You may have seen them before: Free walking tours. If not, and you’ve got summer plans that include any popular destinations in Europe, you’re about to come across them. And if you’re like us, your first thought is simple: Is this a scam? More or less, the answer is no it’s usually not a scam. But should you go on one of these tours? And if you do go, what’s a fair tip to give?

I went on a free walking tour in Berlin.  Alternative Berlin was incredible, taking me and a handful of other visitors to that incredible city off the beaten tourist path, and into the street art scene and other interesting aspects of a city grappling with changing urban dynamics.

A portrait of Anne Frank that I love. It is hidden away in an alleyway I would have never wandered into had I not participated in the Alternative Berlin Tour

A portrait of Anne Frank that I love. It is hidden away in an alleyway I would have never wandered into on my own.

Alternative Berlin Free Tour

Another site along the way on the Alternative Berlin Free Tour

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Discovering parts of Berlin beyond Checkpoint Charlie and Brandenburg Gate: Worth it!

But it’s not just alternative tours that are going this free approach. The most famous of the crowd is probably Sandeman’s New Europe Tours which are in 18 European cities. There’s been some controversy around groups like Sandeman, and the business model they allegedly utilize.

But the biggest question remains: How much should you tip?

There are reports that many of these have a business model whereby the tour guide pays a set amount per tourist up front to the company. So if the guide has 15 people on the tour, and the company charges $3 a head, the guide is coughing $45 up, regardless of how well he or she does with tips. Another model is a nonprofit tour. The tours highlight an element of the culture or focuses on something that a group is so passionate about, they are simply operating the tours at the lowest cost possible because they’re mission driven in sharing what love with you.

Whatever the business model, I feel pretty strongly that one thing is quite clear: If you’re going to go on one of these “free” tours, providing a decent tip is essential.  I mean, at the end of the day, you’re still saving a decent amount of money. What’s more, you’re either helping make sure food lands on the table of your guide, and/or you’re showing your appreciation for the work a nonprofit tour company is providing by paying an amount that ensures they can continue to operate tours like the one you just enjoyed.

So my rule of thumb? If the tour was good, I pay slightly below what it would have cost me to do a paid walking tour. Even if you paid the going rate of a paid tour, you’re still saving the amount you would (should) have tipped on that tour, so you’re still coming out ahead! So if another company has a $20 walking tour, I’ll do the free one and usually pay $15. The guide still takes home a nice chunk of change, and I saved a nice chunk as well. I call that a win-win. At minimum, I think you should pay $10, for the time invested by the guide alone if it’s anything that’s 90 minutes or more.

So is it all ethical? That’s for each traveler to decide and it varies tour operation by tour operation. I loved Alternative Berlin and felt very good about going on the tour. The woman who was our guide was an artist herself, and her insights into the culture and even the motivation of particular street art was simply priceless. And at the end, I made sure I showed my appreciation through my Euros.

So next time you’re somewhere and see a free tour offered, remember one thing: Nothing in life is free, so make sure your guide is rewarded for the time and energy they put into your tour!

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