One of my favorite new trends in travel is the preponderance of free tours springing up nearly everywhere you want to go.
Some places offer them to promote civic pride, such as the volunteer Big Apple Greeters program that matches you with a person who will give you a free tour of a neighborhood in New York City.
Other free tours are offered by companies like Taylor Guitars, which invites you to come and see how it makes instruments in its factory in El Cajon, California. Readers have also told me they enjoyed factory tours of Ben & Jerry’s in Waterbury, Vermont; Coors in Golden, Colorado; Jelly Belly in Fairfield, California; and more.
The newest addition to that genre is the free-with-a-catch tour, which is typically run by a single person or small group. You show up at the appointed time, are led on a personal walking tour without charge, and then at the end, you’ll be invited to donate whatever you wish to pay. You probably won’t be going inside any of the attractions you visit, by the way — at least not the ones that charge admission, for obvious reasons.
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I like this system, because if you didn’t like the tour, you’re not on the hook for a wad of money. I’ve been on many tours in my life that, at the end, I felt I’d wasted my time and hard-earned cash, and sometimes even have been actively annoyed.
It’s also good for independent travelers, who maybe don’t want to take a package tour but want a local experience.
And, at the end of it, you may even have made a new friend.
Check out a variety of websites such as FreeToursByFoot.com, which promotes the services of independent guides in cities such as Berlin; London; Washington, D.C.; New Orleans; Paris; Charleston, South Carolina; Chicago; Vancouver, B.C.; and elsewhere.
Here’s a handful of what you can find out there:
▪ Barcelona: See the Barcelona Cathedral, and learn about Picasso, the Spanish Civil War and much more on these three-hour tours offered by Sandeman’s New Europe. Choose the “free” option on the tours listed. Tips are expected for the independent tour guide. Learn more at Newbarcelona-tours.com.
▪ London: I’ve taken numerous walking tours of London, and it’s a fantastic way to get a feel for the city. I even saw Paul McCartney drive up to Abbey Road Studios while we were walking the famous crosswalk in front. Free Tours By Foot offers all sorts of tours including pub crawls, Jack the Ripper tours, visits to Westminster and a lot more, and you only pay what you want at the end. The Camden Town tour promises to show you not only Amy Winehouse’s favorite pub, but also Charles Dickens’ house. Now that’s a tour. Tips are expected for the independent guide. Learn more at Freetoursbyfoot.com/london-tours.
▪ New York City: Get a personal tour of a New York neighborhood from a real person through the Big Apple Greeters program. I’m acquainted with someone who does this, and I’d love to take her tour. Sign up online — early for busy holiday periods — and it’s free. You can request a neighborhood, or leave it up to them. No tipping required, but they will request a donation to support the organization. Learn more at Bigapplegreeter.org.
Also in New York City, every Friday at 12:30 p.m., take a free walking tour of the Grand Central neighborhood that explores the architecture and social history of Midtown East, such as the Whispering Gallery in Grand Central Terminal, the Chrysler Building, Pershing Square and more. No reservations required. Meet at the sculpture court at 120 Park Ave., across from Grand Central Terminal. Sponsored by the Grand Central Partnership. Learn more at Grandcentralpartnership.org/things-to-do/tours.
▪ San Francisco: You can see many of the city’s famed attractions courtesy of San Francisco City Guides. Local volunteers will take you to Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, Coit Tower, the Haight-Ashbury, the Castro district and — something that really excites me — once a month to see the famed Diego Rivera mural at the Pacific Stock Exchange Tower that’s not normally open to the public. Lots of other locations, too. Tips are expected. Learn more at Sfcityguides.org.
▪ El Cajon: Even if you don’t play the guitar, readers tell me they like the free 75-minute factory tour of Taylor Guitars in El Cajon in Southern California. Visitors learn how guitars are made, from wood selection to construction. Stair climbing is required and it is not recommended for small children. Arrive early and check in at the desk. No tours on weekends, holidays and a few other days of the year. Learn more at Taylorguitars.com/contact/factory-tours.