The Far Side of Walking Tours

I’ve lived in Cape Town for 18 years, and the first piece of advice bestowed upon me (yes bestowed, as locals can be stingy with recommendations), was that Table Mountain should always be your point of reference when moving around the city, because then you’ll never get lost. This is good advice if you’re on a hill top, in a high rise or wine tasting in Durbanville. On ground level in the city centre between the buildings, you might just as well be locked in a car boot on a road trip. But I soon realised that you don’t have to look at a city from a gloomy viewpoint. And the mountain will always be there. And when you’re lost in a city where you don’t know anyone or anything, you are bound to see a beauty that you otherwise wouldn’t have. I’ve walked in many cities since, not looking up for a mountain to direct me, and every time I wished I had tour guide to explain attractions to me. A doorknob could just be a doorknob, or it could be the doorknob of one of the more significant doors of the 42 billion doors worldwide. And now I get City Walking Tours. No matter how thorough you are in sticking your nose into strange shadows, the stories just aren’t written on the walls. So, this is my contribution to the travelling community: explaining free walking tours to those set on exploring world cities looking for the top things to do there, and the sceptics that scoff at anything with the word “free” attached to it.

How is it free, you may ask? Well, in most cases you don’t need to buy a ticket or go through the hassle of making an online booking – for those who could recall watching Knight Rider on television and thought the special effects “awesome”, you also don’t need to look for contact numbers in a travel guide, send an email or fax, or phone in a booking. You can go on a tour at the spur of the moment. It’s an activity you can include in your itinerary when it suits you – if you miss a tour, try again tomorrow. There is a great philosophy behind this: it makes exploring a strange city accessible to small groups or single travellers within a party of like-minded people, with a knowledgeable guide.

And why do bigger groups have to book a tour? Moving from philosophy to psychology – imagine sharing a tour with 15 chatty teenagers on a school trip immerged in their smartphones? Or 20 [ex]rugby league players on a reunion trip? These ‘clicks’ influence group dynamics, so they are kept separate where they can elbow each other at random or guffaw at their class clown’s inappropriate jokes.

But still, giving a tip is required? It is not required. It’s really up to you. The power is in your hands. Just keep this in mind: in South Africa, for example, guides undergo training, write an exam and pay to be a registered tour guide. If you don’t have a guiding ticket, you’re in trouble, and so is the company that hired you. This means these men and women are professionals. This is how they earn a living. Unfortunately, spending all your time as a volunteer in today’s bear-market economy is reserved only for philanthropists with excess cash.

Also consider this, if you receive a service and the person conducting that service depends on a tip for compensation, nine out of 10 times you can bet your bottom dollar (excuse the pun) that you’ll have an exceptional experience. Still it’s up to you to decide what the tour was worth. Don’t see tipping as payment. See it as a way to show your appreciation.

And the size of the tip? If you book a tour through a company, you’ll easily pay in advance the cost of three restaurant dinners for one, or even more. One suggestion is to consider the economic conditions of the country you are visiting to determine the size of the tip. Another recommendation is to look at the cost for the guide. In many countries the guide pays a contribution towards the mother company for every guest on his or her tour. This contribution is to cover marketing and administration costs.

The bottom line is, even though free tours are not always considered free, especially by those challenging the system, you are still saving money, controlling what you want to spend, and you are supporting passionate local guides while getting to know a strange city from sidewalk-level. So next time you’re on holiday in Cape Town, this sounds like a win-win deal to me…

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