too!

Steves recognizes that hiring a private guide is a significant expense, so he shares some advice on his blog. If you're visiting several places, hire a guide in the place you're most looking forward to seeing. Otherwise, consider hiring a guide in the first city you visit, as many guides will share cultural information about the country, enriching your entire trip. Finally, try to split the cost of a guide across several travelers. Steves writes that the most rewarding vacation experience is "hiring a professional guide to show you around their hometown." We hope you get to try it one day.